The Home Secretary Looks Determined to Shake Up Prevent

When the Independent Review of Prevent by Sir William Shawcross was published earlier this year, many in the counter-terrorism field applauded what Shawcross had said. If implemented, the reforms he proposed would be the biggest overhaul of Britain’s national counter-radicalisation programme in a decade. Yet despite the Government saying that it was committed to implementing all 34 of the Prevent review’s recommendations, some supporters I spoke to were quietly doubtful. They seemed convinced that the Prevent review and its recommendations would soon fall into obscurity and that nothing would really change.

The release of the new Prevent Duty Guidance earlier this month was the first real indication that things are most certainly changing. The Prevent Duty Guidance is a statutory instrument under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015. It is effectively the instruction manual to those public authorities who are duty bound to uphold Prevent. It’s in procedural and technical documents like this that we can take a measure of where a programme like Prevent is headed. And the answer seems to be that it is now firmly headed in precisely the direction Shawcross said it should.

One of the most significant points of change in the new Prevent Duty Guidance rests on some of the language the document uses. On the surface these look like modest linguistic alterations, yet they mark a significant departure from what the system has got used to, and a transformation in Prevent’s approach.

As the Home Secretary said when presenting the new guidance to Parliament, “the independent review recommended great care over terminology”. Until now, much of Prevent’s language has talked about those who step towards terrorism offences as if they were essentially victims. People who unfortunately happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who quite unaccountably found themselves becoming terrorists. The Home Secretary pointed out that such people “must not be absolved of responsibility when they choose this path”, and reminded the House that when people embrace extremism, “there is almost always an element of personal decision-making in the choices they make.”

Whereas previously Prevent spoke of “the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, now the Government is telling public services that upholding Prevent duty means they must be aware of “the need to prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”. In the earlier wording, those choosing to explore extremism and considering terrorism (the people Prevent seeks to deter) are viewed as having been “drawn” in, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps against their will even. And the old language was unhelpfully vague. What does it mean to be “into terrorism”?

The new wording is clear about what Prevent wants to stop. It doesn’t want people to become terrorists, and it doesn’t want people supporting them either. This second part is crucial. Supporting here does not have to mean funding or harbouring the people who commit acts of violence. It could mean voicing sympathy or excusing and justifying their actions. These things can’t be criminalised. However, they create precisely the atmosphere that terrorist networks require to be able to recruit and operate. This is where a programme like Prevent comes into play.

The other important shift in language in the new Prevent Duty Guidance, as called for by Sir William, is that where once Prevent talked of people who were “vulnerable” to radicalisation, the new Prevent Duty Guidance calls such people “susceptible”. The old language was too close to making those inclined towards terrorism sound like victims. It is true that some people are exploited by terrorists into assisting them. That is well documented. However, the point is terrorists are very often people of sound mind who enthusiastically embrace terrorism to advance their particular cause. The public will have a hard time believing that Ali Harbi Ali, the murderer of Sir David Amess, who plotted and calculated his attack far in advance, could be best described as vulnerable.

Another noticeable change in the Prevent Duty Guidance is the prominence of ideology as a driver and motivating force behind terrorism. There were references to ideology in the old guidance, however the difference between that, and what the Government has now published is like night and day. When the Home Secretary spoke from the dispatch box about the steps the Government is taking, she argued “Prevent needs to better understand the threats we face and the ideology underpinning them”, drawing Parliament’s attention to the fact that “ideology is the lens through which terrorists see the world”.

This shift is useful not only because it is basically true, but also because viewed in this way it is possible to think seriously about how we disrupt and undermine terrorist networks. The previous CONTEST Strategy from 2018 showed a noticeable slide into framing ideology as only one of many causes of terrorism, the others all being primarily psycho-social. This reduces terrorism to another social ill, driven by macro factors such as the economy, and micro ones such as someone growing up in a troubled home. The powerful ideas that recruit and inspire terrorists are made peripheral. Once you view the problem this broadly, it becomes difficult to think about terrorism strategically.

In his review, Sir William called for a “recalibration” of Prevent. The new Prevent Duty Guidance points to the Government doing the overhaul that Shawcross envisaged, and that some in the field didn’t think was possible. There will be further areas to look out for, particularly on how the British state engages with communal activists linked to extremists, and whether the public sector can navigate the blasphemy controversies better than in Batley and Wakefield. For now, however, the Home Secretary looks to have demonstrated a will to shake up counter-terrorism with a determination not seen since David Cameron’s government.