The Prevent Strategy and Exploitation of UK Terror Attacks

On the 22nd of May 2017 in Manchester, news of a horrific act of terror emerged during the final stages of a music concert where pop singer Ariana Grande was performing. The American singer is a global superstar who has a wide ranging fanbase, in particularly with primary school-aged children and young teenage girls. The attacker Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old male of Libyan descent and from the Manchester area, detonated a home-made bomb in the foyer of the concert hall at a time when many parents were arriving or waiting to pick up their children.

Twenty-two people died as a result with over 100 others injured. The youngest victim was just 8 years old. The barbaric incident was quickly and widely condemned by all segments of society.

Many felt numb, shock and anger at this cowardly and despicable act of terrorism. In that arena would have been someone’s sister, daughter, niece or friend. For them to witness such an attack, be injured and see death and destruction around them will truly scar and traumatise them for life. The thought of what happened, sends a chill down your spine and brings a tear to your eye.

Sadly, no sooner than when people were trying to make sense of this act of terror and working out why Abedi did what he did and how he was able to carry out this attack despite having been known to the authorities, another terrorist incident unfolded in London two weeks later. More lives were lost, loved ones taken and families devastated.

After the attack in Manchester, whilst the nation was still in shock and grieving, came the widespread condolences and condemnations. Questions also arose about Abedi’s motivation, the role of the intelligence services and also the UK government’s involvement in Libya. Amongst all of this we had the inevitable and predictable reactions from Islamophobes and supporters of the far-right calling for deportations and individuals like Douglas Murray and Katie Hopkins adding their contributions. Murray was given a platform on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show on the 28th of May and stated that we needed ‘less Islam’. What he really meant was ‘less Muslims’. This is coming from someone who previously said: “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder”. Katie Hopkins referred to a ‘final solution’ which is a concept associated with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust and this resulted in announcements by LBC radio and the Daily Mail that she would no longer be employed by them. We also saw Maajid Nawaz choosing this moment of tragedy to sell a few more of those ‘solidarity’ t-shirts and gain a few more paid subscribers to his ‘Quilliam Circle’. Classy.


On the various TV & Radio shows on current affairs and politics you also had familiar guests who seem to always get an invite whenever there is an act of terror in the West. On discussing the attack in Manchester and at almost every given opportunity, these guests seemed to be frequently mentioning a particular word; a strategy; a policy. In almost closing-down sale style advertising we were being told about ‘Prevent’.


What is Prevent?

Prevent is part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy known as ‘Contest’. ‘Contest’ has four strands (Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare) and the role of Prevent is “to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism[1]. Prevent focuses on three themes:

  • Challenging the ideology that supports terrorism and those who promote it
  • Protecting vulnerable people
  • Supporting sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation

Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a duty on certain bodies and institutions to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism[2]. These bodies include local authorities, schools, further and higher education, the health sector and the prison and probation services.

Part of the Prevent duty is to be able to identify when an individual is at risk of ‘radicalisation’ and then make a referral to the ‘Channel’ programme[3].


Muslim organisations

However, Prevent has not gone without criticism and questioning around both its effectiveness and application. From the Muslim community, some of the most vocal critics include CAGE, MEND, MPAC, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and Prevent Watch UK.  In September 2016, CAGE produced a report[4] titled ‘The Science of Pre-Crime’. This was accompanied by a joint statement signed by 150 academics and psychologists that called into question the Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ framework used to assess the risk of ‘radicalisation’ and to influence referrals to the ‘Channel’ programme.

‘Prevent Watch’ is an initiative that supports people impacted by Prevent. It states that “…public organisations are failing to understand what is required of them” and “The Prevent Duty requires them to respond in ways that are proportionate and appropriate, based on assessment of genuine risks that people might face…our case studies show they are hugely failing in this area.” [5]


Pushing Prevent after the Manchester attack

A week after the attack in Manchester, the website ‘Sedaa’, which is predominantly made up of secular or ex-Muslim female writers, published an article titled ‘Spare us your crocodile tears, anti-Prevent lobby[6]. This took aim at some of the organisations mentioned above for being critical of Prevent and implied that these organisations, despite their condemnation of the attack and in the case of Mend, who launched a fundraising appeal for the victims, have in fact hindered the process of reducing the threat of terrorism in the UK.

