A critical reflection of the UK’s Counter Terrorism PREVENT strategy from a police practitioner’s perspective using ethical theory and alternative forms of justice

Author: Neil Kitching, L7 Competing and Comparative Justice

There is a plethora of academic studies concerning the UK governments PREVENT strategy. But very little from the point of view of a practitioner. It is hoped that this essay by combining both disciplines, a pracademic of sorts, will introduce and encourage insight and possibly a new perspective of what is disproportionately seen as negative and potentially a harmful strategy to community cohesion in the UK. 

When reflecting on the UK’s historic strategic response to terrorism it can be arguably split into two halves. Pre and post 9/11 and to some degree the London bombings in 2005. Before these significant events, from the UK’s point of view, counter terrorism was conducted at Police Constabulary level and mainly focused on the threat from Northern Irish related terrorism. These policing units were formed in 1883 and known as ‘Special Branch’. They were a direct descendant of the Metropolitans Police Special Irish Branch which was formed to mitigate the rising threat from Irish republican. During World War Two both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had been formed but after the war they were structured to respond to the emerging ‘cold war’ and the monitoring of the former Soviet Union as well as to support counter insurgency in the former British colonies. Consequently, their interest in assessing and monitoring the threat of terrorism directed towards the UK’s national security was not to the level you would see today. After the Twin Towers terrorist attack in New York on the 9th September 2001 the UK government reviewed their response to countering terrorism with a great emphasis of understanding and mitigating the threat of Islamic terrorism, mainly from the threat overseas but later from within the UK itself. 

The CONTEST strategy and PREVENT

What was introduced, was the UK governments first comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST, in early 2003 (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2009). This review also led to Counter Terrorism Policing working more closely with the Security Service than ever before and the establishing of new working practices particularly around who had primacy in the circumstance. The CONTEST strategy outlined four distinct thematic areas, commonly referred by counter terrorism practitioners as the four P’s. PREVENT, to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. PURSUE, to stop terrorist attacks. PROTECT, to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack. PREPARE, to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack (HM Government, 2018). When considering ethical theories associated to Counter Terrorism Policing, I have limited my choices to just two, consequentialism and deontology. It is my view that both theories feature within counter terrorism but in a very different way. The wider CONTEST strategy initially appears to rely on consequentialism for justification for its existence, especially Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. The UK government at the time of devising the CONTEST strategy probably felt they were morally justified in doing so from the belief that governments have moral grounds to protect its citizens and applied Stuart Mill’s principle of harm when doing so. (Feinberg, 1973) comments society has as much right to protect its moral code by legal coercion as it does to protect its equally indispensable political institutions. The law cannot tolerate politically revolutionary activity, nor can it accept activity that rips asunder its moral fabric. Harm and the fear of harm reduces societal happiness where security and stability for society has to be governments perceived goal. The effects of terrorist related activity no doubt causes pain, not just physically to those that have been directly affected but also emotionally to the wider public. An example of this was seen in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing in 2017 where people from all diverse backgrounds came together as a community to show and share their grief by the wearing of a bee symbol and the hosting of a remembrance musical concert. Utilitarianism is predominately a hedonistic philosophy and measures success by tilting the balance of happiness over pain in favour of happiness regardless of the action used to achieve this and said action should be evaluated on the basis of its consequence (Duigan, 2020). This would demand that Counter Terrorism Policing should use all methods at its disposal to identify and stop terrorists from causing harm and would be morally sound for doing so; however, this justification for action is not going to sit well with everyone with critics of this approach making a case that this moral principle could lead to future actions that could be questionably lawful. This is likely to occur as a result of covert policing and the methodologies of obtaining intelligence to mitigate threat, risk and harm. Therefore, this calls for consequentialism with restraint, and enforced by independent governmental governance is imperative.

PREVENT however is very much overt in nature and relies upon gaining trust from the public to be effective. This means that PREVENT cannot be seen as immoral and must consider a more deontological approach to its actions whenever possible. That being that it should strive to be transparent, consistent and adopt an absolutist approach to its working practices. This of course can lead to occasions of moral conflict with the other thematical areas as well as to the practitioner especially when it comes to their access to sensitive information. There are some that believe combining the two is possible; however, given the differing notions of rationality underlying each kind of theory, this is easier said than done (Moore, et al., 2020). This conflict is ever present and further complicated by conflicts with Deontology itself. Deontology being derived from Kant’s philosophical morality and subscribing to his categorical imperative is therefore absolute that the practitioner should adhere to the maxim of always telling the truth. But also, to the maxim universally shared in Counter Terrorism Policing to not to divulge sensitive information without good reason. Practitioners when interacting with partners and vulnerable people may be asked a direct question about their knowledge of sensitive information. This conflict of duty is explored and overcome by Cindi Banks who highlights that deontological moral rules should be treated as a generalisation and that telling the truth is an obligation that should be kept, provided there are no other overriding factors present (Banks, 2016). It is this approach by the police practitioner that makes their actions moral and duteous. 

