New tactic in the battle with extremism  By Richard Watson 
 BBC Panorama reporter 

Britain is once again searching for new answers to terrorism and
radicalisation. We may not have had a major terrorist attack since the
London bombings of July 2005 but the ideological battle against
al-Qaeda is being lost at home.  
Take the case of Nicky Reilly, a young man with Asperger's Syndrome who lived 
in Plymouth with his mother. 
He was persuaded last year that he would join the ranks of the martyrs
if he blew himself up in a packed family restaurant in Exeter. 
Fortunately his bomb-making skills were poor, but what
is worrying the security services is the intent - he had been convinced
by as yet unknown hands that he was acting in the name of God. 
Nicky Reilly, the gentle giant as he was known, had
never stepped abroad but had been infected by al-Qaeda's ideology in
Existing policy  
Recent demonstrations in London against Israeli attacks in Gaza are causing 
They have exposed the raw wounds of grievances felt by many Muslims about 
Britain's stance on Muslim affairs abroad. 
Legitimate political dissent was exploited by a minority of violent extremists 
to bolster their hatred of Britain. 
"Let's have a... war", one of them shouted as missiles were thrown at the 
police. From this pool, new terrorists may come. 
So what action should the government take? They could continue with the
existing policy called Preventing Violent Extremism. 
This, as the title suggests, has been focused on those promoting violence. 
Investigate them, place them under surveillance, prosecute or deport
them, cut out the cancer of extremism and the threat will subside. 
Well it has not proved as simple as that. Judging by
the number of terrorist plots under investigation by MI5 - more than
200 - there is no shortage of young Muslims who are learning to view
Britain with hatred. 
When the policy was set in 2006 the government was
scared of alienating people so it set the bar of what was
"unacceptable" very high. 
In other words, only those at the far end of the extremist spectrum were to be 
'Lesser of two evils'  
The flipside to this meant that those who denounced violence but who
promoted intolerance and held offensive, anti-British views were
More than this, some radicals were even courted as part
of our counter-terrorism strategy. The idea was that so long as they
denounced terror, other views would be ignored. 
This was seen as the lesser of two evils - backing
certain radicals even if they preached intolerance of homosexuals or
women's rights was seen as a way of protecting Britain. 
But this has been a dangerous path and shows little sign of working. 
The radicals took much succour from engagement with the state. Advising
the government or the police is an impressive calling card. They can
claim their deeply conservative views about life in Britain are being
This has helped make these views seem legitimate in the
eyes of ordinary Muslim citizens and has added to the climate of
Islamic conservatism in Britain today. 
Take a walk in any city with a large Muslim population
and you will see that second and third generation Muslims are far more
conservative than their parents. 
Ayesha, a young woman I interviewed for my Panorama film Muslim First, British 
Second, is an example. 
She is a medical school graduate who defends those who preach intolerance of 
In terms of her faith, she is also more conservative than her liberal
parents, covering herself with the niqab against their wishes. 
Forced to change  
Those driving counter-terrorism policy believe the old policy has
failed. As Panorama will reveal, the government is planning a new
There will be much more emphasis on shared British
values and those who preach intolerance will be shunned even if their
views do not break the law. 
And so the Preventing Violent Extremism policy will effectively change to 
Preventing Extremism. 
This shift will be uncomfortable for the police - they do not police ideas or 
ideology unless they contravene the law. 
But it is right that they should be careful about who they back and who they 
Likewise the government will be more open about criticising Islamic
radicals who preach against shared democratic values but stay on the
right side of the law. 
The argument comes down to the use of public money. It
certainly makes sense to sit down and talk with radicals, so long as
they do not promote violence and are willing to act within the law. 
For pragmatic reasons the police and counter-terrorism officers need lines of 
communication into radical communities. 
Britain also has a long tradition of tolerating political dissent. But
moderate Muslims argue using taxpayers' funds to support or endorse
isolationist views makes little sense and the government is right to
move against this now. 
But this is a complex situation, the arguments are not black and white. 
While cracking down on divisive preachers may make Britain more
resilient to terrorism by creating a stronger sense of community
cohesion, this is a 10 or 20-year plan. 
Grand sociological aspirations may be desirable but in
the shorter term the police and MI5 must worry about the next attack. 
Given there is little evidence that the appetite for
extremism is fading, the government has little choice but to try a new
Panorama: Muslim First, British Second is on BBC One on Monday, 16 February at 
2030 GMT.  
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/02/16 00:49:07 GMT


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