Terrorism: prevention is better than cure, but government stumbles over its definition

Posted By on 28th December 2022

By Peter Tremayne

The row between cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Suella Braverman over the government’s “Prevent” anti-terrorism programme has implications for a number of groups and individuals in Cornwall.

The strategy has been in place for more than a decade and is supposed to provide police and local authorities with early warnings of radicalisation which might lead to violence.

The £46 million a year Prevent budget might have been used to invest in genuine intelligence-gathering but instead triggered a feeding frenzy among local police forces and councils, all keen to build their own versions of curtain-twitching neighbourhood watch committees.

Prevent was established at a time of widespread concern about Islamic extremism but quickly discovered that Right-wing hate groups were at least as dangerous.

In 2016, at the height of the Brexit referendum campaign, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist.  In 2021 Conservative MP Sir David Amess was killed by an Islamic terrorist from London who was known to MI5 and who had actually been part of the Prevent programme seven years earlier.

Right-wing domestic terrorists now account for more than a fifth of all terrorists in prison.

In 2018 Cornwall councillors were shown a presentation which reported there were more than 8,000 people in the South West who belong to extreme Right-wing groups.

Last year Cornwall Reports detailed how a group belonging to Patriotic Alternative staged a “training exercise” on Bodmin Moor.  The group has been compared to the Hitler Youth movement of 1930s Nazi Germany.

In February last year a 16-year-old boy from Camborne became Britain’s youngest-ever convicted terrorist, after his racially-motivated and homophobic interests led him to develop bomb-making plans.

In August last year a Camborne disc jockey was jailed for anti-semitism.

The Prevent programme has also allowed the police to label children as potential terrorists if they show interest in climate protests.  In 2020 Devon and Cornwall police warned Cornwall Council to include Extinction Rebellion activists on County Hall’s “watch list.”  Cornwall Council has even offered training courses for teachers to help them spot potential terrorists in the classroom.

Almost immediately upon its creation by the former Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011, the Prevent programme has been mired in controversy over the political choices about who should be monitored.  Occasionally social media posts by far-Right Cornish nationalist individuals, threatening “direct action” against tourists, second home owners or wealthy restaurant owners, attract the attention of the intelligence agencies.

Publication of the complete Prevent review would be fascinating as much for what it might reveal about the competence of those agencies, and the police, as for what it might have to say about any individuals or groups.

The report has been ready since the summer, having been commissioned by former Prime Minister Theresa May in February 2019.

According to today’s (Wednesday’s) Times newspaper, the Levelling Up secretary and the Home Secretary are now at war over whether or not to publish it in full, or with extensive redactions.

The Home Office wants to keep secret the identities of some individuals and groups, fearing it could be exposed to libel claims if they are published.  The Department for Levelling Up and Communities wants publication in full, with a shift in emphasis away from Right-wing extremism and a renewed focus on Islamists.

A Whitehall source told The Times: “There is a hold-up, he [Gove] is looking to make certain changes to it because he wasn’t entirely 100 per cent behind the report as it was.  He’s gone back to the Home Office with his views because he’s keen that the government’s response is right.”

The report is expected to recommend that MI5 and counterterrorism police should be given greater influence in deciding whether to intervene with individuals. It has suggested curbing the role of local agencies and community groups in deciding whether those flagged as at risk of radicalisation should be pursued.