Neil Basu leads Prevent conversation at ICT Summit | Counter Terrorism Policing

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Neil Basu leads Prevent conversation at ICT Summit

Assistant Commissioner, Neil Basu

The UK’s most senior counter terrorism officer has urged the new Independent Reviewer of Prevent to ignore the strategy’s ‘malign detractors’ and see the ‘amazing work’ being done to protect people vulnerable to radicalisation.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu’s comments come as he revealed the number of foiled attacks since the Westminster atrocity in March 2017 has increased from 19 to 22 – with seven relating to suspected right wing terrorism.

Mr Basu welcomed Lord Carlile’s appointment to scrutinise the government strategy which aims to stop people from being drawn into terrorism, and said he was confident the peer would find strong support for the principle of Prevent. However, he accepted many remain undecided about how best to safeguard those vulnerable to radicalisation.

Addressing an audience of international experts on terrorism today, Monday September 9, Mr Basu warned that attacks were becoming easier to carry out and harder to detect, so talking about Prevent must be a priority for everyone.

He said: “Why should everyone care? Because experience tells us that someone always knows a person is moving towards an attack.

“A recent study showed that in the time before most lone‐actor attacks, someone close to them knew about their growing ideology and violent intent. Mostly, they chose not to report it.

“For Prevent to succeed, those closest to people at risk of committing terrorist offences need to have confidence police will be proportionate and compassionate if they ask for help.”

Mr Basu also said he believes a public health approach to stopping the spread of terrorism will ultimately be more effective than police making hundreds of arrests each year. Last week it was announced officers had detained 266 people over the past 12 months on suspicion of terrorism-related offences

“Rather than just treat the symptoms of terrorism we must treat the causes.  Prevent – which offers a bespoke programme of support for vulnerable individuals – is the closest thing to a public health solution we have,” he added.

“Evidence indicates people with extremist views are more likely to be moved to violence when they feel excluded. We need to help people who see their position in society as hopeless to find hope – help them find a ‘family’ that believes in society, not a gang that wants to tear it apart.”

The head of the national CT Policing network conceded that the upcoming review will uncover shortcomings in the strategy. But he pledged to work with Lord Carlile to find common ground that will encourage the whole of society to spot danger and intervene earlier.

Lord Carlile said recently that ‘nothing would be off the table’ during his review, which will take place next year.

“Critics are right to challenge ambiguity in the programme. It lacks clarity about thresholds for intervention – where safeguarding the vulnerable stops and pursuing a criminal starts,” said Mr Basu.

“These are issues I accept and will work with our new independent reviewer and critical friends to address. But I won’t give ground to critics whose agenda is to discredit Prevent to suit their own ends. No-one who has challenged Prevent to date has had a better idea.

“So instead of wasting time on malign detractors, we should concentrate on convincing the undecided why this is so important.

“We have to focus on what unites us – respect, decency, family, love – and find common ground we can all support.”


Security Minister Brandon Lewis said:

“We have seen how Prevent has supported many vulnerable people, stopping them from hurting others and themselves, and helping them turn their lives around.

“Since 2012, over 1,700 people have received tailored support through our Channel programme, with the vast majority leaving with no further CT concerns.

“We know Prevent works best when delivered in partnership with communities which is why we support community groups to deliver projects against all forms of radicalisation. Last year 181 community projects were delivered, reaching over 88,000 participants. More than half of these were delivered in schools, aimed at increasing young people’s resilience to terrorist and extremist ideologies.”


Please find Mr Basu’s transcript below:


My name is Neil Basu. I lead the Counter Terrorism response in London. I am also National Lead for CT on behalf of the UK’s 43 Chief Constables.

That means I co-ordinate £800m and the efforts of thousands of officers and staff to put in place the national police response to the Gvts CT strategy called CONTEST.

CONTEST has 4 strategic pillars. Pursue (to find and stop terrorists), Protect (identify and target harden our most important sites and people), Prepare (ensure we can respond to and recover from an attack) and – the most important pillar Prevent – to stop people becoming terrorists in the first place.

Stop people becoming Terrorists – That’s why we need to talk about Prevent.

Our strategy for Prevent is simple to say but hard to do. First identify those vulnerable to radicalisation and the radicalisers; Second, Safeguard those people from being drawn down the terrorist path; and third, manage the risk of radicalisers and extremists who cannot be diverted from terrorism.

