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Leaked UK counterterror review finds ‘double standards’ on far-right and Islamist investigations

LONDON: A leaked draft of a review into Britain’s counterterrorism legislation claims that the government has focused too much on right-wing extremism and should renew its focus on Islamist extremism.

In an exclusive leak seen by the Guardian newspaper, the review argues that the Prevent program has been hampered by a “double standard” approach to tackling different forms of extremism. 

It claims that an expansion of what people consider to be “extreme” right-wing content means that mandatory right-wing views are being referred to the program, while the focus on Islamist extremism has been more limited.

The report said that definitions have “been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing-leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalization.”

The review into Prevent is being led by Sir William Shawcross. Sir Peter Fahy, the former police lead for Prevent, told the Guardian that Shawcross’ findings were an attempt to “politicize counterterrorism policing,” adding that it was “quite dangerous to play off one ideology against another.”

Shawcross’ review calls for a renewed focus on Islamist extremism, even when candidates for referral to Prevent fail to meet the terrorism threshold.

The leak added that some people have been referred to Prevent even when no extremism was being expressed, but because they were believed to need access to mental health support. It said that counter-extremism outlets were “carrying the weight” for limited mental health services, with vulnerable and struggling people sent to Prevent when more appropriate services were unavailable.

The Guardian found that the review also claimed that some Prevent-funded groups had expressed support for the Taliban.

The leak follows months of controversy over the upcoming report, with many civil society groups and campaigning NGOs refusing to engage with the review.

Citing Shawcross’ past controversial comments about Islam, several groups refused to cooperate with the investigation. As director of the neoconservative think tank the Henry Jackson Society in 2012, Shawcross said: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

His comments about the supposed “double standard” in investigations comes as referrals to Prevent for far-right extremism overtook those for Islamist radicalization for the first time in 2021. 

The Channel program — the next level up from Prevent where more extensive intervention is provided — has been dealing with more far-right than Islamist cases since 2020.

Shawcross now holds that Prevent must be repurposed to confront the root causes of radicalization and react to the ideological support for terrorism, which he believes “is not being sufficiently met.”

The leaked report says that the program must go beyond its current limits and target people who “create an environment conducive to terrorism.”

It criticizes several Prevent-funded civil society organizations and projects, arguing that too few “could be seen to publicly contest extremist discourse.” Most shockingly, the review claims that it found groups that “have promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appear supportive of the Taliban.” 

The draft argues: “As a core principle, the government must cease to engage with or fund those aligned with extremism.”

The report has yet to be finalized and fact-checked for libel and other routine reviews.

Fahy, who was head of Prevent until 2015, told the Guardian: “There is a danger of policing thought as opposed to the risk of violence. It is not about ideology but about the risk someone will cross into violence.

“It is about threat, risk and harm. We know there has been an increase in far-right-wing extremism in the UK. The worst terrorist attack in Europe was by a right-wing terrorist, Anders Breivik.

“It sounds to me quite dangerous to play off one ideology against another. There is a danger this is an attempt to politicize counterterrorism policing. How are the police supposed to judge what is mainstream? Police operate on what is the likelihood of this person being drawn into violence, not whether their views are mainstream.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Prevent remains a vital tool for early intervention and safeguarding. We will not allow extremists or terrorists to spread hate or sow division, and Prevent remains an important driver to help divert people away from harm.

“The independent review of Prevent, led by William Shawcross, will ensure we continue to improve our response and better protect people from being drawn into poisonous and dangerous ideologies. The report is currently being finalized and once formally received and after full consideration, the report and the government’s response to it will be published.”