A heated Q&A panel this week managed to agree on one thing: in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Nice, there is a greater need in Australia for early intervention strategies to steer young people away from the path to radicalisation.
Given the serious threat Australia and many other countries face from Islamic-State-inspired terrorism, it is difficult to disagree with the idea that prevention is better than cure. When a 15-year-old radicalised boy can shoot an innocent man in broad daylight on a city street, something clearly needs to be done to ensure vulnerable youth do not become radicalised and commit acts of terrorism.
At the same time, calls for greater investments in deradicalisation programs overlook the significant problems that can be caused by national policy strategies for countering violent extremism.
The UK’s experience with its Prevent strategy over nearly a decade urges caution in how Australia should approach its own efforts to counter the threat of radicalisation.
What do the programs aim to achieve?
Countering violent extremism programs became a focus of domestic counter-terrorism strategies after the London bombings in 2005.
They are receiving renewed funding and attention in response to terrorism associated with Islamic State (IS).
These programs supplement coercive counter-terrorism powers by tackling terrorism’s underlying causes. They encompass a variety of policy measures, ranging from community-run projects and cultural activities to more targeted intervention programs aimed at deradicalising young people who show early signs of radicalisation.
What’s happening in Australia?
Australia came relatively late to the idea that its coercive counter-terrorism laws should be supplemented with a national program to counter violent extremism.
In the 2010 federal budget, the Rudd government allocated A$9.7 million over four years to such efforts. Much of this supported a community-based grants scheme for “building resilient communities”.
The Abbott government initially dropped this funding, although it later announced $64 million in response to the ongoing terror threat. Nearly $20 million of this was allocated to community-based and diversionary approaches, with $1.9 million supporting a “Living Safe Together” grants program similar to that introduced by Labor.
Details on deradicalisation programs in Australia are scarce. However, the attorney-general’s department notes they are either established or being developed across Australia.
What is the UK’s strategy?
The UK’s Prevent strategy is the key overseas example of such a national program.
It is one of four core strands of the UK’s national strategy for countering terrorism, known as CONTEST. Prevent was supplemented in late 2015 by a national Counter-Extremism Strategy that tackles the threat of IS-associated terrorism.
Community-based work under Prevent began in 2007. The strategy has since come under continual criticism for aggravating perceptions of surveillance and discrimination in Britain’s Muslim communities.
Recurring concerns with Prevent relate to the strategy’s disproportionate focus on Muslim communities, the heavy role police play in overseeing the strategy’s delivery, and its close association with coercive approaches to counter-terrorism.
A police-led intervention program, Channel, is a major driver of these concerns. Under the program, police collect information and conduct risk assessments to determine whether individuals should be referred to a multi-agency support panel. Teachers, health workers and community members are encouraged to identify individuals who might be at risk of radicalisation and refer them to the program.
More recently, significant concern has been expressed about Prevent’s impact on free speech and academic freedom. Teachers in British schools and universities now receive training to help identify signs of radicalisation in their students. Similar debates are playing out in Australia.
The Cameron government identified and sought to remedy many of these issues in a 2011 review of Prevent. However, significant concerns remain.
Recently, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation called for an independent review of Prevent because it “has become a more significant source of grievance in affected communities” than the UK’s counter-terrorism laws.
What next for Australia?
It seems uncontentious to suggest that coercive counter-terrorism laws should be supplemented with community-based programs to counter violent extremism.
However, the UK’s experience demonstrates that such programs are not unproblematic. They can equally generate perceptions that governments are unfairly targeting Muslim communities.
It is likely that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will develop a more constructive dialogue with Australia’s Muslim communities about the threat of terrorism than his predecessor did. But given the significant ongoing threat, the push for more targeted approaches to deradicalisation in Australia is likely to be strong.
Calls for greater investments in deradicalisation need to be followed by a careful discussion as to how Australia will approach its national efforts to counter violent extremism.
It is important to remember that such programs are not one type of strategy. They can emphasise a community-led approach, or they can emphasise the need for police to identify and deradicalise young people who pose a potential security threat.
The UK’s experience would urge strongly against the latter. What is needed is genuine consultation with Australia’s Muslim communities as to how young individuals at risk can best be provided with the support they need to avoid being radicalised.