The assassination of British lawmaker David Amess has reignited concerns about a government program aimed at preventing at-risk young people from becoming radicalized, with critics claiming that urgent changes are required to ensure its success.
Soon after Amess was stabbed to death Friday afternoon, reports in the British media surfaced that the man arrested had been referred to the Prevent program several years ago but was not currently on the security service’s counter-terrorism watchlist. The suspect is being held on suspicion of murder under the Terrorism Act, and police believe he may have had a “motivation linked to Islamist extremism.”
Under Prevent, Britons are asked to report anyone they suspect is on the verge of becoming radicalized so that the individual can receive assistance. The hope is that early intervention will aid in the prevention of terrorist attacks. Teachers, prison officers, and local government agencies are required by law to make such referrals, but anyone can.
However, the program, which was conceived in the years following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, has been repeatedly criticized since it was expanded in the aftermath of the deadly London transport network bombings in 2005. Its detractors claim that it is ineffective and unfairly targets Muslim communities.
After 36 people were killed in four terror attacks, including the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, an independent review of Prevent was launched in 2018, but no conclusions have been released.
The success of such programs is difficult to assess because their failures are widely publicized, but their successes are nearly impossible to count. Experts say Prevent could do better, including working more closely with communities to build trust and encourage people to use its services.
As it stands, the program was conceived primarily as a police program, according to Neumann. Because of their ties to the police, family members find it difficult to refer people, even if they are concerned about radicalization. In contrast, he claims that some other European countries have relied on community-led independent initiatives.
De-radicalization programs in Belgium are much more regional and local than national. This is due in part to the country’s decentralized government, but focusing on the local level is also thought to help the programs counter the phenomenon as quickly as possible.
Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland agreed that the program must go beyond policing. He believes it should encourage far more cooperation among police, community groups, schools, and the health care system in order to facilitate information sharing and effective intervention.
When people make reports to Prevent, they are initially screened by police, and those who are genuinely at risk of radicalization are referred to a local panel for review. If a panel determines that additional assistance is required, it is expected to create an individual aid package that may include things like education and employment assistance, as well as mentoring.
According to the most recent government statistics, 6,297 people were referred to Prevent in the 12 months ending March 2020, a 10% increase over the previous year. Less than a quarter of these were referred to a local panel, with 697 receiving additional assistance.
One persistent criticism leveled at Prevent is that it amounted to spying on Muslim communities. The program’s history is one of its flaws. It began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when policymakers were preoccupied with terrorism perpetrated by Islamic extremists. While rightwing extremists are becoming more of a threat, critics believe Prevent is still overly focused on the Muslim community. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have long criticized the program.
According to the Home Office, of the 697 people who were offered support packages by local Prevent panels, 43 percent were referred due to concerns about far-right radicalization and 30 percent were linked to Islamic extremism.
The government promised an independent review of Prevent in February 2019, but it was pushed back when the first person named to lead the inquiry was forced to resign due to concerns about his objectivity. Work resumed in January after a new leader was appointed.
The review is intended to determine whether Prevent is effective and what else can be done to protect people from extremists’ influence. There is no set date for when its findings will be made public.