To understand why the PREVENT strategy has come under so much criticism there us justification to consider how it tries to achieve its aim of preventing people from becoming terrorists. The thematic is unique within Counter Terrorism Policing, rather than focusing on terrorism it looks to identify and support those that are at vulnerable to radicalisation or identifying with extremism. Using terms like radicalisation and extremism comes with some inherent problems and at first sight, one might say that such a semantic view is useless in searching for a proper definition of the term extremism (Sotlar, 2004). Even with this observation the UK government has defined extremism as the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. It also regards calling for the death of members of the armed forces as extremist behaviour (HM Governemnt, 2015). It could be argued the fact the UK Government has published this definition they have used normative ethics and have applied an absolutist approach by outlining one set of ethical standards that applies across all societies (Banks, 2016); however, when the definition was first published there was many who challenged the governments approach, which has likely spurned some of the negativity towards PREVENT. Especially before the redaction of the word ‘British’ in the definition when highlighting values. Critics of the definition may highlight the government has ignored ethical relativism and what is morally right or wrong may vary in a fundamental way from person to person or from culture to culture (Banks, 2016). This has added poignancy as PREVENT was seen to initially target those from the Muslim community and consequently has been labelled as Islamophobic. (Qurashi, 2018) quantifies this by commenting, PREVENT indicates the problem of extremism and terrorism is closely tied to Muslims and Islam, so that the terror threat is regarded as an Islamic threat. Furthermore, others question the very notion of radicalisation as a concept and the challenge what they believe are the instabilities in the deployment of radicalisation discourse (Heath-Kelly, 2012). In light of so much negativity both from academia, reports in the media and from non-governmental organisations it has been argued that PREVENT has become a toxic brand and its perceived failures from these quarters would dictate its abolishment. Furthermore, some state that PREVENT is no more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing that on the one hand it encourages Muslims to integrate and help support community engagement but on the other hand it uses counter-terrorism policies to ‘spy’ upon Muslim communities (Awan, 2011).

What can’t be ignored is that the statistics recorded by the UK indicate that there is still a risk of terrorist related activity with the number of people being referred to PREVENT between the years April 2019 to March 2020 being 6287. Of these 1487 were associated to Islamist ideologies, 1387 were associated to Right Wing ideologies leaving the remaining associated to the recently used category of ‘mixed and unstable ideology of which there was 3203 and 210 for other forms of radicalisation. (Home Office, 2020). Furthermore, in this same time period there was 261 arrests for terrorist related activity in the UK. 82 of these arrests were charged with a criminal offence with 66 of them terrorist related criminal offences (Home Office, 2020). It should be noted that I make no correlation between the number of PREVENT referred cases and the number of arrests. Both should be considered separate entities but highlight a current demand of resources in Counter Terrorism Policing.

The Counter Terrorism Case Officer (CTCO)

It could be argued that the reason for distrust with PREVENT is due to the presence of police officers acting as its practitioners. These practitioners are referred to as Counter Terrorism Case Officers (CTSO) but formerly referred to as Prevent Officers. Initially there is validity to the argument as no crime has been committed and therefore there is not a need for specific police powers; however, since PREVENT’s inception the role has always had police officers at its core. By in large police officers are trained with a sense of duty in a manner more in keeping with deontological ethics by basing their morality not on feelings or emotions but rather on concepts of duty, obligation, and rationality (Banks, 2016). But on top of that they must also be virtuous when considering their position by asking what kind of person should I be in the context of a police officer (Banks, 2016). This is outlined and reinforced by the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics (College of Policing, 2014). Officers are expected to act with autonomy and throughout their career will have had to make decisions surrounding risk both under pressure and in slow time environment and be accountable for them. The biggest challenge for officers transitioning into PREVENT is increasing their skillset around problem solving where the ability to use police powers are absent. The vast majority of officers will have been trained and operate as enforcers of the law, rather than as peacemakers. Also, when problem solving, they have to aware there may not be necessarily a right or wrong answer or an overtly positive outcome; however, officers are exposed to and learn quickly how to communicate with a wide variety of people from differing backgrounds and circumstances. In respect of my own career, I have had to communicate to others during what is arguably the most emotional challenging role in policing, that being a Family Liaison Officer supporting those whose loved ones have been murdered in the most awful of circumstance. Where, how, why and what you communicate has to be carefully thought through whilst remaining stoic with your own personal emotion. I couple this role with instances calling for the need to de-escalate conflict or to stand your ground in face of violence creates a unique characteristic and skill set not easily available to other professions outside of law enforcement. 


