What the Shawcross review says about Britain’s counter-radicalisation efforts and what it means.
8 February 2023
In January 2021, author and former Chair of the Charity Commission William Shawcross was appointed by the Home Secretary to lead the independent review of Prevent, part of the country’s wider counter-terrorism strategy. Shawcross’s review and the Government’s response were today laid before Parliament, marking the fulfilment of a commitment to an independent review in the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019. In a wide-ranging and detailed review, Shawcross sets out his findings on Prevent and makes 34 recommendations for change, all of which the government has agreed to some degree.
The Shawcross review is the biggest shake-up to Britain’s counter-radicalisation efforts in over a decade. While acknowledging that Prevent is vital – the starting point for the review is that trying to prevent people from becoming terrorists is clearly the right thing to do – Shawcross is devastating in his assessment that parts of Prevent have lost focus from this core objective. He is clear that this must be urgently corrected.
The review starts with a call for Prevent to return to its core mission of stopping people from committing or supporting acts of terrorism, and to do more to take on extremist ideologies that feed into the radicalisation process. Shawcross also finds that Prevent is out of sync with the wider counter-terrorism system and terrorism threat picture, that it has become too focussed on subjects that are peripheral to terrorism such as mental health to the detriment of the primary threat: Islamist terrorism. He identifies a ‘double standard’ in the approach Prevent takes to different ideologies, contrasting a narrow focus on Islamism that is mostly about international proscribed terrorist organisations with an overly broad remit on the Extreme Right-Wing.
The review also identifies blind spots in the subjects Prevent is looking at, particularly around antisemitic inspired terrorism and ‘blasphemy’ violence. Further, the review reveals that Prevent has continued to fund groups or individuals who have legitimised extremism to do counter-extremism work. Something previous reviews have warned against. Lastly, Shawcross recommends that Prevent has been subject to dishonest smear campaigns and that the government must do more to publicly challenge this.
One: Prevent must refocus on its core mission of stopping people supporting terrorism
The Prevent Review describes a strategy that has a “noble ambition” and had a “positive impact” in deterring people from supporting terrorism and says the government should be proud in this regard.
Nonetheless, Shawcross is clear that Prevent must go back to what he calls first principles. Above all, he says, Prevent must return to its overarching objective – to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism – and that more needs to be done to counter non-violent Islamist extremism.
The review describes a strategy that has suffered from mission creep in several ways. First, it makes the case that through the referral system embedded in the Statutory Prevent Duty, Prevent has increasingly become synonymous with safeguarding and has sought to address all manner of personal vulnerabilities (such as education, housing or mental health). This, Shawcross argues, risks diminishing individual agency, confusing public sector workers about the aim of the strategy, and missing cases of ideological ‘susceptibility’ if there are no accompanying personal vulnerabilities. The result of this approach, Shawcross warns, is a sophisticated safeguarding scheme that fails to “adequately respond to those individuals who might be becoming radicalised”.
In addition, the review finds that parts of Prevent are doing community cohesion work that, while valuable, has little to do with stopping people from supporting terrorism. This includes “theatre groups […] sporting clubs and education workshops” whose objectives range from promoting tolerance or interfaith dialogue to tackling drug abuse or unemployment. Shawcross is sceptical that such projects have a role to play in a counter-terrorism scheme. Not least because the Home Office were unable to provide him with evidence that the groups funded “were countering Islamist ideology or non-violent extremist groups and ideologues”. For a strategy originally conceived as the forefront of the country’s ‘battle of ideas’ against al-Qaeda, that is quite an admission.
Such mission creep, Shawcross observes, has resulted in an “overemphasis on vulnerability and underemphasis of ideology”, where ideology is “not seen as an essential part of the trajectory towards terrorism […but] viewed as one of many potential radicalising factors”. Correspondingly, the review reports a widespread lack of understanding “as to the nature of Islamist ideology and its deployment of Islamic scripture”. Shawcross identified this as a key failing across Prevent. Striking examples include a 2017 serious incident review that showed how Channel practitioners had unwittingly accepted violent Islamist imagery as an example of religious practice, and an internal government report on travellers to Syria concluding that religion was not a significant motivating factor despite noting that many had gone because they wished to live under a Caliphate.
