Tackling radicalisation in the pre-criminal space

Tackling radicalisation in the pre-criminal space
Comment: There is a moment before a person commits to a radical course of action during which a would-be 'terrorist' needs guidance and support, writes Anthony Cornish.
6 min read
21 Feb, 2017
The Newburgh sting involved the FBI equipping would-be bomb plotters with fake explosives [Getty]


In his 1956 sci-fi novel The Minority Report, Philip K Dick coined the term "precrime" - a police system that predicts crimes before they actually happen.

As one character says: "Punishment was never much of a deterrent and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead."

While there is not a modern-day equivalent of the book's "pattern-recognition filters" - or "precogs" - that predict future crimes, the idea of a pre-criminal space and the ability to intervene before a crime has been committed is not so far removed from reality.

It is on this idea that a lot of counter-radicalisation work is based. The idea that, if identified early enough, steps can be taken to prevent radicalisation and ultimately terrorism.

There are various ways of working in this pre-criminal space. Many approaches provide support to vulnerable people showing signs of a susceptibility to radicalisation. By this logic, counselling and guidance is offered to prevent radicalisation.

We see these strategies throughout Europe where the model of the widely-criticised Prevent strategy has played a pioneering role.

Read more: UK lawmaker slams intelligence-gathering on Muslim children

Across the pond in the United States, tactics known to have been favoured by the FBI take a vastly different line. In what lawyers and rights agencies have described as "entrapment" and "sting operations", vulnerable individuals are plied with the money and tools needed to stage an attack.

"The theory behind some of these cases is that these people are terrorists-in-waiting,"says Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch. "If the FBI hadn't shown up and taken them down the path of committing this terrorist act, Al-Qaeda would instead."

Roughly a third of the 90 attacks planned on American soil since 9/11 have been the result of this aggressive FBI practice

HRW, in tandem with Columbia University Law School's Human Rights Institute, compiled a report in 2014 that revealed 27 such cases. One, known as the Newburgh sting, was also the subject of a 2014 HBO documentary of the same name.

Roughly a third of the 90 attacks planned on American soil since 9/11 have been the result of this aggressive FBI practice. In defence of the approach, Michael B Steinbach, executive assistant director of the FBI's national security branch, argues that it is about being in control.

"We're not going to wait for the person to mobilise on his own timeline" or "just sit and wait knowing the individual is actively plotting,"he said.

Interestingly, as Peter Neumann points out in his 2016 book Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West, there have been fewer cases of home-grown radicalisation in the US than in Europe since 9/11. He estimates that in the decade following that attack, the home-grown threat to the US may have amounted to no more than 60 people - of a population of some 320 million.

Some might argue that this leads to the conclusion that the FBI model works, and others, in Europe and elsewhere, can learn from it. This is where we must ask the question of how we view people that may potentially become radicalised.

Do we criminalise them from the offset, or see them as victims in need of support? It is a question that reveals the ambiguity of the term pre-criminal space. Are the people in question simply terrorists-in-waiting? Or are they simply disillusioned with life and in need of guidance?

In this sense, pre-criminal may mean either before an inevitable crime or before a potential crime. As seen in the UK, many people at risk of radicalisation welcome support when it is offered - they can refuse. Actually escorting them down the path to extremism, on the other hand, carries the assumption that they cannot be diverted away from it.

This strikes me as a somewhat defeatist mentality to have, particularly in the context of extremism.

Unscrupulous methods of entrapment that see vulnerable people - not yet radicalised - exploited and thrown in jail should be condemned. Instead, we should be supporting the approach that seeks to save them from extremism by offering them not weapons and cash but counselling and guidance.

With such polarised ways of tackling radicalisation in the pre-criminal space, perhaps the term itself is problematic.

While some, perhaps those who favour the FBI approach, might see the criminal phase as inevitable, others will see appropriate intervention as being able to prevent any graduation to the criminalspace.

It is vital that we do not frame at-risk individuals as criminals. Therefore, it is important for any strategy to clearly define how it operates in the pre-criminal space.

Despite criticisms that date back to when the strategy was first implemented, and others that have arisen since, Prevent continues to play a decisive role in counter-radicalisation in England and Wales, as well as influencing other approaches elsewhere.

After being "referred" to a Prevent team, a person that has shown signs of being at risk to radicalisation is offered tailored support to steer them away from the extreme ideology.

While there is no shortage of criticism of Prevent, including accusations against it, there should be no debate regarding its ethics - offering support to people who are at risk of being exploited by extremists.

At the point of intervention, after all, they are not yet radicalised. Prevent does not look to arrest people or lock them up, it looks to divert them from potentially harmful influences and help them find their place in society. Many of the people referred are simply disillusioned or are experiencing their own social, personal issues and may find solace in an extreme ideology.

We must not underestimate the effective methods of manipulation that are employed by radical recruiters who are skilled in playing on an individual's weakest and most vulnerable points.

In-depth: Battling extremism - a mother's lament for a radicalised son

Now, while the term pre-criminal space is tiptoed around in the official Prevent document, it is never explicitly mentioned. While it can be found in the National Health Service's specific framework, its absence from the official document is problematic.

Historically, critics have targeted the language of Prevent. Its focus on extreme ideologies that oppose 'British values' has been particularly controversial

For one thing, it fuels the argument that Prevent lacks transparency. In failing to define the term and adequately explain its importance to how Prevent works, the strategy itself is opening the door to much of the criticism it recieves.

Historically, critics have targeted the language of Prevent. Its focus on extreme ideologies that oppose "British values" has been particularly controversial. While a definition of what Prevent believes British values to be is clearly provided - "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs" - some have challenged the use of the term "British", given the cultural, ethnic and racial tapestry that is Britain.

Equally - although safeguarding against radicalisation is clearly a sensitive area with issues of confidentiality - transparency has been a problem with Prevent. Therefore, in failing to even mention - let alone explain - the significance of the idea of pre-criminal space to how the strategy tackles radicalisation, suspicion of the strategy will remain.

The BBC has this week produced a detailed story of one boy at risk of radicalisation and the support he received through Prevent. Similarly, in October The Times gained exclusive access to Channel documents and produced an equally powerful account of how the support it offered prevented one child from being radicalised.

This is what counter-radicalisation work should look like: intervening as early as possible to save people - young or old and vulnerable to whichever extreme ideology.

Anthony Cornish is a London-based journalist with a special interest in Middle East history, politics and culture. As well as The New Arab, his work on radicalisation has featured in The Times and Open Democracy.

Follow him on Twitter: @antcornish

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.