Anti-terrorism programme must keep focus on far right, say experts

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Kemp/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Michael Kemp/Alamy

Government advisers on extremism have openly questioned the direction of the Home Office’s counter-terrorism programme after it emerged last week that a review was advocating a crackdown on Islamist extremism rather than the threat of the far right.

They questioned why the review of the Prevent strategy carried out by William Shawcross at the behest of the home secretary, Priti Patel, should refocus on Islamism at a time when Prevent referrals over the ideology have fallen to 22%, while a quarter now relate to far-right extremism.

The most recent Prevent data reveals that “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideologies now account for more than half of all referrals to the anti-radicalisation strategy and that a quarter relate to far-right extremism.

Lewys Brace, who advises the government on extremism, said the Shawcross recommendations did not “reflect what’s going on at all, in any way. Mixed ideologies is where it’s all heading.”

Brace, who is currently involved in a Home Office study of “incel” ideology to help counter-extremism efforts, said Shawcross’s mindset appeared to be “circa 2004-2007” – a reference to a period of high-profile Islamist attacks, including the London bombings that killed 52 in 2005.

The most deadly attack since then occurred when an Islamist suicide bomber killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena exactly five years ago. The attack will be remembered on Sunday with a series of commemorative events throughout the city.

But since then, experts say, the terrorism landscape has evolved significantly, as was demonstrated by the murder of five people last August in Plymouth by Jake Davison, who expressed misogynistic views on online forums used by “incels” – men who describe themselves as “involuntarily celibate”. Last week relatives of his victims urged ministers to take action on incel culture in new online safety laws.

Brace added: “Since Plymouth they [counter-extremism officials] have been a lot more concerned about that sort of amorphous ideology.”

Even before the attack, the security services were monitoring a growing number of individuals with unstable, unclear or “blended” ideologies who might pose a terrorism risk. Danyal Hussein, who murdered two sisters in a London park in 2020, is believed to have been put in this category. At one point he exhibited vulnerability to Islamist radicalisation, but police later found rightwing extremist material on his laptop.

Florence Keen, of the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, who has led Home Office studies into the far right and is currently investigating misogyny and extremism, said Prevent’s apparent refocus on Islamism could be explained by the fact that it is easier to define than other types of extremism. “When it comes to Islamic terrorism, it’s maybe easier for governments to say this is exactly what it is. With far-right ideologies it can be so broad that it often evades definition,” she said.

The review by Shawcross, a former head of the charity watchdog, says that Prevent is currently treating “mainstream, rightwing-leaning commentary” as far-right, while Islamist propaganda is ignored, according to the Guardian.

Some have interpreted the leaking of Shawcross’s key recommendations – understood to to have infuriated Patel – as evidence of internal dissent over his conclusions and follow a backlash from Home Office officials over plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Related: Alarm as leak reveals Prevent ‘carrying the weight’ for mental health services

It also comes weeks after intervention former prime minister David Cameron claimed PreventThe was being compromised by Muslim critics, criticism that was widely branded as Islamophobic.

Home Office said: “Prevent remains a vital tool for early intervention and safeguarding. We will not allow extremists or terrorists to spread hate or sow division and Prevent remains an important driver to help divert people away from harm.

“The review, led by William Shawcross, will ensure we continue to improve our response and better protect people from being drawn into poisonous and dangerous ideologies. The report is being finalised and, once formally received and after full consideration, the report and the government’s response to it will be published.”

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