The Junk Science Behind the UK's Massive Program to 'Deradicalize' Potential Terrorists

Advocacy organization Cage releases new report questioning the studies underlying the controversial ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy.

Photo Credit: Mopic / Shutterstock.com

In the summer of 2015, the U.K. government implemented the “Counter-Terrorism and Security Act,” which requires hundreds of thousands of public workers—from doctors to teachers—to monitor and report signs of “radicalization,” in order to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” In 2015 alone, this and similar directives resulted in nearly 4,000 people being reported for suspicious activities—54 percent of them under the age of 18. Human rights campaigners have consistently complained that such policies, which fall under the government’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” (Prevent) strategy, target and stigmatize Muslims without evidence of wrongdoing.

Now, the London-based human rights organization Cage has uncovered evidence that the government’s guidelines for identifying at-risk individuals at the “pre-criminal” stage are based on flawed and secretive science.

The Prevent strategy relies on assessment criteria known as Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+), which were developed six years ago by just two individuals who were then-forensic psychologists at the National Offenders Management Service—Monica Lloyd and Christopher Dean. While the psychologists’ initial study remains classified, Lloyd and Dean published a scholarly article last year which outlines the methodology that they employed to arrive at their findings. According to a new analysis of that paper by Cage, the authors “have not provided sufficient evidence to support the ERG22+’s ‘science’” and the “study’s conclusions have been implemented far beyond the original intention.” This is no small matter, as the ERG22+ guide public workers on who to report to the U.K. government “deradicalization” program known as Channel.

Cage is not alone in reaching this conclusion. The organization’s findings were reviewed and approved by 18 scholars, hailing from fields including psychology, criminology and law. Furthermore, the report prompted more than 140 academics and experts, including renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, to sign an open letter voicing concern over the lack of “proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.” The accusations being levied by this growing body of experts suggests that thousands of U.K. residents were monitored and interrogated based on a faulty premise. The implications are far-reaching, as Prevent has influenced government policies around the world, including the United States.

"Predicting" Who Will Become a Terrorist

First initiated by the U.K. government in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, Prevent has been widely criticized by human rights organizations for targeting Muslim communities. “Prevent has become the first all-encompassing social policy targeting almost every aspect of Muslim life,” writes Cage. This concern was acknowledged in 2010 by some lawmakers. "The Prevent program alienates and marginalizes Muslim communities, and exacerbates racist bias and ignorant views,” said Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Chris Huhne at the time.

Despite these concerns, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act that was passed last year significantly expanded government surveillance, thanks largely to the efforts of now-prime minister Theresa May. The new rules have been condemned by the National Union of Teachers, as well as the youth campaign “Students Not Suspects,” which noted that “Conferences and events on Islamophobia at universities have been cancelled or subject to special measures of scrutiny, Islamic Societies have been pressured to hand over their membership lists to police and in some instances swipe cards have been introduced outside prayer rooms to monitor the identity of people praying.”

The Prevent strategy rests on the premise that the government can stop violent acts before they occur by intervening when individuals show signs of alleged radicalization. “Over the last fifteen years, millions of dollars, pounds, and euros have been spent on research that tries to identify some set of radicalization factors that can predict who is going to be a terrorist,” wrote Professor Arun Kundnani, of the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, in an introduction to the Cage report. “No profile that stands up to scholarly scrutiny has ever been discovered. But that has not stopped a proliferation of bogus ‘radicalization models’ in policymaking.”

Such radicalization models continue to shape government policies even though they have been debunked by scholarly consensus, Britain’s own M15 spy agency and an academic study supported by the Department of Homeland Security. Now, the latest report from Cage indicates that the one study the government has used to justify its surveillance apparatus is highly questionable.

“Communities in the UK Are Being Treated as 'Laboratory Rats'”

In their report, Cage notes that the government’s study, although completed in 2010, is “still not available, as it is being withheld as a matter of national security.” The organization argues that this secrecy raises serious ethical problems. “Placing the initial concerns with the study to one side, what is worrying is that the government placed a model on statutory footing a model that has had no external or wider peer review by the psychology community, to which the authors of the model belong,” the Cage report states.

