Preventing Together or Preventing Alone

Paramilitary Mural from Northern Ireland

Published 29 th April 2016 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

Whether it's suicide bombs in Pakistan, beheadings in Iraq, car-bombs in Belfast, acts of terror at home and abroad continue to spread fear across the British public. Yet part of the British Government's response - its Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) Strategy - raises a number of dangerous implications both for security and civil liberties. As a researcher and teacher of conflict analysis in Higher Education, these implications are particularly relevant and highlight a number of serious concerns for me personally, but the field and institutions more broadly as well.

The UK Prevent strategy forms one of the "key elements" of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST (Home Office, 2011:11). Its primary objective is "to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism", meaning "challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology" (Home Office, 2011:23). Whilst this establishes specific requirements and guidelines for many public service agencies - including local authorities, NHS, primary and secondary schools, faith organisations, charities and prisons - I am personally most concerned about those relating to Higher Education, and specifically to my own teaching and research practice.

In the Government guidelines on Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education, there are a number of guidelines directly relevant to teaching practice in HE including: identifying student "vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism", challenging "extremist ideas which risk drawing people into terrorism", identifying and reporting radicalised students, and censoring external speakers who may express "views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups" (Home Office, 2015:4-5). The identification and reporting of students at risk of being drawn into terrorism is now a legal requirement following the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Saeed et al., 2016:3) whilst the other requirements are strongly advised.

Now although there is an understandable rationale behind these policies of preventing political violence against civilians, the repercussions of these policies undermine the very values they purport to defend. For in identifying at risk students, lecturers and seminar leaders are being asked to effectively profile students according to those who may be from particular backgrounds. As the major threats to British national security have been identified as those "terrorist organisations inspired by violent Islamism" (Home Office, 2015:13), teachers will accordingly identify and monitor those students from an Islamic background.

Already Muslim students have reported feelings of alienation, fear and discrimination (Saeed et al., 2016), having been singled out as being at risk. In teaching subjects such as terrorism to groups including Muslim students, means that according to these guidelines I should be paying particular attention to their responses and interest in the material having the potential to make teachers prejudiced towards Muslim, or even Irish students. The arrest of student who had downloaded The Al Qaeda Training Manual at Nottingham University "as part of his research for a dissertation" is a case in point (BBC, 2011). Indeed, if a student such as Mr Sabir in this case, demonstrates an above average and uncritical interest in terrorism I should report this to our designated 'Prevent' officer. In practice then, these policies implicitly require teachers to profile students according to their backgrounds, monitor their engagement with the material, and enforce a dominant state discourse of counter-terrorism (Brown et al., 2015).

Encouraging critical thought is for me a crucial aspect of teaching and indeed a central form of assessment with our school but these counter-terrorism policies create a contradictory position, whereby instead of getting students to challenge extremist discourse critically, we are encouraged to censor it from our debates and teaching, leaving students open to uncritical interpretations (Thomas, 2014). Bill Rammell for example, argues that "unless academic freedom is used to challenge extremist views, then academic freedom will be undermined by violent extremism" (Hayes, 2009:135). In other words, if teachers of conflict analysis are unable to critically and openly engage students in terrorism, these same students will be much more susceptible to the extremism we are supposedly purporting to prevent.

Teaching terrorism as part of conflict analysis I believe requires discussion of the implicit assumptions built into the prevailing terrorism discourse, such as why state terrorism is always excluded from legal definitions, or why terrorism itself is such a subjective and pejorative term that it may be better not to actually use it at all (Bryan et al., 2011). Getting students to engage critically with such content means challenging the prevailing discourse of terrorism both by terrorists themselves and the state, but Prevent places academics in a contradictory position; being legally required to enforce counter-terrorism, teachers of conflict analysis are being asked to set aside their academic freedom of inquiry and adopt the state discourse of terrorism.

UK Police
Certain academics have therefore been vocal opponents to such legislation (The Guardian, 2015) citing issues of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, as teachers are restricted in their ability to critically engage students in the issues surrounding terrorism (Dexter et al., 2014). Instead of problematizing the definition and challenging the prevailing discourse of terrorism, this legislation seeks to make teachers into agents of counter-terrorism policy itself. In effect teachers are having to identify radicalised students or those espousing terrorist inclinations, without challenging the highly problematic concepts of radicalization and terrorism (Heath-Kelly, 2013; Brown et al., 2015).

Consider the definition of terrorism by the British Government, which under the Terrorism Act 2000 principally includes membership of a proscribed organization, demonstrations of support in any fashion (financial, managerial, promotional) for that organization, displaying a symbol or uniform indicating support or membership of that organization, or any act which threats or engages in violence or damage to any person or property for the purpose of advancing a political, ideological or religious cause or to influence the government or general public, inter alia. The tautological basis of this definition which uses itself as its own referential focus means terrorism is used by the state to control and de-legitimize particular political views. Granted these are primarily violent and destructive, but by making academics and teachers of this field police them, it seriously limits their ability to objectively and critically evaluate their content. For example the broad definition attributed to extremism could be used to include "opposition to...counter-terrorism measures" such as stop and search powers (McGarry et al., 2015).

Take a typical seminar on terrorism as an example. I would begin by getting students to consider a number of competing definitions of terrorism - ones in legislation, discourse and in practice - to analyse what is specific to each one and why this may be the case. I would get them then to consider trends in terrorism, how these relate to the definitions and the problems embodied therein. This would be a basic introduction to the topic but one which is centred around debate and challenging the dominant discourse. Yet as I teach this, I will need to somehow police student responses for signs of so-called radicalisation contradicting the critical approach to terrorism which I am teaching; I will on the one hand be encouraging students to challenge the concept of terrorism, while on the other be enforcing it myself. I would have to pay particular attention to any Muslim students, and explicitly challenge any views which could be construed as 'radical'. However, problematic as these issues are, the impact of such policies on my research is arguably of much greater significance.

