Government has left ‘vacuum’ for extremists with Prevent strategy, says adviser

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The government has failed to engage Muslim communities with its counter-extremism Prevent strategy – creating a “vacuum” for Islamists, a senior adviser has warned.

Dame Sara Khan, the independent adviser for social cohesion, said winning support for the counter-terror programme must be done “in a much better way”.

She accused the government of failing to explain the strategy aimed at stopping people being drawn into terrorism – saying there had “clearly been mistakes” in explaining the purpose of the scheme.

Dame Sara told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: “They didn’t do this effectively, they didn’t go out and explain to the Muslim communities what Prevent is about.”

She added: “In essence they left a vacuum, which when Islamists then dominated and said, ‘Well this is what Prevent is about.”

Dame Sara acknowledged that some people had claimed it was a “spying operation when it clearly wasn’t”.

She added: “There were issues like that that caused detrimental failures and caused people not to respect and appreciate the programme.”

The top adviser added: “So those types of challenges have continued and I think continuing to engage with communities, explaining what the programme is, addressing concerns – that’s got to continue in a much better way than we’ve seen previously.”

The controversial anti-radicalisation programme was launched in 2007 and was aimed at stopping people being drawn into extremist ideology – but has been accused of overreaching and stigmatising young Muslims.

Prevent came under renewed scrutiny after it was revealed the terrorist who murdered Sir David Amess had been referred to the programme but continued to plot his attack in secret.

Leaked extracts of the long-delayed review into Prevent reportedly show questions have been raised about “double standards” when it comes to right-wing extremism and Islamist extremism.

According to extracts shared last month with The Guardian, an initial review of the scheme has seen the policy criticised for focusing too much on far-right problem.

The independent review by Sir William Shawcross, a former chairman of the Charity Commission, was delivered to the Home Office in late April but is still undergoing fact and legal checks.

In 2012, while director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, Sir William 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.”

Sir William’s draft review into counter-terrorism in the UK is understood to have called for a renewed focus on Islamist extremism and mental health support for all individuals referred to Prevent.

Sir William’s appointment to the chair of the government’s review into its anti-radicalisation programme drew criticism from Amnesty and other human rights groups earlier this year.

In a joint letter published in February, Amnesty was joined by a coalition of 17 groups in saying they would boycott the review “given [Sir William’s] well-known record and previous statements on Islam”.

Meanwhile, London’s mayor has paid tribute to members of the emergency services who “ran towards danger”, as he marked the fifth anniversary of the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attack.

Sadiq Khan said the capital’s residents will “always stand united in the face of terrorism” as he remembered the victims of the atrocity on 3 June 2017.

Counter-terror expert Sir Ivor Roberts said it remains “unclear how much has been learned from this tragedy”.

The former head of counter-terrorism in the Foreign Office said the attack could be attributed “in significant part, to the failure of the intelligence community to monitor appropriately subjects of interest”.

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