Page last updated at 19:36 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Is extremism prevention working?

By Paul Burnell
BBC File On 4

Prayers at a mosque
The government hopes to make UK Muslims resilient to extremists.

He was a nine-year-old boy who wanted to kill US President George W Bush.

According to youth worker Hanif Qadir, who works with vulnerable youngsters on the brink of violent extremism, the boy was one of the youngest children to be referred to him.

"He hates George Bush, he wants to kill George Bush.

"The rhetoric comes from his relatives in the Middle East, this kid talking the way he is talking is a very worrying factor," he told BBC File On 4.

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Hanif should know; in 2002 he was recruited in East London by an al-Qaeda operative and travelled to Pakistan intending to fight but turned back at the Afghan border after being warned by wounded jihadi he would be cannon fodder.

He now works to stop British youngsters following the same journey running the Active Change Foundation in east London

Video plot

It is this kind of project that the Government's PREVENT (PVE) initiative is trying to encourage across the country.

Millions of pounds are being poured into local projects but, as File On 4 has heard, there are questions over its effectiveness in some areas.

On the one hand you have schemes such as Act Now, run by Lancashire Police along with community groups and local colleges.

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Muslim teenagers are shown a video of a fictitious terrorist plot with attack and are asked how they would deal with the crisis and what they would want from the local community.

Their answers are reassuring for the authorities, "Information on suspects, people to give evidence, co-operation......Muslim leaders should condemn the act if a bomb goes off."

Det Sgt Ken Kirwan, a counter terrorism officer with Lancashire Police, said this kind of dialogue with youth who could easily fall prey to Islamist radicals is essential, especially as police counter terror operations can go wrong.

"The negative impact that has on our communities can be quite significant and extremely long-lasting," he said.

'Politics of fear'

But some young Muslims are sceptical.

One group on the streets of Preston told File On 4 they would avoid a police project.

I've not come across anyone in mosques or committees who doesn't want to deal with terrorism and extremism.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, Labour Peer

"They won't listen, the won't take our voices on board," said one teenager, another added, "People don't want to know about terrorism we just want to live our lives."

The boys on the street have views echoed by Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmed, who although acknowledging the terror problems facing the UK, believes the government's mini industry of PVE advisers are exaggerating the terror threat.

"It's the politics of fear rather than the politics of hope," he said.

Lord Ahmed added: "I've not come across anyone in mosques or committees who doesn't want to deal with terrorism and extremism."

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears rejected the peer's criticism.

"I don't accept that for one moment," she said, adding, "The country does face a serious threat, if we can stop young people being drawn into extremism then we've got a chance of reducing the threat."

But critics of the government's policy argue that the intelligence-gathering element, being driven by the Home Office, is blurring the distinction between community cohesion projects and counter-terrorism tactics.

Intelligence gathering

Dennis O'Connor, HM Inspector of Constabulary who wrote a report into the first PVE funded projects, argues that soft intelligence gathering in a community can help pinpoint vulnerable youngsters who need to be offered an alternative to extremist ideologies.

This is not about targeting people, it's not about stigma but it is about facing up to the fact that we've got a problem in some parts of our country with a tiny minority of people who are pretty wicked
Hazel Blears

However he admitted that this could create fears for Muslims that they are a community under siege.

It is these fears that have led to a section of the 10,000 strong Muslim community in Reading threatening to withdraw cooperation from PVE.

They object to the "mapping" of their community by the Home Office as part of anti-extremism strategy to compile a database of Muslims and their organisations in an attempt to pinpoint extremist hotspots.

Shah Jahn of Reading PVE in Crisis group, which claims to represent 10% of the town's Muslim community said the policy "gives the impression that the Muslim community is a suspect community".

However Ms Blears countered, "This is not about targeting people, it's not about stigma, but it is about facing up to the fact that we've got a problem in some parts of our country with a tiny minority of people who are pretty wicked and want to draw our youngsters into this kind of activity."

She added: "This doesn't mean you are saying everybody you work with in the Muslim community is a potential terrorist, far from it."

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