Haras Rafiq, a counter-extremism expert from Legatum Communications and former member of two UK Government Taskforce looking at the response to extremism and terrorism, as well as a former advisor to EUROPOL
Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street with his party’s largest majority since 1987 after the Conservatives swept aside Labour in its traditional heartlands. The election was hailed by many as “The Brexit Election”. There have been attempts by far-Left members of the Labour party to blame everyone but themselves for this loss, but the stark reality is that this was a categoric rejection of Labour Party leadership and what it stands for.
An Opinium exit survey conducted on the day of the election showed that Jeremy Corbyn and party leadership was the most cited reason among voters for not backing Labour. Of all the people who did not vote Labour, some 43 per cent said the main reason was the leadership.
The electorate was able to see that Corbyn had aligned himself with Islamists and antisemites and had moved the party hard to the Left, economically and culturally. Had he succeeded in winning, it would have set the UK counter-extremism and counter-terrorism efforts back by decades as the country aligned with Islamists and the clerical theocracy in Iran for which Corbyn has worked.
With a working majority of eighty in the House of Commons, it seems that the early stages of Brexit will be resolved by 31 January 2020. This means that the government will finally be able to focus on other issues. Some focus will go to bread-and-butter domestic issues, such as the economy and the distressed National Health Service, but a key area of focus—especially in the wake of the second London Bridge attack, less than a fortnight before the election—will be tackling extremism and counter-terrorism. In doing so, the approach should focus on what has worked, scrapping what has not. Officials must also realize that in order to solve the problem, it cannot be viewed simply through the lens of law and war.
Lack of Consistency
One of the main reasons for poor effectiveness in the counter-extremism and -terrorism area in Britain has been the lack of consistency displayed by successive governments in actually dealing with the ideology and narratives that underpin the recruitment and the support that extremists have from some countries in the Middle East. A direct by-product of these inconsistent policies has been a surge in Right-wing extremism.
The latest figures released by the government highlight that the total number of people who have been referred for mentoring to the Channel de-radicalization program has nearly doubled and for the first time far-Right referrals have overtaken Islamist referrals. Furthermore, one third of all terror attacks in 2017 were from the far right.
Recognizing Islamism as a Problem
While the far-Right issue is clearly gaining in importance, it remains the fact that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in the UK over the last fifteen years have come from Islamists. A point to note here is that there are many people who will correctly lay blame on far-Right ideology, or even individual components of it like the so-called Great Replacement conspiracy theory, as the cause of far-Right extremism, yet will still refuse to name Islamism as the ideology behind jihadist terrorism. This has to stop, and we need to call them both out equally.
With the governments’ current working majority, the Prime Minister and the government have an opportunity to deal with the problems at the source and challenge countries that are supporting Islamist groups through resources and finances. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran have all been part of the problem over the last three or four decades. Some have gained wide recognition as problem countries for various reasons, notably Saudi Arabia, which has, ironically, garnered more criticism of late at exactly the moment its policies are changing to tackle these problems and challenge Islamism. A country that has been fairly consistent recently in combating Islamism is the UAE and it can help the UK come up with effective solutions.
The challenge that faces this UK government, however, is how to balance economic/trade importance with national security.
New and Effective Legislation
The government is looking to introduce laws that could, for the first time, make it illegal to secretly work for a foreign power to undermine Britain by carrying out political disruption or spreading disinformation. This means that people who are working with foreign states and abuse social media could be jailed. Furthermore, there will be a review of the Treason and Official Secrets Act that could introduce a category called “agents of influence”, where people secretly paid or planted by a foreign power to spread conspiracy theories or extreme views with the purpose of creating strains in society could also be imprisoned. If implemented, this will have an impact on relationships with countries such as Iran and others who are engaged in these activities.
Need for Knowledgeable Advisors
The above is a step in the right direction but is not enough to empower civil society with the tools that it needs to win the battle of hearts and minds. In order to engage with the above, the PM will need robust advice from people who understand the complex issues of extremism and terrorism reporting directly to his office. This could come from the current Director of The Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, who understands these issues, or from someone else. The right person will be able to help coordinate the inter-governmental response and set the direction for the government both domestically and internationally.
S/he will also be able to help the government determine who it needs to work with and who it should isolate and challenge—whether they are individuals and organizations in the UK or foreign states. As a result, countries such as Iran and Qatar may experience a strain in their relationship with Britain, while others, such as the UAE, may see an opening to assist in challenging Islamism.
For the Conservative Party, the election has been won, a sizable majority has been achieved, and Islamists and their state-sponsors have been prevented from once again claiming a seat at the top table. Now it’s time for this government to really sink their teeth into the problem that is extremism and terrorism and put into place policies that will be effective. Does this government have the will to do so? We will soon find out.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.