The UK government’s Prevent strategy is aimed at thwarting those whose ideological convictions may propel them towards radicalisation. Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the Chilcot Inquiry, Charlie Bird asks whether we need a similar strategy for our political leaders.
The military successes against Islamic State (IS) are only a beginning. There is agreement amongst analysts and commentators that although the so-called Caliphate might have shrinking numbers of active fighters on the ground, the ideology lives on. There is a very real risk that unless the underlying regional social, economic, ethnic and sectarian issues are dealt with, the Sunnis across Iraq and Syria will remain marginalised, impoverished and powerless while the Kurds and Shia consolidate their military and political dominance. Sectarian and inter-ethnic fighting is likely to continue. Perversely, the Sunnis will remain susceptible to the – very similar – ideologies of both Al Qaeda (AQ) and so-called Islamic State (IS).
Don’t be fooled into thinking that AQ has disappeared. It remains the strongest Salafist-jihadi group in Yemen, has retained its franchises in the Middle East and elsewhere, and has been quietly re-aligning itself and its proxies in Syria, waiting for the end of the Caliphate. There is a personal animosity between Al Zawaheri, the leader of AQ, and Al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph and leader of IS. If reports of Al Baghdadi’s death are true and there is a change of leadership in IS, don’t rule out a rapprochement between the two groups and a renewed concentration on terrorist attacks in the West which would find a resonance amongst their supporters and returning fighters here in the UK.
If reports of Al Baghdadi’s death are true and there is a change of leadership in IS, don’t rule out a rapprochement between the two groups and a renewed concentration on terrorist attacks in the West which would find a resonance amongst their supporters and returning fighters here in the UK.
Following calls from both AQ and IS for sympathisers to commit acts of simple jihad wherever they are, and with whatever implements they have, we have had the recent terrorist attacks at the House of Commons, Manchester and Borough Market in London. These events have increased the debate over the UK government’s Prevent strategy on how to stop individuals being drawn into sympathising with, supporting, or committing terrorist attacks. There is renewed recognition that this strategy needs overhauling.
One of the more controversial aspects of the Prevent strategy is that schools, hospitals, universities, and other bodies now have a statutory duty to report individuals thought to be at risk of radicalisation. In England and Wales, if the risk is thought to be valid, the people concerned go through the CHANEL Programme which aims to “develop the most appropriate support for the individuals concerned”. Here in Scotland, the individual becomes the subject of a multi-agency Prevent Professional Concerns case conference.
I have been struck by the coincidence of the renewed discussion on the Prevent programme and the interview that Sir John Chilcot gave on the first anniversary of the publication of his Iraq report, with his comments about Tony Blair. He is quoted as saying that Mr Blair was “emotionally truthful” in the evidence that he gave the Inquiry, but that he relied on “beliefs rather than facts”. That seemed to me to be an apt description of those going off to fight for IS in Syria.
I am not in any way equating Tony Blair with terrorists. Far from it. But I am pondering certain parallels in process. I wonder whether we need a Prevent programme for political leaders who show signs of taking the country down a path which may have dire consequences for our wellbeing, stability and security. A means of encouraging them to think through the consequences, look at the facts rather than ride their emotions and, perhaps, look at the lessons of history. Although the debate splutters on over whether our military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria really has made our streets safer, as is claimed before every deployment, the results are sadly all too obvious.
I wonder whether we need a Prevent programme for political leaders who show signs of taking the country down a path which may have dire consequences for our wellbeing, stability and security. A means of encouraging them to think through the consequences, look at the facts rather than ride their emotions and, perhaps, look at the lessons of history.
The UK’s threat level has only dropped below ‘Severe’ (meaning an attack is highly likely) for three periods since the system was introduced in 2006, and has never gone below ‘Substantial’ (an attack is a strong possibility). New and controversial counter-terrorism legislation has been introduced and, as previously stated, the Prevent strategy is being revised. All this suggests that even the UK government doesn’t believe we are safer as a result of our continued strategy of military intervention.
If it is the statutory duty of teachers, social workers, academics, and others to report individuals who are showing support for dangerous ideas and causes, and who might, if given the opportunity, go and fight for IS or AQ, should there be a similar statutory obligation on MPs, their spouses, partners, Special Advisors and friends? Should they be obligated to report politicians who lean towards dangerous ideas, individuals and causes that could lead the country into wars that provoke even more terrorism and terrorist sympathisers?
Even Sir John Chilcot was shocked at Blair’s “I shall be with you whatever” note to George W Bush, commenting that Blair was making a binding commitment which he couldn’t fulfil at a time when he didn’t even know the legal position. There is an eerie resonance between the former Prime Minister’s reliance on his beliefs rather than facts and his open-ended commitment to a cause that led to war and the deaths of untold numbers of civilians, and some of the words and deeds emanating from radicalised fighters.
It may seem distasteful to say it or think it, but the parallels are there. Mr Blair also regrets the loss of life but maintains that he made the right decisions and would do so again. You could say that he remains radicalised. I am not surprised. The psychological impact of acknowledging that he was wrong, and that the decisions he and President Bush took have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people, would be too much to bear. And Sir John Chilcot seemed to acknowledge this, saying: “I think he was under very great emotional pressure during those sessions…he was suffering”.
Mr Blair also regrets the loss of life but maintains that he made the right decisions and would do so again. You could say that he remains radicalised.
Convicted terrorists such as the Shoe-Bomber Richard Reid and the killer of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo, who both face spending the rest of their lives behind bars, remain fully radicalised. So too does the right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik. They show no signs of moderating their ideologies or acknowledging that they were wrong. I suspect that this is for similar reasons to those which underpin Tony Blair’s position. To do so would mean facing the rest of their days in prison, recognising that their lives had been wasted, influenced by the perversion of an ideology deriving from the word for “peace” but delivering only death, destruction and misery, including to themselves.
The Prevent strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy has provided a model for other countries. The same might happen if we introduced a Prevent for politicians. There would be risks of course, as there are in the present programme. Members of opposing parties denouncing each other for mischievous purposes, and those who would try and extend its remit to other parts of the political process they regarded as extreme (Brexit? Indyref? Scrapping Trident?). No need for impeachments or votes of no confidence; just a phone call to the right place and the ‘dangerous extremist’ will be whisked off for a series of quiet chats with sensible people before returning with a contrite heart and a commitment to world peace and the wellbeing of all. The possibilities are endless.
Charlie Bird is a former diplomat with the Foreign Office whose “career anchors” were conflict, terrorism and counter-terrorism. He has worked closely with the UK military and was seconded back to the army in 2003 for the invasion of Iraq and the immediate aftermath (having also been involved in the first Gulf War, the war in Yugoslavia and in the Kosovo crisis). During the NATO bombing of the Serbs, he rode his motorbike from London to Greece via Serbia and Macedonia to take up a posting at the Embassy in Athens. He speaks Arabic, French and Greek and now works at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. All views expressed here are his own. Contact him at: charliebird.cable@
Featured photo: Global leaders pose for photographs at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, 2007. Image: Wikimedia Commons.