Since last year, various public sector bodies in the UK (schools, prisons, hospitals) have held a duty to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism," under the government's "Prevent" counter-terrorism strategy. What this "due regard" actually means in practice has continued to baffle many, including those who are now encouraged to act as intelligence gatherers for the British state.
The University and College Union, for instance, which represents the lecturers in higher and further education expected to implement the Prevent duty, have called it a "draconian crackdown on the right to debate controversial issues" and that it "risks stifling our right to question and challenge ideas with which we disagree."
This month advocacy organization CAGE leaked the Prevent training manual and videos to try to get some clarity on the situation.
In a script for a workshop called "Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent" (WRAP), it is made explicit that the training public sector workers will receive is far from ambitious. If someone had 0/10 knowledge of what Prevent was at the beginning of the session, he or she is only going to get to 2/10 in the session. Then he or she will be sent off to interact with students, patients, and other members of the public in his or her new capacity as part-time spies. Completing Prevent training will probably leave you with more questions than you had going in and with a general air of suspicion—which is presumably the point.
The training even has a hard time telling you what extremism actually is. You're told to imagine an iceberg: The visible tip is the violent public terror attacks that we have all come to fear, while the submerged portion is all of the things that lead up to it, which the recipients of Prevent training should be looking out for. It is freely admitted that "while some of this is criminal activity, the further down we travel, that might not be the case."
Because having a different opinion can't be deemed criminal, Prevent gives another justification for monitoring the murky bit at the bottom of the iceberg. The government's WRAP handbook suggests these should be treated as "safeguarding" issues, which is the category public bodies that look after children and vulnerable adults call their duty to look out for abuse and neglect. Having bad thoughts is being treated the same as abuse.
The handbook notes that this could be seen as a convenient leap, but trainers are pressed to suggest that this concern simply comes from a narrow conception of what terrorism is. From there, they are meant to bring people's minds back to tragic events like 9/11 and 7/7, or an example local to where the training is taking place—such as the murder of Lee Rigby if the sessions happening in Woolwich—in order to refocus them on the task of weeding out "a threat to our communities."
Prevent training largely consists of video case studies where intervention from workers such as teachers, mental health staff, and police have managed to steer someone away from an extremist position.
Trainees are walked through a three-part process of identification, which asks them to pick out emotional, verbal, and physical signs from the videos watched.
The table above outlines just how impossible it is to differentiate the Prevent image of a potential terrorist from someone who is just a bit miffed, or reinventing his or her image.
If you don't want to be suspected of being a terrorist under Prevent guidance, you should probably avoid doing the following things: crying, being angry or depressed, using the internet, getting tattoos, asking inappropriate questions, or making any new friends.
If you can avoid doing those things here's another tip: Don't be Muslim. The training does absolutely nothing to address or change the inaccurate perception that terrorists are mainly Muslim. In fact, it absolutely feeds into that stereotype. One case study even cartoonishly depicts prisoners from Iraq promoting the benefits of jihad in the aftermath of 9/11 to "Neil," who has severe mental health problems.
The videos that make up the training suggest mentorship and pastoral conversations with teachers are part of how potential terrorists were turned from the brink. But the WRAP handbook essentially backtracks on this and admits that that part of the video is misleading, instead saying that referrals "will have most likely have been a Channel Panel or Prevent Professional Concerns meeting." In other words, it would be nice if a friendly chat with your teacher would allay any concerns about your terrorist thoughts, but in fact, we'll have to set up a panel with some police officers.
The results of the training are plain to see. Ill-informed and ill-equipped public sector workers are being pressured into bypassing standard safeguarding in the case of Muslims, and instead, they're raising their concerns to the government through Prevent. For those not racialized as Muslim, depression, crying, and withdrawal might prompt support and mental health care. In the case of Muslims, this stuff could land you in an intimidating meeting where you are asked uncomfortable questions about your internet habits and tattoos.
Samayya Afzal, from Bradford University Students Not Suspects, told me:
"The idea that practitioners can walk away from these scant training sessions instilled with any sense of 'expertise' in counter-terrorism is almost laughable, were the consequences not so serious—as we have seen so vividly just these past few months.
"This lays bare the fact that Prevent is not guided by evidence or any real intelligence: Prevent is driven by paranoia, and it inspires fear in return. It is built on conjecture, yet demands unquestioning obedience in return."
UCU, CAGE, 383 professors, campaigners and politicians, as well as the UK's terror watchdog have raised concern about Prevent. This is no surprise when it seeks to label Muslim students, patients, and clients of the public sector as potential terrorists based on bad psychological profiling not even fit for a spy drama.
Follow Wail Qasim on Twitter.