Roots of violent radicalisation

Written evidence submitted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (RVR03)


1. The focus of our response is in relation to the terms of reference of the inquiry concerning the impact that counter-terrorism (CT) activities are having on communities, in this case on university campuses and students.

2. Understanding the process of radicalisation is still in infancy and, as ever, we reiterate calls for an open and critical debate into the causes and drivers of terrorism. We also reiterate the need for such a debate to be evidence-based and one which steers clear of the sensationalist and ideologically motivated claims made over recent years. It is important that this debate seeks a cross-party consensus on violent radicalisation and brings together a range of terrorism experts and university stakeholders including senior university management, students’ unions and the students themselves.

3. We begin by emphasising the fact that there is still no evidence to suggest that universities are ‘hotbeds of extremism’ or any terrorist related activities. Therefore, where any incidents may occur that involve alumni of British universities, this is in no way representative of university campuses and their students as a whole, particularly given that over two-thirds of those convicted of the terrorism-related offences in question had not even been to a British university [1] .

4. Nonetheless in March 2011, FOSIS, in conjunction with UCL Union Islamic Society, held the ‘Radical Thinking’ Conference to explore the discourses surrounding freedom of speech and extremism on campus, to hear grassroots experiences and generate informed debate. In doing so the conference brought together various stakeholders from senior university management, academia, students’ unions, the security sector and ordinary university students. The fact that Muslim students and staff from higher education institutions across Britain engaged so enthusiastically with the event shows how open minded and mature both Muslim and non-Muslim students are and it shows how they are taking the lead in addressing these issues.

5. Freedom of expression is a key pillar of British society and one which sets us above authoritarian regimes across the world. At a time when people around the world are fighting for freedom of expression and greater control over their own destiny, it has never been more important to reaffirm our values of open debate and free speech. Universities play an important and leading role in upholding our core values by continuing to provide a platform for constructive debate and positive change; therefore they should be supported and not undermined or made to feel that their autonomy and reputation is threatened.

The Prevent strategy

6. From the start, the Prevent strategy has been viewed with a great deal of suspicion. This is unsurprising given that a disproportionate focus has been on policing even though it has always claimed to seek positive engagement with communities. The revised Prevent strategy threatens to exacerbate this perception as made clear throughout the document, e.g:

11.28 – "…policing has a central role to play…"

11.29 – "…policing has a key role in the delivery of aspects of all three of the objectives set out…"

7. The revised strategy document reveals that the Prevent budget for 2010/11 is £37mn with £24mn being devoted to policing [3] .

8. Whilst there may be a sincere intention to engage with communities constructively, we believe that this continues to confuse Pursue with Prevent and that any positive partnership will be strongly undermined by the strategy's overwhelming focus on policing. If the Government wishes the Prevent strategy to be successful then there must be a greater focus on empowering citizens and giving them open platforms for positive engagement and debate, such as that facilitated by universities, rather than on yet another police-led initiative.

9. We are also concerned at the evident targeting of the Muslim population, in a manner that could constitute spying. These concerns are summarised succinctly in the following paragraph from a report by the Guardian Newspaper [4] :

"The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism, the Guardian has learned.

The information the authorities are trying to find out includes political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, and other sensitive information, according to documents seen by the Guardian."

10. The previous regime allocated funding to local authorities based on their Muslim population exceeding 2,000 which sent the dangerous and erroneous message that the risk and likelihood of terrorism was directly linked to the number of Muslims residing within a local authority. This was investigated by an inquiry carried out by the previous Communities and Local Government Select Committee into the Prevent strategy. Their final report stated: "any programme which focuses on a single community risks alienating that community, and ignores the fact that no section of a population exists in isolation from others." [5] This also applies to the student population or subsections of it.

11. The revised strategy states that "simple demographics will not be used as the basis for prioritising Prevent work" [6] . This is to be welcomed but we remain concerned over what new indicators will be used to allocate Prevent funding to local authorities. The revised strategy does not make clear what these indicators are and this will only fuel speculation about whether or not this Government has moved away from the destructive approach of the previous Government. All indicators should be based on credible intelligence and adopt an evidence-based approach to measuring success.

12. We are gravely concerned over the impact the revised strategy will have on freedom of expression on campuses across the UK. All higher education stakeholders, including the Government, universities, students’ unions and FOSIS are obliged by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights to allow the expression of opinions as long as they do not compromise public safety. Universities play a key role in challenging prevalent 'wisdom' as well as debating and researching controversial topics. The ‘values-led’ approach to the revised strategy risks harming legitimate grievances being aired on campuses and could have a significant damage on intellectual debate and research as well as the international reputation of British universities.

13. In relation to students’ unions, guidance from the Charities Commission clearly states:

Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires universities and colleges to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure freedom of speech within the law for students, employees and visiting speakers. This involves seeing that the use of premises (including students' union premises) is not denied to anyone because of their beliefs or politics." [7]

14. The report by the previous CLG Select Committee specifically recommended that, "holding extreme views is not illegal and Prevent should clearly focus on violent extremism" and that "no organisation- unless proscribed- should be excluded from debate and discussions" [8] . FOSIS supports this position as the most effective way of challenging extremist and terrorist ideas rather than causing them to go underground or hardening their views by proscribing groups.

15. University campuses provide one of the best places to challenge extremist views. Even where these views do not exist on a particular campus, open and transparent debates provide the safe and conducive environment for people to air legitimate grievances, debate with people from various socio-political backgrounds, have their own views challenged and become engaged in mainstream socio-political campaigns; thus preventing people from taking the path of violent extremism in the first place. This point appears to be acknowledged by the revised strategy, where paragraph 10.56 states that "universities and colleges promote and facilitate the exchange of opinion and ideas as well as learning". Having acknowledged this, we hope that the Government will translate this into a practical approach towards university and college campuses.

