Producing a proper strategy for counter-terrorism


by Sunny
25th March, 2009 at 9:20 am    

I wrote this for Guardian’s CIF yesterday. More soon on the actual report.

Today, the government is publishing an updated version of its counterterrorism strategy, Contest 2. Let me tell you why I think it’s unlikely to make us much safer. But first, a brief background explanation is needed.

Contest 1 had a four-pronged approach to counterterrorism: protect, pursue, prepare and prevent. The prevent (violent extremism – PVE) strategy involved spending between £70m and £90m in supporting local Muslim groups that could help deradicalise extremists and pull them back from the brink of becoming terrorists.

So far so good in theory, except that a series of blunders, highlighted and amplified by various journalists, bloggers and thinktanks, have forced the government to redefine its rules of engagement.

The new rules, leaked to the Guardian last month, stated people would be branded as “extremists” if they believed in certain things such as sharia law or that Islam banned homosexuality.

Critics of Contest 1 say “extremists” only ended up giving cover to violent radicals. Supporters of existing policy say that unless the government engages with a wide range of Muslim groups, including those whose views it is ideologically opposed to, it will cut itself off from the very people who have credibility with radicals.

It’s worth briefly explaining the case for PVE money.

Islamists, like most people in any utopian fringe sect, are incredibly energetic. They expend serious time and effort organising meetings, speaking, jumping on bandwagons, holding publicity stunts (the Luton demo), converting and radicalising potential recruits. Most British Muslims shun them and generally abhor their politics, but this isn’t a well established or a relatively prosperous community with widespread internal dialogue and capacity to challenge extremists.

So PVE money has been used to build organisations that specifically look to engage with radicals; to teach youngsters how to engage with and establish their own local media; and to hold town-hall style debates with Muslim women asking them to discuss extremism within their community, for example.

Among Muslims there have been differing reactions. Some support the capacity-building work and have been encouraged by help received in establishing women’s groups. Others regard any money from the government as tainted and refuse to touch it. It has also sparked conflict amongst some Muslim groups, leading at least one council to refuse any money at all. Others, among them the women’s group An-Nisa Society, have said it doesn’t reach the root of the problem.

It has also created a mini-industry of people who specifically want to get into the action and get a slice of the cash by offering strategies. I’m on the board of a conflict-resolution group with 10 years of experience that found itself in the cross-fire when some Muslim groups accused it of “not being Muslim enough” to help de-radicalise extremists.

In short, it’s a bit of a mess. This is partly because of the decentralised nature of the project, leaving it to local authorities, the police and local organisations to devise their own strategies. Undoubtedly some of them have been poorly conceived and implemented. Transparency, accountability and a yardstick to measure results have also been lacking.

But the Contest 2 strategy now says that any form of extremism must be shunned. The problem is that in the same way that extremist radicals such as Islam4UK (a reincarnation of al-Muhajiroun) and Hizb ut-Tahrir spent a lot of time organising followers, most popular grassroots Muslims organisations are Islamically conservative in nature because they are tied to mosques or take populist positions against government policy. They also spend a lot of time and energy building a grassroots base. More liberal and moderate groups have not bothered or been able to do the same.

So unless the government works with groups that have deep support or at least credibility among Muslims who are in danger of being seduced by more radical groups (the aim of “prevent” extremism), then there’s no point spending this money at all in trying to tackle terrorism.

There’s no point denying that most British Muslims deeply abhor the government’s stance in the Middle East, or that they are socially conservative. What’s needed is a clearer distinction between groups helping to prevent extremism and those who will help build social cohesion. The Muslim Council of Britain, for example, would be suitable for the former, if not the latter.

There is a danger that the communities department, for the sake of political expediency, avoids working with groups that offer easy targets for tabloids. But for the sake of our security, it needs to make tough decisions now more than ever.


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Filed in: Islamists,Organisations,Terrorism






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  1. pickles

    New blog post: Producing a proper strategy for counter-terrorism http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/3889




  1. platinum786 — on 25th March, 2009 at 10:28 am  

    The new “rules” are pretty unworkable. It’s a shame as well, how many other times has someones political or religious views affected how they can get support from the government?

    The Muslim community is only too glad to get help to get rid of such Groups as Al Muhajiroun and Hizb ut Tahrir. Ban them tommorow and you’d hardly see anyone bat an eye lid, you might even get a few smiles.

