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Back to Archives | Back to April 2012 Contents 

Reflecting on the United Kingdom “Prevent” Counterterrorism Strategy

By Zubeda Limbada, Project Manager, Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police Counterterrorism Unit, United Kingdom; and Daniel Silk, PhD, Communications Coordinator and Criminal Justice Studies Program Instructor, University of Georgia Police Department, Athens, Georgia

olice forces in the United Kingdom have long recognized the value of the community engagement aspect of policing and have sought to make it a cornerstone of the British policing philosophy through its various titles, its transitions, and its emphases. In its current iteration—often called neighborhood policing—community engagement continues to be a point of strong focus in the ongoing efforts to improve the safety and the security of communities in the United Kingdom. Since 2007, this policing philosophy has acquired the new and innovative partner of policing efforts specifically designed to address the roots of terrorism through a national counterterrorism strategy known as Prevent.

Similar strategies have become an increasing topic of attention in national and local police policy discussions worldwide, and the details of this application of a community-centered policing philosophy in the United Kingdom to address terrorism can offer useful insights to other police practitioners internationally. As countries such as the United States roll out executive direction on related efforts to harness the power of communities and government to address the threats caused by ideologically rooted violence of all kinds,1 it is worthwhile to look more deeply at the U.K. experience with the community engagement component of counterterrorism. This will help to highlight the foundations of the current U.K. national strategy and the reflective challenges that have been experienced by Prevent practitioners in the field (such as contending with spying allegations) and seek to draw attention to pertinent ideological principles identified by the authors that may be applied in similar efforts in countries seeking to tackle ideologically motivated crime.

The Background of Prevent

The community engagement side of counterterrorism in the United Kingdom is commonly called the Preventing Violent Extremism program and is the U.K. government’s national strategy to counter terrorism. First introduced in 2007, Prevent is one of four distinct counterterrorism policy strands within the U.K. national counterterrorism strategy, with the key aim of stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism in the United Kingdom.2 Since 2008, the U.K. government has spent 63 million British pounds (more than 97 million U.S. dollars) on Prevent, and the results of this substantial and ongoing investment have been the subject of much debate and reflection.3 In 2011, the Home Office undertook an exhaustive review of Prevent, refocusing the attention of Prevent efforts on three core objectives:4

  1. Challenging ideology
  2. Supporting individuals
  3. Working with institutions

While Prevent is not intended to focus exclusively on religiously linked violent extremism, it is in line with U.K. national security priorities that emphasize the dangerous role of al Qaeda–inspired actors who pose a potential threat to other people’s lives. Because proponents of the al Qaeda philosophy strive to operate within Muslim communities in the United Kingdom, Prevent activities across the country have largely been focused on building partnerships between local Muslim communities, Islamic organizations, and state actors.

As a new program, it was inevitable that difficulties would be encountered in the real-life application of the Prevent strategy. In the United Kingdom, as in many other countries around the world, some communities and media outlets suggest that the emphasis on al Qaeda–inspired terrorism negatively affects routine relationships between the local police and the wider Muslim communities that feel they are under a constant lens of suspicion.5 This perception has led some to express the concern that certain Muslim communities in the United Kingdom were being spied on by the authorities6 under the softer guise of local community Prevent-funded projects. Some in the community suggested that the emphasis on trust and confidence in police counterterrorism work is, in the end, actually a thin veil for police-led spying activities. This concern remains a substantial challenge for Prevent practitioners.

This type of concern underlines the sharp, real-world challenges to the community-centered policing philosophy and highlights the way in which community engagement for the purpose of counterterrorism can face tests similar to those found in other aspects of policing in a democracy. Despite this, it strongly emphasizes the point that neighborhood policing and the relationships that develop between police and communities play vital and often overlooked roles in counterterrorism work and must be included as central partners—and at times counterbalances—to reliance on harder-edged counterterrorism efforts. Simply put, real community input and strong civic participation are essential to addressing crimes of all types and ensuring police accountability. The counterterrorism world is no different.

Challenges of Community Policing in the Counterterrorism Realm

A strong feature of Prevent is that it has been operationalized in different ways around the United Kingdom as individual forces have been allowed a great deal of latitude in developing local Prevent initiatives; therefore, it has involved a variety of programs that span the range of community policing efforts—much like those in the United States and elsewhere. In the past, this has included educational opportunities for police and community members; town hall–style meetings; youth sporting events; and perhaps most innovatively, the development of overt, uniformed, community-centric counterterrorism teams that emphasize engagement. The rationale for engagement is based in part on the recognition that neighborhood solutions and locally designed partnership processes are better placed to understand people’s communities and provide the basis for mainstreaming when future resources may be more scarce and where a dedicated program such as Prevent may no longer exist.

