Last week saw the long-awaited arrival of the UK’s Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The review puts forward a global Britain that takes a ‘more robust position’ on security and defence and is committed to working alongside friends and allies to defend openness, human rights and democratic ideals worldwide. Boris Johnson described the review as being the largest of its kind since the Cold War. Much of course has changed since then – yet much has also not. The democratic values and ideals which Britain has sworn to defend are as much under threat now as they were back when the Berlin Wall divorced east from west.
The marketplace of ideas once dominated by a dichotomic struggle between capitalism and communism is now a much more competitive arena awash with an eclectic plethora of transnational ideologies peddled by state and non-state actors alike. Troublingly, it is a market where extremist variants continue to gain significant currency. Whilst identifying Islamist extremism as the primary danger to the UK, the Integrated Review illustrates the increased diversification of the threat picture by referencing the growing threat from the far-right and “to a lesser extent far-left, anarchist and single-issue terrorism” as well as an enduring dissident republican threat in Northern Ireland. As we enter the third decade of the war on terror the threat posed by this toxic ideological kaleidoscope reflects the shortcomings of collective global efforts to stem the spread and appeal of extremism thus far.
What is clear therefore is if this war is to have an end, a fundamental recalibration of global counterextremism and counterterrorism policy is crucial. By painting a vision of a global Britain and reasserting an enduring commitment to multilateralism, the UK is primed to take an active leadership role on the world stage to address what the Integrated Review describes as ‘the persistence of extremist ideologies’ - but have we learned enough from the past to have the answers today?
What has been learned?
Simply identifying the threat of terrorism as transnational highlights the progress made in the past two decades. That the war on terror is one of ideas more than anything else was the single most important realisation from the early days of the campaign. Acknowledging the ideological nature of the threat meant accepting the reality that it is one which knows no borders and cannot be confined to any particular group or geography. It was a logic that defied the conventional wisdom of traditional warfare and rebelled against the notion that a successful outcome could be achieved through military might alone. At the time it would have seemed cynical to suggest that destroying al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan or taking out Osama Bin Laden would fail to inflict anything more than a temporary operational inconvenience on the enemy, however ultimately this was the reality. Violent Islamist extremism not only remained steadfast in the face of bombs and bullets, it exploited the grievances sewn by western policymaking and proliferated both at home and abroad. It illustrated that terrorism is but a symptom of a more complex systemic problem, and for its threat to be extinguished we first need to diminish the spread and appeal of the extreme ideologies that fuel it.
Promisingly this thesis aligns well with the high-level approach to counter radicalisation and terrorism outlined in the Integrated Review, which would indeed suggest that we have learned something from the past 20 years of the war on terror. The report commits to “addressing the conditions that give rise to terrorism, including through countering the radicalising influence of extremist individuals or groups, as well as maintaining high-end capabilities to disrupt and deter terrorist attacks” as part of a “robust and full-spectrum approach” – but how does the UK intend to deliver on this?
The UK’s Counter-Radicalisation and Terrorism Policy Agenda
The value of investing in preventative initiatives that aim to reduce vulnerability to radicalisation was an epiphany that the UK arrived at – and at least in terms of domestic policy acted on – quicker than most. The Cabinet Office was drafting the first iteration of the CONTEST strategy as early as 2002 and Prevent, a first of its kind policy that would enhance the UKs reputation as a pioneer in the space, was already shaping up to be a key part of it. Though the thinking around each component of the strategy has evolved considerably since then, the original quartet of Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare remain. The Integrated Review outlines the government’s continued commitment to the strategy which will remain the anchor for its domestic counter-terrorism policy going forward. In doing so it reiterates pre-existing plans to launch a Protect duty that “will make it a legal requirement for owners and operators of public spaces and venues to take measures to keep the public safe from terrorist attacks”, as well as the much anticipated and long overdue independent review of Prevent.
Building on recommendations from the Operational Improvement review (2017) conducted on the back of the London Bridge attacks and Manchester Arena bombing, the Integrated Review also commits to measures that aim to strengthen the UKs counter-terrorism systems. These include a combination of new legislation to prevent the early release and aid the prosecution of terrorist offenders, increased budget for counter-terrorism policing and the introduction of a new counter-terrorism operations centre to help enable better cross-agency coordination and intelligence sharing. The organisational structure of responsibilities across government can have a decisive impact on the delivery and coherence of the counterterrorism strategy. The typically reactive nature of counter-terrorism policy globally has often resulted in a sclerotic system – not by design, but by consequence of bolt-on departments with overlapping remits. This was a key finding of the 9/11 Commission report too (2004) which prompted a significant structural overhaul of the convoluted US security architecture that to some success was able to consolidate and coordinate security and law enforcement agencies through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Centre and the Office of The Director of National Intelligence. While the UK is typically seen as a world leader in counterextremism and counterterrorism policymaking – here it is playing catch-up.
