Tackling the threat of terror together

By Mark Conrad | 11 September 2018

It’s easy to criticise Prevent without having seen the excellent safeguarding work undertaken at local level.

The Home Office’s controversial anti-radicalisation strategy – one of the four pillars of the £2bn annual counter-terrorism (CONTEST) programme – has been met with fierce criticism since it was introduced in 2003 and intermittently revised following the 2005 London bombings.

Prevent’s purpose is to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism – by countering conflicting ideologies and challenging those who promote them; supporting individuals who are vulnerable to becoming radicalised; and working with institutions where a risk of radicalisation exists.

But it’s important to remember this key strand of CONTEST is a safeguarding policy that operates in the non-criminal space. Following the introduction of a legal duty in 2015 hundreds of thousands of public servants are now obliged to refer individuals perceived to be at risk of radicalisation.

Many authorities, including Birmingham City Council, Britain’s largest, have introduced mandatory training programmes for frontline staff.

There were some 6,093 referrals in 2017/18, including those directly from the public. While all referrals are initially assessed for imminent threats by police forces, core Prevent work is increasingly overseen by local authorities and their partners.

Criticisms have centred on claims the strategy is too heavily focused on ethnic minorities – particularly Muslims – and requires communities and public servants to ‘spy’ on individuals not necessarily involved in criminal activity.

Such is the sensitivity that Kashan Amar from the Safe Space Group (SSG), which provides safeguarding training including specialist Prevent-linked courses, said some practitioners are ‘reluctant’ to publicise their association with Prevent ‘for fear of boycott activity’.

Colvin White, Birmingham City Council's Prevent family support officer, said negative perceptions of Prevent have even led some staff to be ‘apprehensive’ about Prevent training.

Some, he revealed, worry that once trained they will be seen by critics ‘as an extension of the security services’ – but he stresses that his, and other, senior staff focus on challenging these perceptions.

Knee-jerk critiques, however, can also draw on extreme examples of alleged local policy failure – such as those relating to the Parsons Green tube bomber, Ahmed Hassan. It is, for example, debatable whether Mr Hassan was ever fully engaged with the voluntary Prevent strategy where he lived in Surrey.

Furthermore, where the strategy is successful – and four-fifths of interventions, once completed, require no further action – Prevent staff are often unable to laud its effectiveness. Those successfully de-radicalised or prevented from taking a radical or extremist path are unlikely to talk about it. Rightly, the identities of those within the programme remain confidential.

And it only takes one high-profile failure among the thousands of referrals, to lead some to dismiss the programme as ineffective. The stakes are high.

Earlier this summer, home secretary Sajid Javid announced reforms to CONTEST aimed at keeping pace with the fast-changing nature of terror threats – such as the speed with which some terror plots now move from planning stage to execution.

The Home Office announced that councils and their partners would assume even more responsibility for the Prevent strand, in particular the multi-agency ‘Channel Panel’ process in England and Wales, which determines and manages specialist support for individuals deemed most at risk of radicalisation.

Councils have long chaired Channel Panels, but police forces previously administered them and controlled budgets. Mr Javid wants to make the police less visible across Prevent, though they will remain crucial partners. This is in part to ease concerns about police surveillance within sceptical communities. It is also designed to free up policing resources for other strands of CONTEST which deal with more immediate threats: Pursue, Protect and Prepare.

Other reforms can be summarised as measures designed to ‘de-securitise’ the secretive Channel process. Channel is a multi-agency process and can involve partners from local authorities, police, education, health providers, mental health organisations and others. Ideological mentoring is common.

It works in similar ways to other interventionist safeguarding programmes – such as those designed to tackle gangs, drugs or sexual abuse.

So the number of public sector staff who need training in Prevent work, as well as access to reliable information, has grown considerably in recent years. Training is provided by a mixture of experienced practitioners or, increasingly, by reformed ex-radicals or extremists who can provide real-life insight.

Typical Prevent-linked courses cover subjects such as social media use, radicalisation drivers, Far-right ideology, mental health and radicalisation, and foreign policy and grievances.

The MJ was recently invited to attend a simulated Channel Panel meeting at which a group of children’s services professionals and local authority-related youth workers from the West Midlands were tasked with learning how to spot signs of radicalisation and formulate programmes of support to those at risk.

The West Midlands accounted for the third highest number of referrals to Channel Panels in 2015/16 – 768. Of these, 50 people received a comprehensive system of support on a voluntary basis.

The idea of the training exercise was, as best as possible, to simulate real-life Channel Panel decision-making and to improve participants’ assessment skills.

As the pressure in the room intensified, Mr Amar, who led the training, informed us that much of the anonymised information came from real-life Prevent cases.

With the room divided into three groups, it was also an opportunity to see how diverse groups of professionals analyse and interpret identical intelligence, and respond by suggesting very different support programmes and interventions.

The case in question centred around a 15-year-old white female, ‘Leanne’. She came from a broken home and was referred to Prevent by her school’s designated safeguarding lead following concerns about her interest in Right-wing propaganda and her use of social media.

As participants explained, ‘Leanne’s’ case is particularly pertinent. While many critics associate Prevent with tackling radical Islam, recent years have seen a rise in the number of referrals linked to Right-wing extremism.

The latest Home Office data shows that four out of the 25 terror plots foiled by police or intelligence services since 2017 involved the Far-right. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a Far-right sympathiser and the corrosive post-Brexit immigration debate have intensified concerns. In 2015/16, just over a quarter of all people supported under Channel were the result of Right-wing concerns – but in 2016/17 that figure increased to more than a third.

