Counter terrorism policies in the UK have always sought to target ideology as the root cause of political violence. The former prime minister David Cameron was clear that in order to defeat violent groups the creed underpinning the ideology would have to be challenged, both the non-violent and violent as he phrased it. This approach has taken hold of the government’s direction and attracted widespread criticism because it is too broad, ill-defined and threatens freedom of speech.

The government refuses to acknowledge the context from which these groups emanate  and why individuals would feel an affinity towards them.This counter productive approach was epitomised by David Cameron’s complete dismissal of the role political grievances play, calling it the “grievance justification” argument. He deliberately conflates between understanding the paths to violence in order to address it and between justifying it. This has been a hallmark of the PREVENT policy, where genuine debate is silenced in exchange for a superficial and politically expedient discourse that doesn’t address the underlying causes of violence.


Read more: PREVENT: A story of community resentment

Over 300 academics signed a joint statement condemning PREVENT and its undue focus on religious ideology as the primary factor of political violence. A focus which has honed in “on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation”. The academics state that “ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy”.

The opposition to an ideology-focussed counter-terrorism policy has come from within the counter-terror industry itself. Counter terrorism expert and former FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force, Clint Watts, states that based on thirty years of history, targeting ideology “would stand little chance of success”. His view is that these ideologies are not static and change based on the context on the ground and more broadly, on emerging global issues. Therefore he opines that there is no single extremist ideology strain but rather a fluid geopolitical interpretation of the world, a similar trait of all groups engaged in political violence. His view would seem to support that of the academics, in that ideology is a by product that seeks to legitimise violence as a response to social, economic and political factors.

Furthermore in a joint article, Michael Morell, Deputy Director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013, Admiral (ret.) James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015 and Samantha Vinograd, Senior Advisor to the National Security Advisor from 2011 to 2013, provide an array of reasons for political violence, some of which would be dismissed as “grievance justification” by David Cameron. Although the article supports CVE programs, it also accepts that western nations must change their policies to not alienate Muslims and aggravate the causes which lead to political violence. Military intervention is seen as a factor as well as the lack of political change, reinforced by the western backing that many oppressive regimes in the Muslim world enjoy. They add: “One of the best ways to help Europe is for the United States to be a model of openness to Muslim immigration and of fully integrating Muslims into our society and economy — with our political leaders refraining from any rhetoric to the contrary.”

These expert opinions clearly indicate that ending the cycles of violence is a much broader struggle than simply challenging ideology “as a counterterrorism silver bullet”. Western powers must address the very real grievances which exist by shifting their attitudes towards Muslims and scaling back on their aggressive and counterproductive foreign and domestic policies.


Read our report: We are Completely Independent: The Home Office, Breakthrough Media and the PREVENT Counter Narrative Industry

 (CC image courtesy of Morning Calm Weekly on flikr)

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)