As well as analysing the police practitioner it is only right to explore the ethics of the by far most important aspect of PREVENT which is its safeguarding panel, referred to as CHANNEL. CHANNEL is a local authority administered and attended by a plethora of other safeguarding professionals from variety of agencies the vast majority of those identified in schedule 6 of the Counter Terrorism Security Act 2015. Before CHANNEL decides whether a person is at risk to radicalisation and requires support, the individual is assessed by Counter Terrorism Policing to determine firstly that no criminal offences linked to terrorism is suspected to have been committed or potentially committed, and secondly that there is reasonable suspicion for CHANNEL to consider the matter. CHANNEL is then tasked with looking at the individual and identifying what, how and why the person is vulnerable to radicalisation. If the person is deemed not vulnerable to radicalisation or is already in receipt of sufficient support, then CHANNEL can choose not to offer support and the matter is closed; however if CHANNEL does feel there is a necessity to offer support then CHANNEL will formulate a tailored support package which can consist of a commissioning of a specialist to provide a counter narrative to any extreme ideology identified and, or provide lifestyle oriented support to mitigate what is making the person vulnerable in the first place. Ultimately all decisions made at CHANNEL rest with the chairperson, a local authority officer. The only exception is when the person being discussed are suspected of potentially committing or having committed a criminal offence linked to terrorism. The CTCO will decide for the matter to be removed from CHANNEL and be re-assessed in exactly the same way as before it was brought to CHANNEL. Whereas CHANNEL doesn’t require the consent of the vulnerable person to discuss the matter at CHANNEL it does in respect of the support package being offered. This consent must be sincere and obtained without condition for the support package to be successful. CHANNEL is not an alternative to punishment nor is the vulnerable person seen as a future offender that requires stopping. They are more akin to a victim of crime with the perpetrator being the extremist rhetoric that they have been exposed to. CHANNEL practices presumptively nonblamable paternalism and defends relatively helpless or vulnerable people from external dangers, including harm from other people when the protected parties are not voluntarily consented to the risk (Feinberg, 1989). This calls in to question how CHANNEL can be sure that the vulnerable person has not consented to being radicalised. But it is easily answered when sincere consent is given to the support package being offered after it has been explained to them why CHANNEL believes they are at risk to radicalisation.

CHANNEL is always conducted in a strictly confidential manner and rarely will a lay person from the community be invited to CHANNEL unless to part with some information pertinent to the person being discussed, but again this is rare as the information is normally obtained via a professional who then delivers this information. This one-sided professional involvement is likely to be called into question as to whether it is the most effective method of supporting individuals or should due regard be given to make CHANNEL more community focused. Sociologist and Criminologist Nils Christie would likely draw comparisons with those CHANNEL professionals in the same manner as he views lawyers in the court system where he comments they are particularly good at stealing conflicts. They are trained for it. They are trained to prevent and solve conflicts. They are socialised into a sub-culture with a surprisingly high agreement concerning interpretations of norms, and regarding what sort information can be accepted as relevant in each case (Christie, 1977). He would likely call for a community focused lay panel to reduce specialisation and particularly the dependence on the professionals within the crime control system to the utmost (Christie, 1977). I will discuss the possible merits of this later in my conclusions.

CHANNEL has a cadre of approved specialists to provide counter narratives to extremist ideologies. These specialists see the vulnerable person on a one-to-one basis and discuss with the vulnerable person why any extremist ideology they hold is causing them harm. When analysing this practice, I can draw many parallels with the methodology used in restorative practice’s aim of resisting inflicting pain and pain-inflicting responses, stresses a constructive dialogue and aims to restore “right relations” in the community (Zernova, 2019) but of course this is delivered in a flipped manner as a result no criminal offence having taken place in PREVENT. I have already indicated that the vulnerable should be seen as the victim of radicalisation and one of the key aspects of restorative justice is the meeting of stake holders, victims and offenders, to work towards repairing the harm. Therefore, this process is reliant on the involvement of the offender, in this case a former[1] (Tapley & Clubb, 2019); however, in the current process as highlighted there is no trained independent mediator or restorative justice professional and the entire process of information gathering before is normally done remote of the vulnerable person and is more associated to the risk surrounding them rather than how they feel about being vulnerable or indeed radicalised. For CHANNEL to truly subscribe to restorative justice ideals the process will need to be finetuned.