The third strand is our unique role. We are law enforcers.  I want to safeguard and divert potential terrorists, but if they choose that path I will stop them through every lawful means at my disposal.

It’s where Prevent becomes Pursue. We need to be clear about that. Not being clear on when that line is crossed, has caused problems for the Prevent policy in the UK.

So we need to talk about Prevent.

My job, with MI5, is to stop terrorist attacks. I also protect the most important people in our country, our greatest palaces including Parliament and the world’s second busiest airport.

It’s a job so tough the UK press have taken to calling it ‘the toughest job in policing’.

That’s really beginning to annoy my boss. The Commissioner is by far the toughest job. But this runs at a close second. It’s also an incredible job and an enormous privilege that demands a great deal of humility.

Pursue, Protect and Prepare do prevent terrorism, but they are strategies that can feel like a goal-line save. Like every crime problem, police cannot arrest themselves out of it, neither can we turn our societies into fortresses to protect us from every harm.

The last 4 years have been the most demanding in UK CT history since the mainland IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s. In 2017, our worst year, I was the deputy to the then head of UK CT Sir Mark Rowley.

I had a very long job description but it boiled down to one thing – stop terrorist attacks in the UK.

But there were 5 successful attacks on my watch and 36 people died.

I think about that every single day. It’s had a profound physical and mental effect on me.

I applied for this job to try my hardest to stop 2017 ever happening again. And I think about that responsibility every day too.

Stop it happening. If you take one thing away from this speech today, if you want to reduce strategy into three words, then ‘stop it happening’ would be appropriate.

That’s why we need to talk about Prevent.

Years ago, as a young homicide cop, I was told that ‘there is no greater privilege than to investigate the death of another human being.’ With nearly three decades of experience in policing, I can tell you that is not true. The greatest privilege has to be to prevent the death of another human being.

We have been successful – we have disrupted 22 lethal attacks since March 2017 and many hundreds of terrorists. We are very good at Pursue. That’s where 85% of our budget and conversation is.

But high levels of extremism mean the threat is greater than it ever was. Pursue cannot work on its own and Protect and Prepare cannot stop every attack – attacks which are simple to mount, easy to disguise, hard to see and very hard to stop.

So that’s why we need to talk about Prevent.

The real way to prevent terrorism is to get it right at the start of the radicalisation cycle.

Prevent is designed to break the cycle of extremist violence by empowering   communities and individuals – to make them resilient to radicalisers and able to spot the vulnerable that radicalisers target and manipulate. Its community, not police or government, led.

It is not about the law – it is about stopping people becoming involved with the law.

Although I regularly stand up for this policy, mine should be just one of many voices talking about Prevent. Police have been seen as securitising what is designed to be a safeguarding approach. The Gvt has now appointed Lord Carlile – a former independent reviewer of Terrorist law – to review the Prevent strategy in 2020.

Good – because we need to talk about Prevent. Carlile says nothing is off the table including scrapping it, but I believe he will find strong support for the principle, and he will see amazing work being delivered by people committed to stopping this generational threat.

I’ve spent the last two years talking about 2017. The escalation in threat, pace and complexity, and where we as security professionals needed to be better, consumed us. My predecessor spoke about 2017 at this conference two years ago. Last year, my deputy spoke here about Protect and Prepare.

She talked about the sustained shift in threat, the breadth of targets and methodologies, about our determination to improve.

That’s true, and the UK CT machine continues to get better every day – but we need to talk about Prevent.

The challenges of 2019 are as great as we have ever faced. Daesh was defeated militarily but we are coming to terms with the strength of its brand, and face a new global security challenge that is dispersed and networked – one that has no clear physical base or leadership structure, one that is inspired more than directed and enabled.

There remains the concern of returning foreign fighters, lone actors, mental illness, and the rising threat of RWT; once a local threat and now a global phenomenon as adept at using social media as Daesh. Christchurch is the most horrific recent example.  7 of the 22 attacks we have stopped since March 2017 relate to suspected RWT.

We need the whole of society to help spot danger and intervene earlier – remembering the maxim that it’s communities that defeat terrorism.

Those communities need help from protective services unused to dealing with violent ideology – health, education and social care – and they need the help of the private sector.

