Prevent review: 11 key takeaways from the Shawcross report
Released with little fanfare following Prime Minister's Questions, and overshadowed by the surprise visit by Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky to Westminster, the review by William Shawcross reported that Prevent had lost its way, disproportionately focusing on right-wing acts of terror in recent years instead of "the real threat" of Islamist extremism.
The review was originally announced in early 2019, during the government of then-prime minister Theresa May, to be led by Lord Carlile. But he was forced to stand down in late 2019, following a legal challenge by Rights Watch UK over his self-confessed “bias” in favour of Prevent.
Shawcross was appointed as his replacement in January 2021. Best known as a journalist and author, he is a former chair of the Charity Commission, and a former director of a neoconservative think tank, the Henry Jackson Society.
But Shawcross's leadership of the review resulted in a boycott by many Muslim advocacy groups and human rights organisations, on the grounds, they said, that several of his previous comments were Islamophobic.
Nevertheless, the report has now appeared. Accepting all 34 recommendations of the report, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman welcomed Shawcross's findings and said it would now focus on "the key threat of Islamist terrorism. As part of this more proportionate approach, we will also remain vigilant on emerging threats, including on the extreme right.
"This independent review has identified areas where real reform is required. This includes a need for Prevent to better understand Islamist ideology, which underpins the predominant terrorist threat facing the UK."
She also told parliament that she planned to "swiftly implement" its recommendations, and would report back within a year.
The full report runs to almost 200 pages - here are 11 observations from it that Shawcross makes.
1. Islamist extremism is a bigger threat than the far-right
Shawcross makes much in the report of how the threat from extreme-right terrorists has been over-stated compared to what he calls "Islamist" terrorism. Some of this, he says, is because the bar "on Islamism looks to be relatively high, whereas the bar for what is included on Extreme Right-Wing is comparably low". Indeed, the word "Islamist" is used in the report on 177 occasions, only bettered by "Prevent" (869), "terrorism" (286), "government" (217) and "extremism" (178). But some observers, such as Lizzie Dearden, Home Affairs Editor at The Independent, dispute how Shawcross excludes certain attacks by followers of the extreme-right from his report. Instead, he implies, the threat of "Islamist" terror has been downplayed for fear of offence:
"While part of the increased concern about the Extreme Right-Wing is justified by the data showing a rise in the Extreme Right-Wing terror threat, I was told by a former counter-terrorism police chief that increased focus on Extreme Right-Wing constituted “a degree of appeasement to maintain some groups’ involvement with Prevent”. The clear inference here being that a focus on the Extreme Right-Wing, above and beyond the actual threat it posed, was occurring to try and fend off accusations of stigmatising minority communities."
2. Prevent will not 'address' Islamophobia
Shawcross is critical of Islamophobia, although he prefers to use the phrase "anti-Muslim hatred". But for him, it is a hate crime and as such falls outside its remit. "Prevent must better understand and tackle antisemitism where it is relevant to its work," he writes:
"As with other forms of extremism, this hatred and prejudice is irrational and illogical. I was told of one individual referred to Channel over far right concerns who refused to even touch a bottle of water offered to him by a Muslim.
"I heard that a perception existed in Muslim communities that Prevent has not properly understood far right extremism and there was an unwillingness to properly deal with this subject. The notion that Prevent does not seek to protect Muslims, just like all other citizens, from terrorist attacks is highly regrettable. I do not believe that is an accurate assessment of Prevent’s work. Nonetheless, it is clearly a keenly felt perception among some. Government should continue to seek to communicate the seriousness with which Prevent treats all forms of extremism and terrorism.
"How best to deal with anti-Muslim hatred is a key challenge for the government. Yet with regards to Prevent, if it is to avoid being overloaded, it must look to deal first and foremost with cases that have a potential terrorism component. Hate crime is a vital area for the government to tackle but Prevent cannot be the primary means of doing so. It is primarily a counter-terrorism tool and should remain so."
3. Supporters of Hamas and Islamic State should be treated the same
Hamas is a Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organisation by many countries, including the UK, where the government proscribed it in 2021. It is the governing authority in Gaza. Shawcross writes:
"In order for the proscription to be truly effective, those who fundraise for Hamas or break the law in support of the group's activities must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There is no reason why those who support Hamas should be treated any differently to those who support Islamic State, National Action, or other proscribed organisations."
4. Hatred of India is due to Pakistani clerics
Violence broke out in the English city of Leicester last autumn between Hindi and Muslim youths. It was partly blamed on “far-right Hindutva groups”, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary organisation, which have been accused of targeting Muslim residents and seeking to sow discord in a mixed community that has co-existed for decades. But despite calls for a better understanding of Hindi extremisim, Shawcross sees the cause for such tensions as coming from another source:
"I have similar concerns over how rhetoric from Pakistan is impacting UK Muslim communities when it comes to inflaming anti-India sentiment, particularly around the subject of Kashmir. There is an element of crossover between those who seek to impose limits around blasphemy with those who voice incendiary rhetoric on Kashmir.
"I have seen evidence of UK extremist groups, as well as a Pakistani cleric with a UK following, calling for the use of violence in Kashmir. I have also seen evidence demonstrating that flashpoints related to Kashmir leads to a significant surge in interest from UK Islamists. There is no reason to believe this issue will disappear as a grievance that Islamists will seek to exploit in years to come. This has potential relevance to Prevent, as there are examples of those convicted of terrorism offences in the UK who had first fought in Kashmir. This includes those who subsequently joined al-Qaeda."
