Comment:The new 2018 CONTEST strategy. The devil in the detail?

All eyes interested in matters of security and cohesion will have no doubt devoured the 95 pages of the British government’s fourth iteration of CONTEST, its counter terrorism strategy, launched yesterday by the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Billed as ‘a new, more agile, flexible and co-ordinated approach designed to better prevent, detect and disrupt terrorist attacks, and where attacks get through, to limit the impact and recover swiftly’ it is set against a range of new legislative measures:

  • to increase sentencing for terrorism offences,
  • prosecute crimes committed abroad in UK courts,
  • and tackle online radicalisation including repeated ‘viewing of streamed video content’ of extremist material online.

For those of us engaged with counter terrorism as a backdrop to our work – for ConnectFutures building resilience to exploitation, violence and extremism – analysing the updated strategy, the speeches, and all the accompanying commentary is crucial and welcome, as it is likely to frame policy and practice impacting on communities, young people and practitioners for years to come.

At ConnectFutures, we believe there are a number of interesting positive additions – explicit reference to increased scrutiny, transparency and oversight is particularly striking, alongside a commitment to improve, ‘engage extensively’ and ‘listen and respond’.

These are key areas that ConnectFutures amongst numerous others have called for as fundamental to effective partnership-building with communities and practitioners working to prevent and counter violent extremism. But this promise of increased transparency and scrutiny also creates a number of binds.

Information sharing

A long term criticism of counter-terrorism approaches has been the lack of communication between policy makers, practitioners and the public. This appears to have been addressed by reference to multi-agency information sharing with a ‘broader range of partners’ including local authorities. Yet this also raises questions of proportionality and privacy. If prevention and disruption of violence may be improved by greater sharing of intelligence by the security services, how will this be balanced with the privacy and security of individuals who have been noted by intelligence agencies as potential recipients of intervention and/or preventative measures – who by definition have not committed any offence? How will data be shared, stored and deleted? If an individual is identified, will they be notified, particularly as an individual’s engagement with Prevent remains voluntary? How might these processes involving the sharing of intelligence with wider partners be independently scrutinised? How will the integration of state and human security be realised? In effect, how will trust and confidence be embedded systematically?

Technology and social media companies

This connects to the references to online actions and work with the private sector, including technology companies. The development of tech to remove extremist content and legislation to punish those viewing it sound like a no-brainer, but once more the practical implications are more messy. The removal of content doesn’t stem its creation, nor the susceptibility of vulnerable people to online narratives. And those vulnerable to online narratives, whose mental fixation may drive obsessive consumption of violent online material may be disproportionally punished in comparison to the Machiavellian recruiter whose evasive skills and knowledge of the law drive a more subtle but deadly set of actions?  Instead of censorship and a ‘just say no’ messaging, where are the tech orientated innovations that engage people? How might we create credible, trusted ways for tech companies and the public to work together to tackle extremism and exploitation?

Desistance and Disengagement programme

Another ongoing critique has been the gap between Prevent and Pursue, where those already holding violent extremist views – including individuals serving prison sentences for terrorism offences – were not being effectively engaged. This has been addressed by reference to a pilot, the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which is being developed to ‘reduce the risk from terrorism through rehabilitation and reintegration’. Again, scrutiny and measurements of success will be crucial to public trust, against an international backdrop of notoriously challenging ‘de-radicalisation’ programmes too often shrouded in secrecy. How will we know if the initial pilots have worked. Who is referred on the programme and what criterial will have been set?  Will people be able to find jobs if their names may appear on a record?  How will we know a successful disengagement  programme has occurred?

Communities – going beyond just one community to engage on far right extremism

We believe, the promises to engage and open up through transparency and communication remain at times hampered by a top down strategy that still reverts to siloed work. If bottom up, inclusive approaches are truly intended, there are challenges waiting to be embraced. Who, beyond the current raft of politicians and officials, and the excellent but individual Independent Reviewer of terror legislation will be allowed to do all this scrutinising? And if extensive engagement, listening and responding are explicit elements designed not only to include, but improve, will the difficult,  uncomfortable conversations with communities – including women (!)  and especially younger people, who may be angry, hurt or mistrustful of authority, be part of the process too? How are communities not just understood as the Muslim community? As  discussed in our latest blog “ If there is Muslim community, is there a far right community when it comes to preventing extremism”, how will these ideas work on the ground with all our communities ?  As the strategy itself highlights it is trust-building and partnership across communities, and real-life practical action that will increase our security.

As with any strategy, the devil will be in the detail and in the application of policy in practice.

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Comment: A cautious welcome to the Commission for Countering Extremism and its new team of Experts – with some caveats.

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