Just three days after the attack in Manchester, Sara Khan from the organisation ‘Inspire’ appeared on BBC Question Time to promote Prevent in fashion that would have been better suited to other BBC programmes such as ‘Dragons Den’ or ‘The Apprentice’. Although, had that been the case we would certainly heard the words “I’m out” or “You’re fired”. As part of the sales pitch, Khan stated “It’s not Prevent that is toxic. It’s the discourse around Prevent that has become toxic”. Later, Khan goes on the attack and appears to reference CAGE – but without naming them directly. She goes on to say “…in this country we do have an Islamist-led organisation, a lobby, who are actively seeking to make sure Prevent fails.”

Former Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, in an article published at the beginning of June in the Daily Mail also criticised Muslim organisations for their stance on Prevent [7]. On the MCB, Afzal states “…I was staggered there was nothing on the agenda for last year’s MCB annual general meeting about radicalisation…” Afzal also says “Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opposition from organisations such as CAGE, which deliberately mislead young Muslims about Prevent. Their claims that Prevent is about persecuting Muslims are simply untrue.


Examples of Prevent referrals and data

Why has Prevent drawn so much controversy and criticism? Below are some examples of referrals made to Prevent and some interesting statistics:

Four-year-old boy threatened with referral after nursery misheard ‘cucumber’ and thought he said a ‘cooker bomb’

Muslim schoolboy questioned by the school under the Prevent duty after using the term ‘eco-terrorist’

10-year-old Muslim boy quizzed by Police after mistakenly writing that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”

Council admits racially discriminating against two boys referred to Prevent over a toy gun

Prevent has an annual budget of £40m a year

Children aged nine and under among the 3,955 people reported under the Prevent strategy to Channel in 2015, up from 1,681 in 2014. 415 of the 3,955 referrals were aged 10 or under and 1,424 were of secondary school age.

Muslims are 5% of the UK population, but make up for 70% of all Prevent referrals

1,394 children referred to Prevent in 2015 identified as Muslim. Compared with 139 as Christian and 53 from all other faiths or no faith

In 2012/13, 748 referrals made to Channel. In 2008/09 there were 179. In 2006/07 there were just 5. In total, between 2006 and 2013, 2,653 referrals were made. Of these referrals only 587 were actually assessed, meaning 78% of referrals did not actually require assessing

More than 20 people a day being referred to Prevent. Nearly half of them are children.

NHS refers 420 staff and patients to Prevent in 12 months


Further Criticism of Prevent

One of the biggest myths pushed and often-repeated mistake by the Pro-Prevent lobby such as Inspire, the Quilliam Foundation and other parties with vested interests, is that it is ‘Islamist’ Muslim organisations that are critical of Prevent and who are branding Prevent as ‘toxic’. As mentioned earlier, Sara Khan from Inspire used her opportunity on BBC Question Time to openly state: “…in this country we do have an Islamist-led organisation, a lobby, who are actively seeking to make sure Prevent fails.” This is quite a typical cliched attitude and narrative pushed from the recipients of Prevent funding. However, the claim around it just being Muslim organisations criticising Prevent, is simply not true.

The current Mayor of Manchester and former shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, remarked on Prevent [8]:

  • I do feel that the brand is so toxic now that I think it’s got to go
  • The Prevent duty to report extremist behaviour is today’s equivalent of internment in Northern Ireland – a policy felt to be highly discriminatory against one section of the community
  • It is creating a feeling in the Muslim community that it is being spied upon and unfairly targeted. It is building a climate of mutual suspicion and distrust. Far from tackling extremism, it risks creating the very conditions for it to flourish

Former Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent, Dal Babu, labelled Prevent as a ‘toxic brand[9]. Babu states Prevent has become “less and less trusted” and that counter-extremism “should not be putting (the) Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”. Babu was also critical of the ‘think tank’ the Quilliam Foundation receiving Prevent money as they were “viewed with deep suspicion in the Muslim community”.

