In Depth

The truth about the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy

Is the government's programme to combat extremist ideology working? The Week examines the main questions

Fresh questions are being raised about the effectiveness of the government's counter-terrorism strategy following the attacks in London and Manchester.

Prevent aims to stop young Muslims from being radicalised, but has come under heavy criticism for being discriminatory and alienating those it is trying to reach.

With security forces coming under pressure to explain how a known extremist managed to carry out the London Bridge attack, The Week looks at whether the strategy is working.

What does Prevent involve?

Prevent relies on community involvement, with faith leaders, teachers, doctors and even family being urged to report suspicious behaviour.

According to The Times, the projects range from teaching computer skills to Muslim women, so they can tell if their children are accessing dangerous internet sites, to intensive deradicalisation sessions with psychologists, social workers and religious leaders.  

With an annual budget of £40m, Prevent is one of four strands of Contest, the government's multipronged counter-terrorism strategy, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, along with Pursue, Prepare and Protect.

"Of these four strands, it is the most controversial and arguably the least successful," he says.

What do its critics say?

Faith leaders, including the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque,  say the strategy stigmatises young Muslims and their families.

"Many Muslims regard it as an intrusive, Big Brother-style system of surveillance," says the Financial Times. "Reports of misplaced interventions only fuel perceptions that Prevent is little more than a spying initiative."

Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer for national security and counter-terrorism at the Open Society Justice Initiative, says Prevent alienates law-abiding Muslims and undermines the police's ability to prevent terrorist attacks.

Writing in The Guardian, he says its "overly broad definition of extremism – vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values – creates a systemic risk of violations of the right to freedom of expression, the right against discrimination and the right to privacy."

The public appears equally unimpressed with the programme's progress, with a poll last year showing that 96 per cent of Britons think Prevent is not keeping the country safe.

What about its supporters?

The Home Office insists the programme is working and denies singling out Muslims. "We made sure Prevent would tackle all forms of terrorism, not just Islamist-related terrorism," a spokesperson said.

It also has the backing of a number of senior police figures, with Leicestershire Chief Constable Simon Cole calling it an "absolutely fundamental" tool to tackle terrorism in the UK.

Jamie Bartlett, a director at Demos, which specialises in extremism issues, says it is "impossible" to design a programme which ensures no one is successful in carrying out an attack.

"The main problem with Prevent is that we never see the successes - the teenager who doesn't go to Syria or who doesn't blow themselves up because there's been a targeted intervention which works," he told the Financial Times.

Has it been effective?

According to the government last year, Prevent stopped 150 people, including 50 children, from travelling to Iraq and Syria.

Of the 7,500 referrals made in 2015-16, action was taken in one in every ten cases and no action was taken in 37 per cent of cases, while 28 per cent are still being considered, says the BBC.

"Prevent is working," said security minister Ben Wallace. "It has made a significant impact in preventing people being drawn into terrorism."

Wallace claims 142 projects have reached more than 42,000 participants and that at least 1,000 people have received support through the Channel programme, which aims to safeguard those most at risk of radicalisation.

But the BBC's Dominic Casciani says it is "virtually impossible to fully assess" Prevent's overall effectiveness.

"Very few of the schemes could be assessed to show one way or another whether they worked - officials were often taking the word of the people they were funding," he adds.

What do the election manifestos say?

The Tories do not mention Prevent in their manifesto, but it is expected the scheme would be expanded and strengthened if they stay in power.

Labour's manifesto says it will review Prevent and assess its potential to alienate minority communities, while the

Lib Dems  say they would replace it with a new scheme that "prioritises community engagement and support communities in developing their own approach to tackling the dangers of violent extremism".

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