Prevent after TERFOR: why local context still matters

Taking PartTherese O’Toole, Stephen H. Jones, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Tariq Modood

This article is part of a series on the legacy and future of Prevent.

Since Prevent was first rolled out on a national scale in 2007 its implementation has varied markedly across local contexts. The most recent policy statement on Prevent, by a specially commissioned taskforce on radicalisation which reported in December 2013, appears to want to minimize local variation by making delivery of Prevent a legal requirement. Any attempt to bypass local demographic and political variations may, however, prove to be counterproductive or even unworkable in practice.

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On 4th December this year, the Prime Minister unveiled the final report of the Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (TERFOR)[1] that had been set up in the wake of the murder of drummer Lee Rigby on 22nd May. When TERFOR met for the first time on 3rd June, David Cameron announced it would ‘build on the Prevent strategy’,[2] a strategy that had already been substantially revised by the Coalition government, after much internal debate, in July 2011.[3] Ostensibly, the TERFOR report seems to signal a hardening of the ‘muscular liberal’ rhetoric that appeared in the 2011 Prevent strategy and a tightening up of implementation at the local level – including introducing legal requirements for local authorities in priority areas to deliver Prevent and the Channel programme, which seeks to identify individuals ‘vulnerable’ to radicalisation. So, what are its implications for those areas that have been identified as priority areas for the delivery of Prevent?

Prevent has had a troubled history. New Labour’s re-launched ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy of 2007 came under sustained criticism from Muslims, community activists, practitioners, faith leaders, academics, local authorities, as well as from commentators on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.[4] In the words of one of the other contributors to this series, Paul Thomas, Prevent under New Labour came to be widely perceived as ‘failed and friendless’.[5]


“The TERFOR report seems to signal a hardening of the ‘muscular liberal’ rhetoric that appeared in the 2011 Prevent strategy and a tightening up of implementation at the local level.”


Consequently, when the Coalition government came to power, it announced an immediate review of Prevent. The revised strategy that was launched in July 2011 marked out a more focused, pared-down approach compared to its predecessor. It sought to disentangle Prevent from cohesion/integration activities, responding to criticism that overlap between these two areas had diluted Prevent and securitised integration and cohesion. The new strategy also operated with much reduced funding and set out a more strident message on countering extremism ‘in all its forms’ – including political extremism among far-right and animal rights groups. The new strategy, furthermore, made clear that pragmatic engagement with Islamist ‘extremists’ – albeit non-violent – who do not adhere to core British values would no longer be permitted, in keeping with Cameron’s earlier remarks on ‘muscular liberalism’ in his speech to the Munich security conference in February of 2011.[6]

Elements of the new strategy were welcomed by some – particularly the shift towards an intelligence-led targeting of Prevent activity in place of the previous approach that focused on areas of Muslim settlement, which seemed to imply that the mere presence of Muslims was a security risk. The remit of the new strategy to tackle all forms of extremism was also greeted positively.[7] Some aspects were received more cautiously, or even with scepticism – such as the separation between Prevent and cohesion work.[8] What emerged was a more tightly focused strategy, with less emphasis on community engagement initiatives, more targeted interventions in particular sectors, and less funding that would be more tightly monitored.

The East London Mosque, the largest place of worship in Tower Hamlets

As under the previous Prevent strategy, so too under the revised strategy, the actual implementation of Prevent on the ground has tended to vary considerably – both from centrally articulated policy and from one city to another. For example, our research project ‘Muslim Participation in Governance’[9] examined the ways in which Prevent operated in Leicester, Tower Hamlets and Birmingham and found across these areas very different responses, models of community engagement and outcomes. Under the previous 2007 strategy, this was clearly a function of the somewhat open-ended nature of Prevent guidance, which gave local authorities leeway to interpret and implement Prevent as they saw fit.[10] But, it was also a function of differing local contexts, particularly in relation to the different political histories, demographic profiles, models of community engagement and approaches to and practices of participatory governance in these areas. Despite the tightening up and closer regulation of Prevent that was ushered in by the 2011 strategy, that picture of local variation has continued.

If we look at Leicester, where faith is a distinctive feature of the city’s celebratory discourses on diversity and multiculturalism, faith actors and inter-faith structures have a very prominent place in local governance networks and forums, such that – in the words of one local actor – in Leicester ‘faith is everywhere’. When Prevent was introduced in 2007, Leicester City Council initially refused to implement it, fearing it would damage its (carefully built) engagement with local Muslim populations and alienate its substantial Hindu and Sikh populations. When the Council did eventually adopt Prevent, it renamed it ‘Mainstreaming Moderation’ and reconceived it to include a focus on all forms of extremism – despite local perceptions that central government was opposed to this reading.[11] When the 2011 strategy was announced, the City Council again refused to implement the new Prevent strategy or accept a Home Office-funded Prevent Officer in the Council. Instead, Prevent has been, since 2012, delivered by a local inter-faith centre in Leicester: St Philips Centre. The St Philips Centre has a particular focus on integration initiatives;[12] indeed it also runs the DCLG’s ‘Near Neighbours’ programme, with responsibility for distributing funding for cross-community initiatives aimed at promoting cohesion. One consequence of this is that, contrary to the stipulations of the new Prevent strategy, under the current arrangements, it is unlikely that Prevent and cohesion work can be separated in Leicester.