    The problem is why should we have to compromise on our political and religious views to get support in doing that? It’s in as much in our interest as it is in the interest of any other citizen of Britain to prevent terrorism and the spread of the ideologies which faciliate terrorism.

    I know homosexuality is banned by Islam, it is not allowed, it is unnatural and against the order of God. I won’t waiver the right to have that view or express that view. I don’t think any less of a homosexual, i see them the same as maybe a smoker, someone with a bad habit, none of my business.

    My politics and my justification of them don’t matter. The point is, if the government wants us to be a part of the solution, some of it will need to be on our terms. If it wants to hamper us in our efforts to fix our community and help the general British community, it’s free to do so.

  2. dave bones — on 25th March, 2009 at 10:49 am  

    Ban them tomorow they would change their name. Again. You should know that some of them claim they are doing PVE for free. I’m sure you don’t agree that they are, and you don’t read that sort of stuff in the papers, but you should know at least one of their teachers is saying he is.

  3. platinum786 — on 25th March, 2009 at 10:54 am  

    I know they change their names, but think about it this way, as least they cannot work publically and in an organised manner when banned. It’ll slow them down at the least, take away and air of officialdom.

    Other countries have marked HT as a terrorist group, why not do that, you could then lock up their members for being associated with a terrorist group.

  4. dave bones — on 25th March, 2009 at 12:56 pm  

    You should really go down and talk to them for yourself mate. It is crazy a kaffir like me sounding like I am defending them here. I don’t give a damn about Islam. They don’t come across to me as any threat. The Police still don’t arrest them so what does that say? It suggests to me a gap between endless newspaper and blog chewing and reality. Seriously, don’t believe me. Find out for yourself. They are meeting Friday. They live in an age where their co-religionists are terrorised by remote control from ships in the gulf. I would be bloody confused.

    I don’t see an air of officialdom. A small group of people hire a hall and send out a press release. I think it is fair to say I have seen ego amplified and distorted by media attention in Finsbury park with Atilla Ahmet and I think he would admit that himself now. His brother said so in the witness stand at his trial. It would not surprise me if that has happened with other media characters but I am not judging anyone I don’t know for myself.

    I lived in a community where a big bus turned up and swapped ownership a few times sitting in the car park. That community got together and “voted the bus out of the carpark”. The bus is still there.

    I am a bit infuriated in a world where people think they can make rules and “take stances” and situations change. It doesn’t bloody happen but you can’t tell them. People who like rules are attracted to things like governments.

    Everyone writes stuff. People are even paid for writing stuff. You lot were arguing about Nick Cohen saying “the left should take a stance against blah blah McMuslim” etc.

    I don’t get this at all. I have absolutely no concept about how Mr published in newspapers or Mr Muslim community leader “taking a stance” against anyone will prevent violent extremism. I think people who are published in newspapers obviously find their egos amplified and distorted by media. I don’t think they prevent violent extremism. They divide society in peoples mind, yet we all live here next door to one another.

    I’ve said it here before- bloody talk to people. Fuck government money. This is our society. Bloody talk to people.

  5. MaidMarian — on 25th March, 2009 at 1:15 pm  

    Interesting article and good thoughts, many of which I don’t doubt, but there are some small bits here that just don’t seem to ring true, in particular this,

    ‘but this isn’t a well established or a relatively prosperous community with widespread internal dialogue and capacity to challenge extremists.’

    This I simply struggle with. British Muslims are established and have been for some time. In terms of prosperity, sure there are inequalities but as a whole, the community is not short of a bob or two. And if they really wanted to, I think they could take up the challenges of their more wild-eyed edges. Sure, the British muslim community has problems, but to overstate them or generalise helps no one.

    This thing about divisions in the community over taking government funds, differing reactions and mini-industries also seems a bit limited. We could say that about other sectors of society – the charitable sector for example sees divides like this. I recognise that you do not say that muslims are the only group to react to initiatives in this way, but we perhaps should be careful about suggesting that the muslim community is unique in its reactions.

    Lastly, ‘They [more militant groups] also spend a lot of time and energy building a grassroots base. More liberal and moderate groups have not bothered or been able to do the same.’ Yes – but that is not in and of itself an argument to engage with extremists to my mind. As ever, the moment you start giving a say to extremists is the moment you give control of policy to violent and dangerous people. That those people are active in a particular identity community does not change anything.

