British Government Debates Engagement with Radical Islam in New Counterterrorism Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 10

UK Security Minister Lord West

Britain’s much vaunted “Contest” counterterrorism strategy underwent what has been described as a “refresh” in March 2009. Building on the British government’s experiences on the front-line of terrorism both at home and abroad, the re-vamped strategy was referred to as a “reworking rather than a fundamental overhaul” (BBC, March 24). Elsewhere in the British media, the Guardian declared the new strategy was “in disarray” even before it had been launched, while the Times focused on the elevated emphasis put upon the threat from “dirty bombs” (Guardian, March 26; Times, March 25). A core ideological debate that has occupied the airwaves and that was deftly avoided in the final text, however, was the question of whether the British government should engage or confront non-violent Islamists in order to effectively prevent terrorism.

Prevent Pursue Protect Prepare

The new strategy paper lays out a detailed presentation of what the British government is hoping to achieve in its counter-terrorism efforts. [1] Built around the widely emulated bureaucratic convention of having four main work streams, Prevent, Pursue, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism offers a great deal of historical detail and analysis of the government’s development of a counterterrorism structure. The earliest parts of the paper offer a “strategic context” and focus on how and why the Qaeda threat to the UK (and the rest of the world) has emerged. In fact, while Irish terrorism (which recently resurfaced in the form of a spate of killings in Northern Ireland) receives a mention in the paper, it quite explicitly states that “this counter-terrorism strategy is specifically addressed at the recent resurgence in international terrorism” and later says that this strategy “does not address the threat from domestic extremism (such as the threat from animal rights extremists).” The focus is rigidly kept on “al-Qaeda and like-minded groups” and consequently deals primarily with global Islamist extremism.

The Strategy Debate

Within the British security community, a sort of consensus has been reached about the general viability of the counter-terrorism architecture as it has been laid out, with most discussion focused on how it is actually being implemented. Specifically, as time has passed, it has become increasingly clear that it is the “Prevent” element that is most critical if the UK is to ever overcome the menace from international terrorism. As Lord West, the Security Minister put it, “Only our work to prevent people being lured into violent extremism will defeat terrorism in the long term.” [2] This has been reflected in the public debate on the strategy, with the “Prevent” element becoming the main ideological battleground amongst security analysts in the UK.

The rubric “Prevent” is defined as “stopping people [from] becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism.” The new strategy defines five main goals for the next three years:

• Challenge the ideology behind violent extremism and support mainstream voices.

• Disrupt those who promote violent extremism and support the places where they operate.

• Support individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment, or have already been recruited by violent extremists.

• Increase the resilience of communities to violent extremism.

• Address the grievances which ideologues are exploiting.

While the other three aspects of the strategy (Pursue, Protect, Prepare) might all be defined as tangible and reactive in that they involve practical things like pursuing terrorists using intelligence, hardening buildings and other targets against attack and training first responders and citizens in what to do in the event of an attack, “Prevent” is far harder to grasp. Success in this area is hard to quantify and questions are being raised about who exactly the British government should be engaging to prevent Muslims from being attracted to the al-Qaeda brand.

Publicly, this debate has become increasingly polarized in the UK, with two main schools of thought emerging. On the one hand, there are those who believe that while engagement with individuals who espouse hard-line beliefs may be ideologically distasteful, it can also help address an immediate terrorist threat. Included in this group is the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit, Robert Lambert, who believes allowing the expression of anti-establishment views in marches advocating an end to the war in Iraq or justice for Palestinians will “persuade Muslim youth to channel their political grievances into local and national democratic processes.” [3] In the current debate, he has come out in support of non-violent Islamists, citing the case of Daud Abdullah, the Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) (Guardian, April 1).  Daud Abdullah was recently attacked by the government for endorsing “a Hamas call for attacks on foreign troops, including possibly British troops, if they try to intercept arms smuggled into Gaza” (Guardian, March 25).

There have been instances where individuals holding extreme views have been of great assistance in addressing the terrorism threat. The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a group established by former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbawy, played a key role in helping reclaim the Finsbury Park Mosque, which had been taken over by extremist followers of militant preacher Abu Hamza.  

