Authorities continue to misunderstand and fail to recognize Islamist radicalization, a review of Prevent, Britain’s counter-extremism program, has found. But while many of the published recommendations are encouraging, the government’s review fails to grasp the counter-Islamist measures needed more broadly.
In his government-commissioned report, published on February 8, William Shawcross, the former head of Britain’s Charity Commission, warns that the UK’s Prevent program must “return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.”
The review found that Prevent is “out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system.” Despite “80% of the Counter Terrorism Police network’s live investigations” focusing on Islamism, “only 22% of Prevent referrals for the year 2020-21 concerned Islamism.”
Shawcross warns of double standards. In contrast to threats posed by the “Extreme Right-Wing, … with Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism.”
The review insists an urgent expanded focus be placed on these non-violent Islamist forces: “Challenging extremist ideology should not be limited to proscribed organisations but should also cover domestic extremists operating below the terrorism threshold who can create an environment conducive to terrorism.”
Because the reality of Islamist ideology is underplayed or ignored, in favor of an over-focus on issues such as mental health, not only are authorities missing the warning signs of Islamist radicalization, Shawcross warns, but graduates of the UK government’s de-radicalization effort, the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP), have nonetheless subsequently committed terrorist attacks.
The review calls for a complete overhaul in the way Prevent understands extremism and radicalization, as well as the means by which counter-extremism efforts are delivered.
The Shawcross review includes a long list of recommendations for the UK government to adopt, all of which have now been accepted by Britain’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman.
Primarily, Shawcross urges national and local government officials to pursue an “improved understanding of ideological threats” that includes far “greater expertise and knowledge about Islamist extremism, and this should extend beyond the ideologies of overseas jihadist organisations to extremist networks in the UK.”
Shawcross explicitly names a number of British Islamists in his report. These include Khatme Nubuwwat, a Pakistani movement with outposts in the UK, which is dedicated to the eradication of the minority Ahmadiyyah Muslim sect. Other British Islamist groups named include Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Iranian regime-linked Islamic Human Rights Commission and the Salafi activist group CAGE.
Shawcross also notes British Muslim groups funded under the Prevent program have themselves been avid promoters of extremism. For instance, Musharraf Hussain, the leader of a prominent Barelvi organization, was “found to have publicly made statements in 2021 that were sympathetic to the Taliban, and referred to militant Islamist groups – whose military wings were proscribed in the UK – as “so-called ‘terrorists’ of the legitimate resistance groups.”
Much of the UK government review echoes recommendations made by the Middle East Forum in 2020, which denounced the “nonsensical … conviction, peddled by CVE advocates around the world, that there is no link between ideology and ideological violence.”
An MEF report notes that “without fighting back against the underlying ideology driving radicalization itself,” counter-extremism efforts will be “futile.”
As with the Prevent review, the MEF report also urged policymakers to reduce the focus on “de-radicalization,” to overcome any fear over naming Islamism as a clear and present danger, to recognize the role played by nonviolent Islamism in the radicalization “conveyor belt,” and to attack Islamism itself, rather than its eventual, violent symptoms.
Citing similarities between the U.K. and U.S. approaches to counter-extremism, and identifying instances in the United States in which Islamists had also been funded with counter-extremism monies, the Forum concluded that the counter-extremism industry (CVE), currently “legitimizes Islamists as representatives of Western Muslim communities, thus sidelining genuine moderates. CVE perpetuates radicalization by ignoring or even rewarding the extremists that contribute to the threat.”
A number of the MEF’s most important recommendations, however, have not been adopted. The Forum urged policymakers and law enforcement to understand the true range of ideas and sects within Western Islam and Islamism by mapping Western Islamist forces and the extent of their control of Western Muslim institutions.
Noting that “there is no American Muslim community; but there are many communities” there is thus “no single group, or collection of groups, that can serve as a government partner for counterextremism programs and somehow represent the gamut of Western Islam.”
It is, MEF concluded, only by “delineating Western Islam into its competing movements and sects – both good and bad – that allies can be found and extremists can be challenged.”
The Shawcross review, in contrast, appears to disregard the diversity and politics of Islamism, focusing primarily on Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood threats, while ignoring the relevance of foreign influence over Western Islamism and failing to mention at all the two Islamist movements that exert by far the greatest influence over British Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deobandi movement.
The review also neglects to offer adequate criteria for government to decide on its Muslim partners, risking yet additional embrace of Islamist partners – despite warnings expressed in previous governmental inquiries, and even by the Prime Minister, over this risk.
More broadly, Shawcross’s recommendations largely lack any suggestion of preemptive actions that could be taken to limit the future threat of Islamism more broadly.
In its own report, MEF recommends 16 measures that governments should be pursuing, such as more aggressively shutting down Islamist groups that exploit the charitable infrastructure to advance extremism and launder funds; or limiting the patronage and support of “foreign Islamist regimes – such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran – over domestic Islamist networks.”
The British government appears keen to adopt Shawcross’s recommendations, with the Home Secretary promising that “Prevent will recalibrate its focus towards tackling the ideological drivers of radicalisation over wider issues, including mental health.”
In the United States, no explicit counter-Islamism program exists.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.