Countering Extremist Threats in the U.K. and Oldham

In the wake of events in the Middle East and the response in the U.K. and in Oldham here’s a long but interesting read from Robin Simcox, the U.K. Commissioner for Countering Extremism entitled Countering Extremist Threats in the UK. It covers Islamism, far right, far left and blasphemy do take the time to read it.

“Extremism is a menace to this country.
Whether it’s a fire bombing or a suicide bombing, acts of terrorism occur because an extremist mindset has been adopted by the perpetrator.
Extremism polarises societies; it segregates communities; it normalises the hatred of others.
When it comes to disrupting terrorist plots, our police force and intelligence services are among the best in the world. They have proven it time and time again.
It is that work beneath the terrorism threshold where we can – and must – do more.
And while I am the Home Office’s independent adviser on extremism, I am also aware of the limits of my capacity to rid this country of extremism’s influence.
It’s too big a job for one person, one department, one government, probably even one generation.
However, I can be frank with you about the nature of the challenges we face.
And I can explain to you the work that the Commission for Countering Extremism, the CCE, is undertaking to ensure the Government’s response to extremism is as robust as it can be.
Because if we are going to make progress, Government must have the confidence and will to commit to a long-term strategy for taking on extreme ideologies.
I am going to focus today on the groups and narratives that underpin the greatest threats of terrorism and violence.
However, I remain alert to other forms of extremism which may result in violence but presents a proportionately lower threat.
Different manifestations of extremism occur in communities, cultures, subcultures, and religions throughout the UK.
There are an extraordinarily complex set of issues we are faced with.
Israel – Palestine
One of those complex issues is that it is sometimes what happens outside our borders that can have the most profound impact within them.
Never has that been clearer than after events in Israel in the last ten days.
Hamas’s terrorist attacks were abhorrent.
The mass execution of civilians – over 1400 killed in one night. Hundreds more taken hostage. Rape. Desecration of corpses. Families, including children, tortured and burned alive.
The Prime Minister called it a pogrom. I agree.
Hamas revelled in this bloodshed. It was sadism.
All decent minded people want a durable, lasting peace in this conflict.
And all decent minded people do not want to see another single innocent life lost – Israeli or Palestinian.
Yet in the UK, too often, support for Palestinian rights has translated into rhetoric supportive of Hamas.
Too many in positions of prominence have praised them or their leadership; or sought to rationalise or excuse their acts of terror.
Now that the Government has proscribed Hamas in its entirety, there can be no more excuses that this was praise reserved solely for Hamas’s political wing.
The Hamas support network in the UK is entrenched. It includes legacy Muslim Brotherhood organisations.
But the wider network is also comprised of those who – wittingly or unwittingly – bolster Hamas’s narratives by framing their acts as merely ‘resistance’.
In the wake of the recent atrocities, I have witnessed scenes of jubilation in cities across the world, including in our own country.
It may be a minority. But there were thousands of people out on the street even before last Saturday’s march in London and before Israel had begun its counteroffensive.
The atmosphere was not one of mourning. It was more akin to a carnival.
There still seems some ambiguity over the precise meaning of slogans chanted at these rallies.
For example, is ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ genocidal in nature or not?
Ten days ago, I know what my answer would have been though I would have been perhaps more receptive to the ambiguities. But it is a different world now.
If you are chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ in the context of the largest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, you have forfeited your right to the benefit of the doubt about what your intent is and the message you are trying to convey.
The conclusion I have arrived at is that support for Hamas does not carry the stigma that support for other terrorist groups does.
Terrorist attacks on Israel are seen as not only more justifiable than attacks on other countries; but, to some, a cause for celebration.
Terrorist ideologies fester when they are inculcated in toxic environments where conspiratorial and bigoted sentiments end up becoming just become part of the furniture.
I see something similar happening in pockets of society with the discourse around Israel. Not specific to terrorism. But where a dark obsession with the Jewish state becomes normalised and unexceptional.
For example: Palestine Action has undertaken a campaign of criminal damage, intimidation, and vandalism against an Israeli defence technology company operating in the UK.
Palestine Action’s campaign has forced some of these offices to shut permanently.
Then there is the BDS campaign, which calls for boycotts and sanctions of Israel, comparing it to apartheid-era South Africa.
This campaign contributes to a toxic and permissive environment for antisemitic, and at times extremist, narratives on university campuses and beyond.
