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Counter-terrorism was ignored in the UK general election – it must not be forgotten in 2020

Tributes after terrorist attack. Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

The killing of the Iranian military strategist Qasem Soleimani at the start of 2020 may not have much, if any, direct effect on terrorism in the UK. But it was always unlikely that threats from jihadis, dissident Irish republicans and the far right would decline significantly as the new decade unfolds. Dealing with these threats must remain a top political priority.

And yet, in spite of the horrific incident in London on 29 November, counter-terrorism did not feature prominently in the campaign for the UK’s 2019 general election, two weeks later. Indeed, neither of the two main parties had much to say about it.

The Conservatives’ manifesto promised to “combat extremism” and to improve security at public venues. It also undertook to increase prison sentences for violent crime, invest in the police and security services, and provide the powers necessary for new threats to be addressed.

Labour similarly promised to take effective measures against the “growing problem of extreme or violent radicalisation” and to improve security coordination, while making sure official powers are proportionate and respect human rights. Reviews of existing security strategies and programmes were also envisaged, with an emphasis upon avoiding “alienating communities”.

The relationship between election manifestos and the delivery of their commitments is never straightforward. But different risks lurked behind the banal façades of these two recent examples.

Sorry Labour

There were particular problems with Labour’s perspective, moreover what was assumed and implied than stated. While Jeremy Corbyn and other prominent party figures have condemned each terrorist outrage suffered in recent years, Labour’s analysis was, and remains, fundamentally flawed.

As articulated by former newspaper columnist and the party’s current director of strategy, Seumas Milne, it goes something like this: while terrorism connected with the Middle East is horrific, it is largely a predictable and avoidable reaction to western meddling in “Muslim lands”.

This includes the establishment of and subsequent support for Israel, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In other words, the west has largely brought the crisis upon itself.

According to this view, rather than seeking an elusive domestic security solution, the UK should instead formally acknowledge and apologise for its imperialist interference in the Islamic world. The vilification and criminalisation of Muslims by domestic counter-terrorist law and policy, especially the Prevent programme, should also end.

There is an undeniable kernel of truth in this analysis. For centuries, the west has indeed been involved in the Muslim world. But significant features of contemporary Islamist terrorism are also conveniently ignored.

For example, the overwhelming majority of its casualties are Muslim. It also divides Muslims from each other much more than it pits them collectively against non-believers.

And unlike, say, Northern Irish terrorism, the various Islamist protagonists in the UK have no political counterparts with whom negotiations could be conducted in pursuit of a domestic political settlement.

It is difficult to see, therefore, what credible alternative there could be except to stiffen public resilience, attempt to deradicalise potential recruits before it’s too late, and criminalise, punish and seek to rehabilitate offenders.

Complacent Conservatives

But all is not well with the Conservative approach either. Here the principal challenges are complacency, over-reliance on heavier prison sentences, and the need to repair whatever damage Brexit causes to security cooperation with the EU and its member states.

It is, for example, difficult to understand what longer prison sentences for the most serious offences committed by jihadis are supposed to achieve. Deterrence is unlikely since most of those concerned expect, and even hope, to die in the process. And without effective intervention, prison can harden inmates’ commitment to violent causes and provide a fertile environment for recruitment to them.

Home secretary Priti Patel and prime minister Boris Johnson attend the London Bridge crime scene in 2019. Simon Dawson/PA Wire/PA Images

The new government will also have to respond to the independent review of the controversial Prevent strategy whose original chair, a vocal supporter of the programme, was stood down at the end of last year.

But it would be premature for the anti-Prevent movement to conclude that the strategy will be scrapped. As research by myself and others has shown, any fair and open-minded review is more likely to recommend that it is retained and strengthened, and that the myths surrounding it are systematically dispelled.

Read more: Counter-terrorism Prevent strategy receives a boost from the courts – and statistical evidence

In addition to the challenges posed by Brexit, what is now most required from counter-terrorism policy is much greater transparency about how the various components (especially on the preventive front) work and how effective they are.

Had it won the 2019 election, Labour may have weakened domestic counter-terrorism in pursuit of a flawed analysis of the problem. The Conservatives may yet damage it by seeking to strengthen it in inappropriate ways.

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