Between intelligence-gathering and social engineering

Can government legitimately mingle its social interventions with intelligence-gathering, as the UK's Prevent counter-terrorism strategy stands accused of doing?

By Dr Marie Breen-Smyth for

The government's Prevent programme, the fifth pillar of its CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, has elicited intense controversy and debate into its merits and shortcomings. The latest intervention to the argument  comes from Spooked, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) report authored by Arun Kundnani which undertakes an evaluation of the Prevent programme.

The report itself has generated controversy as it accuses Prevent of a lack of transparency and accountability, and identifies a failure to engage local people. According to Kundnani, the voluntary sector organisations access certain resources only if they sign up to Prevent, that local authorities have been pressurised into participating in the programme, which is targeted at Muslim communities, and this focus on a single group creates a suspect community of Muslims. The report alleges that one kind of Muslim is favoured over another on the assumption that the favoured one is less 'radical' than the less favoured one, and this is discriminatory.

Prevent has also attracted criticism for its tendency in some locations to rely on Salafi groups, based on the perception that Salafis are the only ones who can engage with 'extremists'. Most seriously, the IRR report points to the embedding of counter-terrorism police within local community services within Prevent, and how voluntary sector organisations and teachers, youth and community workers and cultural workers are expected or required to provide information to the police, in contradiction to their professional requirements of confidentiality, thus damaging their relationships of trust with local communities.

This provision of information goes beyond the requirement to pass to the police any suspicions about involvement in terrorist activity, according to a report in the Guardian, which most professional codes of ethics would support. Rather this is the routine handing over of sensitive personal information, such as sexual activity about programme participants who are not suspected of any crime. Liberty has condemned this as an affront to civil liberties. On the other hand, the Quilliam Foundation has described Prevent's intelligence gathering as 'good and right.'

Alienating communities

Immediate analysis of Kundnani's report asserts that he has misunderstood the role of intelligence in Prevent, and that he fails to recognise the positive work being done in Prevent. Garry Hindle, RUSI's Head of Security and Counter-Terrorism, points to the 2006 Demos report Bringing it Home, which advocated a community-based approach to counter-terrorism as the origin of Prevent. However, as he has alluded to, there seems to be some marked differences between the actuality of Prevent and the approach advocated in that original Demos report.

For example, the original Demos report recommends that a community-based approach to counter-terrorism should be based on four principles, the third of which is that 'the government must make the policy-making process as transparent and accountable as possible, opening up decision-making processes and engaging on issues where there is political discontent' and fourth, that 'the government must get over its hang-ups about responding to the grievances of the (sic) Muslim community. In many instances they are well founded and deserve to be recognised'. The report goes on to suggest a six part strategy that includes opening up 'the foreign policy-making process to greater scrutiny and provide opportunities for input from all parts of British communities.'

According to Kundnani's report, those within Prevent who criticise the government risk losing funding and being labelled as an 'extremist', whilst those who support the government are rewarded. Prevent poses the solution to terrorism as winning a 'battle of ideas' in which promulgating  'British values' and 'moderate Islam' is essential to national security, ruling out multiculturalism. In relation to the grievances held by communities, the report finds that Prevent tends to manage perceptions of grievances rather than address them.

According to Kundnani, this atmosphere prevents any meaningful engagement with young people who are critical of government, and the emphasis within Prevent is on de-politicising young people rather than engaging with them on the political level, with the implication that democratic debate is pointless. A respondent from the Midlands involved in Prevent told Kundnani: 'A good organisation should be able to say to young people, 'What are your feelings on the Middle East?' without putting them in a corner as 'extremists'. My concern about the current approach is the emphasis on depoliticisiation. Actually, you should want to politicise young Muslims, to get them to engage democratically and have a voice.' Another respondent said: 'The idea of legimate dissent is being restricted, There is an idea of a model Muslim. It seems to be less about preventing violence and more about a palatable Muslim community.'

Elsewhere respondents report the attitude of some young people to Prevent: 'Young people have responded to these projects with a large degree of animosity. There is actually a stigma that is now attached to those that accept Prevent funding, that it is dirty money. But money talks at the end of the day. We have worked on numerous Prevent projects in the past but we are going to consciously move away from Prevent now because we have become increasingly unhappy with the wider agenda. We know that now we're stopping, we will suffer financially. We will lose about forty per cent of our income but there are more important things than money'.

If all this is true, then Prevent is hardly operating in the spirit of the original Demos vision of community-based counter-terrorism strategies. Indeed, Prevent stands accused of alienating the very people they need to win over, and undermining progressive elements that had been developed in previous cross-community work.

Responding to Kundnani's criticisms, Garry Hindle in fact agrees that 'excessive secrecy and a substantial failure to communicate the programme effectively are major failings on the part of ministers and officials'.  Although he begins by accusing Kundnani of 'misunderstanding the role of intelligence in Prevent' he finishes by calling for a separation of intelligence-gathering functions from  Prevent, otherwise, he worries, Prevent risks being destroyed. 

Ineffective intelligence-gathering

So can government legitimately mingle its social interventions with intelligence-gathering, as Prevent stands accused of doing? Increasingly, high levels of invasion of privacy are tolerated in Britain, and in an increasingly securitised mindset, those resisting such invasions fall under suspicion, on the basis that if you have nothing to hide, then you should not fear the authorities holding information on you.

However, much depends on the relationship between the state and the local population. Where there is mutual distrust and suspicion, intelligence-gathering and subversion/resistance seem inevitable. And such mutual distrust pertains in the relationship between the British state and those British citizens with an understanding of the abuses and miscarriages of justice that can take place, amongst whom we can count many from ethnic minority populations including British Muslims.

Setting aside the alienating effect of the controversy surrounding it, is such intelligence gathering within Prevent likely to bear fruit as a counter-terrorism strategy? Certainly, if it is only likely yield is low-grade intelligence, then its effectiveness must be in doubt. In Northern Ireland, the security forces amassed masses of low-grade intelligence about what went on in 'suspect communities'. Many reams of intercept and other material were accumulated, and perhaps to this day languishes in some backroom, never having been reviewed for that nugget of important information buried amidst the rafts of trivia and inconsequence.

The authorities possessed intelligence material before the 1998 Real IRA Omagh bombing, but did not use it. Similarly, intelligence on the bombers was in the hands of the security forces before the World Trade Center attack on 11 September 2001, but they saw it as insignificant. Once collected, the significance of such intelligence can often only be perceived with clairvoyance, hence it is often recognised only in hindsight.

What is needed is 'smart' intelligence. This would seem to entail targeting intelligence-gathering somewhat more narrowly on those who one might reasonably suspect of violent intent. That would rule out targeting an entire sub-set of the population, on grounds of efficiency, if not expense. It might also help to avoid some of the human rights problems, not to mention the creation of a suspect community. Somehow, the controversy surrounding Prevent does not put one in mind of smartness.

It seems that all the commentators, even the government's own evaluators agree that there are substantial problems.

Dr Marie Breen-Smyth is Director of the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence (CSRV) at Aberystwyth University.

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



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