This government set out a commitment in its 2019 manifesto to ban public bodies from imposing boycotts on foreign countries.
It was a good ambition: local councils conducting their own foreign policy is an obviously absurd use of taxpayer money.
This bill has been talked about plenty but is still not law. Government must get on with ensuring the BDS bill is passed.
There is also an important role for the media. Media outlets were very quick to attribute an explosion at a Gaza hospital to an Israeli missile strike.
Reporters on the ground do a tough job in extraordinary circumstances.
But the consequences for getting this wrong are serious.
It can enflame an entire region.
And it has direct ramifications for social cohesion in the UK at such a volatile time.
Because I am concerned that British Jews are being left in a close to impossible situation.
Israel’s military intervenes in Gaza, and British Jews fear what the repercussions will be for them.
Israelis are murdered in terrorist attacks; and once again British Jews fear what the repercussions will be for them.
I can’t pretend to be able to speak for the Jewish community.
But despite the best efforts of government – via the likes of the Online Safety Bill and increasing funding to the Community Security Trust – I believe that in the UK and beyond they increasingly do not feel safe and are not being treated with the dignity that all citizens should expect.
That is an intolerable development, first and foremost, for Jews.
But it is also an indictment on the health of our democracy.
We know one of Hamas’s key backers – financially and militarily – is Iran.
The nature of the regime in Tehran is clear. Crushing dissent. Hanging protesters and executing hundreds of its citizens last year alone. Women being murdered, detained and tortured for standing up for their rights.
Training the Russian military on the use of Iranian-built drones to kill Ukrainians. And let’s not forget its role in targeting British soldiers during the war in Iraq.
But what is underappreciated is the scale of Iranian-backed activity in this country; and the extent to which Iran attempts to stoke extremism here.
The ways in which this Iranian seeks to project influence can vary.
The Integrated Review outlined that there have been 15 credible threats by the Iranian regime to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals since 2022.
The Director General of MI-5 has said that “Iran projects threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services.”
Earlier this year, an independent Persian language news channel had to suspend its operations in the UK due to the threats they had been receiving.
It should be a source of significant regret and reflection for us that Iranian state threats are leading to journalists fleeing not just their country but now ours.
And, of course, we know about the target that they placed on Sir Salman Rushdie’s back.
Sir Salman is lucky to be alive after he was attacked in New York last year.
Publicly, Iran denies any involvement in this assassination attempt.
But through the fatwa it issued calling for his death, it is culpable. However, Iranian activities go beyond the threat of violence.
Iran looks to spread its influence in the UK via sermons delivered by receptive clerics; television channels; schools and educational institutes; donations to UK universities; or online disinformation campaigns.
Organisations both directly and indirectly linked to Iran present it as a religious obligation for Shia Muslims inside and outside of Iran to display obedience to the Supreme Leader.
These organisations share Tehran’s aims and objectives.
They celebrate the anniversary of the Iranian revolution and host representatives of the Iranian regime. They describe the military leader Qassim Soleimani as a martyr and praise Hezbollah. They present the West as the enemy.
Some of these organisations are even charities, something which unfairly sullies the charities which do good work up and down this country.
I am aware that there has been debate about whether we should follow the lead of the US government, and proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp.
Who government does and does not proscribe is not down to me. But from a counter extremism perspective, I believe it is in the national interest.
The IRGC is not just a regular part of the Iranian government. It has operated like a terrorist organisation ever since its inception, over four decades ago.
It provides support to a variety of proscribed organisations while plotting acts of violence around the world itself.
And yet it is legal at present for the IRGC to be, for example, hosted in UK institutions.
That was highly unsatisfactory before. It is surely unsustainable now.
Iran proves that countering the activities of hostile states is not only a geopolitical imperative. It is also a local imperative.
How events overseas can influence communities here goes beyond the Middle East.
I observed earlier the apologism I have seen on behalf of Hamas.
The same is underway with the Taliban.
We know what the Taliban represents. It was no secret what their worldview was in the 1990s. They did not hide it.
Public executions. Amputations. Shutting down girl’s education. Forcing women to wear the burka. Banning television, cinema and music. The destruction of cultural artifacts.
It is no secret now, as gender segregation is enforced, and girls are again banned from secondary education.
The Taliban continues to hold UK and US citizens as hostages, while their relationship with al-Qaeda remains unbroken.
The Taliban taking over Afghanistan after 20 years of war was a catastrophe for the West.
