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Geopolitics & Security

Are We Losing the Fight Against Extremism in the UK?

Commentary14th December 2020

Earlier this month, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change convened an expert panel asking the question, are we losing the fight against extremism in the UK? Moderated by The Independent’s security correspondent, Lizzie Dearden, the panel explored the state of counter terrorism and counter extremism in the UK today. The panel featured Richard Walton, senior fellow at Policy Exchange and former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terror Command, Dr Matthew Feldman, Director of the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right, as well as Imam Dr Usama Hasan and Cristina Ariza from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Main takeaways:

  • The UK’s counter-terror strategy is robust, contrary to its strategy to counter extremism, which lacks direction and cohesion

  • The lack of an agreed definition of extremism is still an obstacle in articulating a coherent strategy against extremism

  • Covid-19 has likely exacerbated the extremism problem, while allowing for newer manifestations like conspiracy theories to spread quickly

  • Debates taking place in France about enforcing national values as a means to counter Islamism reverberate across the continent and its Muslim populations

  • On the counter terror front, the government needs to stem the pattern of terrorist convicts going on to commit further atrocities while urgently delivering a review of Prevent

  • Even if the threat from the far right is smaller in numbers, its acolytes are becoming more extreme

Extremist ideas are entering the mainstream and deepening social division, ranging from rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in politics, the proliferation of anti-vaccination protests, as well as the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories and anti-Establishment sentiments. This is more so since the spread of the Covid-19 global pandemic, which has provided fertile ground for these ideas to grow. The anniversary of the Fishmonger’s Hall attack coincided with a spate of Islamist terror attacks across Europe, highlighting that terrorism is a persistent threat. At the same time, the independent review of Prevent has been repeatedly delayed. These developments pose important questions about the future of integration policy, counter terrorism, and counter extremism.

“We have deep question marks in the UK around integration policy, counter terrorism and counter extremism. ”

Lizzie Dearden, The Independent’s security correspondent

Defining extremism and understanding its relationship with terrorism remains a puzzle for policymakers.

In its seminal report, the Commission for Countering Extremism’s (CCE) defined hateful extremism as behaviours that incite hate by drawing on supremacist beliefs and that can have a damaging impact on cohesion. This definition can be useful in charting the grey area between legal expressions of extremism and illegal manifestations such as violence and hate speech. This has important practical consequences - it can help to bolster the defence against those who use freedom of speech to promote their extremist rhetoric. However, if we take that not all expressions of extremism may be inspired by hate this definition could risk underplaying the role of ideology.

In contrast, our report, Narratives of Division, urged the Government to use a working definition of extremism based on ideology as a process and subject to flux, rather than unwieldy legal definitions that focus on the binary issue of criminality.

The government’s counter-terror strategy CONTEST is robust and well defined, as a result of many decades of experience and iterative improvement. By contrast, the UK’s counter extremism policies remain incoherent, inconsistent and constrained by politics.

“We need a new focus. We need a new bold cross-government CE strategy. It is not particularly new laws we need, but new policies and the will to execute them. If we don’t move quickly, frankly, I fear extremism will continue to grow as it has been doing, fuelled by social media as well.”

Richard Walton, former head of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command

The socio-economic ramifications of Covid-19 will impact extremism, exacerbating the problems that were already there before - unemployment, poverty, isolation and even mental and personal trauma - while both providing the material conditions in which extremism can thrive. We have already seen extremist responses to the health crisis, such as anti-vaxxer conspiracies attributing the pandemic to ‘globalism’ and elites, along with a resurgence of familiar conspiratorial themes. The QAnon movement, relatively dormant for three years, has gone viral amid the pandemic.

Conspiracy theories are only one of the vehicles for mainstreaming extremist views. Experts on far-right extremism have warned that populist political movements also have a radicalising effect.

“There is a toxic mix of conspiracism, right wing populism and increasing forms of right wing extremism making its way into the mainstream.”

Matthew Feldman, Director of the Centre of the Analysis of the Radical Right

Our Institute’s latest report, Resonating Narratives, based on a nationwide survey of 2,000 young people from Muslim and white backgrounds gives a clear indication of the scale of the mainstreaming of extremist ideologies. The research found that around one in five young people in the UK agree with nonviolent extremist views, such as the notion that there is an unresolvable conflict between Islam and the West, that British culture is under threat of invasion, or that democracy is broken and should be replaced. One in 10 sympathised with ideas promoting violence.

