British terror fight

Britain's 'Prevent' scheme to detect would-be radicals stirs controversy

A street in the Bethnal Green neighbourhood of East London, home to a conservative Muslim community, where several teenage girls were drawn to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants. Britain's programme encouraging fellow citizens to identify pote
A street in the Bethnal Green neighbourhood of East London, home to a conservative Muslim community, where several teenage girls were drawn to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants. Britain's programme encouraging fellow citizens to identify potential radicals is viewed as something of a model by other European countries and the United States, but it has also raised questions about racial and religious profiling and the balance between security and civil liberties.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Bethnal Green Academy schoolgirls (from left) Khadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase passing through security at Gatwick Airport before flying to Turkey, en route to Syria to join ISIS in February last year. One of their friends in school had
Bethnal Green Academy schoolgirls (from left) Khadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase passing through security at Gatwick Airport before flying to Turkey, en route to Syria to join ISIS in February last year. One of their friends in school had travelled to Syria in December 2014.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Early intervention programme hailed by some as necessary but seen as racist by mosque council

LONDON • The boy's teachers were growing increasingly concerned. He was speaking admiringly in school of Jihadi John, the notorious British executioner with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and expressing a desire to travel to Syria.

Twice, teachers referred the boy, a teenager from Blackburn, in northern England, to a government programme called Prevent set up to spot early signs of extremism and intervene before it was too late.

On both occasions, the boy, struggling with his studies after his parents separated and socially withdrawn because of a degenerative eye disease that blurred his vision, refused to participate in sessions intended to keep him from becoming radicalised.

The need for such programmes has become all the more apparent in the wake of the Paris attacks in November last year, which were carried out primarily by European citizens who became radicalised at home. Britain's programme is viewed as something of a model by other European countries and the United States.

But encouraging fellow citizens to identify potential radicals has also raised questions about racial and religious profiling, and the balance between security and civil liberties, igniting a debate here over whether Prevent holds the risk of further alienating Muslims in Britain.

  • What is Prevent?

  • Prevent's £65 million (S$131 million) annual budget covers the cost of supporting community organisations that help at-risk groups, such as disaffected youth or British Muslim women isolated from mainstream society.

    Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a £20 million fund to teach English to Muslim women. Communities that are cut off, he said, are potential breeding grounds for terrorists.

    The Prevent programme provides instruction to teachers, doctors, social workers and prison and housing officials on how to detect early signs of radicalisation.

    The programme's officers explain, for example, the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric who was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011 but who continues to inspire young Islamic militants through videos of his lectures available online.

    Teachers are supplied with dictionaries to help them identify Arabic words used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria such as "Dawla/Dawlah", a term used to describe the group by its supporters; the pejorative "kaffir/kuffar" to mean non-Muslims; and less obvious words like "rafidha", a derogatory term for Shi'ite Muslims.

    The Home Office said more than 400,000 public-sector employees had attended lectures about the programme. They are given a list of 22 "contributing factors" that signal an individual's potential engagement with an extremist group, including a loss of interest in friends and activities, unwillingness to listen to other points of views, using derogatory names for another group and condoning violence.

    Those indicators, described in a Prevent guidance booklet, also include people with "occupational skills that can enable acts of terrorism" such as civil engineering, pharmacology and technical expertise, including knowledge of information technology, chemicals and military training. As part of the effort, schools have installed monitoring devices on school computers, enabling teachers and administrators to see what kind of material their students are viewing online. Anyone flagged by the programme is screened several times by the police and local officials.

    If a formal referral is made, the person is encouraged to take part in Channel, the de-radicalisation programme. This often involves an imam who plays the role of counsellor, psychotherapist and religious scholar.

    In the first six months of last year, a total of 3,228 referrals were made, according to the latest figures from the National Police Chiefs' Council. Two-thirds of the referrals came from schools, social services and healthcare practitioners. Less than 10 per cent came from local communities, suggesting that Muslims, among others, view Prevent with suspicion.

    As a result of the referrals, 46 people were prevented from travelling to Syria and 225 "are being successfully dissuaded from undertaking extremist activity related to Syria", the police chiefs' council said. A majority of referrals were of Muslims.

    NEW YORK TIMES

At the same time, the British programme has exposed the limitations of an approach that relies on voluntary cooperation from those who are identified as potential threats.

In the case of the boy in Blackburn, whose name has not been publicly disclosed because of his age, the police later arrested him after they found he had made a detailed plan for an ISIS-inspired massacre in Australia. Last October, he was sentenced for inciting terrorism overseas and became, at 15, the youngest person to get a life sentence in Britain in a terrorism case.

The Prevent programme, started by then Prime Minister Tony Blair in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London bombings, encourages and in some cases requires Britons to watch for signs of radicalisation in their communities and to alert the authorities about people who could become risks, before they turn violent.

Once someone is identified, the authorities judge whether the threat of radicalisation is sufficient to justify further counselling. If so, the at-risk person is offered a place in a voluntary portion of the Prevent programme known as Channel, which seeks to steer participants away from extremism.

Last year, Prime Minister David Cameron's government expanded the programme's scope, making it a legal duty for schools, hospitals, local governments, social services and prisons to flag extremist behaviour with the authorities. Opponents say that requirement risks turning Britain into a surveillance state where one section of the public is encouraged to snoop on everyone else.

However imperfect, Prevent is about "making teachers aware that some of their kids might go in the direction" of terrorism, said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. He raised the example of four girls from the Bethnal Green Academy in London who travelled to Syria.

"Clearly a mini social movement was going on within that school," he said. "Those teachers now know what to look for and how to tell the authorities."

Ms Patsy Kane, executive director of two all-girls high schools in Manchester, most of whose 2,500 pupils are Muslim, said the schools have already dealt with sensitive issues, such as students being forced into marriage. Prevent, she said, "is an added duty, a moral duty".

"You can't take away the risk, and we can't control who is influencing our students outside of school," she said. "But what we can do is to find alternative narratives, like those given by Islamic State defectors, and try to chip away at the group's missionary zeal."

But success on the individual level can come at a cost. Mr Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said he was concerned that even "peaceful, legitimate debate could be dragged into the clutches of a security state". That could undermine the government's efforts and drive true extremists deeper underground, he said.

Some Muslims say they have been unfairly singled out and that Prevent has increased distrust of the government.The London-based Waltham Forest Council of Mosques, which represents 70,000 worshippers, said in a statement that it had "no confidence in Prevent" and called the programme racist.

It reacted angrily to a questionnaire distributed by the Waltham Forest Council last year that asked primary school children about their beliefs. Children were asked to respond to statements including: "Religious books are to be understood word for word," "I believe my religion is the only correct one," and "I would do what a grown-up told me to do even if it seemed odd to me."

In the case of the Blackburn schoolboy, his lawyer said he knew that what he had done was wrong, but the presiding judge said that the teenager had paid only "lip service" to attempts to reform him.

The boy is being put through a mandatory programme in a youth detention centre and may be released from custody in five years, but only if he is considered purged of ISIS views.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Scheme to detect would-be radicals stirs controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe