Paris Gourtsoyannis: How to prevent terror requires a rethink

We may be looking for the wrong signs if Westminster attacker got through the net, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Khalid Masoods attack at the heart of the UKs political establishment casts doubts over government policy. Picture: AP

It was the last few weeks of my first year at university, and I was badly ill. What started out as just another cold had failed to clear after weeks, despite a course of antibiotics.

By the time my father came to visit for his 60th birthday, he found me in a miserable heap in my halls of residence sickbed, not having eaten properly or stepped outside for days. So it was off to A&E, and a referral to a specialist.

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I was seen by a brisk young Scottish doctor of Pakistani origin. Let’s call him Dr Khan. He took my details and ran some tests.

“How much alcohol do you drink each week?” he asked. When I told him, there was a note of wry resignation in his voice – but he didn’t skip a beat. “Well, that’s about double what you should be,” he said. “But you’re a student, so…”

I was admitted, and the tests came back as my dad was keeping me company. “You have glandular fever,” Dr Khan said. “It’s sometimes called the kissing disease,” he added, before casting a sideways glance at the bedside. “Is it okay if I talk about this in front of your father?”

So, all in all, a textbook example of quality care and exemplary cultural sensitivity from someone who seemed to bridge two identities with total comfort.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After winning the election to be rector of the University of Glasgow, Aamer Anwar, one of Scotland’s best-known Muslim figures for his decades of activism, told a student newspaper that during his own uni days, he was in Sub Club every weekend. No minority community is without its challenges, but by the relative standards of the UK visible minority groups, Scotland’s Pakistanis have got along quite well.

But back to Dr Khan. As I was hooked up to a drip, finally delivering the right medication, I overheard him in his office across the hall from my ward room.

He was angry. “How could he do that?” I remember hearing him say down the phone, his voice raised. “I would never accept anything like that – from her.”

British troops were still in Iraq, a bloody undeclared sectarian civil war was claiming hundreds of lives, and Iqbal Sacranie, the secretary-general of the Muslim council of Britain, had accepted a knighthood from the Queen.

It was clear that Dr Khan wasn’t having any of it. The idea of taking an honour from the British crown disgusted him, and Sacranie was a traitor. If you’re a believer in Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test”, then that was the moment Dr Khan went down to an innings defeat.

I’m not. There is no suggestion his views meant he had sympathy for violent extremism of any kind. In all likelihood Dr Khan was a pillar of every community he was part of – personal, professional, and faith.

But how would his comments have been interpreted under the Prevent strategy, intended to identify those vulnerable to radicalisation and which “makes safety a shared endeavour”?

Introduced in 2007 and extended in 2015 so that the NHS, among other public services, have a duty to deliver it, the strategy run by the UK government and endorsed by the Scottish Government is sufficiently vague so that “alienation from UK values” is listed as a potential risk factor for radicalisation.

Critics say that casts the net impossibly wide, and has itself contributed to the alienation of large numbers of Muslims who believe they are being implicated in extremist activities that they would never support.

David Anderson QC, the recently departed Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, warned last year that Prevent was so mistrusted that it has “become a more significant source of grievance in affected communities than the police and ministerial powers that are exercised”.

The scale and extent of the strategy is such that its effectiveness has never been independently assessed, although the government and security services insist that it has helped to steer thousands of people away from extremist activity. Ministers have promised an overhaul to help make Prevent more transparent.

Since last week, however, attention has focused on the threats that slip through the net rather than the innocent that get swept up in it.

By some accounts, Adrian Russell Elms – aka Khalid Masood – couldn’t have been stopped from visiting his attack on Westminster. The security services believe Masood acted alone. He was known to MI5 for harbouring extremist sentiments, but there was nothing in his conduct to suggest he posed a threat. He was not among the top 3,000 counter-terrorism surveillance targets. His weapons, two knives and a car, could be obtained by anyone on the high street. His plan was as unsophisticated as it was horrific.

But Masood was a violent Christian before he was a violent Muslim extremist, and he bore many of the hallmarks of the loners that have brought terror to European cities in recent years.

Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend cabinet when she was part of David Cameron’s government, has asked for a pause to Prevent and a judicial review of its effectiveness.

At the weekend, she warned that the strategy is too narrowly focused on the politics and the ideology behind extremism, rather than the many other environmental factors that were a part of Masood’s life – the isolation, violence and substance abuse.

“One of the questions I’ve asked for a couple of years is what actually makes a violent Jihadi? What makes a terrorist?” she said.

“My argument has consistently been that the government has been obsessively focused on just one – which we refer to as Islamist ideology.”

The government says it would be the wrong time to pause Prevent.

But in the wake of last week’s atrocity, it would surely be entirely the right time to ask whether we are looking for the right clues when trying to find people like Masood – and whether we’re making that search even more difficult by casting doubt on others.