Greater emphasis on the Channel project in the revised Prevent strategy gives much cause for concern.
In October 2009, the IRR’s report Spooked: how not to prevent violent extremism first drew attention to concerns over Prevent’s gathering of information on individuals thought to be on a pathway to radicalisation. Now an ongoing research project on counter-radicalisation initiatives in the US and the UK, drawing on information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with current Prevent practitioners, suggests that the surveillance of significant numbers of Muslims, including children, whose political and religious views are deemed ‘suspect’, is central to Britain’s ‘Prevent’ strategy to counter radicalisation.
On coming to office last year, the coalition government launched a review of Prevent policy aimed at addressing the widespread perception that the policy had failed due to a lack of trust.
However, the component of Prevent that had given rise to concerns over excessive surveillance, known as the Channel project, has now acquired a greater emphasis in the revised Prevent strategy. The new strategy has also widened the definition of extremism from support for violence to any rejection of ‘British values’; this is likely to mean a wider range of individuals are identified as potential radicals. Moreover, with the new strategy’s focus on universities, colleges and hospitals, a growing number of public service professionals will be drawn into the Channel identification process.
According to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to the twelve police forces involved in Channel, 1,120 individuals were identified by Channel project practitioners as on a pathway to radicalisation between 2007 and 2010. Of these, 290 were under sixteen years old and fifty-five were under 12. Over 90 per cent were Muslim; the rest were identified for potential involvement in far-right extremism. Of these 1,120 individuals, 286 were deemed to be in need of a further intervention of some kind.
The Channel project operates separately from the usual investigations carried out by MI5 and police Special Branches, which are supposed to be directed at individuals involved in potential terrorist plots. The purpose of Channel, on the other hand, is to identify a wider group of individuals not involved in any criminal activity but seen as would-be ‘radicals’.
Moreover, individuals are not routinely identified by counter-terrorism police professionals but by youth workers, teachers and other public service workers who have been briefed on what the police consider to be the indicators of ‘vulnerability to radicalisation’. Having identified such a person, a multi-agency panel led by the police makes an assessment and recommends a course of action, such as a programme of mentoring or religious instruction designed to transform the person’s ideology away from extremism.
Based on interviews with a number of practitioners who carry out Channel interventions, it is clear that there are a variety of approaches. In some cases, practitioners assume that young people referred to them as potential radicals are simply struggling with emotional issues or are frustrated at being denied opportunities to progress in life. They are given counselling and perhaps help finding a job. In other cases, practitioners assume that the person has been ideologically indoctrinated and theological arguments are used to challenge the individual’s world view. Often, the individual concerned does not know that he is being targeted for intervention as part of a Preventing Violent Extremism initiative.
A number of Channel practitioners are concerned about the indicators that lead individuals to be referred to Channel. In some cases, individuals appear to have been referred after simply visiting radical websites. In other cases, school students have reportedly been referred after making strong pro-Palestinian statements.
Practitioners argue that strong pressure from Channel managers on schools and colleges to deliver referrals is leading to increasing numbers of young people being identified to Channel simply for articulating strong political opinions, for example about British forces in Afghanistan. The funding structure for outsourcing Channel interventions also creates an incentive for practitioners to talk up the threat that individuals represent in order to justify further work.
The official guidance on Channel lists ‘expressed opinions’ as one of the potential indicators of radicalisation and notes that the kinds of opinion that might indicate a risk are ‘support for violence and terrorism, the leadership of terrorist organisations and uncompromising rejection of the principle of the rule of law and of the authority of any elected Government in this country’. More practical definitions of the kinds of opinion considered problematic are provided in Prevent training sessions. Home Office officials consider a key indicator of radicalisation to be the opinion that the West is at war with Islam.
Another concern is that the information that the police are asking Channel practitioners to collect on individuals with whom they are engaging, goes much wider than is necessary to prevent the radicalisation of that individual – for example, asking for details about the person’s friends and family. The danger here is that Channel would then drift into becoming a form of counter-terrorist intelligence gathering directed at individuals who are by definition not suspected of involvement in criminal activity.
Privacy and information sharing
Given that individuals are not identified to the Channel project on the basis of criminal suspicion, it would be inappropriate for the detailed information about their private lives contained in Channel case files to be made available to Special Branch or MI5 counter-terrorist investigators, unless there were some separate reason to suspect them of criminal activity.
Home Office officials are less than transparent on this point. Giving evidence to the parliamentary select committee inquiry on Prevent last year, Charles Farr, the senior civil servant responsible for Prevent, stated that at no point would someone simultaneously be under investigation by MI5 and subject to a Channel intervention. However, it is unclear how that could be ensured unless an exchange of case information between Channel and MI5 takes place.
When asked under what circumstances MI5 would have access to Channel case files, Home Office officials decline to clarify matters, stating: ‘It has been the established policy of successive Governments to neither confirm nor deny in response to questions concerning the intelligence and security agencies.’ Clearly, as the lead agency involved in Channel, police forces will have access to Channel case files, although the Association of Chief Police Officers claims that these files are kept separate from Special Branch counter-terrorism investigations.
In the absence of greater clarity on these matters, Channel practitioners are concerned that information about individuals referred to Channel will sit in the system indefinitely, potentially preventing them from getting jobs many years later, simply for having expressed ‘radical’ opinions as a teenager. Again, there is a lack of clarity from Home Office officials, who say that Channel case files are held by police forces for a minimum of six years and thereafter information is retained if it ‘remains necessary for a policing purpose’.
With the number of individuals identified for Channel interventions increasing each year and growing numbers of public service workers being recruited to the process, concerns over information sharing and privacy are likely to be key challenges to the project’s credibility.
The history of the Prevent policy to date should serve as a warning to policymakers on the importance of transparency, clarity and respect for civil liberties.