x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

Europe receives a wake-up call in the battle to counter extremism

The continent has delivered a faltering response to extremism over the years. Now a corner must be turned, writes Damien McElroy

Europe has been struck by waves of terror attacks in recent years, from Barcelona to Brussels and from London to Paris (above). Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Europe has been struck by waves of terror attacks in recent years, from Barcelona to Brussels and from London to Paris (above). Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Europe is preoccupied with the terror hotspots where mass killings hog the headlines, but there is a broader battle with extremist ideology that stretches across the northern hemisphere.

The security forces have well-established, if imperfect, co-ordination to combat terrorism. The task of co-operating to confront radicalisation has been dangerously overlooked for decades.

A wake-up call that deserves wider notice was delivered last week in a comprehensive survey of initiatives from Tajikistan to Canada and from Norway to Spain.

The report was written for the Organisation of Security Cooperation in Europe. The organisation, better known for Cold War co-operation and Balkan peacekeeping, has struggled to rise to the challenge posed by Islamist extremism.

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In commissioning Peter Neumann, the King's College London expert in radicalisation, the OSCE has opened a window of opportunity to fight the problem at a new level.

That the body has recognised it can embrace thinking trail-blazed elsewhere must be welcomed. In particular the United Arab Emirates has pioneered an approach that makes tackling violent extremism distinct from countering terrorism. The report commends the Hedayah Centre’s work in Abu Dhabi, as well as the EU’s RAN network and Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

In a variant of the cliche that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, academics often worry extremism can be a belief system that is diametrically opposed to society’s core values. Mr Neumann notes that while the UN has never defined terrorism, the UN secretary general has called for members to draw up a national plan of action on violent extremism.

That was a useful exercise in 2015 but was a one-off and not all states responded. There is a gap for the OSCE to fill; just 26 of its 57 have drawn up a plan. By going further and making it an annual audit its participating states, from Canada to Kazakhstan, could converge on a shared response.

“Adopting such documents does not automatically lead to action,” the report said. “But they are a foundation for a 'common understanding' of the threat and a more systematic, sophisticated and effective approach towards countering it.”

Again the Hedayah blueprint is cited as a useful guide to the way forward.

There is already a hodgepodge of good practice around that could become the universal components of a more effective fight against radicalisation.

This includes Dutch safe houses that remove the vulnerable from imminent danger and specialist Swedish youth centres. Austria’s Derad framework is cited as a model of how to deal with returning foreign fighters. Internet initiatives, such as the Rewind social media campaign in Spain, offer routes for mass fightback. The efforts of the Italian authorities to stop prisons acting as hotbeds of radicalisation by employing vetted imams are worth a look.

At a time of flux the failures in the European response to extremism are easy to find. The OSCE’s soul-searching should be part of a drive to ensure these belong to the past, not the future.

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One of the worst hotspots for European terrorism has been Britain, which has been all at sea with its efforts to counter violent extremism.

For years ideologues found a haven in Britain to organise among Muslim communities. As Al Qaeda hardmen returned from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, many openly boasted of a covenant of protection with the UK security services. In other words they were allowed to organise as long as they navigated criminal law restrictions.

Much later a pivotal opportunity was lost when the government failed to publish an investigation into the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, completed by senior officials in 2015.

Earlier this year, Theresa May promised to set up an official Commission for Countering Extremism to oversee the official response to radicalisation. It has advertised for a commissioner to lead its establishment phase. Already behind the scenes it is becoming clear the absence of guidance from the 2015 report is a founding flaw.

Efforts are underway by some in the home office to resume contacts with the Muslim Council of Britain through the commission. Links to the self-appointed MBC were severed years ago after concerns that it was a Muslim Brotherhood front.

The new commission is dogged by concerns that it will be yet another fig leaf for action. It is not clear it will act as a champion of Prevent, the programme that seeks to fend off promotion of extremism and recruitment from within the Muslim community.

Powers not just to tackle radicalisation but also to set an active agenda for change should be top priorities. Recruiting a new boss before setting the remit strikes a false note.

If the OSCE report does nothing else it should underline the value of a comprehensive approach from the outset.