More and more young men and women are travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq, radicalised by extremist propaganda on the Internet. The threat of them returning and carrying out an attack in this country is very real.
But how do we stop young people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism? It is the greatest security challenge we face in this country today.
The Government has grappled with this question ever since the 7/7 attacks. Back then, the focus was on community engagement.
Through the Prevent Strategy, community and faith leaders were empowered to lead “de-radicalisation” to give young people a space to discuss values and ideas to counter extremist ideology.
Yet doubts over the impact of these projects, and the increasing threat level, saw the Government shift focus to explicitly preventing violent extremism. Greater power was handed to the police and local councils.
This change wasn’t without controversy. The police were accused of heavy-handedness and spying. Community engagement work was thought by some to be a guise for counter-terrorism work.
At the same time, councils were criticised for allowing public money to be diverted to groups accused of using it to fund extremists.
Faced with these challenges, the Government introduced “explicit controls” to stop public money being given to extremist groups. However, shaking off the perception that the work was not police-run has been harder.
Muslim communities continue to feel stigmatised; many mistrust the police and do not want to engage with a programme they see as intrusive and discriminatory.
The Government has recently made it a statutory duty for schools, nurseries, hospitals, universities, and prisons to challenge extremist ideas.
At the same time, new counter-extremism measures have been suggested by the Home Secretary, including banning orders for extremist organisations using hate speech in public places.
These measures raise difficult questions:
- Do public organisations have the capacity to carry out this new duty?
- Where do we draw the line on hate speech?
- How do we decide who is extremist?
Getting a picture of how work is carried out across London will be central to our investigation. We have already heard from a number of boroughs about the work they do. But overall there is a lack of public information and understanding about the Prevent Strategy.
This can’t be good.
To regain trust with communities, Government must be open and more transparent to allow us to understand the nature of the threat and give us the tools to discuss these matters openly.
And with the threat changing we may need to think differently about how we carry out this work. At present, London is divided into priority and non-priority areas for counter-extremist work. Considering young people are increasingly being radicalised on the internet, we need to find ways to counter the extremist narrative on the Internet.
Shamima Begum, one of the young women from east London who recently travelled to Syria, followed 74 Twitter accounts overwhelmingly to do with Islam, and used Twitter to contact a go-between in the region.
There are many issues we will explore over the coming months.
We will hear from a range of different guests, including the Met Police, MOPAC, academics and community groups. We also want to hear your views.
- Do you have any experience of Prevent Strategy activities in your local area?
- What has worked and what hasn’t?
- And how would you like to see the Prevent Strategy delivered in the future?
Please send your experiences/submissions to Matt Bailey, Assistant Scrutiny Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joanne McCartney is Chair of the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, stay up to date with the Assembly’s work via @londonassembly.