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The perennial dilemmas of British counterterrorism policy

British armed police patrol streets around the Manchester Arena stadium in Manchester, United Kingdom on 23 May, 2017 [Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency]
British armed police patrol streets around the Manchester Arena stadium in Manchester, United Kingdom on 23 May, 2017 [Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency]

Last week's terrorist atrocity in Manchester has intensified the seemingly endless debates about British counterterrorism. The two most contentions features of this debate are centred on the roles of ideology and foreign policy as both causes and drivers of terrorist threats.

The course and eventual resolution of these policy dilemmas are critically important because they touch on sensitive issues whose remits transcend counterterrorism policy. For example, by targeting ideology, the British state risks alienating important segments of the Muslim community who are fearful of an assault on their faith and culture — and very existence — under the guise of national security. In this case, national security is viewed and perhaps misrepresented as a vehicle to reshape and remould deep-seated cultural values, identity and, ultimately, loyalties.

On foreign policy, there is a similar debate as to what extent (if any) British policy positions cause or exacerbate terrorist threats. As with ideology, the divisions are deep, with one side steadfastly refusing to draw a connection between foreign policy and terrorism — see the Telegraph here, for example — whilst the other argument identifies the inherent complexity of British foreign policy and its interaction with domestic policy as a potential radicalising force.

Read: UK police arrest key players behind Manchester attack

Instead of reflexively taking sides in this debate, it is more useful to examine the complexity underpinning deep-seated beliefs and resultant political positions with a view to illuminating ways out of the impasse. More than any other section of British society, the Muslim community has a vested – some would say existential — interest in fully understanding these processes.

Is PREVENT a divisive tool?

As with all other aspects of British national life, counterterrorism policy is sophisticated, nuanced and complex. At an operational level, the lead agencies draw on rich historical experiences to detect, disrupt and manage terrorism threats. For example, the domestic security service MI5 continues to use the skills and experiences it accumulated during its decades-long struggle with Irish nationalists to counter both terrorism and espionage threats.

Following the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the British government reacted initially by strengthening anti-terror powers at the judicial level (see here for an analysis of this), with a view to empowering MI5 and aligned units within Britain's regionalised police forces. Whilst these measures – in particular the augmentation of the Terrorism Act 2000 – inevitably raised eyebrows, generally they were well-received by the British public.

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The controversies emerged after the 7 July, 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transport network which killed 52 people. Following these atrocities, the then Labour government attempted to overly-politicise counterterrorism strategy, notably by focusing on ideology as a key driver of terrorism.

This process impacted significantly on Britain's overarching counterterror strategy known as CONTEST (first conceived in 2003), with PREVENT proving to be uniquely controversial. PREVENT is one of four strands making up CONTEST; its remit is to intervene before individuals judged to be potential terror risks breach national security red lines. PREVENT is necessarily engaged at the ideological and intellectual levels, seeking out persons of interest proactively with a view to ideological interrogation and resultant reformation.

Read: Britain says some of Manchester bomber's network potentially still at large

This concept is not necessarily controversial nor is it particularly original. Many countries employ or have employed counter-ideological programmes as part of their counterterrorism strategies. The real trouble with PREVENT is not that it identifies ideology as an important factor of the radicalisation process, but that it causes deep divisions within the British Muslim community, upon which it is, primarily, focused.

PREVENT's divisive effects manifest at multiple levels. First, there is the issue of funding, which inevitably sparks inter-group rivalry and even conflict. More importantly, though, at a deep foundational level PREVENT has been the primary instrument behind the creation of either false or exaggerated dichotomies.

At a social level, the PREVENT logic risks deepening an essentially false dichotomy of "modern" and "conservative" Muslims, with authentic Islamic values libelled and demonised as gateways into radicalisation. At a political level, PREVENT promotes an "Islamist" versus "secularist" divide, which inevitably shrinks political and even academic spaces.

"It's foreign policy, stupid"

The debate on foreign policy and terrorism is more complex and potentially insoluble. Proponents of the status quo argue – with some merit — that British foreign interventions per se do not produce terrorism threats. They often cite Syria, where Britain and the US have failed to intervene decisively, and which has nonetheless become one of the main sources of terrorist threats.

However, it is undeniable that certain British policy positions exacerbate existing threats. Even the British government's Joint Intelligence Committee makes this connection, notably in its assessment of the potential consequences flowing from the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These conflicting perspectives come into sharp relief in respect of the Manchester attack. The bomber Salman Abedi was essentially a product of the conflict in Libya, which has produced widespread socio-political fragmentation and a resultant surge in jihadist activity.

A closer scrutiny of Britain's role in the collapse of Libya does not resolve the central dilemma. For example, to what extent did British intervention back in 2011 produce the resulting chaos? Conversely, should Britain have intervened more thoroughly to contain the fallout from the conflict? From this inquisitive viewpoint, Britain is damned either way.

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Ultimately it is unrealistic to expect a British government to alter its foreign policy fundamentally by, for example, embracing a less interventionist approach. Moreover, in view of their deep communal divisions, British Muslims cannot speak with one voice on this issue. Taking Syria as an example, whilst many British Muslims have clamoured for greater intervention, many are equally loath to see any decisive action taken against the Syrian government.

The debates will rage on. A less emotional approach is the best way to lay the foundations for future British Muslim institutions which can actually influence government policy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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