When I was at Public Saftey Canada I had the opportunity to work in outreach with some outstanding civil servants. They would organise sessions across the country with a variety of communities to engage on a wide range of topics all related in some way to public safety. I was invited on some of them when the topic was violent extremism and radicalisation.
All of these talks, or at least the vast majority, were held with Canadian Muslim communities. This made sense for me since that was what I specialised in: violent Islamist extremism. It would have been pointless to use my experience in any other matter. We were able to carefully and properly construct these sessions – it is after all hard to talk to a community about the possibility of terrorism in their midst – but I think we did it well (judged by the feedback we received).
Other places are struggling with this model. Although this is not ‘outreach’, there is already a hue and cry in the UK over plans to allow MI5, the British Security Service (akin to CSIS), to target people for identification before concrete moves to carry out acts of terrorism materialise. One guess who the focused communities are: Muslim. This new strategy seems to be tied to the UK’s PREVENT program (one of the four pillars of CONTEST – the counter terrorism strategy) under which “faith leaders, teachers, doctors and other community leaders (are called upon) to report suspicions about people who may be leaning towards radicalisation to a local Prevent body.”
That there is opposition is of no surprise. British Muslim communities are probably sick and tired of being ‘targeted’ by the security services and of the conviction held by some that they are uniquely associated with terrorism. I get that. And yet a cursory glance at recent successful, as well as foiled, terrorist attacks in the UK show quite convincingly that the majority are perpetrated by radicalised UK Muslims. Yes, there have been attacks by the far right, but I am pretty sure the figures show they are in the minority (so far: that could very well change as many have predicted).
What then should the state do? Limit its efforts to tracking known terrorists and interdicting them before they act (one hopes)? Is the public okay with a failure rate in this regard? Is there a need for dialogue and outreach? Is there nothing to be gained by helping to identify early the small numbers of British Muslims who demonstrate signs of radicalisation to violence (there are signs but they are not 100% predictive in nature) and get them to reconsider?
I think that outreach can be done well as we were able to do so in Canada. And I am sure that my former colleagues would love to share current best practices and lessons learned with anyone else. There is, however, an outstanding problem. We talked with Canadian Muslims because that was where a problem was shown to occur. Some may have felt singled out but that does not mean that there were not issues that needed to be put on the table. Where would the state go to address right-wing extremism? Is there a ‘community’ where this can be presented? Of that I am not certain. We benefited from mosques and Islamic centres and Muslim youth leaders to plan our sessions. Is there an equivalent on the far right? Perhaps so, and if my readers know more than I do I’d love to hear from you.
Outreach delivers multiple benefits for both sides and hence it is a good thing to do. It is never perfect but an honest effort is usually appreciated. If we want to reduce the number of terrorist attacks as well as the number of people whose lives (and those of their families) are ruined because they radicalised to violence we need to have agencies other than the security services and law enforcement talking to and listening to communities. There are multiple actors in the counter terrorism game and each has a contribution to make. These are efforts worth making.