The Home Office has turned a blind eye to British Hamas and Hezbollah networks, a damning review of the Home Office’s Prevent strategy reveals.
It comes as William Shawcross, who conducted the review, accused officials of focusing on relatively minor threats from the far-right instead of addressing more urgent challenges from Hamas and Hezbollah – both of which have now been fully outlawed by the Government – and other Islamist groups.
The report, by William Shawcross, says: “Going beyond proscription, the government should pay greater attention to the pernicious impact of Hamas’s support network in the UK.
“These companies and charities operate legally. This highlights the importance of arm’s length bodies such as the Charity Commission in helping formulate the most effective response.”
Involvement with Hamas can act as a precursor to joining Islamic State, the report points out. “There are examples of British individuals who travelled to Hamas-controlled territory before going on to join other terrorist groups and perpetrate acts of terrorism,” it says.
This is “particularly important” because they include suicide bomber Jamal al-Harith, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and Alexanda Kotey, known as Jihadi George, one of the infamous “Beatles” group who brutalised ISIS prisoners before they were beheaded.
The report strongly criticises the Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU), a Home Office team set up in 2007 as part of the Prevent programme.
With a £15 million annual budget, the unit aims to counter extremist ideology wherever it is found.
However, according to the report, the unit expends disproportionate resources studying far-right organisations that pose no threat to Britain, while failing to challenge support for antisemitic hate groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Mr Shawcross writes: “I would have expected to see research from RICU providing an in-depth investigation on the pro-Hezbollah support network within the UK, and a commitment to do so for the more recently proscribed whole of Hamas.”
He adds: “In recent years RICU has produced analysis about several Extreme Right-Wing associated groups that either have no known presence in the UK, or no known connections with terrorism.”
To be effective, the report says, Prevent “must be consistent in the thresholds that it applies across ideologies to ensure a proportionate and effective response”.
However, “the bar for what RICU includes on Islamism looks to be relatively high, whereas the bar for what it includes on Extreme Right-Wing is comparably low.”
Home Office anti-terrorism officials are focusing on far-right organisations while failing to adequately combat Islamist groups, the review of the £50 million Prevent anti-radicalisation programme says.
In one of his most disturbing findings, William Shawcross, who conducted the review, suggests that officials may be so afraid of being called Islamophobic that they shy away from properly confronting Islamist terrorism.
“Practitioners who wish to focus on the principle terror threat to this country [Islamism] find themselves viewed with suspicion even by colleagues,” he writes. “This is an unacceptable state of affairs which I have seen in too many areas.”
Officials have “fears of being accused of being racist, anti-Muslim, or culturally-insensitive”, he says, resulting in “disproportionate” resources being wasted on the far right, which presents a far smaller threat.
Despite three Islamist terror attacks in the UK in 2020 – including a Libyan who stabbed three men to death in Reading – only around a quarter of the 113 “distance learning packs” sent to Prevent providers over the next year-and-a-half related to Islamist extremism. The majority, 79, focused on the far-right.
“The volume of resources devoted to each ideological threat is notably divergent from the UK's current threat assessment,” the report said.
Officials were also hesitant to escalate their concerns about young Muslims at risk of radicalisation for fear of being dubbed Islamophobic, the report says.
Cases of most concern are supposed to be referred to the more intensive programme known as Channel. But this was not used as effectively as it should have been, according to the report.
“Islamism may be harder for the public sector to identify than other forms of extremism, leading to lower numbers of Islamist-related referrals,” the report says.
But according to Mr Shawcross, here too “fears of being accused of being racist, anti-Muslim, or culturally-insensitive may inhibit Islamist-related referrals in a way that does not appear to be the case for other types of ideological concern”.
The same fears were weakening Prevent’s training schemes for public sector staff, the report found. Counter-terrorism experts “have emphasised 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,” it says.
“Research 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.”
Adding to these fears were claims made by Islamists that Prevent amounted to a “conspiracy” against Muslims, and 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”.
Mr Shawcross conceded that he was “pleased to see RICU has produced a number of high quality and detailed research products on Al Qaeda and Islamic State.” However, he points out, “RICU should expand its horizons when it comes to its analysing violent Islamist organisations”.
Tom Wilson, policy director at the Counter Extremism Group think tank, told the JC: “RICU should be a world-class centre for understanding extremist ideology and how to effectively counter those who radicalise others into terrorism.
“It is troubling that the Prevent review describes how a lot of RICU’s work has become misdirected towards things that don’t have anything to do with terrorism.
“Meanwhile, Hamas and Hezbollah have created extensive support networks in the UK. These are proscribed terrorist groups and so RICU and Prevent should be challenging those who support and fund them, in the same way they would supporters of Islamic State.
“Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy has to be consistent in how it combats terrorist groups.”