Last month, Micheal and I were warmly invited to Essex Prevent Development Day, organised by Essex local authority. Micheal was asked to deliver a presentation on his personal experiences, alongside three other practitioners within the field, Damian Terrill, consultant psychologist for the Ministry of Defence; Kevin Everard, ex-military and now a Home Office intervention provider; and Manwar Ali, Imam and Home Office intervention provider. The aim of this was to increase understanding and confidence for those working within the somewhat rather hazy ‘preventative’ space; undoubtedly, the variety of first-hand experience and perspectives shared added immense value to this. It was reassuring to see the room packed with nearly 300 practitioners across a variety of sectors including police, local authority, health, education and charity, ultimately all unified in their commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of our communities. In light of the day, and indeed, the recently published CONTEST Strategy, I would like to highlight three key messages to bear in mind as we strive to improve our understanding and response to the terrorist threat.

  • ‘A comprehensive issue, requires a comprehensive response’

To use the definition presented by Dr Terrill on the day, “radicalisation is the result of a complex process of vulnerability and ideological commitment”. The reality of this definition was reflected in and reinforced by the diverse panel of speakers that described through their first-hand experience, the variety of factors that can create the conditions in which radicalisation occurs and the ways in which this process manifests. For example, Micheal spoke candidly about his Brother’s grievances with his work, the break-up with his girlfriend, new social networks and a yearning for social justice. Of course, none of these factors alone indicate a serious vulnerability or concern, neither do they all point to radicalisation as an inevitable outcome. However, had there been greater awareness about the risk of radicalisation – within the family, in his workplace or at his local Doctor’s surgery – someone may have picked up on something and sought to join the dots, either to rule out or confirm any ‘inklings’, before it was too late.

The complex intersection of our experiences, identities, emotions and relationships, which have the potential to make us vulnerable under the right conditions, need to be mediated by a sophisticated and nuanced response. As affirmed in the CONTEST paper, we need to alert a greater number of agencies, who are best placed to detect our vulnerabilities, in order to improve the breadth and scale of interventions (U.K. CONTEST Strategy, 2018: 28). In other words, whether at home, in education, healthcare, business or local communities, we all have a responsibility to be attuned to the risk of radicalisation. This has been criticised for heightening unnecessary suspicion amongst the public. Understandably, without a sufficient level of understanding around radicalisation and terrorism this could be the case. To pre-empt this, and avoid perpetuating further misconceptions, stereotypes, anxiety and fear, it is vital that the duty is supplemented with sufficient education around the issue. Firstly, as reinforced by the latest CONTEST strategy, it is important to remind the public that, fundamentally, the Prevent duty is in accordance with all other safeguarding responsibilities concerned with the safety and general well-being of individuals. This provides a much-needed, familiar, point of reference in which to build more specialist knowledge on. From this, the training can then emphasise and explore much broader drivers of radicalisation (that incidentally converge with other safeguarding issues) such as, the search for identity, belonging and purpose.

It is not enough just to ‘alert’ a greater number of agencies to be more aware of radicalisation; rather, in addition to this, we need to make them more aware and supportive of each other. We know that vulnerability factors in isolation of others and the wider context are not necessarily sufficient cause for concern. Likewise, it might be the case that a combination of vulnerabilities suggests an outcome other than radicalisation; perhaps sexual exploitation or gang crime. Hence, it is vital that we continue to coordinate a more integrated, cross-agency approach, to simultaneously zoom in and out, bridging the small details with the bigger picture, on each unique case. Through putting each piece of the puzzle together in collaboration with one another, this can help to cut through the complexity and more easily identify the nature and severity of any given concern. This conference was a brilliant platform to start forming much-needed relationships and share expertise that will hopefully extend beyond the day.

  • ‘Local communities are at the heart of an effective strategy’

A common buzzword that was raised during the day is ‘community engagement’. In the simplest sense, this means to speak, listen and work within the community about issues that are relevant to them. This can be anything from holding community roundtables to more active engagement programmes in relation to pastoral care, education, sport or employment. Undoubtedly, safeguarding individuals from radicalisation, is in the interest of all our safety therefore incumbent on everyone. More significantly though, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a top-down approach is simply ineffective, because it fails to secure a sufficient level of trust amongst those it is trying to reach and thus address the complexities on the ground. In other words, we simply need the unique positioning, insight and cooperation of communities.

