March 29, 2018

IntelBrief: The UK and Preventing Radicalization 

People light candles after a vigil for victims (AP Photo/Tim Ireland) .
  • From March 2016 to March 2017, 968 people were referred to the U.K.’s Prevent program for concerns of right-wing extremism, a 28% increase over the previous year.
  • During the same time frame, 3,704 people were referred over concerns of Islamic extremism, a decline of 26%.
  • Like many countries, the U.K. is struggling to enact programs that deter extremism without stigmatizing or alienating individuals and communities.
  • The personal nature of radicalization is a challenge for any national-scale program that must be ‘proactive’ but not drift into ‘pre-crime.’


The United Kingdom has been dealing with a credible threat of terrorism—along with infrequent but serious attacks—that might not be fully appreciated in the United States, where the fear of terrorism far exceeds the threat. During his December 2017 cabinet testimony, MI5 Director Andrew Parker noted that his organization had stopped nine terror plots in 2017 – though four others succeeded. Those four put the U.K. at its highest terror threat level. In Fall 2017, Director Parker characterized it by saying, ‘That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.’

A crucial part of reducing the threat, which has had the U.K.’s security and intelligence services operating in overdrive, is the Prevent program. Prevent is one of the four components of the U.K.’s overall counterterrorism strategy known as Contest: the other three are Prepare, Protect, and Pursue. The goal of Prevent, started in 2003, is to identify people at risk of adopting violent extremism of any kind, and to provide support so they may take paths of non-violence. The program has been criticized by some for targeting Muslim communities, and by others contending it is ineffectual.

In this, the U.K. is not alone; most countries, including the U.S., struggle to find a balance between finding at-risk people before they have engaged in violence and stigmatizing certain communities. Prevent acts as a resource for schools and police, the two main reporting parties, to help authorities identify and help people trending towards radicalization and violence. Prevent aims to reach troubled youth before violent extremism takes root; of the 968 people in 2017 referred to Prevent for right-wing extremism, 600 were under 20 years of age; 272 were under 15.

One sign that the Prevent program is adaptable to changing threats and trends is shown by the recent marked increase of the referrals of those connected with right-wing extremism. From March 2016 to March 2017, 968 people referred to Prevent were in danger of being radicalized by right-wing ideology – 16% of all the referrals to the program that year. This is a 28% increase from the year before. Referrals for Islamic extremism are still much higher, numbering 3,704, but a 26% drop from 2016.

Over the past several years, the U.K. has been experiencing a significant increase in far-right rhetoric and even violence – as has also been the case throughout Europe and in the U.S. With a rising tide of right-wing violent extremism, and the very real threat of violence done in the name of the so-called Islamic State or the ideology of bin-Ladenism, programs like Prevent will be heavily utilized to achieve measurable results without causing immeasurable community backlash.


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