The review also asserts that “challenging extremist ideology should not be limited to proscribed organisations but should also cover domestic extremists operating below the terrorism threshold who can create an environment conducive to terrorism”. Of relevance here are Prevent disruption powers, which the review describes as “the more direct work of seeking to disrupt the activities and, ultimately, influence of, those groups and individuals who promote extremist and radicalising messages to wider audiences”. What this looks like on the ground is unclear, but Shawcross makes the case for including not just those groups and individuals who sit immediately below the terrorism legislation threshold (aka ‘sub-TACT’) but also ‘lower level’ yet influential radicalisers, and for the work to be properly underpinned by “a clear and proportionate framework” for assessing proposed subjects and action.
The review calls for a culture change across Prevent to reverse this expansion. For Shawcross, this is about Prevent having a proper understanding of how extremist ideology is key to inspiring terrorism. It is also about ensuring that Prevent concentrates on those who genuinely radicalise people into supporting terrorism or terrorist activity. He calls for change in the following four ways:
- Changing the language Prevent uses change so that staff know that their objectives are to do with countering terrorism, rather than social work. For example, revising Prevent’s first objective to “clarify […] the importance of tackling extremist ideology as a terrorism driver” and using the language of ‘susceptibility’ rather than vulnerability where relevant.
- Restricting funding to groups which effectively challenge extremist and terrorist ideology as opposed to more general community or youth work.
- Ensuring prevent disruptions seek “to limit the influence of ‘chronic’ radicalisers and networks which sit below the terrorism threshold”.
- Developing new training so that government and public sector staff understand properly what Prevent’s objectives are and the ideological nature of terrorism and know what steps to take to counter extremist ideologies.
Shawcross takes the presence of an ideological motivating factor as a necessary condition for terrorism, in line with the current UK terrorism legislation which requires an identifiable motivation. “I do not view extremist or terrorist ideology as merely a challenge, but an actual cause of terrorism”, he says. Driving cultural change is never an easy task, but by focusing on clarity of vision, upskilling Prevent staff on the ideological nature of the threat and targeting funds and disruptions to challenge ideologically motivated radicalisers and narratives, this review stands some chance of succeeding. One measure of success will be the extent to which the spirit of the Shawcross review is implemented in the forthcoming refresh of CONTEST, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy of which Prevent is one element.
Two: Prevent is out of kilter with the rest of the counter terrorism system and the UK terrorism threat picture
The Prevent review identifies a clear disparity between Prevent referrals and the workload of the Counter Terrorism Police network and security services, or in other words between the people Prevent is seeking to divert away from terrorism and the people being investigated for suspected terrorism. The figures in the review speak for themselves: four-fifths of the Counter Terrorism Police network’s live investigations are Islamist while 10% are Extreme Right Wing; yet just over one fifth of Prevent referrals in the year 2020/21 concerned Islamism. In the five years ending March 2020/21, the review reports that the proportion of individuals referred for Islamist extremism fell by two thirds. It is hard to argue with Shawcross’s warning that this suggests a “loss of focus and failure to identify warning signs”.
Shawcross offers several possible explanations for this potentially dangerous inversion of the terrorism threat the country faces. First, he makes the case that Prevent is “carrying the weight for mental health services”. In particular, he singles out Channel, the voluntary early intervention programme within Prevent that reviews cases at a multi-agency panel, finding mental health vulnerabilities in approximately 40% of Channel referrals across England and Wales, a significant over-representation of mental health issues, he argues. Shawcross observed several Channel panels and, while impressed by the diligence of the professionals involved, he was concerned to hear of staff referring people to Prevent or failing to close a case to access non-terrorism-related support that they might not receive elsewhere. For Shawcross, this is an unacceptable “fast track” to other forms of support and is “diverting valuable resources from minimising actual terrorism risk.”
Second, Shawcross is critical of the introduction of the category of ‘Mixed, Unclear, or Unstable’ (MUU) Prevent referrals. The “misalignment” between Prevent referrals and the wider counter terrorism threat coincides with the introduction of the MUU category and Shawcross warns that rather than aiding practitioners in recording referrals accurately, the category has muddied the waters around identifying individuals’ motivating ideology. Shawcross notes that a large proportion of MUU cases do not progress to Channel, suggesting that the MUU category “is facilitating large numbers of individuals being unnecessarily referred to Prevent”.