“Leicester City Council initially refused to implement Prevent, fearing it would damage its (carefully built) engagement with local Muslim populations.”


Birmingham, where the implementation of Prevent has been hindered by initiatives such as ‘Project Champion’

Turning to Tower Hamlets, the local implementation of the 2007 Prevent strategy was, as in many other cities, closely aligned to the community cohesion agenda, with little work on hard-edge security (thus 24 of the 28 projects that were funded with Prevent monies were focused on broad cohesion aims). Locally, the various agencies responsible for delivering Prevent tended to operate with quite high levels of autonomy.[13] In 2012, the projects that were proposed by Tower Hamlets under the new strategy were initially rejected by central government as ‘too cohesion oriented’. Tower Hamlets Council eventually did receive approval for locally-shaped projects that served its aims along with those of central government.  A good example is the ‘No Place for Hate’ programme, which excludes extremist preachers while also emphasising local cohesion in the face of threats from the far right  – so that overlap between Prevent and cohesion remains. Significantly, Tower Hamlets has opted out of the delivery of Channel, and developed its own local programme that is co- chaired between the local authority and local Police rather than centrally by S015 (Counter Terrorism Command). Despite central government’s ban on working with Islamists, in Tower Hamlets, the East London Mosque (ELM) – an institution vilified by advocates of Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ on account of its alleged links to Islamic revivalist movements – maintains its position as a key institution deeply embedded in local governance and the largest non-governmental provider of local services. Such is the size of ELM that, in truth, it would be difficult for local government to disengage from the ELM, and it could also be counter-productive as it would exclude a large part of the area’s Muslim population.

In contrast with either Leicester or Tower Hamlets, the implementation of Prevent in Birmingham has been much more contested. From the outset, Birmingham City Council raised few objections to implementing the 2007 Prevent strategy, and in the early days did secure cooperation from some Muslim organisations in the city. But suspicion towards Prevent began to arise fairly soon after its inception, and in particular, perceptions that community engagement under Prevent was police-led arose due to the secondment of a police officer from the regional Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) into the City Council’s Equalities Division to take the lead on Prevent inside the Council. By 2010, suspicion towards Prevent intensified due to ‘Project Champion’, an initiative discussed by Arshad Isakjee in this series. Whilst not itself a Prevent initiative, Project Champion did much to undermine the implementation of Prevent in the city. Project Champion was a police surveillance operation involving installation of 216 closed-circuit television (CCTV) and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras (overt and covert) in two areas of Muslim settlement in Birmingham, creating a ‘surveillance ring’ around these areas.[14] Importantly, the counter-terrorism purpose of the cameras was concealed from local residents, and the cameras were badged as a ‘crime safety initiative’ with little and flawed community consultation. The true purpose of Project Champion was revealed by civil society campaigners with damaging implications for Prevent.[15] By 2011, there were very high levels of suspicion of Prevent, with few projects underway, such that for many Prevent came to be regarded, in the words of one interviewee, as ‘dead in this city’. When, in February 2013, West Midlands Police secured convictions against three men accused of plotting a bombing campaign, it was noted by police sources that none of the evidence in the case had been secured as result of Prevent. The Counter Terrorism lead for West Midlands Police, ACC Marcus Beale, conceded: ‘For the evidential journey Prevent wasn’t part of the case at all.’[16]


“Local authorities that have been wary of implementing Prevent could be set for a collision with central government.”


In Leicester the Council has been reluctant to deliver Prevent in the manner directed by national government

So what are the implications of the TERFOR Report for this pattern of local variation? The final report signals the government’s intention to address extremism, introducing further measures to disrupt extremists and counter extremist narratives and ideology through interventions such as extending the use of ASBOs to counter radicalisers and working more closely with internet service providers to block online extremist content. It outlines a renewed emphasis on working with key institutions, including schools, universities and prisons. In a move that seems to suggest a possible re-connection of cohesion and security policies, it strongly emphasises the view that integration is key to undermining extremists, with references to a few small-scale initiatives aimed at bringing communities together. In line with this, it highlights the key role of local authorities in tackling radicalisation, but, significantly, it also proposes new top-down measures which appear designed to discipline local authorities that do not follow national policy. The report states that ‘people on the front line … must have the full support of their local authority’, noting that this ‘is not always the case.’ To rectify this, the report declares that government will ‘take steps to intervene where local authorities are not taking the problem seriously’: more specifically, it suggests it will ‘make delivery of ‘Prevent’ a legal requirement in those areas of the country where extremism is of particular concern’. Additionally, it signals the government’s intention to ‘make delivery of the “Channel” programme a legal requirement’.[17]

It seems then that those local authorities that have been wary of implementing Prevent, such as in Leicester, or of delivering an SO15/Home Office coordinated Channel programme, such as in Tower Hamlets, could be set for a collision with central government. Yet, it is clear that the different responses from local authorities to Prevent are frequently driven by conditions on the ground, where local authorities are working with different political, social as well as security issues. The language of the report on this issue is striking: it implies that the community organisations, activists and police services tasked with the delivery of Prevent have been enthusiastic supporters of the Coalition’s aims and methods, but have been hindered by recalcitrant local authorities. But this is misleading. As the ‘spotlight on Leicester’ published on Public Spirit shows, Leicester City Council has an unusually strong relationship with local community groups, with some partnerships stretching back twenty or more years. While there are some areas of disagreement, those on the ‘front line’ in Leicester – including most of the police officers, council workers and community and religious groups we interviewed for our research – have been broadly supportive of the Council’s approach.

