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U.K.'s Anti-Terrorism Programs Under Scrutiny


The United Kingdom has a long history with terrorism stretching back to the bombs of the IRA in the 1970s. Britain is known for being vigilant, but recent events, including this week's attack in Manchester, raised questions about the effectiveness of the U.K.'s policies to fight terrorists. The most controversial part is called Prevent. It's been charged by some as a domestic spying program that alienates Muslims. We're joined by Professor Clive Walker from the University of Leeds. He's part of a team of independent reviewers of the U.K. government's anti-terrorism legislation. He joins us on Skype. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

CLIVE WALKER: It's a pleasure. Good afternoon.

SIMON: Could you help us understand what the Prevent part of the program is?

WALKER: Well, I think Prevent is about providing counternarratives to violent extremism, to giving arguments which are going to be convincing enough to stop people joining in violent extremism. So that's on a general level. It's about helping institutions which might be subject to the propagation of violent extremism such as universities or mosques. And it is about helping individuals who have fallen prey to violent extremism and the ideology of violent extremism.

SIMON: Let me try and understand it in the most fundamental terms. Are we asking people to inform on their neighbors and coworkers and students?

WALKER: Well, I think we are asking people to inform, although I'd have to say I think informing is much more, you might say, routinized in the case of Prevent. So the relationships are more general and systematic than individual snitching, if I can put it that way. So the idea of Prevent is, for example, to work with schools or to work with universities and to ask whether the schools and universities have systems for identifying individuals at risk. Those are really what Prevent is supposed to be about, although I'm sure you can find controversial and possibly even mistaken examples where people have engaged in spying and snitching, if I can put it that way.

SIMON: Yeah. What do we make of the fact, Professor Walker, that apparently neighbors of the man who carried out the attack in Manchester say they contacted the authorities?

WALKER: Well, I think we can say a number of things. I think from the history of this person I'd be astonished if the security service had not heard of this family given that they were such longstanding opponents of the Gaddafi regime. I think the other point you ought to bear in mind is that at any one time risk analysis of terrorism in the U.K. will involve thousands of people, will involve thousands of potential risks. And we know that choices have to be made. And the resources are not infinite.

SIMON: I wonder, is it necessary for somebody to say maybe sometimes quite bluntly to citizens of a democracy that cares about civil liberties that you can have someone under watch, but until they do something that is palpably threatening or illegal there's not much authorities can do?

WALKER: I think that's a fair statement. It must be said that the United Kingdom has some of the most extensive anti-terrorism legislation in the world which goes, I would suggest, far beyond anything you would find in the United States. Nevertheless, the state can only go so far before it becomes rather an unpopular and counterproductive form of intervention which frightens away the possibility of communities cooperating with it and making the kind of reports about suspicious or antisocial behavior which you mentioned earlier. So I think there is a kind of limit there on what can be done in a democratic society which believes in liberal values.

SIMON: Clive Walker is a leading legal expert on terrorism and an independent reviewer of the U.K.'s anti-terrorism legislation. Thanks so much for being with us, professor.

WALKER: Thank you, Scott. You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.