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Islamist Terrorism and the Prevent Strategy

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The recent publication of a report by the now combined Henry Jackson Society and the Center for Social Cohesion is another opportunity for the media to raise new fears about "Islamic fanatics" being released early from prison. Protests against short sentences and "soft justice" are being aired in The Sun and The Telegraph (July 7, 2011), suggesting that freed terrorists could be a threat to the Olympic Games next year. However, a study of terrorist convictions since 1999 reveals that 20% were given indeterminate or life sentences for public protection. The short sentences of between one and four years were mainly for "facilitators, ideologues or aspirants."

The second edition of the report, "Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections," published July 2011, has a foreword by Lord Carlisle (Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation 2001-2011 and Independent Oversight of the Prevent Strategy 2011), who made the point that "we should not lose sight of the clear evidence provided by the report that a majority of terrorists in the UK are home-grown... Unfortunately the evidence reveals the UK to be something of a hub for the development of terrorists who export their activities to other countries."

The report is based on the profiles of 133 Islamist inspired terrorist convictions and attacks in the UK between 1999 and 2010. The key conclusions of the report were that only a third of offenders posed an imminent threat. 69% of offences were committed by British nationals, nearly half of them living in London and, interestingly, the majority had no links to proscribed terrorist organizations and had not attended training camps. There is also little correlation between terrorist activity, education and employment.

Despite the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda inspired terrorism remain the biggest threat to the UK's national security. In May 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron said that bin Laden's death did not mark the end of the threat of extremist terror. Although there has not been an attack in the UK since the one in 2007 at Glasgow Airport --"testimony to the hard work of police and intelligence agencies" -- the UK government feels the threat has not diminished.

Their Prevent strategy to counter terrorism notes that 36 terrorists have been released and are on probation and that 34 will be released over the next four years. A matter of great concern is that they could reoffend and there are no proper schemes in place to deradicalize them. Objectives of the new Prevent strategy, announced in June 2011, are to:

• respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it
• prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support
• work with sectors and institutions including education, criminal justice, faith, charities, mosques, the internet and health where there are risks of radicalization to address.

It has been acknowledged that evaluation of Prevent activity to date has been poor and that money has been wasted. "It failed to confront the extremist ideology at the heart of the threat we face; and in trying to reach those at risk of radicalization, funding sometimes reached the very extremist organizations that Prevent should have been confronting."

While the Prevent report is quick to note that not all extremism is Muslim based, part of its strategy will be outreach to mosques. It is to be hoped that British intelligence operatives will have the wisdom to connect with Muslim leaders such as Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah and Sheikh Habib Umar bin Hafiz. They were speakers recently at an April, 2011, conference sponsored by the think tank Muflehun, addressing the issue of religious violence from the perspective of traditional Islamic scholarship. Extremism, they stated, has no place within the religion of Islam, and intervention is needed to turn violent extremists away from aggression. A central theme of the discussion was the need for traditional scholarship, as the lack of authentic religious education is a common factor amongst violent extremists.

Perhaps a course on Muslim theology should be required for intelligence operatives seeking to influence young Muslims in their search for authentic meaning and relevance in today's society. By disseminating the message that Islam is a religion of peace and justice, and correcting the misinterpretations of the Koran by extremist leaders, religious violence can be stopped before it begins. But this will be a slow and difficult task.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com