The National Union of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to reject Prevent and backed a motion at their annual conference for the strategy to be scrapped[10]. They said Prevent causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”. One delegate described the Prevent training given to teachers as “crude and often involves loads of stereotypes”.

Dr Clare Gerada, former chair of the council of the Royal College of General Practitioners said the impact of Prevent [11] on the NHS was to “bring discrimination into the consultation room” and it was “about discrimination of people from the Muslim faith”.

Other critics of the Prevent strategy include Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Sayeeda Warsi, the National Union of Students (NUS), Arun Kundnani (Professor at New York University), Leda Blackwood (Department of Psychology at Bath University), Maina Kiai (former UN Special Rapporteur) and Sir Peter Fahy (Greater Manchester Police).



In addition to the above examples of Prevent referrals, statistics and statements from senior public figures and bodies, further work and reports have been produced in relation to the flaws in the Prevent strategy.

As referenced earlier, in 2016 CAGE produced a report[12] titled ‘The Science of Pre-Crime’ which looked into the secret ‘radicalisation’ study that underpins the Prevent strategy. Some of the key points from the report are as follows:

  • The actual ‘study’ behind ‘radicalisation’ has been classified
  • It was only ever intended to be used by professionals but instead has been widely implemented beyond its remit
  • The authors admit they did not factor ‘political grievance’ into the modelling
  • The study is based on a very limited number of terrorism related offenders

A few months prior to this, CAGE also published a report[13] titled “We are Completely Independent” which revealed details of the Home Office using seemingly independent groups to push state-sponsored propaganda and information about a PR company known as ‘Breakthrough Media’ who are at the heart of the Government’s Prevent propaganda programme. The report also explores the role of RICU (Research, Information and Communications Unit). RICU is a secretive propaganda unit within the Home Office and also works under the Prevent directorate. Interestingly, the deputy chief of RICU is Sabin Khan, the sister of Sara Khan from Inspire.[14]

Additional recommended reading material on Prevent includes:

  • ‘Eroding Trust: The UK’s Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education’ [15] by the Open Justice Initiative
  • ‘Preventing Education’ [16] by Rights Watch UK
  • ‘The Prevent Strategy: A Cradle to Grave Police State’ [17] by CAGE
  • ‘Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism’ [18] by the Institute of Race Relations

All the above, including the two other reports by CAGE can be conveniently found in one location on the Prevent Watch website under the heading ‘Research’.

Further to this, on the 6th of June 2017, the Evening Standard [19] revealed that Khuram Butt, who was one of the individuals identified as responsible for the attacks in London a few days earlier, has an elder brother called ‘Saad’. The Evening Standard states: “…Saad was a key member of the Government’s Prevent initiative aimed at combating extremism among young Muslims. While Butt was becoming radicalised, Saad received funding from the police as a founding member of the Young Muslim Advisory Group.” One can only wonder that if you are a Prevent officer and you cannot even detect or de-radicalise a terrorist in your own family or household, how effective and useful is this Prevent strategy?

The debate is no longer whether Prevent is a good or bad policy/strategy. The overwhelming evidence shows that this debate is non-starter. It is conclusive that this discussion has moved on to whether Prevent should be ‘reviewed’, ‘replaced’ or ‘scrapped’ altogether. Opinion on this is divided. Some senior MPs and Political party leaders including Caroline Lucas and Jeremy Corbyn have said it does need a ‘review’. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi was quoted as saying it should be ‘paused’. The MCB have called for Prevent to be replaced with a more community-led programme. Amongst others, the National Union of Students, NUT and CAGE have called for it to be completely ‘scrapped’.

Whichever position someone takes, one thing is for certain: The Prevent strategy is discriminatory, deeply and fundamentally flawed, divisive and not fit for purpose.


Written by @azthebaz for Ascending Stairways

Header Image – Getty via Cosmopolitan




















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