Relentless media coverage of terrorist events is understandable given the public interest, but may exacerbate the problem. I am concerned that both social and mainstream media unwittingly amplify the threat.

I don’t seek to undermine press freedoms – they are important – but I do want to work with them to understand if their reporting style can help prevent, not promote, terrorism.

We need to talk about Prevent – We don’t need to give terrorists the type of notoriety they crave.

Crime prevention is at the core of UK policing since Peel invented us in 1829 – to maintain order, prevent and detect crime. It’s part of our DNA.

Rather than just treat the symptoms of terrorism we must treat the causes.  Prevent – which offers a bespoke programme of support for vulnerable individuals – is the closest thing to a public health solution we have.

I promote Prevent but I do acknowledge its issues. To do otherwise would be to ignore opportunities to improve and would be a failure of leadership.

It’s on its third iteration in 12 years and remains as controversial today as it was when it started. We need to ask why that is.

It’s not the idea, it’s in the implementation and communication that we have struggled.

We have failed to convince our detractors that we are on the side of the vast majority of the public who want nothing to do with terrorism or its apologists.

Of course some individuals and institutions have more sinister reasons for trying to prevent Prevent. Instead of wasting time on malign detractors, we should concentrate on convincing those who recognise the importance of early intervention, but who have some concerns about Prevent, about why it is so important.

Part of the challenge is perception. People pay close attention to fairness in how we conduct business. They’re willing to accept a decision (even one against them) when they perceive a fair process.

So we must be transparent and fair in how we select people for Prevent and ensure compassion and dignity in how we treat them.

It is tempting to believe that is enough, but the challenges are more fundamental.

Critics are right to challenge perceptions of ambiguity in the programme. There is a lack of understanding about thresholds for intervention, and about the limitations of where safeguarding a vulnerable person stops and pursuing criminal behaviour starts.

These are issues I accept and will work with our new independent reviewer and critical friends to address them. But I won’t give ground to critics whose agenda is to discredit Prevent to suit their own ends. No-one who has challenged Prevent to date, has had a better idea.

We must meet these critics with determined honesty; if we concentrate our efforts in certain communities, Muslim or White, it is a response to the intelligence contained in over 800 active CT investigations split between Islamist and XRW terrorism, and the evidence of the convicted and disrupted.

We will put Prevent effort where it’s needed until the threat picture changes. The focus is an uncomfortable truth for some communities & organisations.  I invite them to work with us, not agitate from the side-lines. Indeed, all communities must do the same.

Why should everyone care? Because experience tells us that someone always suspects when a person is moving towards an attack.

A recent study showed that in the time before most lone‐actor attacks, someone close to them knew about their growing ideology and violent intent. Mostly, they chose not to report it.

For Prevent to succeed, those closest to people at risk of being drawn in terrorism need to have confidence that early intervention can divert people away from terrorism and protect them from suffering or causing harm.  Our specialist teams provide a proportionate and compassionate response to each request for help – put simply, this saves and rebuilds lives; it doesn’t ruin them

Getting this right is an exercise in trust and confidence between state actors and their communities.

This study tells another interesting story; that lone actor terrorists share no uniform socio-demographic characteristics. Age, relationship status, education, employment, mental health, criminal history, were all factors but none were consistent.

This brings the complexity of the challenge into sharp focus. There will be no single vaccine to this global cancer.

We must accept that a number of broad systemic, social failings can lead some people, sometimes with complex needs, towards extremist paths.

The drivers that cause well-educated, psychologically healthy people to choose extremism and terror are even more difficult to comprehend.

If your head hurts, join the club. We need help cutting through this complexity to understand what factors combine to cause terrorism.

Policy must be informed by credible evidence provided by quality academics promoting what works.

For the last two years I have told disturbing stories of successful and aspirational terrorists.

This story needed telling to improve how we pursued terrorists, but today I tell a different story.

The story of Ali, a 13 year old boy from Yorkshire.  A school social worker noticed him drawing Daesh logos on his hands. He wanted to go and fight for Daesh … at 13 years old.

Ali witnessed violence at home, suffered racist bullying at school and had free access to violent videos online. Ali started thinking of revenge.

Prevent practitioners put support in place for the whole family, including individual help for both mother and son.

Ali received education from an Imam countering Daesh ideology, Pakistani extremist groups and false Islamic practice.