Research in conflict analysis often involves engaging with "security-sensitive" material, such as an "Al Qaeda manual" or interview data with former combatants (Universities UK, 2012). Although such material is considered "perfectly legitimate academic research" (Universities UK, 2012:3), for example to investigate why actors engage in political violence with a view to preventing it, or to evaluate what type of actors usually resort to such methods; under the Terrorism Act 2015 and implicit in the Prevent Strategy is that if such material is found on a researcher's computer or desk they should be considered a suspect and reported to a designated Prevent Officer (Home Office, 2015). Universities have accordingly been given rather vague advice on implementing policies "[t]o enable the university to identify and address issues where online materials are accessed for non-research purposes" (Home Office, 2015:6), meaning that researchers of such materials will now also be monitored by their departments to ensure they are engaging in legitimate research. The advice given to universities is that the discovery of security-sensitive material should be reported to campus security who would then inform an appointed ethics officer or line manager. They would then determine whether the document was relevant to the researcher's work, if so no further action would be followed, but if not the police would be informed who would then decide whether or not to arrest the individual under the Terrorism Act (Universities UK, 2012). Such a system means that researchers such as myself who engage in security sensitive research could potentially be constantly monitored as being at risk ourselves because of the material we our engaging with, ignoring the fact that our research seeks to address the very thing under surveillance: political violence. This raises significant issues again of academic independence from state control, as these powers appear to define restrictive boundaries around what the state deems 'legitimate' research; however because these policies have not yet been implemented into university practice it remains to be seen what their actual implications will be.

Paramilitary Mural from Northern Ireland Another issue is that of confidentiality which again in many other subject areas is not too problematic considering their research should remain relatively confidential and unhindered, but in research such as my own where I interview various actors, some of whom are former 'terrorists', this would completely undermine my research's confidentiality. This is because many of these interviews are done on the basis of complete interviewee confidentiality; participants names will be changed as will all identifying references, often for the purpose of security of the individual or for research independence (Fennan, 2002).

If all of my research material was then to be monitored I would no longer be able to store it on the university system as it would jeopardize confidentiality. However, the guidelines on oversight of this material state that so long as it is declared there should be no issue and it should not be "a mechanism for reviewing this research, or regulating it" (Universities UK, 2012:5), meaning that so long as I declare my interview data and research there should be no concerns raised, which happens already through ethics review boards. But, the assumption is still that all data of a security sensitive nature must be stored "on a university server" were it would be monitored (Universities UK, 2015:6). In other words, interview transcripts, recordings and primary source documents all will need to be submitted to this central server in order to assuage any suspicions. Practically this would mean interviewees would need to be informed that their transcripts could be accessed by the police and university for security reasons undermining the potential for confidential research. Indeed, it is very likely that few interviewees would ever engage if they believed you to be a representative of the state (Knox, 2002) which under these policies is the position researchers are being placed in.

This presents a significant obstacle to empirical research on political violence as it places the researcher in the position of having to decide whether to risk being considered a 'suspect' but being able to engage in what was previously ordinary empirical research, or else work within increasingly restrictive boundaries. Again however, these policies have not yet been implemented so it remains to be seen if they will be implemented accordingly or whether they will undergo further amendments.

These policies evidently pose important issues for teaching and research, yet they also hold important implications for my own career development. Research which challenges this prevailing discourse on counter-terrorism runs the risk of jeopardizing funding, as although popular, critical approaches to political violence may appear too controversial or politically loaded regardless of their quality or content. Similarly, risk aversion may also become a necessary aspect of teaching on political violence because to invite controversial speakers - even with a view to challenging their views - runs the danger of being branded radicalization, pending disciplinary proceedings and so on. Even in research, the danger of having material misconstrued as 'not of research value' makes researching political violence increasingly problematic.

I personally decided to do a PhD in Conflict Analysis to become a specialist in the field, so that I could eventually move back into a more policy oriented role; but the increasingly restrictive environment facing research is making this career path problematic. Continuing as a researcher of political violence runs the risk of being viewed as unorthodox by potential employers being outside the boundaries of 'safe' research, not because of the methods or quality but because of the content. Therefore if the counter-terrorism policies become implemented as they currently stand it appears that the field of conflict analysis in the United Kingdom is on a trajectory towards 'safe' research, where critical views and research are being policed informally, presenting me with the options of either changing my research focus/methods or changing career.

In summary, by making it a legal requirement that staff now identify and report any individuals believed to be at risk of radicalisation or terrorism, teachers are being drawn into the wider programme of profiling and policing students. This monitoring role runs in direct tension with teaching students then about political violence and the widely disputed concept of terrorism (Bryan et al., 2012) making it increasingly difficult to encourage student engagement in these important areas. Furthermore, by bringing teaching staff under the net of counter-terrorism enforcement this limits their own ability in critically challenging this very net. Of greater significance however is the restrictions these policies hold for research, placing increasingly draconian regulations on 'security-sensitive' research so that institutions will now have to monitor and police their own staff to ensure that only those permitted are engaging in these fields. Whilst the rationale behind these measures is laudable if it is seeking to prevent political violence and civilian casualties, its execution in the field of Higher Education is ultimately contradictory, ineffective, and worryingly restrictive.


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Brown, Katherine E.; Saeed, Tania (2015). "Radicalization and counter-radicalization at British universities: Muslim encounters and alternatives", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(11):1952-1968.

Bryan, Dominic; Kelly, Liam; Templer, Sara (2011). "The failed paradigm of 'terrorism'", Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 3(2):80-96.

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I apologise for the length of this post but it was adapted from an essay I had done on the topic which I thought would be useful to put in the public domain.