Prevent and the London Tube Bombing

The verdict in the Iraqi teenager’s trial came as no surprise. Ahmed Hassan, who had arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker, was found guilty of attempted murder by a jury unconvinced by his defense that he had not meant no harm and merely sought attention when he placed a homemade bomb on a train at the Parsons Green Station in London.
The bomb, packed with “metal shrapnel including screws, bolts, nails, knives and screw drivers,” failed to fully explode but still managed to injure 30 people.

According to the police and prosecutors, Hassan’s motives were “unclear” despite the teenager having previously claimed to a lecturer that he had “a duty to hate Britain” because of the country’s role in the invasion of Iraq and the death of his father in an air raid. He had once complained to the same lecturer that the UK “continues to bomb my people daily.”

Hassan also seemed to suffer from mental health issues. One lecturer described him as “traumatized, on edge, and not very trusting” while another called him “broken.” It remains to be seen whether this plays a role in his sentencing as the mental health defense is almost exclusively reserved for white criminals.

There was, however, one claim regarding Ahmed Hassan that was taken seriously. The teenager had previously told a Home Office immigration official that he had spent three months with the Islamic State after the group took him by force and trained him to kill. During his trial, Hassan recanted the story, claiming it was a lie “intended to generate sympathy and to secure asylum status in the UK.”

Nonetheless, this was the story that led to Hassan being referred to Prevent, the UK government’s controversial counter-terrorism program, and Channel, its counter-radicalization component, months before he began constructing the bomb.

Like its counterpart in the United States, Prevent is premised on racist assumptions about Muslim communities as incubators of an extremist religious ideology which actively cultivates the terrorist threat to the UK. It also refuses to acknowledge terrorism as a form of politically motivated violence in a synergistic relationship with the British government’s foreign policy and military interventions abroad.

Not surprisingly, the failure of Prevent in detecting Hassan’s mobilization to violence has only received scant attention in reports on his trial.

The Guardian reported that Hassan “continued to engage with the project right up until the point at which he started making his bomb, apparently giving the impression that he was making good progress; that he posed no risk to the public.”

Reuters quoted the head of London Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, Dean Haydon, remarking that Hassan was too “cunning and devious” for Prevent. “On the face of it, Hassan was engaged on the program,” said Haydon. “But coming back to his devious nature, he kept it very secretive in relation to what he was doing, what he was planning, and nobody around him actually knew what his plot was.”

This may be the extent to which Hassan’s referral to Prevent and its subsequent failure to detect his plans for an attack was covered in the media but these comments are nonetheless instructive for two reasons.

First, the failure of a counter-terrorism program built on “crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling,” in the words of UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai, has led not to introspection regarding the program but instead to even cruder racist tropes regarding the wily oriental’s “cunning and devious” nature. That Hassan was able to successfully evade a program specifically designed for him and others like him raised no questions about the effectiveness of Prevent.

This is especially damning as it is not the first occasion of Britain’s counter-terrorism program failing so dramatically in its stated objective.

In 2014, two brothers from Brighton were killed in Syria after leaving the UK and joining an al-Qaeda affiliate. The brothers had been monitored by the local police as well as social workers for several years. According to a case review commissioned by the Brighton & Hove Local Children Safeguarding Board last year, “officials missed clear opportunities to spot their growing vulnerability to jihadist exploitation.” A year after declaring that one of the brothers was “not at risk of being drawn into terror-related activities,” he travelled to Syria to partake in terror-related activities.

The inability of a trained, professional staff to identify these individuals planning attacks or joining terrorist groups also seems to raise no concerns regarding the innumerable other programs which rely on family and community members as “force multipliers” to detect an individual’s “radicalization.”

Critics of Prevent and other Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs have repeatedly pointed out that there are no predictive indicators of violent extremism, making it impossible for anyone to identify a would-be terrorist. This criticism has also been supported by numerous reports which have described, in scrupulous detail, the disastrous consequences of this approach, usually ending with innocent children being erroneously identified as potential terrorists.

These concerns have fallen on deaf ears as the number of programs with such shoddy methodology steadily increases. The latest iteration of such a program, for example, came late last year as London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced “a new project [that] will encourage people living in some of the capital’s most marginalized communities to spot and identify extremists spreading hateful ideologies.”

Mayor Khan’s plan not only included the failed reliance on community members as spies but took the additional step of focusing on a single supposed indicator of violent extremism: extremist ideology. However, as the Brennan Center for Justice reported last year, those who carry out attacks do not necessarily hold extremist views and the vast majority of those who hold extremist views never actually carry out violence.

Thus, the London Mayor’s plan is even more likely to lead to unnecessary and potentially harmful referrals.

This would be common sense if the lessons of Ahmed Hassan’s smooth transition from Prevent to a terrorist attack could be heeded. That the government’s own counter-terrorism program, developed by experts and staffed by trained professionals, could not detect any hint of Hassan’s mobilization to violence should be the last nail in Prevent’s coffin.

Regrettably, the raison dêtre of Prevent, as other CVE measures, is to deflect attention away from political motives and onto racist assumptions about Muslims. This ensures that no such reckoning can take place.