    This is, of course, not to mention the elephant in the room that many in British politics really, really need to get over Iraq.

    My view is that the best way to prevent extremism is not capacity building for organisations within an identity group, but to build the capacity of civil society, which is the foundation of how we regulate our relations with each other. Now the right will hate this because it will mean spending money on things like day-centres, sport clubs, mixed childrens groups and so on. The left will hate this because it calls for more uniformity rather than unfettered diversity. The Muslim in-crowd will hate it because a broader civil society will diulute the purer forms of Islam. The Sun/Express in-crowd will hate it because it will mean acknowledging that diversity and integration are compatible.

    Tough luck to all say I. The civil society as a whole approach is the one to take, however unglamorous it is.

    Oh, and no religion of any sort in schools.

  6. Refresh — on 25th March, 2009 at 1:52 pm  

    Excellent points Dave Bones.

  7. Mrs Ben — on 25th March, 2009 at 3:00 pm  

    Speaking as an outsider, it seems to me that there are some people in the Muslim community who have set themselves up as community leaders to benefit from government funding of initiatives to combat extremism.

    Problem is that to gain the trust of the extremists they claim to represent, they have to side with them publicly, and this upsets the authorities. This suggests the whole strategy is flawed: you can’t have dialogue with extremists who do not want to be converted. Some of the self appointed representatives seem to be just in it for the self aggrandissement and the funding.

    If the MCB doesn’t want preferred government status or funding it can have who it likes on its board. I suspect it wants both. It wants to be the legitimate face of Islam in the UK. I have news for you, you can’t have it both ways guys.

    At the same time, the extremists get away with claiming a lot of the higher ground among Muslims because there is a confusion between being deeply religious in a personal capacity and wanting to go beyond those private beliefs to impose a conservative form of islam on society as a whole in the UK. I suppose the religious extremists would claim that is what Islam is about. Is it?

    Or is it possible to hold conservative religious views as a muslim without wishing to force the rest of the community and indeed wider British society to adopt them too? How for example does a conservative (in the religious sense) Muslim approach the role of women in British society? Should they be equal or should this equality not apply to British muslim women? Once you place Muslim religious values about British legal rights, and use the first to deny the second, you are in a difficult place and would probably be better off moving to Saudi Arabia.

    Also it is possible to sympathise over the plight of the people in Gaza, without condoning the ruling methods of Hamas, but few Muslim spokesmen (and there are no spokeswomen) seem to want to do this. My sister recently signed a “petition” condemning atrocities on both sides and callingn for both Hamas and the IDF (Isreali Defence Force) to be indicted as war criminals.

    How many UK Muslims would do the same?

  8. Imran Khan — on 25th March, 2009 at 5:33 pm  

    The easiest way to prevent extremism is engagement, justice and fairness to all.

    What fuels extremism of any kind is when people feel their community has been treated unfairly.

    To counter that involves the opposite of everything that Blears and the right wing war tanks stand for.

    Constant goading which goes unchecked by the likes of Mel is hardly likely to prevent extremism and fans the resentment.

    Hazel Blears is a nasty little right wing despot who have divided communities not nited them. Her constant fawning at right wing war tanks is hardly the right way to produce community cohension.

    There needs to be outreach and community programmes to bring people together – thus preventing extremism. If you don’t engage and instead lecture you are simply making things worse.

    Its easy to stand on the outside essentially pissing in when it needs proper grassroots engagement.

    Ironically even the staunchly conservative Board of Deputies has seen what people like Blears are still blind to that without getting out there and engaging you won’t achieve anything.

    Its all very well talking to hateful right wing press hacks and war tanks but its another coming up with good policy to truely prevent extremism. Sadly Blears and her department are complete failures because they are more interested in press coverage and quotes than meaningful work on the ground.

    Until there are policies and not lectures and money isn’t wasted on thinking what to do then its all pointless spin.

  9. David T — on 25th March, 2009 at 5:59 pm  

    “My view is that the best way to prevent extremism is not capacity building for organisations within an identity group, but to build the capacity of civil society, which is the foundation of how we regulate our relations with each other.”

    Bingo.

    I also wouldn’t recommend going down any route in which extremists (i.e. those who oppose liberal democracy, equality, etc.) in any community HAVE to be listened to because we have to get them on board to help counter violent extremists.

