Thursday, September 1, 2011

New "Prevent" policing strategy expects universities to spy on 'vulnerable' Muslim students

The "underpants bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a Muslim who studied at UCL; therefore, all Muslims studying at universities should be monitored in case some of them turn out to be vulnerable to extremist ideology. This seems to be the thinking behind the new anti-terror guidance being issued to universities by police officers implementing the government's revamped Prevent strategy. The Guardian reports that "University staff including lecturers, chaplains and porters are being asked to inform the police about Muslim students who are depressed or isolated under new guidance for countering Islamist radicalism." The guidance specifically asks staff to identify Muslim students who fit one of a number of "at risk" profiles such as showing signs of depression. Many university staff have expressed disquiet about plans that seem to infringe students' civil liberties.

Indeed, I'd say that at best this is an invasion of privacy. Going beyond that, it is also a breach of confidentiality in at least two respects: 1) unauthorised disclosure of the one's religious background; 2) unauthorised disclosure of a medical condition. This is bad enough, but also consider that we are talking about students who have done nothing to arouse any reasonable suspicion. We are talking about students who have not been charged with or even suspected of any crimes. We are talking about students who are simply vulnerable, a measure which relies heavily on some staff member's judgement. It gets worse.
Universities that agree to the renewed version of the scheme are trained to refer "at risk" students to Prevent officials. The student is then monitored by a panel including a detective from Scotland Yard, who assess any potential terror threat. The student is not made aware at any stage that they are under investigation.
No knowledge that one is under suspicion and surveillance. No recourse whatsoever. Plenty of opportunity for false positives. Plenty of scope for jumping the gun. This is yet another example of the prevailing attitude in government that it should be doing everything within its power to thwart terrorism, as though terrorism is the biggest problem this country is experiencing and we can't afford to waste a moment. This attitude is instilled in the public and it is amplified and fed back to the authorities in what I like to call the hysterical feedback loop. Whenever the police fail to anticipate and thwart some attack (which they inevitably will because security cannot be guaranteed absolutely) they complain about the need for greater powers, which they are then given. But this is a con. Acts of terrorism are extremely rare. They can certainly happen and they do occasionally, but there has only ever been one successful terrorist attack in the United Kingdom employing the Islamic extremist modus operandi of suicide bombing.

This of course occurred on the 7th of July 2005. 52 innocent people were killed with over 700 more injured. There have been a handful of other attempts which have been unsuccessful. Either the threat is not as serious as we are being led to believe, or the police and intelligence services are doing a fairly impressive job. Whichever way you look at it, it's hard to deny that terrorist attacks in Britain are not nearly as prevalent as they were late last century when the perpetrators were mainly Irish republican dissidents. We seemed to deal with it much better then.

I have little doubt that there are people in this country or outside, probably of the Islamic extremist variety, who as I type right now are plotting some new and yet greater atrocity against Britain or one of its allies. It is the job of the police and the intelligence services to identify and to stop these people who are in fact engaging in criminal activities. It is not their jobs to snoop on ordinary people fitting particular profiles just on the off chance they might one day become receptive to ideas of mass murder. The reality is that very few would. The ones we hear about represent the tip of a very large iceberg whose massive bulk of normal, sane humanity remains happily submerged in anonymity. This is as it should be. The danger of enticement can be mitigated in other ways that do not breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If people are vulnerable to extremist ideas, then it is the proponents of extremist ideas that we should be chasing down. We should challenge these ideas vigorously and openly. We should build strong moderate support bases at universities to combat the pressures bearing down on disaffected Muslim students from dangerous groups. As suggested by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, we should engage with Muslim students instead of spying on them. Being Muslim is not a crime and neither is being depressed or estranged from one's family. British Muslims need to know that as human beings and members of British society, they enjoy the same status as their neighbours. They need to know that they will not be treated any differently or trusted any less simply for identifying with a religious faith. I really believe that would help to combat terrorism much more effectively than this cack-handed Prevent strategy being bandied about now.


  1. Several years ago, I just happened to be the head of internet security (among other things) for a UK educational establishment. A management figure at said establishment one day had an attack of paranoia and decided that as another university had had people who were linked with OBL then we muct make sure that no students went to terrorist sites to avoid embrassment for the institution. for this reason he wished for the internet use of Muslim students to be actively monitored and all access to extremist sites to be blocked.

    there was much discussion over this, I was unwilling to breach the students privacy for such trivial reasons as a desire to avoid embarassment, but was mainly able to avoid this instruction as it would disable a course in extremism that was being run by one of the departments. (the fact that we had no staff that read Arabic in the IT department and so might have the odd bit of trouble telling the difference between a jihadist site and an arabic shopping site was something that never seemed to have crossed anyones mind)

    So the idea that the police are active in focussing on vulnerable people may just be putting on an organised footing, and justifying the ideas of management who were no doubt not just pressuring us to watch students at the time

  2. Actually, "Prevent" isn't a new thing - I remember hearing about this on Radio 4's "File on Four" a couple of years back - same name, same tactics...

    I support every single word you've said their Matt.

    Perhaps, if we want followers of the Islamic faith to stop acting like marginalised victims (which leads to trouble...), we might thing about not mariginalising them and victimising them...