5. The goverment should urge referals to Prevent by family, friends
Prevent sees reporting by friends and family of a suspect as integral to its work. In his recommendations, Shawcross writes:
"The government should launch new initiatives to encourage referrals from friends, family and community cohorts. This should include developing an accessible GOV.UK resource signposting reporting mechanisms for radicalisation concerns. These resources ought to be easily reachable through simple online thematic searches."
6. Let's expand Prevent to job centres...
Job centres in Britain are government-run facilities that provide employment services to the unemployed, including unemployment benefits, and training programmes, supporting individuals as they look for work. Shawcross believes that they need to report any concerns or suspicions about their clients to Prevent:
"It was suggested that job centres are especially likely to engage with individuals who might have increased susceptibility to radicalisation. According to one comprehensive study, 38% of those who committed ‘Islamism-related offences’ between 1998 and 2015 were unemployed at the time of their offence or attack. As such individuals may not have any other touchpoint with the state, placing statutory requirements on job centres should ensure that some of these potentially susceptible people do not fall between the gaps."
7. ... and immigration centres
UK immigration and detention centres hold individuals who the authorities believe have entered the country illegally or are awaiting a decision on their immigration status. Detainees, including children, live in secure, often prison-like, conditions. Shawcross sees these as another opportunity for the spread of Prevent.
"The other area where there is a strong case for introducing the Prevent Duty is within UK immigration and asylum. In 2017, Britain suffered Islamist terrorist attacks committed by individuals who had come to this country in recent years and sought or were granted asylum.
"There is good reason to think that those who have travelled from conflict zones, or from parts of the world where extremist ideologies have a strong presence, are more likely to be susceptible to radicalisation."
8. The Incel movement promotes hate - not terrorism
The far-right Incel movement in the UK mostly consists of men who identify as involuntarily celibate and express anger towards women and society for their perceived lack of romantic and sexual fulfilment. In 2021, Jake Davison, killed five people including two women and a young girl in Plymouth. In May 2020 in Canada, a teenager was charged for the first time with an Incel-inspired terror attack. Shawcross writes:
"According to the Home Office's CONTEST department, an act of terrorism is when violence is used to further the aims of any ideology. However, the country's deputy senior national co-ordinator for counterterrorism policy has said that Incel is not a terrorist ideology."
"Incel violence against women could well be classified as a form of hate crime. Such individuals may also be driven toward suicide and self-harm due to psychological distress rather than violence against others. Recent recommendations by the Law Commission to protect women (and other minority groups) tackles Incel-related incitement through hate crime legislation, underscoring the position that the Incel phenomenon is not currently a counterterrorism matter."
9. Prevent focuses too much on mental health
Shawcross writes that "Prevent is carrying the weight for mental health services. Vulnerable people who do not necessarily pose a terrorism risk are being referred to Prevent to access other types of much-needed support". This, he believes, is being prominence by prevent over the ideology of suspects:
"I am concerned that Prevent is overly focused on issues such as mental health and social isolation as drivers of radicalisation. This is likely compounded by my observation that practitioners are more comfortable discussing these issues rather than ideology."
10. Shawcross supports 'Fundamental British values'
The report focuses on education at length: Shawcross mentions he hosted discussions with practitioners, policy makers, academics and researchers about how 'Fundamental British Values' can be used to counter the "opposite of the extremist notion of feeling ‘other’," with a mix of responses. He observes there is "currently no requirement for schools to use the phrase ‘Fundamental British Values’, and no prescriptive way in which schools must demonstrate their promotion", concluding:
"There is currently no requirement for schools to use the phrase ‘Fundamental British Values’, and no prescriptive way in which schools must demonstrate their promotion. Some schools choose to teach them, for example, as part of citizenship lessons, and others via extracurricular activities.
"I am very supportive of Fundamental British Values, which are, after all, similar to those of all liberal democracies, and am keen to see their teaching embedded within the school ethos, whether that is via Prevent or another programme without any links to Prevent.
11. The campaign against Prevent is 'international'
Shawcross is critical of those who caricature Prevent "as an authoritarian and thinly veiled means of persecuting British Muslims [that] is not only untrue, it is a grotesque insult". This includes the media: indeed he advocates a unit that should "particularly focus on media and social media communications to ensure that where possible, inaccurate claims and news stories about Prevent do not go unchallenged".
He names a number of organisations who he criticises for their "anti-Prevent advocacy, including Cage, a London-based Muslim advocacy group which supports people affected by counter-terrorism policies. (Responding to the report, a Cage spokesperson said: "Cage has worked tirelessly to reveal the acute dangers of the Prevent strategy and how it is used by the government as a tool to securitise Britain's communities, stoke a climate of suspicion and fear, and expand the surveillance state. In light of this, Cage calls for the abolishment of the Prevent strategy in its entirety.")
"I have seen no equivalent campaign against Prevent, either in scale or impact, from activists on the Extreme Right. Furthermore, certain elements of the campaign against Prevent appear to have additional motivations. In the very worst cases, some proponents of this campaign, such as Cage, have excused and legitimised violence by Islamist terrorists. Certain Islamist activists within the anti-Prevent campaign may disavow violence, yet promote the narratives and sentiments of violent extremists.
"The Islamist campaign against Prevent has an international dimension, with campaigners from the UK joining with activists from overseas to denounce counterterrorism policies in Western countries. It is clear this internationalised campaign has seated its attack on Prevent and counterterrorism policy within the charge of Islamophobia."