What It’s Like To Lead Counter-Extremism Efforts In The UK
Will Baldét is a Regional Coordinator for the UK’s Countering Violent Extremism Programme (Prevent) and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.
In 2008 it all seemed so simple. My job as Prevent Community Engagement Officer was to work with local communities to highlight the risks of radicalization and to build confidence in the alternative, a safeguarding response to protect vulnerable people from being exploited. Who would have thought that 11 years later I would have undergone personal safety training, counter, and anti-surveillance techniques and been given ‘situational awareness’ advice, all to ensure my own personal protection. Yet that is where we are in 2019, when those working to tackle extremism are themselves the targets of hate campaigns and threats to their safety.
Acolytes of UK Islamist groups have been amongst the worst online culprits. Wise enough to restrict their campaigns to cyberspace, the social media pile-on by supporters of niche Islamist ideology can be exhausting. What starts as a relatively civil exchange soon descends into a firefight, where attacks come from all directions and one conversation becomes twenty as the twitter mob coordinates itself.
The intentions are clear: the ultimate ‘win’ for these recreants is your scalp, to force you into a slip-up (perhaps a furious retort that oversteps the boundaries of civility) to screenshot for posterity; in the short term, they are happy to simply bully you into submission and silence you. With no sense of irony, those who claim counter-terrorism policies have a chilling effect on free speech are themselves bludgeoning their opponents into censorship.
And of course, in true misogynistic fashion, they reserve their real venom for female practitioners. The attacks on the Commissioner for Countering Extremism (CCE), Sara Khan, have been some of the most vicious, the most vindictive and the most vile. Inevitably, she has been vilified for her previous work for the counter-extremism NGO, Inspire, and for her current appointment as Commissioner, but the attacks haven’t just been directed at her work. Many have been leveled at her appearance, her family, her ‘perceived Muslimness’ and even accusations of apostasy (leaving Islam), a slur that has potentially dangerous real-world consequences.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that as part of the consultation for the CCE’s paper on extremism in the UK, the impact on practitioners, their wellbeing and their families is being taken seriously.
In reality, these social media warriors pose little or no direct physical threat. The late-night rants into their phones can appear comical in the cold light of day, and like the playground bullies who hide behind the headteacher when challenged, these ‘warriors’ goad and provoke ad nauseam and then cower behind expensive lawyers when the tables are turned.
However, living as we do in the shadow of a National Action plot to kill MP Rosie Cooper, a conviction for the abuse of MP Luciana Berger, the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox by a neo-Nazi loner and our politicians being branded as traitors to this country, the hectoring on social media by radical right activists has a far more sinister edge. Running through all of today’s extreme right-wing narratives, often more prominently than bigotry and racism, is a core anti-establishment theme. Anyone seen as part of the establishment must take seriously the rage of the radical right.
Recurrent in the far-right radicalization cases we encounter in Prevent, part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, is the notion of degeneracy; the idea that the West has lost its way and the foundations of Western culture as they see them – religion, race, family, patriotism – are being eroded. While increased migration, a perceived threat from Islam and the supposed nefarious influence of Jewish interests in UK affairs are all part of the narrative, it is the architects of this degeneracy, the powerful elites, an unholy trinity of politicians, police and the media, who are ultimately held responsible.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these petitions:
Those who work in counter-terrorism or counter-extremism are seen as inseparable from the establishment. It was by chance that I stumbled across two websites turning their attention to the Prevent strategy and making reference to some recent comments I made on the increase in far-right referrals to the program. One website, National Vanguard, sandwiched me between essays celebrating the American white supremacist William Luther Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries. The other, Western Spring, declares itself, “A community of people dedicated to achieving the Six Prerequisites….that secure the future survival, proliferation and advancement of the British people and other White peoples (sic) of European descent”. Both articles, near carbon copies of each other, regurgitate an accusation by former BNP President Nick Griffin that Prevent is brainwashing white children to reject the “preservation of their own ancestral bloodline”.
Whilst mildly creepy, such infamy does not compare to the inference of violent retribution that was directed at me when I publicly criticized National Action. My comments inspired neo-Nazis from around the world to accuse me of being a ‘race traitor’ and one who would be ‘tried, judged and sentenced in the people’s court’ and that such treachery would not go ‘unpunished’. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might think that the repeated efforts to hack my Twitter and Facebook accounts after each online spat were crude attempts to glean my personal details and not simply a remarkable coincidence.
And yet, despite the abuse they endure, there are hundreds of practitioners working to tackle the influence of extremist groups. Some are visible and publicly highlighting the hypocrisies of the more malign actors and showing a more honest, thoughtful representation of counter-extremism to the public. Others work diligently within their local areas bringing that honesty and integrity directly to the communities they support.
You could argue that such flack is inevitable if someone chooses a job that obfuscates the efforts of terrorists and extremists, surely it will incur their wrath and antagonize those groups who sympathize with them. But I would also argue that there are more of us – practitioners, police, NGOs and local Government officials – than there are extremists. And while we should not dismiss the real-world risks of the dangerous speech they promote, we should be optimistic that, along with the silent majority of the UK public who reject their divisive and aggressive narratives, we will eventually reclaim the center-ground.
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