I survived the 7/7 bombings and went on to work with Prevent because of it – here’s why our approach to counterterrorism is all wrong
15 AUGUST 2018
In the wake of yet another terrorist attack in the capital, the usual conversations about counterterrorism tactics have sprung up once again. But as a survivor of the 7/7 bombings who has worked in counterterrorism for over a decade, I know that developing a considered approach is the only way we stand a chance of successfully tackling the problem at hand. Knee-jerk reactions after attacks do little to tackle the issue of terrorism and can in fact fuel radicalisation.
I chose to dedicate my life to countering terrorism in my own community as a direct result of survivng the 7/7 London bombings. I had little idea at the time what an arduous journey I was about to embark on.
In that time I, a young Muslim woman, worked in partnership with Prevent - a highly contentious programme that since its inception has been continuously criticsed for its part in further ostracising Muslims. The work I did was centred around the Web Guardians programme, which was designed to build community resilience through the education and empowerment of Muslim women and mothers to prevent and tackle online extremism.
Prevent was intended to be a community-focused programme, with the aim of safeguarding people and communities from terrorism - all princoples that I truly believe in. It was also a key finding in the report commissioned by Labour MP Andy Burnham that "there is a perpetuating cycle of lack of information available to communities regarding Prevent and circulation of inaccurate information. This leads to fear developing within communities."
And fear in communities is exactly what I encountered during my time working with Prevent. As a so-called safeguarding programme, it was, and has not been successful in winning over the hearts and minds of the very people it purports to protect, which is a fundamental failure. Instead, what Prevent has done is further alienate the Muslim community.
There are numerous occasions on which I would hear firsthand concerns from a large number of Muslims (and non-Muslims) across the UK. In many cases, parents would tell their children not to discuss foreign policy or terrorist attacks in school for fear of being reported to Prevent. As a result, one of few ways I could win people over in my work was often by relaying my own story as a Muslim survivor of terrorism. I worked with the community, rather than pointing fingers at them, and was able to point out that terrorist attacks impact us all irrespective of background, faith and colour, from a perspective they do not often encounter in that line of work.
I also sought to address the wider criticisms and concerns of Prevent internally; an unwelcome approach that eventually resulted in funding for the Web Guardians programme being withdrawn in May, budget cuts being cited, even though overall funding for counterterror has actually increased. Even more alarming was the fact that it was directly at odds with the government's new Contest strategy, which stresses the need to meet local community needs through civil society organisations.
All in all, the issues surrounding Prevent are extensive. It has never published criteria for contractors or benchmarks for success; partnershops are not encouraged and projects are not disclosed. Instead, profit-making companies are parachuted into communities they do not understand, with flash in the pan projects, rather than long term community solutions.
These difficulties have been further compounded by the recent mainstreaming of far-right ideology, which pushes a political and social agenda that normalises hatred and bigotry. We've seen countless examples recently; in comments that Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary, made last week where we compared women in burqa's to "letterboxes" as well as the explosion of support for Tommy Robinson through the "Free Tommy" campaign.
Since Johnson made his comments, JAN Trust, a charity that works with and supports women and young people in a bid to create stronger and safer communities, has been contacted by a number of women to report Islamophobic hate incidents and crimes. Others such as Tell Mama also reported a rise in Islamophobic incidents following Boris's comments.
A decade after beginning my counterterror work, and with the evident change in the political climate, I believe now more than ever that it is time to rethink our approach.
If the government is truly committed to countering extremism, it must firstly commission an independent review of Prevent.
Preventative work is key, but it has to be resourced at both a strategic and community level, otherwise we leave the young at risk of being radicalised. For many in the communities I work with, there lives are, sadly, defined by uncertainty, a lack of belonging and being victims of abuse and Islamophobia. I know firsthand that if we don't not combat terrorism using a holistic approach, tackling all drivers, then we are leaving our future generations at risk. If we are not prepared to invest in our future, there is little chance that the world we currently live in, one that is currently overrun with hatred, will change for the better.
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