The Guardian today carries an excitable article from Vikram Dodd headlined “Government anti-terrorism strategy ‘spies’ on innocent“. The article breathlessly reveals that:
“The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism.”
Except, of course, that is the point: the purpose of the programme is to prevent people from being lured into violent extremism – so to intervene and support the people concerned, you first have to identify them.
The article goes on:
” … sources directly involved in running Prevent schemes say it involves gathering intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslims who are not involved in criminal activity.”
Exactly – the idea is to intervene before the individuals concerned become violent extremists and become involved in terrorist activity.
The purpose is to divert vulnerable individuals from being attracted to violent extremism and thereby to prevent terrorism – something that I expect most sane people would believe is a good idea.
I vividly remember when, in one of the hearings that I chaired as part of the major consultation exercise carried out on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority, “Counter-Terrorism: The London Debate“, a mother asked “What can we do, where can we go if we are worried about how one of our sons is becoming attracted to extremist beliefs?”.
The purpose of the Prevent programme is to be able to answer that question. Where an individual is identified as being at risk of being lured down the path of violent extremism to offer that person help, advice and support to divert them from that path. It may mean offering alternative activities or it may mean providing an Imam who can argue verse for verse about the meaning of the Koran.
Each individual will be different and the response that will be most likely to mean that they reject violent extremism will need to be tailor-made. So to be effective, different agencies – schools and colleges, the police, local authorities, Mosques, voluntary organisations – have to work together, share information and co-operate to produce the appropriate response for that individual.
Preventing ill-health is always better (and for that matter more cost-effective) than curing and caring for patients when they become ill. In the same way, preventing individuals from becoming terrorists must be better than catching them and imprisoning them once they are already terrorists.
To have a counter-terrorism strategy that simply relies on the effective pursuit of active terrorists by the police and the security service and on ever more draconian physical security measures is short-sighted and potentially – and potentially disastrously – ineffective.
No-one pretends that the Prevent strategy is easy, nor that all of it will work as it is intended to work. However, not to have a Prevent strategy – or to be put off from pursuing a Pervent strategy by scare-mongering articles – would be a far worse mistake.