On the other side there are those who believe that this approach is excessively short-sighted and in fact gives succor to those who are a part of the problem. This perspective is most recently expressed in a Policy Exchange report by Shiraz Maher (a former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member) and Martyn Frampton (of Cambridge University) entitled Choosing Our Friends Wisely. [4] The right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank is widely known in the UK for its work on the subject of government engagement with Islamists.

The Policy Exchange previously published a sensational report by a prominent left-wing journalist entitled, When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: The British State’s Flirtation with Radical Islamism, which focused on the connections between the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’at Islami and the MCB, at the time the British government’s favoured partner when engaging with British Muslim communities. [5] “We essentially had a hot-line to Sir Iqbal [Sacranie]” (referring to the then-head of the MCB), was how one senior Home Office member described the relationship to the author. [6]

Defining Extremism

Maher and Frampton’s report was released on the eve of the publication of the government’s new strategy paper and is scathing in its criticism of the current Prevent strategy: “The problem is that PVE [Preventing Violent Extremism] – however well intentioned – isn’t working. Not only is it failing to achieve its stated objectives, in many places it is actually making the situation worse: a new generation is being radicalised, sometimes with the very funds that are supposed to be countering radicalisation.” [7] It goes on to lay out a set of ten recommendations for reforming Prevent, and a nine point outline of engagement criteria for the British government’s use with Islamist groups. These range from obvious recommendations (“government must not engage with organisations or individuals that support or condone the deliberate targeting of civilians”) to the more controversial (“government must not engage with people or groups that call for or condone the destruction of UN member states”). [8] The controversy lies in the view that this is a veiled statement that the government can only engage with pro-Israel groups.

Ahead of the official publication of the revised Contest counterterrorism strategy, there was much speculation that the government was going to take an approach similar to the Maher and Frampton Policy Exchange report, when an article in the Guardian (based on a leaked draft of the strategy) laid out the criteria used in forming a new definition of extremism. These included advocating a caliphate, promoting Shari’a law, support of jihad anywhere in the world, arguing that Islam bans homosexuality, and failing “to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan” (Guardian, February 17). However, in the end the British government chose to sidestep much of the discussion, instead opting to state that it will support groups and individuals who “challenge those… [who] reject the rights to which we are committed, scorn institutions and values of our parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance and discrimination on the basis of race, faith, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.” [9]


According to a number of British counter-terrorism experts and Muslim community leaders spoken to by Jamestown, the reason behind this debate is the fact that the British government has clearly begun to feel it has managed to bring the immediate terror threat to the UK under control. Consequently, it now no longer feels that it needs to pander to some extreme views in order to address the immediate terror threat. However, as the recent arrests dubbed “Operation Pathway” demonstrates, the threat as perceived by the British government remains real (Telegraph, April 7). It remains an open fact that individuals like Omar Bakri Mohammed acolyte Anjem Choudhary continue to operate openly in the country, holding public meetings which are advertised on and supporting aggressive public protests in which British soldiers returning from Iraq are called “butchers” (Independent, March 12). While it is clear that Choudhary and others around him are very careful to keep what they say within the bounds of free speech, it is still sometimes surprising to hear what he is willing to publicly advocate (such as advocating the assassination of the Pope or encouraging British Muslims not to cooperate with terrorism investigations). The question around the new stance in Contest, however, is not individuals like Choudhary who openly court controversy, but rather whether the British government should engage or disregard Muslim activist groups who may have a dissenting view on Israeli-Palestinian issues or other hot-button Muslim foreign policy topics, while at the same time working to counter radicalization amongst Britain’s Muslim community.


1. For the complete strategy, see Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism, March 2009,
2. Lord West’s speech at the Govnet conference, July 2008:
3. Robert Lambert, “Empowering Salafis and Islamists against Al Qaeda: A London Counterterrorism case study,” Political Science & Politics, 41(1), pp.31-35
4. Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton, Choosing Our Friends Wisely, Policy Exchange, 2009:
5. Martin Bright, When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: The British State’s Flirtation with Radical Islamism, Policy Exchange, July 2006:
6. Author’s interview, September 2007
7. Maher and Frampton, op cit., p.5
8. Ibid., p.8.
9. Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare, p.87