Third, Shawcross warns that Prevent has become politicised, with the approach to different ideologies being played off against one another. At times, this has been done with the best of intentions; “referral data partially reflects the areas that practitioners and frontline staff think they should be focusing on to demonstrate fairness”. At other times, however, Shawcross was told by a former counter-terrorism police chief, a focus on the Extreme Right Wing was seen as helpful in fending off “accusations of stigmatising minority communities”.
Finally, Shawcross offers specific reasons for Islamist referrals being so low: Islamism potentially being harder for the public sector to identify than other forms of extremism; fears of being accused of being racist inhibiting Islamist-related referrals; and anti-Prevent advocacy discouraging Muslims from agreeing to participate in Channel.
Shawcross cites approvingly a senior national security official who suggested that there is a need for a ‘recalibration’ across the counter terrorism system. Alongside driving a culture shift, the review makes several recommendations to rebalance the system:
- Ensuring Prevent policy is always informed by the nature of the terrorist threat it is working to counter by introducing a Security Threat Check at strategic leadership level.
- Developing a plan to improve the quality of Prevent referrals, including by making sure referrals have an identifiable ideological element and that staff are adequately trained to identify and record them.
- Improving Prevent data sets by revising how referrals are categorised.
Delivering the letter of these recommendations is within the government’s gift, but delivering on the spirit will require determination, especially in the face of renewed accusations of Prevent targeting Muslims. Those tasked with doing so should note Shawcross’s assessment that “the caricature of Prevent as an authoritarian and thinly veiled means of persecuting British Muslims is not only untrue, it is an insult to all those in the Prevent network doing such diligent work to stop individuals from being radicalised into terrorism”. Ultimately, Prevent is a key component of the country’s counter-terrorism apparatus, not its PR machine.
Three: Prevent has operated a double standard when dealing with the Extreme Right Wing and Islamism.
The Prevent review evidences the ways in which a double standard has emerged where Prevent takes an expansive approach to the Extreme Right Wing to include people and trends not to do with terrorism, while also operating a narrow focus on Islamism that is mostly about international proscribed terrorist organisations and ignores UK-based Islamist narratives and networks supportive of extremism and terrorism.
The review finds this to be the case in analysis products produced over the past four years by Prevent’s Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU) – a key part of Prevent’s internal research function. Reviewing the products, Shawcross concludes that those related to Islamist terrorism tended to focus predominantly on violent Islamist ideology, “mostly Islamic State and al-Qa’ida”, whereas those related to the Extreme Right-Wing covered “broader themes [and] narratives on social media”, some of which he concludes “falls well below the threshold for even non-violent extremism”. The review is clear that this is not the result of any official policy, rather a de facto double standard has emerged.
This double standard was also observed in the training provided to Prevent intervention providers on ideologies. Materials provided as part of a training workshop on extremist narratives and ideologies rightly included Extreme Right-Wing networks and media platforms in the UK, the review finds, but key Islamist narratives focussed narrowly on international terrorist groups. Shawcross warns that such an approach misses the focus of Islamist extremists in the UK on “a core conspiracy that ‘the government is pursuing a deliberate policy of attempting to weaken and divide Muslims through direct attacks on a Muslim’s understanding and practice of their religion’”. It is important, he asserts, that practitioners know that this central narrative is not exclusive to terrorist groups and applies to both violent and non-violent Islamist groups alike.
The review also observed a disparity in the volume of resources allocated to the different threats. Only 25% of training material distributed to intervention providers via a distance learning pack between April 2020 and November 2021 related to Islamist extremism – despite coming shortly after three high profile Islamist terrorist attacks (Fishmongers’ Hall, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham). Nor did any of the materials attempt to analyse the attacks or reactions to them. Shawcross concludes that is “wholly insufficient”.
Shawcross expresses concern as to whether the disparity seen in research and training materials has impacted the ways in which referrals to Channel assessed. In particular, he is concerned that Islamist referrals may tend to involve “individuals much further along the trajectory towards violence (‘active risk’, at a sub-Pursue level), compared to referrals where individuals present susceptibility to radicalising influences or extremist exploitation (‘passive risk’)”.
Shawcross suggests that the disparity in approach to different ideologies he observed was down to nervousness around tackling subjects to do with Islamist ideology, and a politicised requirement to be seen to be emphasising work on the Extreme Right-Wing. He relays being told by “senior counter terrorism leads [about] the difficulty of raising Islamist-related extremism when delivering training at the local level, often finding it to be a sensitive issue when raised with partners”. Furthermore, he notes that: “Research conducted for Counter Terrorism Policing found that there was a sense across the country that the Islamist risk was being underplayed, and local authority staff were sometimes perceived as being unwilling to address Islamist extremism for fear of being accused of racism or cultural insensitivity”.
