Anthony Tucker-Jones reports on the Government’s latest efforts to save the country’s youth from extremists and asks are they counterproductive
The media would have us believe the new ‘enemy within’ is our Muslim school children and university students. Such a generalised approach is understandably insulting to the vast majority of Britain’s law abiding Muslim communities. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth to this because a tiny minority of students are susceptible to militant Islamist doctrine, which brands the West responsible for all the Muslim world’s problems. The British Government shares the media’s view as it struggles to stem the flow of young recruits, who have become convinced their future should end in martyrdom.
Speaking at the Global Security summit in Slovakia in June, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that Muslim communities and internet service providers are not doing enough to counter the spread of Islamic State’s extremist ideology. This immediately brought criticism from those saying this did not recognise efforts already being made to tackle the problem. Nevertheless, this was in the month when Briton Talha Asmal became a suicide bomber in Iraq and his three sisters left Bradford and took their families to Syria.
David Cameron summed up the challenge facing the government when he said: “It is an Islamist extremist ideology, one that says the West is bad, democracy is wrong that women are inferior and homosexuality is evil. It says religious doctrine trumps the rule of law and caliphate trumps nation state and justifies violence in asserting itself and achieving its aims. The question is: how do people arrive at this world view?” The government points the finger at hate preachers and the internet.
Cameron feels more has to be done at grass roots level to prevent teenagers from becoming Islamic State fighters or wives. At the forefront of this effort are Britain’s universities, some of which have produced a steady stream of convicted terrorists. This is just part of the Government’s new measures that have a three track approach. First is to prevent radicalisation, second to prevent those radicalised from travelling and third to take steps against them once they have left. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that received royal assent in February underpin these measures.
This legislation according to the government ‘will disrupt the ability of people to travel abroad to engage in terrorist activity and then return to the UK… and combat the underlying ideology that feeds, supports and sanctions terrorism. Specifically the authorities can now seize a passport and prevent the departure or return of a British citizen.’
The latest Prevent Duty Guidance now makes it a legal requirement, under Section 29 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, to stop extremists radicalising students on campuses. Parliament approved in March the guidance issued under section 29 about how specified authorities are to comply with the Prevent Duty. In July four new pieces of guidance were issued for further and higher education institutions.
From 21 September 2015 universities and colleges will be legally required to put in place policies to prevent the radicalisation of their students on campus. This includes staff and student training, IT policies and welfare programmes to recognise and respond to attempts at radicalisation. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, as lead regulator, has been tasked with monitoring universities compliance with their new Prevent duties.
Banning hate preachers is one thing, but how universities will police what their students are watching on the internet is another matter altogether. While they may be able to protect their IT on campus, it is hard to see how they will dissuade students from accessing extremist literature on their own devices in the privacy of their own homes. Certainly universities and the NUS will not willingly become complicit tools of the security services.
Failure to play ball could lead to funding cuts and a court order. Such compliance should not be onerous and institutions already have a duty of care in terms of sex equality and human rights. It seems hard for the National Union of Students (NUS) to argue that universities do not have a duty to safeguard students from extremist ideas that seek to legitimise terrorism. This ultimately puts them and others in harm’s way. However, the NUS contend that this is an attack on freedom of speech and will stifle discourse on moderate and extremist Islamic views.
In response Universities Minister Jo Johnson wrote to the NUS saying: “It is my firm view that we all have a role to play in challenging extremist ideologies and protecting students on campus. Ultimately, the Prevent strategy is about protecting people from radicalisation. It is therefore disappointing to see overt opposition to the Prevent programme…”
Britain already has some of the toughest terrorism prevention controls in the democratic world. Over the last few years Prime Minister Cameron’s clarion call has been that it is essential we confront extremist ideology in “our communities, schools, prisons, Islamic centres or universities.” Despite cultural sensitivities, the Government’s Extremism Analysis Unit has been working hard to identify why a tiny minority of Muslim boys and girls are prepared to abandon their family, school and prospects to join Islamic State in the Middle East.