However, to suggest that applying community or neighborhood policing principles to counterterrorism is easy would simply gloss over the real nature of policing in a democracy. As experienced police leaders know, police actions in a transparent society invite criticism and so must be accompanied by thoughtful consideration and applied reflection. Therefore, it is particularly important to candidly discuss some of the challenges that have faced the United Kingdom Prevent strategy in application, with the earnest hope that police leaders considering a similar engagement strategy for counterterrorism will have the opportunity to avoid some of the pitfalls that have already been experienced elsewhere. Although some of these challenges are effectively inescapable realities of modern policing, they are useful issues to discuss if only to stress the importance of considering communities—and especially the wider Muslim minority communities—as critical partners in making similar programs successful. Of specific importance are the value of engagement as a counter to community suspicion and the importance of demystifying police counterterrorism work through an analysis of covert and overt police roles.7

As in other aspects of community and neighborhood policing, within the Prevent arena engaging with and knowing local leaders are vital. Solid, honest relationships that are built and sustained within communities are essential to effective day-to-day policing, and, in the counterterrorism realm, this policing truth is no different. Relationships with local leaders are a pivotal mechanism through which to reassure communities with the relevant information that drives counterterrorism police operations. In the United Kingdom, these police-community relationships have repeatedly served the important purpose of reassuring Muslim communities that they were not being unfairly targeted and that their involvement in police outreach efforts was about keeping their communities safe—and not about spying or an effort to investigate terrorism. Challenges are present, however, when the police are not sufficiently aware of local dynamics within communities and, therefore, also unaware of which leaders can best share their compelling messages with which segments of a community.

Because experience shows that there is rarely, if ever, one, single, agreed upon leader within Muslim communities, the question of recognizing and understanding the rich diversity and cultures means that the interpersonal skills of police officers in building relationships is that much more important—not only in countering suspicion but also in being able to explain why they remain interested in working with the Muslim communities. From the community perspective, experience demonstrates that the question around whether a Prevent engagement approach works will be based around specific individuals—not their affiliations or job titles—who have been labelled as connectors8 and whose complex positions illustrate the challenges of community connections and the possibility for change and conflict transformation. In this space, intracommunity relationships are conducted both officially and unofficially outside of a nineto-five routine, and practitioners must learn to interact in this arena.

For police leaders, this accessibility illustrates that protecting all communities is truly part of what drives the neighborhood policing ethos. Yet the challenge for police and other government figures often has been not knowing enough about the rich tapestry of British-born communities—differentiating between the political and the practical reasons of why people may choose not to engage with the police (which may be based on perceived or actual fears)—demonstrating the requirement to positively collaborate to learn and understand the communities. It is an arena where compounded feelings such as suspicion, fear, mistrust, and collaboration can collide with the practical arrangements of needing to work together as a necessity. This challenging and dynamic atmosphere is a reflection of the post-9/11 environment in which the politicized nature of counterterrorism work impacts the local relationship building required to underpin Prevent engagement work, which is largely with the Muslim communities.

Such relationships are tested when communities ask the valid question, “Are law enforcement counterterrorism efforts targeting the Muslim community?” Police personnel and community members simply must have the needed relationships in place to share and discuss similarly sensitive inquiries. As the saying goes, relationships that are built in peacetime are the ones that are most useful in difficult times. Because stakeholders and police officers often cannot control related issues such as foreign policy and media coverage of Muslims, Islam, and police counterterrorism activities when emotional intensity and suspicion remain challenges for all involved—and a contentious and dichotomized mentality could easily grow, solid and tested police-community relationships are the antidote. Combined with the concerns around whether Prevent is disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, acknowledging and discussing people’s fears must be encouraged. Equally, engagement work should be completed by police personnel who have the particular skills and the inclination to engage and not antagonize and who are able to articulate a genuine narrative and empathize with community concerns, knowing that some people will want to engage and others may choose not to or will remain uninterested altogether.

The counterterrorism arena holds particular challenges for community partners because criminals and terrorists that are ideologically influenced may justify their cause under the banner of religion, but may not even live or work in the communities in which they promote ideologies that can facilitate radicalization and recruitment. In this situation, communities themselves are put at risk but remain torn in their desire to work against terrorist influences while also trying to keep their neighborhoods from being labelled as terrorist havens by the media. In this environment, they can become increasingly weary of having their relationship with the police based solely on national security efforts as opposed to equally important more standard policing concerns such as theft, burglary, and vandalism. Some, remaining fearful of such a direct relationship with the police, instead may prefer to communicate with individuals or organizations whom they trust through a perceived neutral third-party community organization or individual.

The fear can in part be based on reasonable questions that routinely surface and that test the real strength of a police-community partnership. Some of these questions follow.

  • If someone reports a perceived fear to the police, what would happen to their family and neighborhood, and how would they be treated by the police?

  • Is there a risk of other innocent community members being watched and unfairly interrogated by the authorities based on community-provided information?

  • Will assisting counterterrorism officers equate to indirectly gathering community intelligence and lead to the perception of a community spy or informer?

Reasonable answers to similar questions are a key expectation of police involved in outreach for counterterrorism purposes. It is important to add that while in the short term, the police can arrest and disrupt potential terrorists without community buy-in, counterterrorism work ultimately cannot be successful and mainstreamed within police forces and communities by solely relying on an investigative policing approach without the neighborhood policing counterterrorism focus. Ultimately, for communities to be involved in the counterterrorism arena, transparency and continuous dialogue will need to be central to enable involvement, and these topics must be addressed.

