An Emerging U.S./UK Counter-Terrorism Consensus?

Our guest blogger is Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at Demos, a UK-based think tank. He recently authored The Edge of Violence, a report about homegrown terrorism in Europe and Canada.

USA_Uk_FlagIs a U.S./UK consensus emerging on the sensitive issue of counter-terrorism? Last month saw two important developments in the fight against al-Qaeda. First, Pauline Neville-Jones, the Minister for Security in the UK’s Conservative-Liberal coalition outlined the new government’s approach. Then the Obama Administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS). More unites these approaches than divides them.

The UK Conservative-Liberal approach to counter-terrorism aims to re-evaluate the balance between concern for security and protection of civil liberties. Stop and search powers for police, pre-charge detention, and “control orders” (the power the Home Secretary has to restrict an individual’s liberty when the intelligence against them cannot be used in court) will all be reviewed and very possibly jettisoned.

President Obama shares this liberal approach: the NSS pickpockets Franklin in its claim that “if we compromise our values in pursuit of security, we will undermine both.” Not quite as good as the original, but the point is made. There are pledges to prohibit torture “without exception or equivocation” and that prolonged periods of detention must be evaluated and justified. Both countries understand that examples of supposed Western hypocrisy play into the hands of extremist recruiters.

The UK will also move sharply away from the so called “multicultural” model — where minority cultural mores and attitudes are protected and encouraged — and towards greater integration. It won’t quite be French style assimilation (we Brits are too cynical for such idealism) but there will be more help for migrants to integrate, tougher border controls, and more confident support for British and Western liberal values. The NSS, by contrast makes no such mention of issues of integration. Not because it is unimportant, but because American Muslims generally are integrated, well-off, and ethnically diverse in a way European Muslims are not. The successful integration of immigrants is of course written into the American DNA — and successful integration is critical in both countries.

The final, and most interesting, similarity is that the NSS specifically mentions the danger of “home-grown terrorism” to national security. Quite right. The U.S. is not immune from radicalization within its own borders as the last two or three years clearly illustrates. Recognizing terrorism and radicalization can come from within, the NSS commits to “empowering” communities to counter radicalization.

The approach is right because community involvement is vital. The difficulty lies in the execution. The notion of empowerment is fraught with difficulty. The UK’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” program was a key plank of the last government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It aimed, like the NSS, to empower Muslim communities to fight radicalization. Its record has been mixed. Despite some successes, it alienated many Muslim community groups who felt they were being tarred with the terrorist brush. The NSS signals a major step up in official community and counter-radicalization work, while the UK government is likely to reduce it considerably.

My recent report, The Edge of Violence, offers important lessons for the U.S. First, beware mission drift: not every social problem is a potential driver of terrorism. Including social issues within an anti-terrorism agenda risks perpetuating the perception that radicalization is only a concern within Muslim communities, and not others. It also risks isolating Muslim communities and stigmatizing social policy.

Second, it is important to recognize that for many home-grown terrorists, the appeal of al-Qaeda is its sense of adventure, excitement and glamour as an anti-establishment movement. Communities can help puncture that myth. Terrorist wannabes have much in common with other subversive groups of angry young men — such as gangs — and there are important lessons to be drawn from successful community-government partnerships here, such as Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Third, our research and the University of Duke’s recent study suggest that Muslim communities are very willing to self-police, monitor radicals, and work with security and police agencies to root out any problems. But that depends on forming genuine, long-term and trusted partnerships, not just tapping up communities for intelligence when deemed useful.

Fortunately, the U.S. is in a strong position to take these lessons onboard because De Tocqueville’s distinction between the old world and new still holds. The country’s vibrant and active civil society — including the well integrated Muslim community — will still be its greatest defender of democracy.