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Is A British Program Spotting Radicals Or Alienating Muslims?

British police dog handlers patrol a train station in London in January.
Matt Dunham
British police dog handlers patrol a train station in London in January.

Mohammed Farouk, a student at Staffordshire University, was reading a book for his postgraduate counterterrorism studies this spring when two women approached him in the library.

"I was reading that in the university, and I was kind of quizzed by two ladies. They were quizzing me on my views on ISIS, what do you think of al-Qaida," he says. "I thought they were just normal questions."

But the two women, who were university employees, reported him as a potential terrorist.

"They complained that there was a bearded Asian man reading a book on terrorism, a potential threat in the back of the library," he says.

The university briefly investigated, he says, adding that a security guard at the school vouched for him as a long-time student.

Farouk got caught up in Prevent, which was started after the London bombings in 2005. The British government says it's aimed at stopping forms of extremism that could lead to violence.

This year, it became a legal obligation for teachers, doctors, nurses and anyone in the public sector to report students or patients as possible extremists if they see something suspicious. But civil libertarians worry it's creating a culture of fear and alienation among British Muslims.

Prevent is described by the government as an intervention program for Britons susceptible to being pulled into extremism. If teachers or doctors report something they consider to be suspicious behavior, the individual is referred to a panel that includes police officers. That group decides whether to refer the person to an education program called Channel, intended to stop them from going down the wrong path.

Between June and August, nearly 800 people were referred to the Channel program, and more than 300 of them were under 18, according to statistics obtained by the British Press Association. It's difficult to measure the success of the program because it's aimed at would-be extremists and it's impossible to tell how many, if any would have carried out such acts.

Limited Details

The government has put out guidelines online, but many details of the Prevent and Channel programs are vague, and critics say the definition of extremism and suspicious behavior are unclear. Material said to be a training video for Prevent has been leaked by an advocacy group in London called Cage. It bills itself as a group that works with people who are negatively impacted by the "War on Terror."

In the video, narrators discuss extremism and how to spot it. A woman asks:

"So what about terrorism? After all, that, too, is a crime. If we could identify the circumstances that move an individual to commit a terrorist act, could we take away the potential for that crime to be committed?"

The Prevent program has been condemned as a means of spying on and targeting the Muslim community in the United Kingdom, and the strongest criticism comes from the nurses, doctors and teachers who are now obliged to report so-called suspicious behavior.

Alex Kenny works at majority-Muslim school in East London.

"Whether by accident or design, this strategy and the way it's being rolled out is targeting Muslim students," he said. "In some places, young people are saying to the teachers they don't want to engage in discussions about global events in the way they might've done previously because they've been told they might be reported to police."

He says parents are afraid their kids will get taken away and students are scared they'll be reported to police if they speak openly about sensitive topics.

And that, he says, is counterproductive.

"If they're not able to discuss these things openly and freely, then it stifles debate and ultimately it leads young people to going elsewhere to have these discussions, to some very dark places," he says.

Those dark places can include online jihadist forums. Many people who've left Britain to fight in Syria are influenced online.

Trying To Strike A Balance

It's not that the broader idea of prevention is unhelpful, says Peter Neumann, a counterterrorism expert at King's College in London. A handful of countries report success stories from similar programs.

"In principle," he says, "reaching out to communities is a very good idea."

Neumann says parts of the Prevent program, like community outreach to help vulnerable youths find their place in society, are good. But the program has been degraded by the involvement of the security services, which scares people and makes them feel targeted.

"When Prevent is about turning people into spies, it usually tends to get rejected by communities," he said. "When [de-radicalization is] about mobilizing communities and making communities stronger, it usually is actually quite popular."

Britain's Home Office declined to let NPR attend training sessions for either Prevent or Channel, both of which it runs.

But NPR did speak to Kalsoom Bashir, the co-director of the counter-extremism group Inspire. She helps train public sector employees on how to spot at-risk youth and refer them to Prevent.

"Our work is mainly around working with Muslim communities and training staff to recognize the potential of vulnerable individuals being drawn into extremist rhetoric," she says.

She says the goal is to help any vulnerable person before they commit a crime.

But the pitfalls of the program have cropped up. A 14-year-old Muslim boy was questioned after being reported by a teacher for using the word "eco-terrorism" in French class.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.