A blinkered approach to tackling extremism

Jemma Levene - 23 06 22

Prominent political journalist James Forsyth fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the modern terrorism threat when he criticised those who focus on far-right extremism, says HOPE not hate’s Jemma Levene.

Political editor of The Spectator, James Forsyth, wrote a comment piece for The Times newspaper last week, in which he claimed there was now too much emphasis placed on tackling far-right extremism compared to Islamist-inspired extremism in the UK.

Forsyth concluded that the government’s Prevent counter-extremism safeguarding programme, and the security services, should focus much more on Islamist extremism, and he took a good side swipe at HOPE not hate’s work in the process.

Here’s our response.

The Government’s most recent quarterly terrorism stats show that of those in custody for terrorism, 68% were categorised as holding Islamist-extremist views, while 24% were categorised as holding Extreme Right-Wing ideologies.

Meanwhile, in the year to 31 March 2021, there were a total 4,915 Prevent referrals, of which 1,333 were deemed serious enough to be discussed at a Channel panel of experts (Channel is a government programme providing early support to those vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism), and 688 adopted as Channel cases.

Members of National Action protesting, wearing all black and covering their faces
National Action was the first far-right group to be banned since WW2, thanks in part to HOPE not hate’s investigations

Of the 688 Channel cases, 46% were referred due to concerns regarding Extreme Right-Wing radicalisation, 30% due to a mixed, unstable or unclear ideology, and 22% due to concerns regarding Islamist radicalisation.

With these two sets of stats in mind, Forsyth writes: “Given this, it’s surprising that less than a quarter of referrals to Prevent concern Islamism,” and then quotes an unnamed “Whitehall figure” who says this “can only reflect a misunderstanding of the situation”. Ironically, these quotes actually betray a failure to grasp what the data is showing.

Forsyth’s flawed argument is based on a static understanding of the terrorism threat 

Forsyth’s error is that he is aligning the makeup of those in custody for terrorism offences – many arrested and charged years, or even decades, ago – with the ideological makeup of people being referred to Prevent over the last year. His argument only holds if there has been no change to the nature of the terror threat over the last decade – which is not the case.

We projected “Telegram: Terrorists’ favourite messaging app” on the side of Telegram’s legally registered offices, after exposing extreme channels on the messaging app which called for terrorism, violence and rape.

He fails to note, for example, that the proportion of White people arrested exceeded the proportion of Asian people arrested for the fourth consecutive year in a row. In the latest data, arrests of persons of White ethnic appearance accounted for 46% of arrests, while those of Asian ethnic appearance accounted for 26% of terrorist-related arrests, down four percent.

While of course not all Islamist terrorists are of Asian heritage and not all far-right terrorists are white, these arrest figures do reflect the rise in far-right terrorism arrests.

“It is of real concern to us, to see children featuring more often and more prominently in our ongoing investigations” – Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Dean Haydon 

Forsyth’s flawed argument is based on a static understanding of the terrorism threat. In truth, the rise in Prevent referrals for suspected extreme right-wing ideology does not reflect an over-emphasis on the far right, but rather on the recent rise in the threat from that area, especially among the young.

HOPE not hate’s infiltration of National Action prevented the murder of a female Labour MP

With an upward trend in children being arrested for terror offences, Britain’s head of counter-terrorism policing, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon, recently warned of the growing danger of children and young people being dragged into far-right extremism, calling it of “real concern”

Of the 20 children arrested for terrorism during 2021, 19 were linked to far-right ideologies. Is it any surprise then that Prevent referrals, many of which come via schools, are reflecting this growing issue?

Of the 20 children arrested for terrorism during 2021, 19 were linked to far-right ideologies 

In his argument, Forsyth also selectively refers to the international picture. While it is true that violent jihadi groups have been better armed, organised and more active than extreme far-right groups, there has also been a wave of tragic far-right inspired terror attacks over the last decade.

The message HOPE not hate shared with the people of New Zealand, after 51 Muslims were killed by a white supremacist terrorist in Christchurch, 2019

Since Anders Breivik’s mass killing in Norway in 2011, when he killed 77 people in gun and bomb attacks, there has been an ever growing list of far-right terror attacks.

These include, but are not limited to:

Here in the UK, we have also had the tragic murder of Jo Cox by a neo-nazi fanatic and the Finsbury Park mosque attack – in which a Muslim man died – in recent years. 

Jo Cox MP, murdered by a white supremacist fanatic in 2016

Ironically, given Forsyth’s written attack on us, we are one of the few groups who have long opposed both Islamist and far-right extremism and actually had the intel to identify the networks behind radicalised British individuals who went to Syria when ISIS were most active. 

‘Gateway to Terror’, HOPE not hate’s first major report into the Al-Muhajiroun network (2013)
Ironically, we are one of the few groups who have long opposed both Islamist and far-right extremism 

In the last few years it has been the work of Muslim communities themselves, together with work from Home Office and security service teams (including Prevent programmes) which has stopped more Britons from becoming radicalised and joining extreme international Islamist movements.

Forsyth complains of “an overly broad and overly politicised approach to what might contribute to right-wing extremism” advanced by organisations such as HOPE not hate.

His ‘evidence’ is a quote taken from the editorial of a version of our State of HATE report from two years ago, which explained how demeaning language and messaging is increasingly being used by mainstream commentators to win support from those further to the right. 

This is one line in a 138-page report. State of HATE is our annual round up of the activities, groups and trends within the far right. We know that the public and voluntary sector uses it as a directory of trends, groups and threats of which it needs to be aware.

However, Forsyth seems to be confusing that with another very widely used publication of ours, Signs of HATE, which is a safeguarding guide to the far right, distributed to designated safeguarding leads in secondary schools across England and Wales. This fulfils an entirely different purpose.

‘Signs of Hate’, our guide for teachers and provided free to all schools

There is certainly a debate to be had about the effectiveness of the Prevent programme, including what role, if any, it should have when it comes to non-violent extremism. Criticisms regarding the securitisation of the Muslim community need to be part of this debate. 

Forsyth appears to feel the net is cast too widely when seeking to understand the drivers and causes of far-right extremism. Yet paradoxically he argues for the opposite when it comes to Islamist extremism. He wants more focus on the role of non-violent Islamist ideas, but a lesser focus when it comes to non-violent right-wing ideas. 

He seems happy to dismiss years of academic research into the complex motivations and triggers for active involvement in terrorism 

He seems happy to dismiss years of academic research into the complex motivations and triggers for active involvement in terrorism, if the ideological motivation is Islamist, and then goes on to call for equal treatment for far-right and Islamist terrorism. 

If Forsyth’s motivation in writing his piece was to genuinely contribute to making Britain a safer place for all of us in the fight against terrorism, this distortion would have no place. Perhaps the parity he claims to seek should be left to those working on the frontline in our communities, up and down the country, without fear of political interference.

Government programmes to tackle violent extremism and terrorism should be in response to actual and planned violent activity, regardless of ideological motivation.

Jemma Levene is Deputy Director of HOPE not hate


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