The review makes the case that to be fit for purpose Prevent must be proportionate and consistent in how it tackles different ideologies. This is not about finding one size to fit all, but is about establishing an appropriate service level across the different threats. It cannot define Islamist extremism as only being about violent jihadism, and then define the Extreme Right-Wing as including “mainstream, right-wing leaning commentary”. To achieve this, Shawcross urges the following:
- Ensuring Prevent works to one bar across the ideological threats by resetting thresholds across all areas of work.
- Investigating whether there is an imbalance or disparity in thresholds applied to Extreme Right-Wing and Islamist cases at Channel cases, and if so, why.
- Ensuring Prevent training upholds a consistent and proportionate threshold across ideological threats and avoids using double standards.
- Making the new Prevent threshold clear to staff making Prevent referrals through improved training.
For Prevent to avoid the double standards observed by Shawcross it will not be enough to simply reset the threshold. He is not the first independent advisor to observe that a squeamishness around Islamist extremism has hampered the country’s counter-extremism efforts. In a 2019 report, former Commissioner for Countering Extremism Sara Khan identified a reluctance among counter extremism practitioners to talk about Islamist extremism. Professor Ian Acheson coined the phrase ‘institutional timidity’ in his 2016 review of Islamist extremism in prisons to describe the reluctance he encountered to grip the issue. And, in 2014, author of the Trojan Horse enquiry Peter Clarke observed similar resistance by authorities to address Islamism. A total mindset change is required.
Four: There are Prevent blind spots blind spots around antisemitic inspired terrorism and the rise of ‘blasphemy’ violence and intimidation
The Prevent review suggested that there are blind spots in the subjects Prevent is looking at, particularly around antisemitic inspired terrorism and the rise of violent extremism inspired by ‘blasphemy’ charges.
The review found that antisemitism is a significant trend among those being referred to Channel scheme, in both Islamist and Extreme Right Wing referrals. The list of examples seen by Shawcross includes “individuals expressing the intent to kill, assault or harm Jewish people or a particular Jewish individual”, “the conduct of hostile reconnaissance on local Synagogues” and “claiming religious or political justification for the murder of Jewish people”. At the same time, the review highlights Prevent cases involving antisemitism that failed to identify that the individual would go on to commit an attack, for example the case of Ali Harbi Ali, who after having been involved in Channel went on to murder Sir David Amess MP in 2021. Ali cited Sir David’s membership of the Conservative Friends of Israel group as an issue for him.
In addition, the review is critical of RICU for not developing work on the Hezbollah and Hamas support networks in the UK, particularly following the proscription in 2019 of the political as well as military wings of both groups. This is important, Shawcross argues, because there are several examples of “British individuals who travelled to Hamas controlled territory before going on to join other terrorist groups and perpetrate acts of terrorism” – including both an Islamic State suicide bomber and a member of the infamous gang of British Islamic State recruits responsible for murdering Western captives.
In addition, Shawcross is critical of what he sees as a weak response from authorities handling the Batley Grammar School protests and wants to see greater attention on violence and intimidation from charges of ‘blasphemy’ as part of an overall improvement in the understanding of Prevent staff of Islamist ideologies. Elsewhere, the review finds that some Prevent funded projects are undermining support for free speech, with five projects reporting a negative impact on the participants’ level of support for freedom of speech and expression if it offended others. Shawcross describes this as “counter-productive”.
To address these potential blind spots, the review recommends:
- Exploring the prevalence of anti-Semitism in channel cases and using the findings to disrupt radicalisers and counter extremist narratives
- Using existing laws against Hamas and Hezbollah supporters as they are applied against supporters of other proscribed terrorist groups and using the Charity Commission to challenge support networks whose activities fall short of breaking terrorism legislation.
- Conducting research into understanding in countering Islamist violence, incitement and intimidation linked to blasphemy as part of the wider Islamist threat to improving understanding
Five: Prevent has funded those who have legitimised extremism to counter-extremism
The Prevent review exposes that Prevent and the wider Counter-Terrorism apparatus has, at times, funded or legitimised those who have themselves legitimised Islamist extremism, or who seek to undermine Prevent and are openly hostile to what it is trying to do. Shawcross is clear that the Prevent of today has failed to live up to its 2011 commitment not to fund or engage with extremist-linked groups or individuals.
