13 September 2017

PREVENT-ing terrorism

Professor Martin Innes of Cardiff University explains how research by the What Works Centre helps us to understand the contribution of disruption techniques in preventing terrorism.

After a period of several years, where 18 plots had been disrupted and interdicted since mid-2013 the UK has experienced a cluster of four terrorist attacks within three months. Following each of these atrocities, as more information was gleaned about the perpetrators and what police and Security Services knew of their backgrounds, important questions were raised about the effectiveness of efforts to prevent violent extremism.

Prevent is part of the UK's CONTEST strategy and pivots around three key activities: (1) Counter-radicalisation; (2) De-radicalisation; (3) cohesion and integration work. Although hotly contested and the subject of almost continual political debate since its inception, there has been little independent, empirical academic research on how Prevent is delivered in practice. This is a symptom of how conducting primary research in this area is notoriously difficult because of the security risks and practitioners' worries about details of their 'tradecraft' becoming known to their adversaries. Consequently, research to date has mainly focused on policy analysis and attitudinal studies, rather than the practical detail of how Prevent interventions are actually conducted. To get at precisely these issues, as part of the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction we:

  • Conducted in-depth interviews with practitioners and civil society groups about their experiences of working on prevent interventions (with specific details suitably anonymized). It is an approach well suited for an exploratory study of a largely uncharted topic area;
  • We also observed meetings between police and their partners relating to prevent issues;
  • These empirical materials were supplemented with 'open source' materials from social media and journalists' accounts;
  • The fieldwork was conducted in Cardiff, Birmingham and South London – locations where we had collected similar data 10 years ago.

Just as an aside, it is worth noting that 'longitudinal' qualitative research like this (returning to the same issues/subjects at a later point in time) is not something done very often, but can potentially add much 'value' to initial in-depth and exploratory studies, yielding considerable insights about the trajectory of emergent issues.

The aim of the research was to establish evidence and insight into how Prevent has been implemented and to identify some of the contemporary challenges it faces. Amongst the key findings are that:

  • Disruption – a method of intervention for doing something about risky people without pursuing a full criminal investigation - has become increasingly important to the conduct of Prevent.
  • Prevent is having to adapt rapidly to the 'full spectrum' of threats that are now being faced, as everyday objects such as kitchen knives and cars are being 'weaponized' by those intent on performing mass casualty violence.
  • Prevent is being delivered very differently across the country, as forces are 'getting to grips' with different challenges. In some areas risks are gravitating more around extreme far-right groups, whereas in others the focus is upon IS inspired individuals.
  • Radicalization risks are highly situated and dynamic, meaning an individual assessed as a relatively low risk at one point in time, can rapidly 'accelerate' in terms of the threat they pose, if exposed to the right combination of influences.
  • Not enough attention has focused upon managing the public impacts of attacks – what we refer to as 'post-event prevent.'

Prevent has been evolving rapidly in the last five years or so. This is unsurprising given how the nature of the risks and threats to be countered have been adapting. It is also consistent with the wider academic literature on Terrorism Studies, which has noted how terrorists and counter-terrorists are continually seeking to innovate their methodologies to leverage a competitive advantage over their adversaries. Indeed, one of the markers of the 2017 attacks is how they exemplify the spectrum of threats that are now in play - from seemingly isolated individuals utilizing profoundly 'low-tech' attack methodologies such as driving vehicles into crowded places, through to the use of an improvised explosive device requiring far more sophisticated and extensive planning.

Subsequent to the recent attacks, there has been considerable commentary about how there is a 'supply and demand' tension shaping the delivery of Prevent. That is, the level of demand associated with the number of 'subjects of interest' identified by the police and intelligence services, is considerably in excess of the assets available to monitor and manage them. Writing for The Times newspaper, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the national police lead for Counter-Terrorism quantified this issue as 500 investigations involving 3000 individuals "posing the biggest threats", layered on top of which are a further 20000 individuals about whom there are concerns*.  As a consequence of which, police have become increasingly reliant upon tactics and strategies of 'disruption'. Indeed, Rowley confirmed that an attempt had been made to disrupt Kharum Butt the alleged ringleader of the London Bridge attack. Appropriated from 'Flying Squad' tactics of old, disruption is valued because it allows police to do something about 'risky people' without having to commit the intensity of resources required for a full criminal prosecution. It has certainly proved effective when deployed in this way. However, a question remains about whether its short-term disruptive effects actually translate into any longer-term impacts, or whether the levels of ideological commitment of violent extremists mean those disrupted at one point in time, simply resurface again at a later date.

The evidence we collected from those involved in delivering Prevent indicated a far greater accent upon safeguarding work, when compared with our earlier research a decade ago. However, those spoken to were concerned about just what an appropriate response for people experiencing mental health difficulties is, when it is clear that people with malign intentions are trying to influence them. There was also a lot of concern about digital spaces and their role in radicalization. But the evidence-base about the efficacy of counter-measures such as 'take downs' and counter-narratives is relatively weak. A particularly subtle issue we identified is that radicalizers often frame their attempts to 'groom' vulnerable people by making an emotional connection with them and displaying empathy. As such, establishing 'what works' in counteracting these emotionally framed messages is a pressing need.

One pressing area for development identified is what we label 'post-event prevent'. This involves learning from the wider literature on crime prevention, where increasing attention has focused upon not just stopping an issue from happening, but also reducing the harm of incidents that cannot be prevented. Following a cluster of attacks, the potential public value of this has really been clarified.

In applying an evidence-based policing (EBP) 'lens' to try and leverage improvements in the delivery of Prevent, our study also has lessons for the wider EBP movement. First, it is an aspect of policing where the favoured methodologies of the 'strong programme of evidence-based policing' – randomized control trials and systematic reviews - are unlikely to achieve much purchase. After all, as noted above, the threats being countered tend to evolve rapidly, and so any treatments are continually being updated and adjusted. As a consequence of which, we need agile and supple methodologies to track these shifts. This is important because if research cannot afford insights into the pressing real world problems that challenge police leaders, then this will devalue research in their eyes, weakening their support for evidence-based policing.

Moreover, one of the fundamental precepts of rigorous science is being able to make accurate predictions. The first article from this study, published just before any of the four attacks, effectively predicted the London Bridge atrocity – not in terms of its specific details - but rather the strategic frailty of becoming overly reliant upon a logic of disruption in countering violent extremism; and it did so using carefully applied qualitative research methods and data. Here then we can discern a further role for research evidence, not just in evaluating the efficacy of policing 'treatments' which has been the principal focus of EBP to date, but also in providing insightful diagnosis and prognosis.


For further information, please contact  Professor Martin Innes at InnesM@cardiff.ac.uk

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* Rowley, M. (13/06/17) 'Vital work of stopping terrorists is for all of us, not just detectives', The Times