But it was an absolute tragedy for the people of Afghanistan.
That is the context to a delegation of imams and Muslim scholars from the UK traveling to Kabul this summer to meet with Taliban officials.
Both in Afghanistan and upon their return to the UK, members of this delegation praised aspects of the Taliban’s approach to governance and the security that they had brought about.
This is a security, of course, that exists only because of the Taliban’s decades’ long commitment to violence.
This visit was supported by a British charity. That charity is now under investigation by the Charity Commission.
Once they returned, members of this delegation were then hosted at a London university to discuss their visit.
That was not the first time since the fall of Kabul that I had observed British citizens beginning to again travel to Afghanistan.
It is important to stress: within the law, you should be free to praise the Taliban all you like.
Unlike Afghanistan today, ours is a free country.
However, the fact this delegation was able to go to Afghanistan with the support of a charity and then return to the UK and be hosted by a British university to discuss their experiences is ominous.
It tells me that the clarity of vision that once existed after 9/11 regarding the threat of groups like the Taliban has become hopelessly blurred.
Yet it is not just in Afghanistan where there is a struggle to view events through the prism of modernity and progress.
Take blasphemy: something taken seriously by many religions historically yet, in Europe today, a topic that is most pertinent to interpretations of Islam.
Terrorist acts, such as those targeting Charlie Hebdo, have been animated by the need to punish supposed blasphemers.
Yet this issue is not specific to terrorists.
It is more to do with a fundamentalist reading of scripture and an assertion that all other rights – including freedom of expression – become subservient to the concept of defending the honour of Islam’s Prophet.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Taseer was a target because he had opposed Pakistani blasphemy laws.
Since then, but particularly after the subsequent state execution of Qadri in 2016, I have seen an uptick in a small amount of Muslim activist groups in the UK increasingly focusing on the issue of blasphemy.
I saw it in Batley in 2021. I saw it after the Lady of Heaven film protests in 2022. And I saw it in Wakefield this year.
I see it when clerics from South Asia who are outspoken in their support for Mumtaz Qadri are hosted in UK mosques.
To take an example from this summer, a cleric from Bangladesh called Enayetullah Abassi came on a speaking tour of this country. Abassi is open in his belief that there is a need to behead anyone who criticises Mohammed.
Now I expect the government to do more to bar such speakers traveling to this country.
However, the main problem here is not the Home Office.
The main problem is – surely – that some in this country wished to host Abassi in the first place?
It is not a one-off. Again and again, clerics from Pakistan, in particular, who in their own country openly praise those who carry out acts of violence in defence of Mohammed’s honour, then end up getting hosted by institutions in the UK.
I also must mention here the unacceptable abuse that the Ahmadiyya community receives, primarily down to their belief that Mohammed was not Islam’s final prophet.
I am not interested in nor capable of refereeing theological disputes.
But you don’t need to be a theologian to say that violence, persecution, discrimination, and abuse of Ahmadis is unacceptable.
Much of what I have discussed so far is informed by the broader challenge this country faces from Islamism.
The Islamist playbook fuses religion with politics, with Islam no longer simply a religion but an instruction manual on how all sectors of society should be governed.
It is guided by a supremacist worldview, where sovereignty rests with god, not with man, and law is made by religious decree.
It is expansionist, with the creation of Islamic states and ultimately a Caliphate the desired end goal.
Islamism is adaptable but we have a relatively clear understanding of the approach to the UK by now.
Islamists excuse or seek to rationalise acts of terrorism. Not quite defending them but not quite criticising them either.
Acting as the good cop to terrorists’ bad cop.
Islamism relies upon a series of false claims, such as the West being hostile to Muslims and Islam or that government is inherently ‘Islamophobic’.
This is not to deny nor downplay the very real anti-Muslim prejudice that exists in pockets of society, but to recognise how it is exploited by those with unscrupulous agendas.
Because the reason these grievance narratives are pumped out is to manufacture an existential threat to Muslim identity.
To segregate and isolate Muslim communities from secular influence. To undermine trust in the state.
Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood do this and more.
They use democratic means to subvert democratic concepts. They embed themselves on local councils, in charities, in schools and elsewhere.
They seek to embed a politicised faith identity and weaken ties to the nation.
We ignore the ongoing challenge posed by Islamism at our peril.
It is the key threat I am confronted with in this role and I see no reason why that would change in the short term.
Extreme Right Wing
I will now move onto a different ideological risk to this country: that of the Extreme Right Wing.