Overseas, as the government has promised to reinstate the development budget back to 0.7% of GDP “when the fiscal situation allows”, policymakers can look forward to regained access to a more robust set of vital soft power policy levers which dovetail with broader humanitarian efforts to address the structural grievances that extremists seek to exploit - particularly in fragile and conflict affected states. This forms part of a wider foreign policy plan which also includes capacity-building initiatives, greater intelligence sharing, and if delivered proportionately and in harmony with other strategic objectives of the review, quite rightly leaves targeted military action on the table under the PURSUE strand of the strategy.
While the review has certainly benefitted from an in-depth consultation process, there remain important gaps. As the Commission for Countering Extremism concluded following a recent legal review- the existing UK legislative framework is not sufficient in addressing the threat of “hateful extremism” – a less overt form of extremism defined by harmful ideologies that skirt and blur the fine-line between the mainstream and the extreme. High-profile extremists such as Anjem Choudary have been able to operate with relative impunity for years by walking this tightrope, radicalising many along the way. While the integrated review was not a legal review and was likely being finalised when the Commission’s report was released – this finding brings substance to a difficult truth that has been self-evident for years. Ultimately it is a policy space that the government has been reluctant to engage in as it faces a significant tightrope itself in introducing policies and legislation that quell the spread of dangerous ideologies that pose a significant threat to democracy, whilst also protecting civil liberties – a defining feature of our democracy but one which extremists openly exploit to undermine it. While the Online Harms Bill will help address the digital presence of illegal content related to terrorism and hate crime, as well as other ‘legal but harmful’ content, it is not yet clear how this would apply to online hateful extremism. It would also fail to address the modes of offline communication which have been popular with the likes of Choudary and Paul Golding in the past.
The Integrated Review would most likely have been in the advanced stages of drafting as its authors tuned into the news on January 6th to witness scenes from across the pond of violent Trump supporters laying siege to the US Capitol building – but this should have been a wake-up call. There is no image that could better illustrate the threat extremism poses to democracy than the heart of decision-making in the most powerful democracy in the world being overrun by violent extremists. It was the culminating flashpoint from years of turbo-charged conspiracy theories, misinformation and divisive rhetoric which characterise hateful extremism and emphasises the need to plug the legislative gaps if we are to effectively reduce the risk of violence posed by the array of competing dangerous ideologies identified in the Integrated Review as being a persistent threat to the UK.
Furthermore, while the introduction of the “Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release Act) 2020” will no doubt help from a legislative perspective to prevent the premature release of radicalised individuals back into society as was the case with London Bridge attacker Usman Khan - there is no explicit mention of the associated risk assessment procedures and policy approaches to de-radicalisation, disengagement or reintegration (DDR) anywhere in the 103-page document. From reading it, you would not have guessed that the case of Shamima Begum has remained one of the most highly publicised and politicised extremism related news stories in the UK for the past year. Given the response to the case has drawn widespread accusations that the government lacks the faith in its own criminal justice systems and DDR type initiatives to process such cases – you would have thought the Integrated Review would have been the perfect opportunity to allay such concerns by at least committing to a review and where required, reform of the existing approach. While DDR type interventions typically fall under the remit of the Prevent strand of the CONTEST strategy, there appears to be no explicit mention of them in the terms of reference for the strategy’s upcoming independent review.
The Integrated Review is a clear marker of how far the UK has come in its fight against extremism and terrorism. Though there is still plenty of work to do, it appears that years of research, policy advocacy and lived experience have not fallen on deaf ears. However, the transnational nature of the threat creates an inextricable link between national security and global security and while based on the review there is plenty of cause for optimism –the UK will continue to face an enduring threat of extremism so long as the strengths and values of its own domestic and foreign policies are not reflected in those of others across the world facing similar challenges. Global Britain must therefore leverage its reputation as a leader in this policy space and through effective bilateral and multilateral engagement aim to export the principles of its national strategy as a blueprint for driving the development of a coherent global policy agenda on counter-extremism. Only then can we expect to make a dent in the persistence of extremist ideologies worldwide.
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