The reality is that on certain aspects, national security policy expectations and local practical considerations may not always be easily reconcilable when community concerns differ from those of the police or the government. Engaging with the right people is an important consideration when it comes to maintaining credibility because being credible can mean different things to the community and to those in positions of authority. Counterterrorism practitioners must therefore consider how to engage and retain credibility with partners; how to define with whom one can and should work, both nationally and locally, and whether the two should differ in operational matters; and who manages the risk in engaging with communities, especially with those vulnerable communities that may no longer be regarded favorably by the government but have credibility with vulnerable groups such as young people.


The future challenge for the police and partner agencies in truly embracing trust and confidence principles in overt counterterrorism approaches will lie in institutionalizing and sustaining a philosophy that emphasizes sharing information and lasting, trusting relationships with affected communities. It must earnestly seek diverse views and comments from communities and networks that sit around the engagement table and carefully consider and value the vital input offered by community members. In this way, it is much like other community policing efforts worldwide, but perhaps with increased sensitivity towards the need to navigate the politicized and publicly debated environment of the counterterrorism policing world.

In this important arena, several concluding recommendations for police leaders deserve final emphasis. As police leaders consider the ways in which community engagement can support counterterrorism efforts, they must also seek to refine tactics and decisions, which can do the following:

  • Embrace the best practices of community and neighborhood policing that have already been successful worldwide
  • Carefully consider the concerns of communities
  • Learn from the counterterrorism experiences of others, especially the U.K. Prevent review and related efforts by a range of academics and nongovernmental organizations to study Prevent
  • Forecast the effect that counterterrorism efforts have on Muslim communities, and work to counter stigmatization
  • Thoughtfully distinguish between covert and overt counterterrorism activities, and work to reasonably ensure they do not undermine one another

While these points certainly do not guarantee success, incorporating them can make the vital mission of counterterrorism policing more productive in the long term. ■

Zubeda Limbada currently works for the Birmingham City Council within the Prevent team and has recently completed a two-year posting with West Midlands Police on developing a Prevent mentoring program. She graduated from Manchester University with a bachelor of arts degree in politics and modern history and a master of arts degree in Middle Eastern Studies. This article was submitted in a personal capacity, expresses Ms. Limbada’s personal views, and is not representative of any organization.

Dan Silk, PhD, works for the University of Georgia Police Department, and also teaches in the University of Georgia’s Criminal Justice Studies Program. He has previously served as a special agent with the U.S. Department of State and as a captain with the Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, Police Department. In 2009, he was a Fulbright Police Research Fellow and lived in the United Kingdom for several month studying outreach between Muslim communities and police in the United Kingdom.


1For example, see the White House, Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, December 2011, (accessed January 20, 2012).
2The four distinct counterterrorism policy strands within the United Kingdom are often called the Four Ps: prevent, to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism; pursue, to stop terrorist attacks; protect, to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack; and prepare, to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. See (accessed January 20, 2012).
3Wesley Johnson, PA, “Ministers Rethink Antiextremism Strategy,” The Independent, June 7, 2011, (accessed January 20, 2012); and valuable academic contributions to this spirit of reflection have also been made, which support many of the points noted here. See, for example, Basia Spalek, Salwa El-Awa, and Laura Zahra McDonald, Police-Muslim Engagement and Partnerships for the Purposes of Counter-Terrorism: An Examination, University of Birmingham, Religion and Society, Arts andb Humanities Research Council, summary report, November 18, 2008, (accessed January 20, 2012); Martin Innes, Colin Roberts, and Helen Innes, Assessing the Effects of Prevent Policing: A Report to the Association of Chief Police Officers, Universities’ Police Science Institute, Cardiff University, March 2011, (accessed January 20, 2012); and Robert Lambert, “Empowering Salafis and Islamists against al Qaeda: A London Counterterrorism Case Study,” PS: Political Science and Politics 41, no. 1 (2008): 31–35.
4Five key principles are outlined in the strategy. A highlighted point is that the government affirms Prevent as a keystone of the government’s counterterrorism strategy and that while the focus on al Qaeda remains in this area of work, attention toward other forms of extremism is important as well. Also, the revised strategy will see 36 million British pounds and 25 key areas in England being targeted as priority areas, which include Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds, Tower Hamlets, London, and Stoke-on-Trent.
5House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee, Preventing Violent Extremism, Sixth Report of Session 2009–10, March 16, 2010, (accessed January 20, 2012).
6Arun Kundnani, Spooked! How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism (London: Institute of Race Relations, 2009), (accessed January 20, 2012).
7There is a strong belief that Prevent will succeed only if the overt and covert roles are kept distinctly separate by the police. On the overt site, police-community engagement practice should clearly state that policies and programs will not be used to gather intelligence.
8Steve Hewitt and Basia Spalek, “Communities as Defeating and/or Endorsing Extreme Violence: How Do Communities Support and/or Defeat Extreme Violence Over Time?” grant application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2011.

Please cite as:

Zubeda Limbada and Daniel Silk, "Reflecting on the United Kingdom 'Prevent' Counterterrorism Strategy," The Police Chief 79 (April 2012): 34–40.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 4, April 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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