At the start of this essay, I commented that the majority of the academic literature surrounding PREVENT has been of a negative nature. I hope in conclusion to explain why I feel PREVENT is ethical in what it hopes to achieve. I am aware that it could be argued that I am unconsciously biased as I am a practitioner in PREVENT. But the flip side to this is I have a better insight into the working practices of PREVENT where perhaps others haven’t.

I do not belittle or doubt that the PREVENT in its early years had teething problems and was delivered incorrectly in my opinion. Consequentially PREVENT has by some is considered an anti-Islamic or a surveillance tool against our Muslim community. Even the UK government acknowledged this in part during a review by highlighting it confused the delivery of the Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism (HM Government, 2011). What has been absent though is an apology from the government to our Muslim community with added assurances that PREVENT, like it does today, will always concentrate on the vulnerabilities associated to the individual rather than specifically the ideology espoused. Especially as the ideology is likely not to be the root cause of the issue but the end result, as well as the vehicle making them at risk of committing a violent extremist act.

I joined PREVENT in 2017 and have seen not only is PREVENT more occupied with dealing with right wing extremism than ever before, but also with an emerging threat associated to mixed and unstable ideologies perpetuated by cyber delivered material that increases anxiety and promotes grievance from perceived injustices held by the vulnerable person. This then manifests into hate, and then in a small number of cases into a desire to inflict serious harm on their community or elements of the community they perceive to have rejected them or who they feel isolated from. This change in threat and ability to support and to provide a counter narrative requires the police practitioner to move from a predominantly deontological moral system in their approach to the role to a one more balanced with virtue ethics. In detail I would call for deontological approach to the assessment of risk, but the delivery of support should be done virtuously. The person being supported will need to feel a connection with the PREVENT practitioner who has to be seen as likeable and a role model rather than as an enforcer. I also would express that the police practitioner being a warranted police officer is no longer necessary nor should the fact exclude them from performing the role. Instead, careful selection of characteristics and life experience is paramount, and recruitment could initially occur outside of law enforcement circles. This would then call for a change to the current approach to training candidates to become CTCO’s by drawing knowledge and experience from restorative justice professionals and adapting their working methods to create a hybrid with already established working policies. Lastly, I can see many strengths of having lay members of community involved with CHANNEL along the lines of Nils Christie views; however, I do not feel this is workable in reality. Any member will have to subscribe to the conditions of confidentiality and have an understanding of the mechanics of the CHANNEL process to be truly effective. This awareness, or training need would organically over time transition the person from a lay person to a specialist. An issue (Christie, 1977) considers when he discusses lay courts in the criminal justice system by highlighting the lay person are used again and again. Secondly, some are even trained, given special courses or sent on excursions to foreign countries to learn about how to behave as a lay judge. Thirdly, most of them do also represent an extremely biased sample of the population with regard to sex, age, education, income, class and personal experience as criminals. This highlighted conflict to the spirit was initially desired reinforces my view that whereas theoretically the idea is sound it wouldn’t be achievable and is also likely to add to inconsistence’s in CHANNEL if the membership of the panel and to be constantly changed to fulfil the lay person requirement. Also, it would be wrong to ask a lay person to be accountable for their decisions or lack of action if something was to go wrong with legal consequences.

It is my view that PREVENT does have a place in modern Counter Terrorism Policing but should always be sighted on the misguided practices of the past to instil an institutional memory so that they are never repeated in the future. But I would also call for support from others to firstly understand how and what PREVENT does today, with consideration for doing so with an unbiased mindset. It’s this possible bias that if not considered and put to one side will always cause one to come to the same negative conclusion.


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College of Policing, 2014. Code of Ethics – A Code of Practice for the Principles and Standards of Professional Behaviour for the Policing Profession of England and Wales. 
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Zernova, M., 2019. Restorative justice in the aftermath of politcally motivated violence: the Basque experience.Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17539153.2019.1595922
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[1] Former is a former extremist and for this essay would be a Home Office approved intervention provider.

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