LBWF CEO Martin Esom, the Prevent anti-terrorist programme, and the politics of illusion

Perhaps curiously, given LBWF’s decidedly chequered record in identifying and addressing Islamist extremism, Martin Esom, the council CEO, chaired the pan London Prevent Board (LPB) from 2012 to late 2018.

Earlier this year, the Local Government Chronicle interviewed Mr. Esom about his time at the LPB, and his views are worth exploring, not least because they may well feed into the government’s reassement of Prevent, which is currently ongoing.

It must be said that Mr. Esom’s logic in the interview is sometimes difficult to follow, clouded (amongst other things) by a whiff of score settling. But what does come over clearly is that he believes in three broad assertions about the nature of terrorism today:

(a) individuals are ‘“radicalised because of their background, because of their condition”’, in particular factors like isolation, poor mental health, and experience of domestic violence, and so prevention strategies need to be calibrated accordingly;

(b) conversely, ‘“if they [the authorities] focus on extremist ideology, they miss the point and they will have the same problems that they have currently”’; and

(c) terrorism ‘“is not organised any more. It is normally lone actors”’.

For Mr. Esom, then, the terrorist is not the political or religious fanatic of popular imagination, more an individual troubled by psychological or social pathologies, who as a result – in local authority speak – has become ‘vulnerable’ to being misled.

How does all this stack up against the evidence?

On the first broad assertion, Mr. Esom’s views are certainly controversial. Starting with ‘isolation’, it is, obviously, a difficult category to pin down definitively, and moreover there is anyway little relevant data.

However, one large-scale study which looks at those committing Islamist-related terrorist offences in the UK between 1998 and 2015 is at least suggestive, because it pours cold water on the idea that offenders between those dates were living alone, as illustrated by the following breakdown:

Living with family 28 per cent

Living at family home 27 per cent

Living alone, and no partner or children 10 per cent

Living with friends or flatmates 4 per cent

‘Other’ or ‘Unspecified’ 31 per cent

Of course, it’s reasonable to retort that isolation may come in many forms, and even those living with family or friends can still feel isolated. Yet the existence of such imponderables in the end only further underlines the point that a strong link between isolation and terrorism has yet to be established.

Turning to mental health, the situation is rather similar. It is certainly tempting to assume that because terrorists either carry out unusually appalling atrocities, or plan to, they must be suffering from some identifiable clinical disorder. Yet, the evidence, again, is far less clear cut. For example, a recent University of Warwick survey concludes:

‘Mental illness and autism are frequently invoked in public commentary on risk factors for radicalisation. However academic research on the prevalence of mental ill health amongst terrorists reaches uncertain conclusions. Studies repeated between 2012 and 2017 have repeatedly identified no common psychopathy or personality factors, and that the majority of terrorist attacks have nothing to do with mental illness…And while other studies identify that ‘lone actor’ terrorists are somewhat likely to have characteristics of mental illness – they do not identify a causal link to particular pathologies…There is a similar absence of a causal pathway between autism and terrorism’.

And a Royal United Services Institute report of 2016, which looked specifically at ‘lone actor terrorists’, made much the same point:

‘Mirroring previous research, the study found an indication of a mental health disorder in 35 per cent of cases. Although elevated, this does not represent a substantial deviation from the World Health Organization’s …finding that 27 per cent of the general adult population had experienced some form of mental disorder in the past year’.

Finally, what of the posited link between domestic violence and terrorism? One of the most prominent exponents of this hypothesis is the feminist author Joan Smith, who believes that ‘domestic violence is creating a pool of volatile, angry men who are susceptible to very nasty propaganda’, and then explains as follows:

‘men who habitually abuse women have a lower threshold for violence. They live with it every day, enjoying the feeling of power and control that comes with it. They are desensitised, accustomed to being around distressed people, and other people’s pain and fear makes them feel important…These men have different attitudes to violence – a predisposition that makes them more susceptible to extremist propaganda. They’re also imbued with misogyny, which terrorist organisations understand and exploit. Some foreign fighters have admitted that they joined ISIS to have sex slaves, the most extreme form of domestic abuse it’s possible to imagine’.

It must be said that Ms. Smith’s empirical basis is impressive, and shows that, yes, those terrorists who she studied had histories of disparagement of women, and often domestic violence. Yet whether she has discovered a general theory is much less certain. The central problem for her is obvious, and one that she glimpses. For while there are, by her account, many, many ‘abusive’ men, the percentage who then go on to become terrorists is tiny. So what is it that pushes her sample to make the jump, and the rest not to? There must be other factors involved.

This leads on neatly to Mr. Esom’s second broad assertion, his downgrading of ‘extremist ideology’.

How he has come to reach this view is not clearly explained, but again he has ended up on shaky ground, simply because the link between ‘extremist ideology’ and terrorism is by now well established.