When it comes to handling terrorism, however, states have taken different approaches. In France, president Macron has insisted that eliminating violent extremism demands a vigorous assertion of national values. In a recent article for The Financial Times, Macron wrote: ‘France has been attacked by Islamist terrorists because it embodies freedom of expression, the right to believe or not to believe and a certain way of life. The French people have risen up to say that they will not surrender any of France’s values, its identity, or its imagination’. This runs the risk of damaging relations with local Muslim leaders who are critical for effective prevention strategies. However, Imam Dr Usama Hasan from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change highlighted that the British approach has been more successful because it has managed to include Muslims in the conversation.

“When Macron asks Muslims to accept Islam as a religion only and not as a political movement, he is asking a question that goes to the core of religion and politics, Islam and Islamism, and those debates are being had quite vigorously in the British Muslim scene, more so than in Europe.”

Imam Dr Usama Hasan, research consultant at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Other hot-button themes included:

  • Radicalisation in prison and deradicalisation have returned to the spotlight.  The widely reported case of Shamima Begum, who is appealing the government’s decision to remove her British citizenship after she joined ISIS in 2015, presents several challenges as to how much of a threat she poses to the UK and whether any deradicalisation programmes could apply to her situation. The effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes has been questioned repeatedly, with experts concluding that there are difficulties in carrying out proper evaluations on whether these programmes can work. Prisons have as well long been highlighted as incubators of terrorism. Nonetheless, Dr Imam Usama Hasan suggests that separation centres and disengagement programmes have had success, while from his experience in working with young men in prison he has noticed there has been a shift in how Muslim prisoners used to respect Islamist terror convicts back in the 1990s but that they are now refusing to associate themselves with them. Richard Walton believes that “we have barely scratched the surface” of deradicalisation and that we need more, not less

  • A danger with tougher counter terrorism laws is that would-be plotters tend to be incarcerated at an earlier stage of their extremism journey, resulting in shorter sentences that guarantee a relatively imminent return to society. As well, this risks further radicalising individuals at the shorter end of the spectrum because of the radicalising influences to which they get exposed to in prison. The right balance between imprisonment and deradicalisation must be struck, but society cannot accept a pattern of released terror convicts going on to commit further atrocities.

  • While the violent threat of the far right is still dwarfed by Islamism, they potentially represent a more committed fringe within a rapidly evolving landscape.  Radical political groups, such as the British National Party or its contemporary successor, For Britain, coexist with other more extreme formations like neo-Nazi terror groups and white nationalist activist groups. Our Institute’s report Narratives of Hate has also revealed that the rhetoric of current far-right activist groups in the UK indicates transnational linkages,  including narratives echoing far right global icons, such as the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik

  • The conclusion of the independent review of Prevent is long overdue. Our Institute’s research shows that well-conceived preventative policies play a critical role in deradicalisation. Our work found that young people are more likely to trust policies if these are transparent and openly communicated. The publication of the review is important for highlighting this impact, especially as the Prevent programme has increasingly become the target of accusations of lack of transparency, opaqueness and even discriminatory treatment towards Muslims.

“The fact that the review keeps getting delayed is not doing Prevent any favours, because that is the perfect opportunity to have a close look at all those accusations, as well as the effectiveness of Prevent.”

Cristina Ariza, analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

It remains clear that any response to terrorism and extremism cannot avoid questions about the role of integration, reconciling religion with the state, the prevalence of extreme views in mainstream discourse and the costs of building a cross-partisan coalition to defeat extremism. Events worldwide continue to make these issues as pressing as ever.

This webinar was convened following the publication of two reports by the Institute, Resonating Narratives and Past, Prevent and Future, which examine the resonance of extremist views in the UK and perceptions of Prevent. This research was supported by quantitative and qualitative surveys and focus groups with 2,000 young people aged 18-30 from Muslim and white communities in the UK, conducted by Savanta Comres.

You can view the webinar on YouTube here


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