It is clear that the British Government is now ramping up its efforts to counter the threat posed by the radicalisation of British youths both home and abroad. There is a very good reason for this. Police figures indicate that a disproportionately high number of those arrested travelling to join jihadist groups in Iraq or Syria or for terrorist related offences are young people. They did not overnight suddenly become potential jihadists. According to the Government’s new Extremism Analysis Unit, last year British universities hosted at least 70 events involving hate speakers who expressed views contrary to British values. It is one thing to be highly critical of British foreign policy it is another to incite terrorist attacks by way of revenge.
Equally, abroad the Government has made it clear that siding with an ‘enemy’ that poses a clear threat to British national interests carries consequences. This summer two British nationals were killed in Syria by an RAF Reaper drone after it became known they were plotting attacks in the UK. At the same time the UN has slapped sanctions on four young British nationals in Syria, which has effectively exiled them.
In April just before the General Election, intersec reported (see Curing Prevent) that the UK’s existing controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy designed to tackle radicalisation is simply not effective. Young Muslims continue to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant Islamist organisations against the Assad regime as well as plotting attacks in the UK in increasing numbers.
Prevent has been dubbed a “toxic brand” and shortly after the election Prime Minister Cameron announced new powers stating that the UK has been a “passively tolerant society for too long”. The subtext of this being that freedom of speech should not be used as an excuse for the incitement of hatred and violence. These powers firmly place greater responsibility on the shoulders of Britain’s police, universities, the media regulator Ofcom and the Charity Commission.
The Government is pushing new plans to give Ofcom greater powers to stop the broadcasting of extremist messages. The intention is to prevent radicals being given a platform from which they can espouse their cause and justify their actions. This in part was driven by criticisms of the BBC Newsnight interview with radical Islamist activist Anjem Choudary, following the murder of Soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich two years ago. In the past a similar dilemma was faced when trying to report the IRA without being seen to legitimatise its cause. At the same time there is a move to give the charity commission more power to ‘root out charities who misappropriate funds towards extremism and terrorism.’
While the Government reasons its latest raft of measures are vital to project impressionable teenagers from a destructive ideology, libertarians argue these measures are eroding civil liberties. Those opposed to these measures fear they will undermine the freedom of speech, the freedom of choice, the freedom to travel and demonise the Muslim community. They argue, like the failed Communications and Data Bill, these measures are a threat to civil liberties, which are a cornerstone of the UK’s democracy.
There is a sense of Groundhog Day with the Government’s latest counter radicalisation proposals. They are a clear indicator that previous attempts to prevent Islamic radicalisation are failing a very small minority of British citizens. This was best exemplified by the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ schools scandal and the steady stream of very young British Muslim recruits going off to fight in Syria. Teenage hormones and a fiery religious doctrine can be a heady and seductive cocktail.
The Government has been critical of such institutions as the School or Oriental and African Studies and Kingston University which have hosted events that could be construed as recruiting opportunities for extremists. Prime Minister Cameron is firmly of the view that Britain’s universities and media could and should be doing more to head off the radicalisation of vulnerable individuals. Others are of the view that this smacks of Big Brother and is resulting in yet greater state oversight of institutions that are traditionally held up as beacons of the freedom of speech.
Such arguments aside there is concern that the use of temporary exclusion orders to stop British jihadists returning to the UK will effectively exile them. There have been reports of a culture clash between Islamic state and its foreign fighters. Among the foreign fighters there are divisions between European and Arab volunteers. Imram Hawaja a British fighter faked his own death and fled Syria only to end up with a five-year sentence in a British prison.
Exclusion sends a firm message to would-be jihadists considering travelling abroad. However, it closes any prospect of reconciliation and could prove counter-productive in the long run. Potential would-be home-grown extremists may decide that it is simply easier to launch attacks at home if they are not permitted to travel abroad to support their chosen cause. Just how effective the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 will be remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome it will not be a quick fix to saving a tiny minority of the UK’s disaffected Muslim youth prepared to embark on holy war.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is intersec’s Terrorism and Security Correspondent. He is a former defence intelligent officer and is now a widely published defence commentator specialising in regional conflicts and counter terrorism