Whilst there is a growing consensus that ‘community engagement’ is a prerequisite for an effective Prevent strategy, ‘what’ or ‘who’ is meant by ‘the community’ remains ambiguous and even problematic at times. Often the responsibility of Prevent has been wrongly imposed on the community we think the issue of radicalisation directly relates to – that is, the Muslim community. Firstly, this reinforces a dangerous misconception that radicalisation is predominantly a ‘Muslim’ issue – overlooking the prevalence of non-Muslim converts, like Micheal’s brother, but also the threat of the ‘far right’. As well as this, it wrongly implies that the Muslim community is homogenous. Quite the contrary, the ‘Muslim community’ and ‘communities’ in general encompass a multitude of opinions, experiences and behaviours, that give them all a unique dynamic.

As opposed to mandating a model of top-down ‘community engagement’ aimed at a specific community, we need a strategy that is open to and supportive of organic modes of engagement. This can be grounded by two key questions: ‘what is relevant to the community?’ and ‘are there existing structures or modes of engagement that can be innovated to more subtly address this issue?’. Factors such as, the level or type of terrorist threat, the prevalence or influence of faith leaders and existing relationships between private and public sector, are just some examples that affect the way in which community engagement might look and feel in a particular locality. In terms of who should make judgements on these questions, arguably there is always going to be an issue of ‘gatekeepers’. It is obvious however that local authorities, in closer proximity and consultation with different aspects of the community they seek to represent, are in a preferred position to central government to do so. Hence, the move towards greater responsibility within local authorities is promising (U.K. CONTEST Strategy 2018: 36). Ultimately, the challenge to define ‘community engagement’, is paradoxically also it’s advantage, because it can (and indeed should) be left to the discretion of those closest to the community to decide and manage; this is the ‘heart’ of an effective strategy.

‘We need to acknowledge, understand the human element of this issue’

Lastly, I come to arguably the most difficult but significant message to take away from the day, most eloquently put by Dr Terrill in his socio-psychological exposition of radicalisation; that is, fundamentally, those that are more susceptible to radicalisation, are experiencing a problem with ‘life meaning’. Often, when we see or hear the tragic outcomes of a terrorist attack it is near impossible to imagine any ounce of humanity in those that committed it. However, as the powerful presentations of the day demonstrated, in particular Micheal’s heart-felt account of his Brother’s life before he joined Al-Shabaab, it is an inherent humanness that leads to this outcome. It was not without the experience of some personal tragedy, confusion of where he belonged, frustration with society’s ills and perhaps even a desire to take control of his own life that extremists were able to exploit him. To put it another way, those who are susceptible to radicalisation and are drawn into terrorism, are arguably an extreme casualty of being unable to positively fulfil the universal search for identity, meaning and purpose.

The ‘Prevent strategy’, by it’s very definition is in the pre-criminal space; i.e. before any ‘illegal’ action in relation to the official Terrorism Act, is committed. Whilst they may be showing some signs of their intent to engage with terrorism, they have not. In-keeping with this, individuals in this space, therefore require help and support to stop them from transgressing this boundary, as opposed to judgement and retribution. As Kevin Everard highlighted, through his experience as an Intervention Provider, it is absolutely possible to re-direct these individuals onto an alternative, more positive, and ultimately life-fulfilling path. This is achieved through, building a rapport with the individual; a process which requires, time, patience and above all, empathy. That is, to try and understand what is going on in an individual’s life and why they might be feeling the way they are. Overall, the tone of this conference reinforced the message that ‘Prevent’ is a therapeutic rather than a punitive measure, with the interests of individual wellbeing at the centre. However, (as practitioners are well aware) public perception is still a way off this. It is therefore imperative that local government, Prevent practitioners, civil society and the like, continue to engage in an active, two-way dialogue with communities about the role and delivery of Prevent, in order to strengthen trust and reduce scepticism/hostility.

Final words

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the preventative space of Counter-Terrorism is extremely sensitive and complex. It is apparent that Counter-terror is far broader than one policy, sector or community. In fact, it stretches across all and touches upon some of the most intimate aspects of our personal lives. This day provided an open and constructive platform in which to explore these nuances in collaboration with one another. The key to developing an effective strategy, I think is epitomised by days such as this. That is, the continual sharing of knowledge both laterally and vertically and critical reflection on a personal and group level. I am hopeful that conferences and community roundtables such as these are already taking place across the country and will continue to do so, not just for the safety, but (as I hope this paper has alluded to), the prosperity of individuals and society as a whole.

Clare Allsopp is the Project Co-ordinator of SAFE – Supporting Affected Families from Extremism