The Extreme Right Wing in the UK today is fractured, divided, incoherent, and chaotic.
Politically, the far right is in as bad a state as it has been for decades. Their electoral prospects are dire because the British people loathe its politics: today and historically.
Extreme Right Wing protests today tend to comprise of a ragtag group of activists inspired by a variety of occasionally overlapping grievances and conspiracy theories, and whose ideas and messaging have close to zero traction with the wider public.
Look online and it’s a slightly different story.
Clearly the scale of Extreme Right Wing rhetoric there is more prevalent than what we are seeing on our streets.
While the volume of incendiary rhetoric has not yet translated into a similar volume of terrorist attacks, JTAC has still warned that the online space is “a major driver” of the Extreme Right Wing terror threat.
The target of the Extreme Right’s irrational hatreds sometimes shift – Jews, Muslims, immigrants – but the hatred always remains.
That means we must always remain vigilant.
We must also safeguard against Extreme Right attempts to undermine democracy.
One vulnerability is when the Extreme Right opportunistically grasps on to certain issues which are of mainstream concern, filters them through an extremist lens, toxifies them, and eventually makes them un-discussable.
This creates a vicious circle whereby the issues themselves are framed as ‘right wing talking points’, people then become afraid to discuss them, and so the Extreme Right Wing dominate the narrative.
It leads to a chasm existing between what voters care about and what their elected representatives are willing to discuss.
For example, the Extreme Right is attempting to portray itself as the only game in town when it comes to the need to defend free speech; to discuss certain gender issues; immigration; or grooming and child sexual exploitation.
In reality, the Extreme Right is exploiting these issues in order to launder their ugly ideas and degrade trust in our institutions.
It is part of a broader vision to present the political establishment as the problem and the Extreme Right as the solution.
It is not. And we should push back against their ideas and vision for this country at every opportunity.
Extreme Left Wing
A different set of concerns apply to the Extreme Left.
When discussing the Extreme Left, I refer to a broad umbrella of anti-capitalist, hard-line environmentalist, anarchist, and revolutionary groups.
Some of the Extreme Left’s key aims are more palatable than the Extreme Right: tackling climate change, for example, is clearly not morally comparable to Extreme Right desires to deport people based on their skin colour.
However, we must treat groups based on their actions. Not just their intent. And I have become increasingly alarmed about some of the Extreme Left’s rhetoric and its tactics, particularly on climate issues.
I have a deep unease with groups who claim to want to tackle climate change but who choose to do so while speaking in millenarian language about the imminent destruction of the earth; who speak of revolution and the need to end capitalism.
Some of these assertions are clearly designed to create fear: for example, the claim that an industrialised civilisation is incompatible with life on earth or is somehow an assault on the planet.
And the tactics are increasingly unacceptable, with calculated attempts to cause the most disruption as possible to regular people who are just trying to get on with their lives.
At present, even peaceful activists are warning that – in essence – the end of the world is inevitable unless drastic action is taken immediately to completely rearrange our societies, economies, and ultimately our lives.
When that rearranging, inevitably, does not happen at the pace and scale they demand, I am concerned that certain environmental groups’ approach will become increasingly militant.
And that acts of violence will be the logical end point of an ever more apocalyptic framing of this issue.
There is still time to dial down the rhetoric.
And civil society has a big role to play.
Whether you support the cause or not: respect for the democratic process must be non-negotiable.
Our work
So those are some of the most pressing issues. What are we doing at the CCE to tackle them?
Let me first take a step back, to when I was appointed as Commissioner in the spring of 2021.
I took the view that I, personally, could not enlist communities in the fight against extremism while the system itself needed fixing.
So the CCE took a step back from community engagement and public facing work and majorly scaled up the scrutiny of government policies relevant to counter extremism.
My vision was to make that scrutiny relentless. To ensure good intent translated into good policy. To act as a critical friend, giving informed and honest advice without fear and without favour.
To act as a brake when a policy is going in the wrong direction; to provide a resource as to how it could then be improved.
That meant the need to forge a much more intimate relationship with a variety of government departments, all the while retaining our independence.
Today, we have helped ensure the system is in a very different place to where it was in 2021.
Knowledge around extremism across government needs growing but it is vastly improved.
The CCE leverages its relationships across government to provide a remarkably sophisticated and advanced interrogation of the day-to-day business of government work on counter extremism, no matter the ideology.