    Were that the policy, then this potentially follows:

    (a) There are numerically more white extremists from the far right than Muslim ones. An increased threat of violence by neo Nazis, combatted by a policy of co-opting non violent but racist extremists, would have dismal consequences for cultural minorities in this country, and for community cohesion as a whole.

    (b) A policy of looking to extremists to help counter non-violent extremists, would encourage more violent extremism across the board. It would show that the best way to push the government to accept an extremist agenda, is to engage in violent extremism, which needs to be countered by compromise with “mere” extremism

  10. Refresh — on 25th March, 2009 at 6:12 pm  

    DavidT I am not in the least bit convinced you have anything to offer with regards community cohesion. Not in the least.

    I am never sure whether your right hand knows what the left is doing, or maybe you are ambidextrous.

  11. Jai — on 25th March, 2009 at 6:23 pm  

    On a tangentially-related note, Sky News have been running a series of major reports about the Talibanisation of some parts of Pakistan, including the escalating threat of terrorism, its ties to some elements of the British Pakistani population, and the impact on the British Pakistani population as a whole if the situation ‘over there’ really deteriorates. Sky News’ website also has further information, including detailed articles and video clips from the affected areas involving ‘up close’ footage and interviews with the local Taliban.

    Here’s the latest article (the web-page includes the aforementioned video clips on the left side of the screen): http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Pakistan-Sharia-Law-Court-Justice-Meted-Out-By-Militant-Group-Lashkar-e-Islam/Article/200903415248317?lpos=World_News_First_World_News_Feature_Teaser_Region_0&lid=ARTICLE_15248317_Pakistan%3A_Sharia_Law_Court_Justice_Meted_Out_By_Militant_Group_Lashkar_e_Islam

    There’s a live debate at 8pm tonight too, apparently involving various senior officials, including representatives from the Pakistani authorities.

  12. Imran Khan — on 25th March, 2009 at 6:55 pm  

    Dave T – Its people like you, and Mel who are stoking up commuinity tension. Have you seen your pinups latest piece attacking the Guardian by calling it Shariah Compliant.

    When you stand up and say such things are wrong and don’t build good community relations then we know you are serious.

    By allowing such attacks to continue simply inflames community opinion. It means that people can’t work towards peace here or in the Middle East.

    Teh fact that you ignore that and are muted on emerging Israeli excesses simply makes you part of the problem which Blears doesn’t have the guts to address rather than part of the solution.

    The only way to achieve justice and prevent extremism is when communities have the courage to look within as well as out.

    One sided barracking be it Muslim, Jewish or Christian is making the problems worse not better. We all need to have the courage to address and face up to issues in our communities and not hide and say they don’t exist.

    Until I see you challenge the extreme views in your own community and acknowledge they are their then anything you say needs to be accepted cautiously.

    You’ve had ample opportunity to address the issues about giving voice to Islam Bashers on your blog and you won’t clearly address that, so its a bit rich commenting on community cohension given you approach.

  13. Imran Khan — on 25th March, 2009 at 7:11 pm  

    Jai – Sky News is begining to become like Fox News!

    This is all part of the hype and hysteria.

    The problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan stem from following the stupid policies that Murdoch advocated so why not look at that?

    Murdoch was staunchly behind Bush and the result is what we see. To avoid this we need to go down a route other than that advocated by Right Wing War Tanks.

    The same who are threatening further escalation in the region.

    Yes really useful to listen to them.

    The right has basically bullied the left into becoming quiet and then proceeded to blame it for everything.

    The reason that extremism flourishes is because people see no end in sight for their issues. The fact that the right is saying don’t engage to at least convey your point of view simply makes things worse.

    It is the likes of the Murdoch Press we shouldn’t engage with until they learn balance and not hysterical reporting. Don’t forget its this same press that build up people like Bakri and adds fuel to a fire they are involved in making.

  14. MaidMarian — on 26th March, 2009 at 12:07 am  

    David T (9) – Thank you for your kind words about my earlier comment.

    Your point b is absolutely correct, but I am less sure on point a there. I see where you come from, but comparing neo-Nazi and Islamist thinking is misguided. Neo-Nazism is supremacism plain and simple whereas Islamist thinking is religion. The root cause of Islamic terror is Islamist ideology. Subtle difference, sure, but I think that discussions about extremism are better when generalisation is avoided.

