Countering violent extremism is a core element of the Australian government’s counterterrorism strategy. It’s a complex policy issue, with community-level disruption activities running the risk of infringing on civil liberties. The British government’s experience in protecting its public from the pernicious threat of terrorism, while upholding democratic and human rights, has proved challenging, and has received much criticism, and so holds some useful lessons for Australia. There are four areas that have proven problematic: defining extremism, lack of clarity around CVE program efficacy and impact, duty guidance training, and improving government-community relations.
The UK currently defines extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.’ Unlike Australia’s definition, this includes non-violent extremism, controversially linking violence with religious conservatism, which assumes a trajectory of escalation toward violent jihadism. That contentious narrative has been exacerbated by the UK government’s proposed ‘Counter-extremism and Safeguarding Bill’. If implemented, this legislation risks infringing on civil liberties, notably through legislating an expansion of incarceration criteria into the pre-criminal space, effectively criminalising those who possess dogmatic and bigoted thoughts and ideas. That’s a flawed strategy that might inadvertently worsen the problem of extremism, and could provoke a backlash in affected communities, further alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile. Silencing those whose views we don’t find palatable risks sending extremist organisations underground, thereby providing a more lethal environment for violent extremism to flourish out of sight. Encouraging dialogues and critical debate is likely to be more productive.
Second, there’s no clear consensus on the aims of current CVE efforts, and how they’ll achieve those goals. At present, CVE programs generally pursue the twin goals of disengagement and de-radicalisation, often without distinguishing between them. Conflating these processes adds to the confusion in identifying the target audience as well as program aims and objectives, thus undermining their success. The UK’s flagship CVE program Prevent clearly specifies the differences, but program implementation on the ground often suffers due to poor training.
Although there’s been considerable effort to tackle the challenges posed from violent extremist content online, it’s not clear how successful it has been. The British government invested £17m into the Research Intelligence and Communications Unit in 2015-2016 to create online counter-narrative campaigns. While the outreach of those products increased five-fold in 2015, the impact is yet to be measured. Without evidence-based evaluation or assessments of CVE products, we simply don’t know whether they’re worth the effort. There needs to be more clarity over what exactly different CVE programs are trying to achieve and how they’ll measure success.
CVE training programs in the UK are wholly inadequate. Following the 2015 ruling to place mandatory duty on teachers to monitor children for radicalisation, almost 4,000 children were referred to Prevent’s discreet multi-agency ‘Channel Program’ that year, up from 1,681 in 2014. Of these, only several hundred cases required further support, highlighting a discrepancy between policy and practice. Panel members responsible for determining the suitability of a Channel case are considered experts after just completing an e-learning course accompanied by a 1.5 hour lecture. In light of Malcolm Turnbull’s recent support for access to mental health records to clamp down on signs of radical behaviour, counsellors need to be adequately briefed and trained before reporting patients.
The aim of rooting out extremism through early intervention shouldn’t be contentious, but misinterpretation of referral guidelines underlines the need for drastic improvements in practitioner training. For instance, a child was reported for drawing an alleged improvised explosive device ‘cooker bomb,’ which was, in fact, a cucumber. Failing to equip teachers and other professionals with robust skills only undermines the legitimacy of programs.
Without the support of communities, government efforts to tackle extremism have been, and will continue to be, ineffective. Widespread lack of public confidence and perceived suspicions about government intentions highlights the need for an independent review, an idea welcomed by the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. We need to know what works and what doesn’t before new legislation is created. Moves to diversify the Prevent advisory board—replacing ministers with members of civil society—might help restore public confidence in the Strategy.
Within communities, governments have to work hard to repair damaged relationships through careful trust-building initiatives. Reconstructing government approaches to CVE education, training and social integration in order to equip citizens, young and old, to critically assess and deconstruct extremist arguments in all forms would be a good place to start. Additionally, maintaining a good degree of transparency over funding, design and implementation is vital to garner trust. Previous efforts have been interpreted by communities as covert government agenda-pushing, which has a counter-productive effect.
Refining terms and definitions to clarify the intention of CVE programs is essential, and a thorough evaluation of CVE programs, including developing metrics for success, will enable better assessment of CVE effectiveness. As both countries grapple with a common and shared challenge of preventing violent extremism, the Australian government should welcome this proposed evaluation of current CVE practice in the UK, in order to learn from Britain’s hard lessons and to inform a more robust, evidence-based strategy for Australia.