For not only are there demonstrably many organisations across the world – political, religious, or a mixture of both – which believe terrorism to be justifiable, but when protagonists in terrorist violence are closely investigated, a good proportion turn out to have come under their influence, either through personal contact or the internet.

And that is why those on the security front line explicitly operate on the basis that what terrorists believe in, how they interpret the world, is strongly connected to their actions.  Examples abound. Commenting earlier this year on the current UK terror threat one MI5 official observed that ‘“the number of Islamist cases”’ ongoing ‘“absolutely dwarfed”’ all others, while another reported ‘“The pull of… [Islamist] propaganda is startling: of the plots thwarted by police and MI5 and our Western allies in 2018, 80 per cent were conducted by people inspired by the ideology of IS but who had never actually been in contact with it in Syria or Iraq”’. Perhaps ironically, even Mr. Esom’s own staff share the same perspective, with, for instance, Community Safety Group Manager (Strategic) Alastair Macorkindale recently telling a scrutiny committee that ‘risk of radicalisation in the borough had been primarily Islamist, but there had been a recent increase in far-right radicalisation’ [emphasis added, throughout].

Last but not least, Mr. Esom’s contention that terrorism nowadays is ‘normally’ the providence of ‘lone actors’ also appears questionable.

For starters, though many believe that ‘lone actor’ terrorism is increasing, the consensus is that the numbers involved are still relatively small. The Royal United Services Institute report already cited advances a fairly typical conclusion: ‘Lone-actor terrorism in Europe is rare. In ten of the 30 countries studied, no lone-actor terrorist plot could be identified across the fifteen-year study period, while only four of the countries had five plots or more’.

Furthermore, there is growing debate about whether this categorisation, anyway, is of much use. For example, while the ‘traditional image’ of a lone-actor terrorist is ‘that of an individual who creates his/her own ideology, and plans and executes attacks with no help from others’, one careful UK study which examined 119 terrorists who were alleged to have acted on their own found that:

‘Approximately a third of the sample…had family members or close associates known to have been involved in political violence or criminality. Just less than half…interacted face‐to‐face with members of a wider network of political activists, and 35.3% did so virtually. In 68.1% of the cases, there is evidence to suggest that the individual read or consumed literature or propaganda from a wider movement. There is evidence to suggest in 20 of the cases (16.8%) that there may have been wider command and control links specifically associated with the violent event that was planned or carried out’.

Little of what Mr. Esom advances, to sum up, is convincing.

Nevertheless, it has to be conceded that his approach and conclusions are by no means just an idiosyncratic aberration, but increasingly crop up in local government circles, and also to some extent the public at large.

That being the case, it’s appropriate to conclude by briefly looking at why such wrongheadedness has taken hold.

In passing, it’s notable that over the past decade or so the word ‘vulnerable’ has become a town hall staple, ubiquitous partly because of its useful ambiguity, but mainly because it opens the door to new funding streams. Against this background, expanding the roster to include an extra ‘vulnerable’ category – the putative terrorist aka the troubled young man or woman – is no great stretch, and in fact fits well with the typical modus operandi.

However, of greater importance are two political considerations, one broad, the other narrow.

In general terms, many understandably find it deeply disconcerting that some of their fellow citizens, perhaps even neighbours, are determined to destroy British society, and for the authorities this presents a challenge, because it threatens to weaken social cohesion or, worse, provoke a backlash. In this context, repackaging the terrorist as someone who suffers from mental illness, say, offers something of a comfort blanket, a way of making the abnormal more normal, and giving it a place on a spectrum which, in an age of cod psychologising, most people will probably recognise.

In narrow political terms, too, there are paybacks. Across London, Islamist groups frequently have a vocal presence, and overtly and surepticiously pressurise both their moderate co-religionists and the authorities to bend to their will. Amongst other things, they want to abolish Prevent, cement Ahmadi isolation, move the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ into the mainstream, and ensure that if terrorism is mentioned, the focus, facts or not, is on the white far right.

Inevitably, local authorities have reacted to this agenda in different ways, but the outcomes are often compromises, where some not inconsiderable ground is given. Mr. Esom’s remarks fit this pattern well. They are, to put it bluntly, anodyne, and certainly no threat to any local ‘community’. In short, they help head off a big potential problem.

Does any of this matter? Isn’t it sometimes better to skate over awkward facts in order to keep everyone happy?

Last year, the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) examined 33 de-radicalisation programmes in the UK, and found that only two were effective.  Turning to what caused this embarrassing failure, the BIT cited a pedagogy based upon inadequate ‘evidence based research’, and the fact that the facilitators appeared ‘“uncomfortable dealing with sensitive topics”’ and ‘“afraid to bring up race or religion with their students”’.

As this suggests, when the truth is abandoned, and punches are pulled, there is always a price to pay.

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