His mother completed a course on internet radicalisation and e-safety to help her keep the children safe online.

Ali’s self-esteem and confidence grew. He renounced his extremist views. He became an active member of the local Young Leaders group and his mother is a community volunteer.

I want to tell you about Amina, who intended to travel to Syria before Prevent found her. Prevent workers helped her rebuild her relationships, re-assess her views and change her own mind about travelling.

I want to tell you about Jack, a teenager radicalised by far right politics at school, and rapidly promoted by an XRW group.

Prevent taught Jack to think for himself and he renounced his blind hatred. He credits his Prevent mentor with his return to education, his place at college and his chance to work.

I can tell you stories about Liam, Ryan, Saleem, Jane, Owen, and Joe.

And 400 other stories of the individuals across England and Wales who, in the same year we were most attacked, got support through Prevent, and the extraordinary people who run it, who gave these people a different choice – who changed their story.

This is why we need to talk about Prevent.

I can talk about how we prosecuted terrorists; how we intervened and killed them before they could kill others – but I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I want to talk about how we prevented people becoming terrorists in the first place.

Then I want society to carry on that conversation and make a difference. You have to safeguard people from violent ideology, so you need a different, more compelling story.

We need to help people who see their position in society as hopeless find hope – help them find a ‘family’ that believes in society, not a gang that wants to tear it apart.

There is no one path to terrorism but there are a host of common factors that society, not law enforcement, can tackle.

The bad stories start with a sense of victimhood, exclusion or fear – feelings that lead to resentment, then hatred and escalates into extremism and violence.

It’s tragic and plays out time and time again but Ali, Amina, and Jack, are stories of lives changed, destinations re-routed, and new paths chosen.

Each one of these stories carries the possibility of an attack prevented and lives saved and that possibility is enough for me to reinforce to you that we need to talk about Prevent.

Not a single one of these interventions was easy. Intensive and complex needs require intensive and complex resourcing. It is worth re-stating that Prevent is my government’s strategy, not mine. Police have an important but defined role.

We cannot and do not do this alone. The government, both local and national, leads the charge to step up Prevent services. Only their leadership can galvanise a host of different professionals to work together against such a complex challenge. Ultimately it must be led by society & its communities. Not the government, not the police, not the national security community.

Prevent is the most important pillar of my Gvt’s contest strategy but what is Prevent’s ultimate goal? Sure it’s to prevent attacks, but it’s more important than that I think.  We live in a time where divisions seem ever more pronounced. Now, more than ever, we need to unite under single vision.

Easy to say, but what is it? Is it social inclusion, mobility, education, equality or opportunity? What does success look like?

I believe that getting social integration right helps us get to the answer. First, society has to agree what behaviour it is not prepared to tolerate, what lines should not be crossed.

For me the line is violence. Violence of thought, speech or action is a line that we should never accept, irrespective of culture, religion or belief – however sacredly held.

Getting social integration right is like any form of sharing. We know that working in partnerships, sharing information and being ready to accept new ways of thinking, is healthy and this applies to organisations, communities and nations.

The healthy intermingling of cultures and groups allows for people from different backgrounds to feel part of something bigger. To feel included.

Spanish researchers used MRI technology to understand what was happening in the brains of people with extremist views. Their experiment found that people who held these views were more likely to be moved to violence when they felt excluded.

They concluded that extremist views became heightened and a person’s willingness to commit violence to enforce their views would increase the more excluded they felt.

So we knew it instinctively, and now science tells us, that effective social integration could help stop extremist violence.

The policy recommendation is clear; communities, institutions, places of worship, schools, and businesses must welcome people from all backgrounds. Create a sense of belonging, while not forcing people to give up things they may hold as sacred. Integration is not assimilation.

We should build communities that are inclusive. If we fail; fail to share, fail to include and fail to support, then we risk social exclusion turning to violence.

When we identify those approaching that line of violence, the best answer is not to ostracize or criminalise, but to support with understanding and compassion.

We have to focus on what unites us – respect, decency, family, love – and find common ground we can all support.

I believe Prevent is the search for that common ground.

I have been called ridiculously idealistic, but I believe more than ever, that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. In the UK the Prevent programme is full of people who get up every day to do something to stop the world’s greatest evil – Terrorism.

Please go and talk about Prevent.

Thank you for listening.