However, the report states that the psychologists’ publication about their methodology is enough to raise troubling questions. Beyond the issue of secrecy, Cage notes, “The findings of the study used offenders as the sample base, which is problematic as the findings were extrapolated to the real world and to other populations.” Furthermore, Cage states, “The original data set was based on the case observations from 20 convicted offenders where there was some affiliation to Islam. What we do not know about this group, is what they were convicted of exactly.”

Cage argues that the researchers failed to build trust with a vulnerable population and therefore did not properly safeguard against the risk that “prisoners provided answers that they felt the authorities wanted to hear.” The report states:

Due to the desire for freedom, former prisoners who went through the system, suggested to CAGE that they provided answers to questions they knew the trained ERG staff wanted to hear. They felt that the whole exercise was for the government to tick boxes. In this lies one of the greatest dangers of the evidence base for the ERG22+, that due to the casework approach and the lack of trust in direct interviews, there was no way to validate the authenticity of the opinions that were being expressed.

Critically, Lloyd and Dean failed to investigate the broader social context, omitting any discussion of “political factors as being a relevant significant factor in its own right,” notes Cage. Such omission unnecessarily circumscribes the discussion, precluding any debate about the role of cycles of political violence in fostering extreme violence.

Lloyd and Dean themselves acknowledge in their conclusion:

“The ERG is work in progress... However, the circumstances of its development may have detracted from its academic credentials in that it was not based on recorded and transcribed interviews or systematically analyzed, and a transparent and replicable literature review was not conducted specifically for this purpose.”

Remarkably, journalist Alice Ross reports that “Lloyd told the Guardian the original study was ‘not an academic piece of work’ but instead was an internal report by practitioners that was ‘done to the highest standard it could be done.”

Given the study’s lack of rigor, the Cage report concludes, “there is a sense, that Lloyd and Dean’s somewhat casual reference to this being a work in progress gives the impression that communities in the UK are being treated as ‘laboratory rats’ in an attempt to find a scientific justification for their theories—by all ethical standards, it is an unsound process.”

"A Toxic Brand in the U.K."

Cage’s conclusions passed the scrutiny of the board of experts who reviewed their study, including Professor David Miller, from the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. “This report raises far-reaching questions about evidence base and credibility of the government's counter terrorism strategy and specifically the idea that 'signs' of 'extremism' can be listed and categorized,” wrote Miller in an introduction to the report.

And in their separate joint letter, over 140 scholars proclaimed: “Tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under statutory duty while their “science” has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Psychiatrists recently released a statement which declares, “Public policy cannot be based on either no evidence or a lack of transparency about evidence.” The statement continues: “The evidence underpinning the UK’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ and other data relating to this guidance, should be comprehensively published and readily accessible.”

Cerie Bullivant, a spokesperson for Cage, told AlterNet, “At the moment, what we see is that the government is coming under pressure form all sides—from major political parties, students, teachers, labor and liberal democratic candidates—to scrap Prevent, because of how poorly the whole project has been implemented. This has proven to be a toxic brand in the U.K. and even people who work with it are ashamed to admit that's what they do.”

A Globally-Influential Program

The mounting concerns about Prevent are relevant around the world, including in the U.S., where the Obama administration has developed a similar initiative under the banner of “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE). The first public iteration of the U.S. version was first launched five years ago by multiple government agencies—including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security—to “address ideologically inspired violence in the Homeland.”

In 2015, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a CVE summit at the White House and unrolled three “pilot programs” in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, these initiatives solely target Muslims in each of these cities. As recently as March, the FBI unrolled new guidelines instructing high schools across the country to monitor and report children for signs that they will commit an extremist act in the future.

Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, concluded in a Marchreport to the Human Rights Council that, around the world, initiatives to counter violent extremism rely on theories of radicalization that are not grounded in sound scholarship, and then use those theories to violate the rights of entire ethnic and religious groups.

In an interview with AlterNet, Kundani emphasized: “There is no scholarship, despite the millions of dollars spent to try to find a correlation between a set of religious behaviors and terrorism, there is none. There is no correlation between having a religious ideology of any kind and becoming a terrorist. What they call the ‘pre-criminal stage’ is really a non-criminal stage. Governments are treating people with suspicion when really they are not on any kind of pathway at all.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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