Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 11:54 UK

Q&A: Preventing extremism

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs reporter

Jacqui Smith
Jacqui Smith: Focus on the communities
The thinking behind the government's agenda on preventing extremism - and how it may work in the years to come.

What is the government announcing?

The government is putting more flesh on its strategies to prevent the rise of violent extremism. The latest announcements concern cash for councils to fund programmes that "challenge and resist" violent extremists. The ideas are not exactly new - but what we are seeing is the coming together of a plan that will be working quietly in the background once headlines die away.

What has already been announced?

There is a whole raft of measures involving different areas of government and society. In January the Home Secretary outlined plans which she said would lead to better targeting of websites which promote the violentIslamist ideology of Al Qaeda and other groups. Ministers say they have been developing plans to help the police and other local agencies to "identify and support vulnerable individuals" - young Muslim men and women, including converts, who are easy prey for people peddling simplistic answers to complex issues. There is also other work starting to come together in the criminal justice system, particularly prisons, where officials are concerned that radicalisation may be an issue.

What role has the Internet been playing?

The Internet is right at the heart of many of the concerns about how extremist thinking proliferates. The social nature of the net facilitates the growth of extreme ideas because it becomes easier for sympathisers and potential recruits to find each other.

Groups inspired by al-Qaeda's mindset focus a great deal of their time and energy into websites, public and private, and associated media.

Al-Qaeda's deftly produced messages are often translated and distributed in different formats that more readily appeal to non-Arabic speakers who have bought into the thinking.

What's the evidence for this?

In 2007 there were 16 major terrorism-related trials in Britain, including that of the 21/7 London suicide bombers.

Undated police picture of Younis Tsouli
Younis Tsouli described himself online as Terrorist 007

Some 42 people were convicted over the course of the year - and in almost every case the Internet played a role.

One largely unnoticed case was particularly important - that of Younis Tsouli who was jailed in July 2007 for inciting terrorism over the Internet.

Police say he had created a virtual terrorism network - publishing, distributing material and encouraging others towards violence.

What is the government's strategy on extremism beyond the Internet?

The government's broad strategy for combating extremism is dubbed "Contest". It breaks down into the four key areas of "prevent, pursue, protect and prepare".

Counter-terrorism investigations are at the heart of "pursue", with a massive expansion of both MI5 and associated specialist police operations into regional operations.

Protect is largely based around subtle technical advice to wider society - such as measures to minimise risks in public spaces.

For instance, the government recently praised Arsenal's Emirates Stadium as a model of how to create an attractive building that is difficult to be targeted.

A mosque dome
Democratic and accountable
Transparent finances
Open to women and youth
Counter-extremism programmes
Inter-faith schemes
Work against forced marriage

One of the most high-profile elements so far in Prevent has been a rolling series of talks around the country by Muslim theologians capable of combating hate philosophy in a way that appeals to young Muslims.

While these talks have been impressive, the question is whether they do anything other than preach to the converted.

Other more slow-acting parts of the strategy are now taking shape, including a faith and citizenship curriculum written by Muslims for religious schools.

Ministers have placed a huge bet on a community move to establish a body to modernise and monitor mosques.

Another element is a plan to help Muslim women speak out and challenge radical voices.

How much money is being spent?

At present there is some 45m available for local projects with 79 local councils given 12m over the next year - roughly 152,000 each. Ministers say this funding will grow in the years to come.

Another 18m has been added to police budgets in key areas to recruit more neighbourhood officers who will be tasked with intensive efforts to engage with the grassroots in Muslim communities. Local youth offending officials are getting 3.5m over two years for work with young criminals identified as potential risks. The programme to modernise mosques is being run from within communities.

But what about individuals who have crossed the line?

There are now specific laws that make it a crime to possess material useful to terrorists - such as bomb-making manuals or literature which has what police say is a clear intention to encourage extremism. But more subtle work is going on behind the scenes.

The Metropolitan Police has a special unit that has focused on deradicalisation by building links with preachers it believes can play a critical role in changing the thinking of those on the cusp of extremism.

But this work is very difficult to measure - not least because the police themselves can hardly do the lecturing.

And what about prisons?

One estimate given to MPs says that there will be 1,600 terrorism inmates within eight years - 10 times more than today.

Belmarsh prison
Belmarsh: Dubbed Guantanamo by Jihadi websites
The government does not want to repeat the experience of Northern Ireland, where history shows that holding these people together compounded problems and increased the likelihood of violence.

Phil Wheatley, director general of the prison service, says the current strategy is to split up inmates convicted of terrorism and, at the same time, use 70 carefully-selected imams to counter extremist ideology.

"We have sought to train them carefully, we continue to invest in the training of imams, so that they can operate more effectively in prison and also so that, when they do meet extreme views amongst some of the prisoners they deal with, they are able to theologically counter those arguments," Mr Wheatley recently told MPs.

"So far that looks like a wise investment and we are getting some very good imams."

How can we measure the success of the 'Prevent' strategy?

Beyond the headlines and statements, it is going to take a long time to see any kind of effect. Some of what goes on may never be really measurable.

Given that a radical ideology drives the temptation to violence - this is very much a battle for hearts and minds.

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