Combating the threat posed by homegrown terrorists is among the most difficult challenges facing liberal democracies. The attack at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hasan and the abortive attempt to detonate a car bomb in Time Square by Faisal Shahzad have brought this issue into sharp relief for the United States.

These are not isolated cases. Britain has also faced unprecedented levels of homegrown radicalization over the last decade, prompting the government to publish its expansive counter-terrorism strategy, known as "Contest," in 2003. It is based on four pillars: Protect, Pursue, Prepare, and Prevent.

The first three encompass what might be termed as traditional policing and intelligence work:

  • Pursue – gather intelligence against key individuals, disrupt their plots, and arrest and prosecute where appropriate.
  • Protect – improve security and surveillance, and impose effective border controls.
  • Prepare – develop effective civil contingency and emergency service responses to a terrorist attack.

The final aspect, Prevent, is among the most ambitious and novel. Prevent aims to undermine the terrorist threat by identifying and challenging those susceptible to radicalization, and operates under the name: Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). Although the United States has yet to formally announce the creation of a similar project, senior officials in the Department for Homeland Security and FBI are known to be impressed by PVE. Yet, PVE is not an uncontroversial initiative and is already being reviewed by the new coalition government. This paper will attempt to offer readers in the United States a cautionary tale about the British experience, and offer a "lessons learned" perspective on the way forward.

PVE is a strategy predicated on the premise that empowering ostensibly non-violent radicals can act as a safety valve, dissipating the energies of those who might otherwise be seduced by violent methods. The practical effect of this has been to engage and empower non-violent exponents of extreme Islamist ideology who, although they might express opposition to the terrorism of bin Laden, often share a similar worldview. Al-Qaeda is opposed, therefore, for its methods – not because it is monstrous. Elements within the British state, particularly those whose primary concern is security, have been tempted to see this as the solution to al Qaeda violence. It is as if, we are told, the cure lies within the ideological poison itself.

This tendency is exemplified by the term, "Preventing Violent Extremism," the banner under which the government's counter-radicalization process currently operates. As the name suggests, a premium is placed on ensuring there is no violence on British shores. The manner in which this objective is achieved has been deemed to be of little or no importance. The result is that Islamists – who may not advocate violence against the British state but whose views are none the less extreme and often in conflict with the values of our liberal democracy – have been enlisted as official, public partners in the hope that their co-operation might reduce the terrorist threat.

Similar ideas are finding traction in the United States. Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke first suggested in 2007 that policy makers utilize the "moderate Muslim Brotherhood" to tilt ordinary Muslim opinion against al-Qaeda violence.

"When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, the beginning of wisdom lies in differentiating it from radical Islam and recognizing the significant differences between [the] national Brotherhood organizations [operating in various parts of the world]. That diversity suggests Washington should adopt a case-by-case approach, letting the situation in each individual country determine when talking with - or even working with - [the branches of] the Brotherhood is feasible and appropriate....Washington should be taking stock of its interests and capabilities in the Muslim world - a conversation with the Muslim Brotherhood makes strong strategic sense."

These approaches deny the causal link between nonviolent extremism and violent extremists. Michael Burleigh's recent synthesis of much existing scholarship on terrorism in Blood and Rage demonstrates, however, that terrorists almost always need, and leech off, a wider set of cultural and moral imperatives to drive them forward. Surveying almost two centuries of terrorism, from Sergei Nechaev and the Fenians to Carlos the Jackal and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Burleigh shows how terrorism cannot be isolated from its surrounding ideological environment.

This has been the greatest failing of the British approach – and the United States looks set to repeat many of the same mistakes. Evidence given to the House of Representatives subcommittee on "Working with Communities to Disrupt Terror Plots" reveals the extent to which the British model is being received without critical attention.

"Our British counterparts, after the painful lessons learned from the London subway bombings in 2005, have made enormous efforts to develop such a systematic strategy, which they aptly call their PREVENT strategy. To be blunt, they are miles ahead of U.S. law enforcement, whose efforts in this regard are local rather than national. We can learn from the British example" Professor Deborah Ramirez said in her testimony.

Brett Hovington from the FBI's Office of Public Affairs and Community Relations Unit also confirmed he has visited the United Kingdom to study Prevent. He told the subcommittee "The FBI continues to adapt our established youth programs to help us reach new groups of young people, particularly in Muslim communities. Field offices sponsor teen academies which are designed to introduce youth to the FBI. We also have the Adopt-a-School/Junior Special Agent program, which is designed to introduce youth to the FBI and to encourage good citizenship".

This underscores one of the central practical problems of Prevent: Who should the government pick as its partners? To whom should the state afford official recognition, support and even approbation? This can be particularly difficult when dealing with poorly understood ethno-religious groups comprising a veritable alphabet-soup of exotic names. In the British context it has sometimes meant empowering the very groups Prevent was designed to undermine in the name community cohesion.

A similar initiative to that being trialled by the FBI has been employed by British police forces. The United Kingdom Islamic Mission (UKIM) has previously worked with West Midlands Police and even invited one of their officers to speak at their annual conference. "I take huge comfort from the really positive messages from the Muslim community" a representative told the audience.

Later, at an event in the UKIM's mosque in Birmingham, another invited speaker told Muslims they can't join the police. "How can you be implementing the laws of kufr [disbelief]? It means a rejection of the concept of democracy, rejecting the entirety of the system".

He went on to ridicule a British Muslim soldier who died in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban in 2008. "There was an individual who was killed in Afghanistan recently - what was his name? His name was a Muslim name you know what they'd written in a tabloid newspaper? Hero of Islam! A hero of Islam who went into the Muslim Afghanistan to kill Muslims. Why? Because they [the Taliban] are implementing Islam. The hero of Islam is the one who separated his head from his shoulders." The recent Holy Land Foundation trial underscored the dangers of this in the United States too.

Ensuring the appropriate selection of partners for Prevent, therefore, requires the development of a rigorous, values-based criteria which inflects the normative social values of the liberal state into the decision making process.

There are broader obstacles for American policy makers to consider as well. Whitehall mandarins have been free to bolster a range of Islamist projects with public funds in the hope of realising Prevent's aims. Yet, constitutional constraints will hinder those on Capitol Hill hoping to replicate the policy. The establishment clause of the First Amendment, for example, will stifle any attempt to offer direct assistance to Muslim groups and projects aimed at American Muslims.

These policies fall into the lazy pattern of viewing Muslims through only the narrow prism of their confessional identity. The existing framework for PVE reinforces this because it regards political Islamists, and more importantly their message, as a necessary bulwark against violent extremism. American policy makers must avoid the mistake of reinforcing the confessional rather than civic aspects of Muslim identity.

Finding new ways to engage genuine Muslim moderates requires the state to stop underwriting the very Islamist ideology which spawns an illiberal and anti-western worldview. This has been the greatest strategic error on the part of officialdom: the belief that it cannot reasonably ask angry Muslims for much more than a pledge not to use violence in the West. The effect has been to bolster reactionaries within Muslim communities and to marginalize genuine moderates, thus increasing inter-community tensions and envenoming the public space.

Preventing people from embracing the methods of violent extremists is a most necessary aspect of modern counter-terrorism. Realizing that aim however requires more courage than government mandarins have so far been willing to exhibit. Officials need to once again recast the state as the authoritative allocator of values, giving much greater thought to what those values are and how they should be reflected. It also needs a sea-change in the way Western societies view their Muslim citizens: seeing them as more than just Muslims, invoking the multiplicity of their different identities, and differentiating among them with a lot more care .

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