By contrast, those working within communities often have more difficulty with local authorities that do follow the central government approach (or that, in the report’s language, ‘take Prevent seriously’). Birmingham is perhaps the best example of this. Intelligence reports and a series of high-profile convictions – most recently, the conviction of three Birmingham residents for plotting a bombing campaign in the city in February – have led to the city being identified as a ‘hot spot’ for terrorism. Yet despite this, and despite the fact that the local authority has been cooperative, it is Birmingham where Prevent seems to have been least successful. If measures are taken by national government to push through laws forcing local authorities to deliver Prevent and according to a centrally determined template, then this could ultimately do much more harm than good. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the TERFOR Report’s signalling of a much more centralised approach, it is likely that Prevent on the ground will be framed by local actors, because local contexts still matter.

Therese O’Toole is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol and is Principal Investigator on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. Her academic work has focused on ethnic minority political engagement and participatory governance.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain.

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Research Fellow at the University of Kent. Until 2012 he was Research Associate on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. His sociology research has focused on post-migration religion and politics.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, founding Director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities.

[1] Tackling Extremism in the UK: Report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (December 2013) (London: HM Government):

[2] Prime Minister’s Office (2013) ‘Woolwich incidence – government response’, 22nd May 2013:

[3] Home Office (2011) Prevent (London: Home Office):

[4] The left-leaning Institute of Race Relations and the Thatcherite Taxpayers’ Alliance were equally critical of Prevent for example. See Arun Kundnani (2009) Spooked: How Not To Prevent Violent Extremism (London: Institute of Race Relations); The Taxpayers’ Alliance (2009) Council Spending Uncovered II: No. 5: The Prevent Strategy (London: The Taxpayers’ Alliance):

[5] Thomas, Paul (2010) ‘Failed and Friendless: The UK’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ Programme’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations (12, 3: 442-458)

[6] Cameron, David (2011) PM’s Speech at Munich Conference, 5-2-11:

[7] Ewan King (2011) ‘Just out – the new, improved Prevent strategy’, OPM blog 8th June 2011:

[8] Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Tariq Modood (2012) ‘Balancing Tolerance, Security and Muslim Engagement in the UK: The Impact of the ‘Prevent’ Agenda’, Critical Studies on Terrorism (3, 5: 373-389)

[9] Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Tariq Modood, Nasar Meer & Stephen Jones (2013) Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol):

[10] Former Secretary of State at the DCLG, John Denham, recent reflected on new Labour’s Prevent strategy suggesting: ‘With no clear national guidance on forging allies against terrorism, mistakes were inevitable […] Despite this, Prevent did good work in areas where people worked through the challenges for themselves’ [emphasis added]. John Denham (2013) ‘After Woolwich, we should not ‘Prevent’ certain views, but engage with them’, The Guardian, 29th Mary 2013:

[11] Open Society Institute, Muslims in Leicester (London: Open Society Institute, 2010), p. 20

[12] On announcing its new role in delivering the Prevent programme in Leicester, the St Philip’s Centre stated that it ‘was chosen to lead this work because of its excellent national reputation, particularly around integration and building good inter-faith relations’. St Philip’s Centre (2012) Prevent: Serving the Needs of the Community to Reduce the Risks from Extremism, (Leicester: St Philip’s Centre), p. 1:

[13] Giorgia Iacopini, Laura Stock and Kerstin Junge (2011) Evaluation of Tower Hamlets Prevent Projects (London: The Tavistock Institute)

[14] Thames Valley Police (2010) Project Champion Review; 30th September 2010 (London: Thames Valley Police)

[15] The Thames Valley Police Report (2010) highlighted evidence of an explicit strategy of concealment of the counter-terrorism purposes of the cameras from the wider public. See also, Steve Jolly (2010) ‘Birmingham’s spy-cam scheme has had its cover blown’, The Guardian, 23rd June 2010:

[16] Nic Brunetti (2013) ‘Terror Result: Prevent Strategy Ineffective: Community-based Prevent Strategy did little to assist officers investigating a bomb plot in Birmingham’, Police Oracle, 22nd February 2013. The article described Prevent as a strategy ‘aimed at gathering intelligence from the community to deliver terrorism’.

[17] Tackling Extremism in the UK: Report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (December 2013) (London: HM Government), p. 4. Emphasis added.

The image of East London Mosque is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image of Birmingham is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. The image of Leicester city centre has been released into the public domain.

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