Time to revive Prevent strategy

By Paul Richards, August 28, 2014

Michael Gove's last act as Education Secretary was to investigate claims of an Islamist plot to take over the running of some of Birmingham's schools. Gove was criticised for putting counter-terrorism expert Peter Clarke in charge of the investigation. Some said Trojan Horse was a hoax, or that heavy-handed intervention was "Islamophobic".

After 2,000 pages of transcripts from 50 witnesses, the investigation revealed a "sustained, co-ordinated agenda to impose segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline, politicised strain of Sunni Islam". It concluded: "Left unchecked, it would confine schoolchildren within an intolerant, inward-looking monoculture that would severely inhibit their participation in the life of modern Britain."

Michael Gove is one of the few senior politicians who has consistently warned about the direct link between extremist ideology and violent terrorism. His removal from the Education Department makes the battle against extremism just a bit harder.

This week we hear that 500 British Muslims are in Syria and northern Iraq, fighting for the Islamic State (IS). We saw a Briton behead American journalist James Foley. We know that the 500 men fighting for IS went to British schools, shopped in Morrison's and WH Smith, watched Match of the Day and walked the streets of London, Manchester or Birmingham.

Their extremism didn't start the day they booked their flights to the Middle East. It was inculcated and nurtured, like bacillus on a petri dish, in schools and on campus, in mosques, in boxing clubs and coffee shops, and online.

Prevent has been allowed to wither

We know there is a link between non-violent extremism, and violent extremism. One cannot exist without the other. The government's strategy for countering extremist Islamist ideology is named "Prevent". It has been cut to the bone.

After the murder of Lee Rigby by Muslim converts Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale last year, ministers were warned of the dangers of failing to tackle Islamist ideology at source. Hazel Blears, who was Communities Secretary and now serves on Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, argued for a "long-term, generational, strategy" and that short-term cuts to Prevent were storing up trouble.

MP Yvette Cooper said: "The Prevent programme seems to have lost momentum and direction ... there has been a reduction in work with councils and communities - and more should be done...to support integration and community organisations that are working to prevent radicalisation and extremism in the first place." Prevent was always the trickiest element of the counter-terrorism strategy, for several reasons: one is that in a liberal democracy, we defend the right of people to hold stupid, illogical, extremist views.

Another is that elements of the extremist "Al-Qaeda narrative" are shared by mainstream politicians, such as the parliamentary supporters of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, or those European liberals who believe Islamist terrorism is the fault of the West. A third is that those who sign up to the whole package tend to operate in secret. They will hide their true intents and meaning, while privately encouraging young people into suicide vests.

Prevent was always a work in progress. Some of the money went to the wrong people: in a small number of cases, groups beyond the pale or to enterprising groups or individuals who saw the chance for some government cash. But Prevent was a laudable effort, against a pernicious enemy.

The coalition issued its revised Prevent strategy in June 2011, which watered down the original intent. Since then, Prevent has been allowed to wither on the vine. Eric Pickles, whose department took the lead on Prevent, has quietly scrapped almost every scheme. Ministers, in pursuit of spending cuts, have created conditions for extreme Islamism to flourish once again. We should be concerned that hundreds are fighting under the black flag of jihad in Iraq. What are we going to do when they come home?

Paul Richards was special adviser at the Department for Communities and Local Government under the last Labour government

Last updated: 11:30am, August 28 2014