After Woolwich killing, Britain debates how to combat 'radicalization'

In the UK, a debate is raging over whether the government should introduce press controls and make it easier to snoop on individuals, or if that would do more harm than good.

Alastair Grant/AP
British Home Secretary Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London last Thursday. This week, she promised to carry out a deep review of the government's strategy to combat radicalization, triggering a broader debate over how young Muslims and others can be identified and deterred from going down pathways that could lead them towards violence.

Divisions within Britain’s governing coalition over how to counter the threat of domestic terrorism intensified Thursday as the leader of the Liberal Democrats warned against “knee-jerk reactions” to last week’s killing of an off-duty British soldier in London – comments seen as a thinly veiled attack on a raft of new proposals from the Conservative cabinet minister in charge of security.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg warned against banning radical preachers from television, which he said would backfire, and used a regular radio phone-in to criticize attempts by Home Secretary Theresa May to revive a controversial bill that would allow police and spy agencies access to details of individual's Internet use.

The so-called "snoopers’ charter," previously dropped in the face of opposition from the Liberal Democrats, was among a package of measures which included censorship of websites and a reduced threshold for proscribing extremist groups. Secretary May’s promise to carry out a deep review of Prevent, the government strategy to combat radicalization, is triggering a broader debate over how young Muslims and others can be identified and deterred from going down pathways that could lead them towards violence.

Though Prevent was introduced in 2007 by the Labour government, there have been signs in recent years that police-led tactics have been prioritized over community initiatives involving out-reach to youngsters and work with recently released prisoners. An example of the former is the Channel program, which is run by the police but asks teachers, parents, and other community figures to be vigilant.

“The government has run into trouble in terms of what kind of people it should be working with,” says Professor Andrew Silke, who studies terrorism at the University of East London and has worked with the government and law enforcement agencies. "Should it, for example, engage with former radicals, people who have been convicted of offenses and say they have come out and are reformed? There has been a recent shift to say they are not going to work with someone if they have radical views, even if they are completely peaceful.”

“You can sense there has been a real cooling in terms of the temperature and support for some of the initiatives that got funding in the early days,” he says.

Radicalization risk?

May, who says that thousands of people are potentially at risk of being radicalized in the UK, has also raised the prospect of preventing radical preachers and leaders of tiny extremist groups from appearing on television – a move similar to the 1980s and '90s ban on radio and television appearances by spokespeople from the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) political wing.

"One of the issues we need to look at is whether we have got the right processes, the right rules, in place in relation to what is being beamed into people's homes,” she told the BBC last week.

However, figures from the opposition Labour Party warn that she is in danger of not learning from mistakes made while it was in power.

John Denham, who was involved in overseeing the running of Prevent while he was a minister in the last government, wrote in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday: “Reducing the number of potential extremist sympathisers is only partly about winning ideological arguments: crucially we need to give stake, voice and status to the vulnerable and alienated. This means engaging them, not rejecting them."

Whatever change of course is heralded by events in Woolwich, scholars such as Professor Silke argue that more needs to done to measure what actually works in terms of combating radicalization.

“Prevent is an area where, if you actually look at what has been done and spent, there are a lot of initiatives that sound like they should be good. But when you ask people what is the impact of this and ask them what has been achieved they are not able to give you facts and figures," he says.

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