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Prevent and Intelligence

Commentary, 21 October 2009
Domestic Security, Intelligence, Europe
Prevent needs reform but accusations that it is little more than an intelligence gathering programme are simplistic and inaccurate.

Prevent needs reform but accusations that it is little more than an intelligence gathering programme are simplistic and inaccurate.

British Muslims

Garry Hindle for Rusi.org

Arun Kundnani's Guardian commentary on his published report misunderstands the role of intelligence in Prevent, the government's community-based approach to preventing violent extremism. Whilst it highlights real problems in the implementation of the current strategy, the article fails to recognise the positive work being done and the need for safety in countering violent extremism.

The idea of a community-based approach to counter-terrorism had its main public airing in a Demos report in 2006. In principle, the concept is both positive and progressive. At the time it was regarded by the public and government as a way of promoting engagement and providing a defence against the propaganda of violent extremists. Officials and politicians saw it as a quick way of devolving responsibility and promoting engagement. However, realising the idea has proven far more controversial than they could have imagined. For those community members involved, many have not been given the autonomy and resources they had hoped for. Dissatisfaction arising from this doesn't mean current practice is entirely wrong but that such views on both sides, in retrospect, were naive.

Government funding has to come with strings attached. These strings ensure safety, accountability and value for money. Further, Prevent is a new programme of work, related to other areas of social policy but with an array of unique risks that dictate precautions. For instance, the idea that the government could provide funding to an organisation dealing with potential violent extremists without performing any security checks is simply unrealistic. There must be mechanisms to ensure the safety of those in that organisation and the wider public and this means that information has to be shared between the community and police. What if an individual was already involved in a terrorist plot. Or if their departure for international training or violent action against UK forces abroad was imminent. A terrorist attack by an individual who had been involved in a government-funded Prevent project would be a major scandal. Similarly, the death abroad of an individual, potentially at the hands of UK forces, would have serious consequences and government is obliged to mitigate such risks.

This is the sphere within which Prevent operates. In some cases, Prevent should engage community partners to provide viable alternatives to criminal justice approaches, for example, as an alternative to prosecution under legislation governing the 'glorification of' or 'acts preparatory to' terrorism. This involves risks that have to be managed. Information passed to the police is by its nature intelligence but fundamentally, 'intelligence' is not a pejorative term and in such situations, the process of passing information is vital for all involved.

Much of the relationship building between police, local authorities and community members has been productive and is about developing trust to a point where risks can be avoided. The accusation that Prevent is a systematic intelligence gathering programme is simply untrue. There are, however, problems and the government must take action to bolster the credibility of Prevent engagement.

The price of community engagement

There are difficult issues around the holding of information relating to those who pass through Prevent projects. This is a genuine dilemma for police. Even where there is no evidence of wrongdoing, should information relating to an individual brought to their attention,  be retained? It is easy to see how this could be regarded as valuable. If, for example, the individual relocated within the country or repeatedly came to the attention of the police due to their violent views, then a more accurate pattern of behaviour could be established and the risks better assessed. However, this is where the line needs to be drawn. The police and other agencies cannot have their cake and eat it.

The price of community engagement is strict limits and controls over the use of personal information. In my own research experience, this is the only way to build trust and most community members and many police officers and officials involved in Prevent understand this well. Clearly, however, some do not, and they need to have their information handling processes dictated to them unequivocally. This may have to mean fighting off those agencies keen to exploit this information. Intelligence requirements in the use of personal information obtained through Prevent must be about safety; wherever they are not, this use should cease.

Excessive secrecy and a substantial failure to communicate the programme effectively are major failings on the part of ministers and officials. This has persisted for so long that negativity has become the common thread in highly charged public commentary on Prevent.  Ingrained scepticism and vested interests in the press and public who react against counter-terrorism policy in general have unduly intimidated paranoid minsters. Quite what the Government's Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) has been doing to help coherent communication of the government's policy in this area is unknown, but it has been ineffective.

A call for action

There is an urgent need for ministers and officials to take decisions and provide clarity in defence of Prevent. Only this will avoid a terminal decline in activity that is building unprecedented positive contacts between local government, police and community members. Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones' suggestion that Prevent become a wider social cohesion programme risks confusing further rather than simplifying the agenda and whilst every effort needs to be made to avoid stigmatising any particular community, Prevent must necessarily be focused on where problems exist.

In doing this, the government will need to insist on separating Prevent and intelligence gathering functions and overcome the secrecy and caution that determines its inability to communicate effectively on this issue. It must guarantee that information is only collected in the course of Prevent activity to protect the safety of those involved. To do otherwise risks destroying not just Prevent but all of the productive relationships and good work underway in its name.

Garry Hindle is the head of Security and Counter-terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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