16. Furthermore, the Local Government Association, in evidence for the previous CLG Select Committee’s inquiry, stated that "Government needs to be more confident in its dealings with those with whom it does not agree, especially when they have broad support from within communities or in academic circles." [9] . University campuses have mastered this approach towards debate and discussion and should remain supported in this regard.

17. There has been a haphazard approach in the way that counter-terrorism officers approach university students and staff, both on and off campuses, often resulting in a deeply negative student experience, a breakdown in police-community trust and strains what is usually a very positive relationship between many universities and their students.

18. The heavy handedness of counter-terrorism activities experienced so far by students from counter terrorism activities has already resulted in students and staff viewing the police with suspicion.

19. It seems clear that counter-terrorism officers are under-trained and under-prepared. They are often unaware of the campus culture that exists and how different each campus is to another. It is unsurprising then that counter-terrorism officers, particularly those with no recent experience of higher education, seem to be overwhelmed by the vibrancy of campus life and are therefore unable to adapt to university life and/or misjudge certain behaviours on campus as posing a threat to national security. For example, terms such as 'radical' carries a negative connotation in the security world and is interpreted by them as meaning the process by which people come to support or carry acts of terrorism. However, on campus, this term is often applied to anyone who challenges the status-quo and is able to think creatively about problems and solutions and may or may not use forms of direct (but non criminal) action to arrive at a solution, e.g. demonstrations, "occupations", petitions, etc. In fact, being ‘radical’ is usually deemed to be a positive characteristic and academic staff on campuses across the UK self-define as being ‘radical’ due to holding views uncommon in wider society. Also, it is only natural that students play devil's advocate or experience with ideas. Student may, as part of this natural academic process, become particularly challenging but this process should not be confused with violent radicalisation.

20. Heavy-handed approaches to students, like that of the police investigation into the Detroit bomb incident in December 2009 where, contrary to the wishes of the students, the police sought the membership data of the entire Islamic Society of the students’ union without a warrant left many students, who were previously open minded and willing to talk to the police, feeling "betrayed" or criminalised by the lack of respect shown to them by the police.

21. In this case, many students felt that the police went beyond what could be deemed reasonable by their obtaining of all membership data, even the data of students who had never met the alleged bomber- including those who either studied at a separate institute to the main UCL campus or those who started university the year after Umar Farouk AbdulMuttallab had graduated. In particular, there remain huge concerns over whether the police are sharing that data with security services around the world and the dangers that this association to the incident would pose to the lives of international students, many of whom come from countries with poor humanitarian rights records [10] .

22. Finally, where students and staff have in the past been approached by counter-terrorism officers, this has often been without them knowing of their identity and many have felt that those officers were attempting to recruit them or solicit information from them about their colleagues. This has led to feelings of insecurity and being targeted.

23. What this shows is how many students are not automatically or ideologically against the police but that there are certain standards expected from the police which they must be abide by but so far remain to be seen.

24. Pressuring students and staff into becoming informants or making them feel targeted is no way to counter terrorism. Resources used for such activities are better invested perusing real terrorists.

25. Finally, some students and their student societies, notably Islamic societies, are unfortunately only ever approached by police officers when in relation to counter-terrorism and not on issues that ordinary students feel are more relevant to them or the issues they face on a daily basis such as Islamophobia. This has meant that students feel that they are seen from the prism of counter-terrorism and this does nothing to break down existing barriers.

26. In light of the points we have made in our submission, FOSIS proposes the following recommendations to ensure a more constructive implementation of the Government’s revised Prevent strategy.


27. The Government adopts an open, evidence-based approach to addressing the causes of violent radicalisation.

28. The autonomy of universities as places of free speech and expression should be preserved.

29. A quality impact assessment should be conducted, looking at the impact that the revised strategy will have on the quality of education and free speech.

30. For the purposes of transparency and avoiding further suspicion, the Government should publish the new indicators that will be used to allocate and evaluate Prevent funding, based on an evidence-based approach.

31. The Home Office should ensure that counter-terrorism officers are correctly trained to adapt to campus life and avoid heavy-handed approaches.

32. Officers should only take the proper channels of communications (i.e. meet students, student societies, university management openly and to clearly identify themselves) and avoid any actions that constitute 'spying'.

33. Local police forces should speak to students and help them to address issues more relevant to their everyday lives, beyond counter-terrorism, to repair the damaged relationship with communities.

34. In the spirit of engagement sought by all stakeholders on the issue of violent radicalisation, FOSIS should be a member of the independent board being created to look at local implementation of the Prevent strategy.

July 2011

[1] Paragraph 5.30 of the revised Prevent strategy. Available at

[2] FOSIS press release for Radical Thinking Conference:


[3] See paragraphs 11.33 - 11.34 of the revised Prevent strategy

[4] Vikram Dodd (2009) ‘Government anti-terrorism strategy 'spies' on innocent’ . Data on politics, sexual activity and religion gathered by government. The Guardian Newspaper, 16 October 2009.

[5] Page 62, paragraph 168,‘Preventing Violent Extremism’, Sixth Report of Session 2009-10, House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee

[6] See paragraph 11.15 of the revised Prevent Strategy

[7] Students’ Union: A Guide (OG 48 C3)


[8] Page 41, point 98, above report.

[9] Page 229, Ev 149, above report.

[10] Robert Verkaik (2010). ‘ CIA given details of British Muslim students’ . The Independent Newspaper. 01.04.2010

Prepared 17th November 2011