    Imran Khan (12/13) – Sorry, did you actually read Sunny’s article before unloading?

  15. Sunny — on 26th March, 2009 at 12:24 am  

    MaidMarian:
    My view is that the best way to prevent extremism is not capacity building for organisations within an identity group, but to build the capacity of civil society, which is the foundation of how we regulate our relations with each other.

    I completely agree with this. In fact – that’s my current ongoing project. Once I actually make some progress I will let you guys know.

    This I simply struggle with. British Muslims are established and have been for some time. In terms of prosperity, sure there are inequalities but as a whole, the community is not short of a bob or two.

    My emphasis is more on internal dialogue and capacity. There is a real problem that too many Muslims are still cowed by extremist elements because they control too much of the media/ dialogue – and shout a lot.

    In response, I believe that liberal Muslims should be helped, but sometimes in a covert way that expands dialogue and capacity, allowing more Muslims to gain that confidence. This is the work that City Circle do. The wrong way would be to try and encourage a bit shouting match amongst Muslims – because it would easily be shut down in favour of the cry that ‘we need unity because we’re constantly being demonised‘.

    So coming back to my point – there stil isn’t much dissent and capacity yet – certainly not at the lower levels of civil society. Since 7/7 we’ve seen a flourishing of opinion, at the highest levels, but this needs to filter down to the ground level. As yet I don’t believe that’s happened sufficiently.

    This is, of course, not to mention the elephant in the room that many in British politics really, really need to get over Iraq.

    I keep saying that too. However, I think there is a valid point made by people who are still angry – that unless the govt pays then it can pull the wool over our eyes more easily next time too.

  16. medic — on 26th March, 2009 at 8:19 am  

    “My emphasis is more on internal dialogue and capacity. There is a real problem that too many Muslims are still cowed by extremist elements because they control too much of the media/ dialogue – and shout a lot. ”

    I hear this a lot, but actually it is simply not true. Although I don’t doubt that some muslims may be ‘cowed by the extremist elements’, it is not true for at least the densely populated muslim communities that you have in the north anyway (as i am familiar with these). The problem is actually one of apathy. They simply don’t care- about anything except their own little lives. As curious as it may seem to some, most muslims in this country, even if they seem orthodox etc. are just like everyone else, and when it comes to politics, few can be bothered to do anything unless it directly affects them. It’s not a problem of being scared of extremists; these people won’t even write a letter to their MP about Palestine. So i think what was mentioned about building a proper civil society is a really important point. The change is needed in the way people think, it’s not about spending a few million here and there.
    I also agree with the point about justice and fairness. I really think the government must be stupid if they think young muslims don’t feel targeted. The resentment is already here, and if anything, the money only makes it worse. When the government starts telling you you’re an extremist for supporting the palestinian cause, or because you don’t think homosexuality is morally acceptable, believe me, this could create a lot more extremism than they’d like.

  17. platinum786 — on 26th March, 2009 at 9:42 am  

    Pakistan has a big problem, wether it will transfer into the UK, is i think overhyped.

    How many of the Pakistani’s you know are pushtoons?

    The majority in the UK are from Azad Kashmir and Northern Punjab. Azad kashmir in particular is full of people who are the ideologically opposite of the Taliban, ie of Sufi origin in their beleifs.

    You’ll find more of a mix aongst the Punjabi’s even then, there is a far stretch from being of the same religious beleif of someone, and being a terrorist.

    I’m sure there will be some people involved in this, there is no doubt about it, but it’s probably not large scale. What we must do is if we have any intel on anyone being involved in militant training or terrorist training and returns to teh UK, we’ve got to lock them away for years.

    Mind you, that’s not the same as finding pictures of someone with an AK-47, nearly everyone with some money has an AK-47, you need them for basic security. I got pictures of me posing with one. Especially in Azad Kashmir, people come from the UK, the locals expect he/she has some money, they’ll try to rob you, you have to be known to be armed, to be safe. At the same time, they’re illegal unless you have a license, and most folk don’t.

  18. Jai — on 26th March, 2009 at 10:53 am  

    MaidMarian,

    Neo-Nazism is supremacism plain and simple whereas Islamist thinking is religion.

    Not exactly. “Islamist thinking” is also supremacism but using religion (rather than race) as a justification.

    Beyond that, there isn’t much difference between the two mindsets.

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