Shawcross found several examples of Prevent-funded projects which “had either promoted extremism or had engaged with persons whose extremism would have emerged on reasonable enquiry”. This included the leader of a Prevent-funded project who was “found to have publicly made statements in 2021 that were sympathetic to the Taliban” and to have “referred to militant Islamist groups – whose military wings were proscribed in the UK –as “so-called ‘terrorists’ of the legitimate resistance groups””. It also included groups that are known to have promoted antisemitism and antisemitic figures. Much of the antisemitic narratives observed occurred within the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a contentious subject on which Shawcross felt Prevent training or analysis was lacking.
The review is also critical of government engagement more widely, finding that Prevent, the government and the police has, at times, continued to engage with actors of extremist concern. In fact, it is sometimes the case that one arm of the state is acting at odds with the policies of another: Shawcross highlights that “Counter Terrorism Policing recently described the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as one of their advisory network’s “trusted partners” and senior officers have appeared with MCB representatives at events. Yet the MCB is subject to a “no-engagement” policy by ministers because of unresolved extremism concerns.” Other examples include the Metropolitan Police branch in Lewisham promoting Imam Shakeel Begg as part of their interfaith engagement work in 2020 despite Begg having previously been judged to be “an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions” in the High Court, and the founder of MEND, an anti-Prevent group with a history of partnering with actors of extremism concern, being invited to address civil servants in 2020.
Cognisant that funding and engagement has been raised several times and is a key area for Prevent improvement, Shawcross outlines ways in which improvements can be achieved:
- Upgrading Prevent’s due diligence process – including by becoming less reliant on external contractors – so that extremists are not inadvertently legitimised or funded.
- Training staff on engagement processes and principles
- Enlisting the Commission for Countering Extremism to review prevent advisory boards and panels
External engagement mistakes are endemic in government. Previous CEG analysis found that there has been an assumption within the civil service that the process of engagement is positive in of itself. This can lead the government to engage with and be influenced by groups whose support for Islamist causes overseas, for example, makes them unable to condemn the actions of violent groups, or whose politicised interpretation of their religions leads them to accuse Muslims who work with the government of being collaborators. Such groups are not appropriate partners for government in challenging Islamist ideology and narratives.
Six: Defending Prevent from dishonest actors
The Prevent review encourages the government to promote pride in Prevent. Shawcross is clear in his assessment that the perception that Prevent is discriminatory has arisen, in part, from a concerted disinformation campaign. The review outlines the origins of the campaigns to undermine Prevent, the dishonest tactics used, and the main groups involved, many of who he determines are Islamist in nature. Shawcross finds that the “most extreme elements in this campaign portray Prevent as authoritarian and as a thinly veiled means of persecuting Muslims” and distinguishes this from more generalised opposition to counter-terrorism policies on civil liberties grounds. He warns of the damage the former campaign can cause within British Muslim communities: “this involves discouraging some in those communities from engaging or working with Prevent, while also stirring up a sense of grievance and mistrust towards wider British society, non-Muslims, as well as against those Muslims who do engage with Prevent and counter-extremism.”
Prevent, and those who deliver it, Shawcross argues, must be defended from dishonest actors, who are running a concerted campaign to demonise the strategy. To that end he recommends:
- Creating a dedicated rebuttal unit in the Home Office that can publicly correct disinformation about Prevent
- Setting up a Standards and Compliance Unit to ensure that that Prevent is being properly implemented by those agencies under the statutory Duty as well as to properly – and publicly – investigate complaints from those working in Prevent or the public if they have reason to think that it has not complied with its own standards.
The Prevent review is not an easy read for government. The picture that emerges is one of an unfocused scheme that is carrying the burden for areas of support that are unconnected to terrorism – to the detriment of the primary terrorism threat: Islamist terrorism. Past mistakes on funding and engagement continue to be made and the strategy is beset by a dishonest campaign that seeks to undermine it. While the review provides detailed ways in which Prevent can be improved – many of which the government has accepted in full – the biggest legacy this review could leave would be to drive the cultural change Prevent needs to refocus itself and properly meet the extremism and terrorism threat the country faces.