December 05, 2009

Preventing Terrorism at Home - Enquiring into Causes

The UK's Department of Communities and Local Government is conducting an enquiry into the UK's government's Prevent strategy, one strand of the government's overall plan to tackle terrorism and its causes.

Before relocating to Pakistan, Londonstani spent a fair amount of time looking at extremism in the UK as well as efforts to counter it. Prevent seems to have started out very much as a "work in progress", meaning that the idea was to try a bunch of stuff and see how it played out before fine tuning the strategy. The broadbrush approach has drawn in community partners with differing views on the nature of the problem.

The way to see Prevent, Londonstani thinks, is as an effort by the government to draw in partners to help it understand an issue it realised was beyond its present capacity. The problem is that the partners might have had a snap-shot understanding of the areas in which they operate but who also lacked an overall understanding of the problem. This isn't a criticism of any given group - the problem is vast and the issues involved in it are manifold and constantly evolving.

Among the submissions to the enquiry are some interesting points made by the Quilliam Foundation, an influential think tank in the UK.

The argument that radicalisation is driven by grievances, in particular about foreign policy and the idea that of a "War on Islam", is a popular one but one that is undermined by a comparison between Britain and America. If British foreign policy feeds into a narrative of a "War on Islam" then America's foreign policy must also equally or more so. Yet, despite American Muslims sharing British Muslims' concerns about a "War on Islam"[5], America has seen nothing like the home-grown 7/7 attacks. This can be explained by the greater accessibility immigrants to America have to a shared identity built on universal values than is granted to immigrants to Britain.

Quilliam, to take this example, is very keen on the "inclusive British identity" approach. Others think extremists rise from disadvantaged communities and the main focus should be based on social services that tackle education, social exclusion etc.

However, Quilliam's above statement is a good example of the superficial nature of present extremism analysis. How does the greater accessibility that American universal values are supposed to offer immigrants explain events at Ft. Hood? An isolated incident? Well, what about, Najibullah Zazi, who planned "Mumbai-on-the-Hudson" with help from extremists in Pakistan. Or, Byran Neal Venas, a Hispanic American convert, who was captured in Afghanistan and admitted to helping with initial plans to launch an attack in the US. Or David Hedley, an American who planned to kill an editor at the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Copenhagen. If he had managed, the US would have joined the list of nations that have become a launching pad for extremist violence.

Read Peter Bergen's Foreign Policy article where he outlines these cases and others in more detail and effectively makes the case that the US has basically just been lucky so far. And as we know, luck is no basis from which to argue for policy direction.

Drawing together lots of views and opinions is definitely a good approach, but Londonstani doesn't envy the people who have to navigate all the competing interests and ideologies that underlay the different views and come out with a better policy.