The Daily Telegraph
The controversial strategy for countering terrorism needs civilians, not the police, to take the lead
The attack on Westminster comes as Whitehall reviews Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. Developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the strategy was aimed at creating a holistic, cross-government approach to countering terrorism. The logic was that as these individuals came from within, a whole of society approach would be required to counter them.
The strategy has undergone numerous tweaks and iterations, with most attention focused on “Prevent”, the strand of the strategy which aimed at trying to steer people off the radical path before they became violent: “addressing the problem in the pre-criminal space”, to use the jargon. The difficulty is that this is something that by its nature should not be handled by the security services, and yet the fundamental point of Contest is to address a security matter. This in part helps illustrate why this aspect of the counter-terrorism strategy has remained so fundamentally controversial.
Contest was designed as a four-pillar strategy – Prevent (stopping people from being drawn to extremist ideas), Prepare (building societal resilience to be able to bounce back from an attack), Pursue (the classic counter-terrorism work of disrupting and investigating individuals), and Protect (building the infrastructure to defend from attack).
The current Contest review was focused on looking across all four, but as a result of this most recent incident, attention will likely focus through the lens of what happened in Westminster.
Since the attacker had historically appeared on the authorities’ radar but dropped down their priority list, the question will be asked about whether more could have been done to reengage him with society. Or could he have been engaged with earlier to dissuade him from going down this path? The difficulty would be identifying who it was who could actually undertake this, and when would have been the right time to engage. And this in many ways illustrates some of the major issues around Prevent.
Whether we are talking about people working in communities, or those in sectors such as education, welfare or healthcare, we are often looking at people who do not traditionally see themselves as security agents. They have chosen to serve society, but don’t see themselves as responsible for pre-empting security threats.
Yet it is often exactly these sorts of people who are being asked to take to the frontline in Prevent; to try to keep the problem outside the criminal space. But their priorities will be different to those of security agents who are focused very narrowly on defending against terrorism and prosecuting offenders. The paradox for Prevent is finding ways of engaging with nationally important security issues before they have become criminal problems, and therefore before the police take a dominant role.
Ultimately, if Prevent is to work it is going to have to move further out of the criminal space, with civilian public servants taking the lead.
If we are going to dissuade people from extremist groups and ideologies, we will have to do it before people have gone far enough for it to be a police matter, by which time it is too late. But if we are doing this, then a longer leash will be needed for those who are working on these issues. And we must understand that the nature of what we are asking them to deal with is not what would ordinarily fall into their remit, and that therefore they will look at it in a different light to a security agent.
In addition to all of this, we are also dealing with a problem in which success – an absence of threat – cannot easily be linked to a specific programme. Can you link a lack of attacks to specific Prevent programmes running in some part of the country?
Prevent will always be the most controversial aspect of our counterterrorism strategy. The questions that will be asked around the current incident in Westminster will likely focus on why more was not done to prevent this person from becoming involved in the first place. The answer will inevitably be incomplete, and the grieving families will not gain much from them. But it remains the key to staying ahead of the terrorist threat that we currently face.