We use internal expertise, extensive links into different parts of the state, into academia, think tanks, and NGOs to ensure that the advice we provide government is guided by the evidence, is proportionate, is responsible, and is realistic.
We have the credibility and influence to ensure that when we provide our advice, government listens.
Another part of the reason why government is in a better place compared to the past is the Independent Review of Prevent carried out by Sir William Shawcross.
The Independent Review provides a roadmap for ensuring Prevent remains a world leading terrorism prevention programme.
The CCE is involved with the implementation of many of the Review’s recommendations.
We are working tirelessly with government to ensure the Independent Review of Prevent is implemented both in letter and in spirit.
That Prevent truly does become more forward leaning, taking the more assertive approach desired by Sir William; by the Home Secretary; and by the CCE.
Standards and Compliance
But Prevent will only have the legitimacy to carry out the vital work it does if there is public trust and confidence in how it operates.
Sir William recommended a dedicated Standards and Compliance Unit, answerable to ministers, which would process and investigate complaints about Prevent.
The Home Secretary recently announced that this Unit will be housed within the CCE.
That does not mean we will be recommending what Prevent should do.
We have just had an Independent Review which decided that.
What the Standards and Compliance Unit will do is determine if Prevent is being delivered properly within a direction already set by ministers.
This is a hugely significant development for Prevent.
The Standards and Compliance Unit will create a clear, independent, and accessible route for people to raise concerns about Prevent.
And it will do so while also ensuring Prevent delivery reflects the terrorist threat picture this country actually faces, not the one that is necessarily the easiest or most comfortable to discuss.
The idea that Prevent is hostile to transparency was always a mischaracterisation. But the Standards and Compliance Unit will ensure that a best-in-class terrorism prevention programme now has best-in-class independent oversight.
It is also vital that practitioners are aware of extremist threats and how best to identify them.
Here, training is key.
When I became Commissioner back in 2021, I ordered a thorough stocktake of the training products focused on radicalisation or extremism across government.
So I am acutely aware of where they could be improved and what knowledge gaps exist.
I commissioned a suite of training products by leading experts in the field that will help fill those gaps.
This training is now being rolled out across the country and, among much else, will provide a clear understanding of why ideology is relevant to terrorism and to terrorism prevention.
It will empower professionals who work with the Prevent Duty to make vital referrals and operational decisions.
It will help ensure that training on extremism is fit for purpose.
Funding and engagement with extremists
The final issue I want to discuss with you today is to ensure that government no longer funds or gives legitimacy to extremists or extremist groups.
Community engagement and funding can be a net benefit when done right.
Yet it is not always done right.
Too often and for too long, those who voiced hugely inflammatory views one day are being championed as vital community engagement partners by, for example, police forces the next.
Those who champion democratic values are too often marginalised.
Those who seek to undermine democracy are too often given legitimacy and, subsequently, greater influence.
There is an answer to this: clear principles for engagement across government and better retention of institutional knowledge supported by a thorough due diligence and vetting process.
That is a strain on limited resources, and the operational challenges are significant.
But I am working with government to ensure the right infrastructure is in place so that this problem is fixed once and for all.
The future
So I have told you what I think some of the key threats are. And I have told you just some of what we are trying to do about it.
The author Martin Amis once rhetorically asked, ‘what has extremism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works?’
Extremism not only offer no gifts to humanity. It seeks to remove rights hard fought for. To tie us in knots over issues long settled.
I have tried today to give an honest overview of the extremism landscape.
I know that it touches upon a whole series of extremely sensitive, delicate issues and has the potential to hurt or offend.
I don’t especially relish that. But I relish brushing all these issues under the carpet even less.
We’ve been doing it for decades and it hasn’t gotten us very far.
It is time to confront reality.
But we can still do so while being optimistic about the future.
This remains a fantastic country. One with an extraordinary history which we can be proud about.
Liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, Parliamentary democracy. An enduring cultural influence.
But these concepts won’t defend themselves. They still need champions.
And when extreme ideological forces threaten these values, we must have the confidence and desire to defend the principles that have made us who we are.
We are one of the world’s must successful multi-ethnic democracies. We should be immensely proud of that.
But people living completely parallel lives in completely segregated communities is a dead end for this country.
Our success relies on a sense of pride in shared, core values.
So if these values are still important to us; if we still have a sense of history; a shared national memory; then we all must be willing to stand up for them.
Thank you.“