During the exercise, there were some obvious early signs of ‘Leanne’s’ vulnerabilities, and her potential radicalisation: an interest in neo-Nazi propaganda and the violent ideologies of Far-right groups. But what was fascinating was how each professional around the table assessed (and scored) the exact level of risk posed depending on their specific role, skills, experience and personal views.

It isn’t enough for Prevent professionals to spot potential signs of radicalism – they also have to weigh up whether a whole range of complex non-criminal behaviours are simply the sign of a lost soul unlikely to take matters into their own hands, or whether individuals have the capacity and means to progress towards extremism or terrorism.

To put this in context, Prevent insiders told The MJ that Ahmed Hassan, for example, made all the right noises about the programme during discussions with officials prior to the Parsons Green incident. He told officials what they wanted to hear. He was clever, and masked his behaviours and intentions. In those circumstances, how do officials spot the true threat posed?

It is possible, of course, and few doubt that mistakes were made in the Parsons Green case. I was surprised and reassured to witness just how shrewd officials in the West Midlands were when interpreting more subtle signs of risk during the exercise. But Prevent training is not an exact science.

One may be tempted to think that an experienced social worker who has dealt with troubled school children exhibiting extreme and complex behaviours would be adept at spotting signs of radicalisation among the drinking, truancy, anti-social behaviour and drug dependency.

But what the Channel exercise showed is that, sometimes, such officers have a very different threshold for what they consider ‘normal’ behaviour. One social worker I sat alongside repeatedly suggested she may not have referred ‘Leanne’ to Prevent – citing examples of children she had dealt with who exhibited similar, but not extremist, values and behaviours.

It was also interesting how the group’s view of ‘Leanne’ and her vulnerabilities or threats changed with the more information we received. Each ‘feed’, or report, handed to the group related to one of the multi-agency partners (MAPs) involved in assessing Prevent risks through Channel Panels. These included schools, children’s and social services departments, doctors, prison and probation services, the police and even mental health trusts.

What became clear is the decisions facing Prevent professionals are not only difficult and marginal – involving being able to spot and correctly interpret subtle changes in an individual’s behaviour and associations – but how they need to be informed by a wide range of public bodies and partners.

Some MAPs provided almost no information on ‘Leanne’ that would have raised radicalisation concerns, while others gradually provided pieces of a jigsaw that helped trained staff make rational decisions about a detailed programme of support for somebody we came to understand as both vulnerable and potentially dangerous.

Key information about the risk or threat of radicalisation often comes from unexpected quarters or MAPs. In ‘Leanne’s’ case , the clearest evidence of the threat she posed emerged following an assessment of her relationship with a 10-year-old cousin who had separately got into trouble for hacking computers at school.

In this case, interviews with a second group of social services professionals revealed ‘Leanne’ encouraged her cousin to hack computers and directly target Muslim students with hate mail and more. An inappropriate relationship with an older uncle also led practitioners to fear ‘Leanne’ had been groomed.

Unless the large number of professionals involved in preparing Prevent assessments had shared appropriate information, many of these jigsaw pieces could have gone unnoticed.

As Colvin White told The MJ, the quality of post-Channel assessment support offered by councils and partners has also significantly improved as the Prevent strategy has matured. He explained: ‘The type of support available is wide-ranging, and can include help with education or career advice, dealing with mental health or emotional health issues, and theological and ideological mentoring.

‘Specialist Home Office-approved mentors are engaged to carry out work challenging extremist narratives – including individual intervention providers and group work.’

Building a comprehensive, wider picture of the network of the individuals around people referred to Prevent has, Whitehall and police sources say, often been the difference in creating an effective intervention and programme of support or de-radicalisation.

But in this environment, it is easy to understand how a patchwork of necessarily bespoke and locally-delivered Prevent programmes, involving a wide range of staff, will lead to variations in local expertise, priorities or outcomes.

Standardising core training and exposing staff to all key considerations – however often they will draw on the information – becomes key. Mr Amar describes this process as ‘reducing misunderstanding that surrounds the [Prevent] Duty’.

If he has one criticism of the current regime, he adds, it is that the core half-day training programmes may not provide sufficient time to discuss and debate issues raised by practitioners.

‘Trainees usually have many questions around thresholds and vulnerability assessments,’ he told The MJ.

But the judgements of officials subject to training appear to be increasingly effective. In 2015/16 the number of individuals referred to Prevent who went on to be discussed at Channel increased to 19% from 14% the previous year.

Around 29% of all cases referred to Channel went on to receive an intensive programme of support.

The Home Office, local authorities and other partners are further seeking to challenge myths and improve public and community support for Prevent, by opening up aspects of the strategy to greater scrutiny.

This Channel ‘Positive Messaging Campaign’ includes plans to allow more stakeholders to participate in mock Channel Panel meetings. Mr Amar revealed that where individuals who were ‘anti Prevent’ had witnessed the Channel risk assessment process, significant improvements in how the wider Prevent strategy is perceived had followed. This includes a 28% reduction in those who believe that the programme is disproportionately focused on Muslims.

The Home Office intends to go further with its transparency-based reforms. Mr Javid has also signed-off plans to allow police and – for the first time – the intelligence services MI5 and MI6 to share more previously restricted information with Prevent teams, including local authority staff.

This includes plans to declassify information on some of the 20,000 individuals considered by the Home Office as ‘subjects of concern’, as well as individuals returning to the UK from higher-risk zones overseas.

Hundreds more British citizens are expected to return from conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Syria in coming years, while the former head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terror command, Richard Walton, recently warned hundreds of prisoners convicted of terror offences will soon be released back into UK communities.

Councils and their partners have already been asked to provide new support for ex-terrorists through Channel-type programmes. All the more reason to maintain the improvement in Prevent training and community engagement.

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