CONTEST, Prevent, and the Lessons of UK Counterterrorism Policy

Photo Credit: Reuters

By Nicole Magney, Columnist

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, researchers and journalists alike have increasingly sought to explore the effectiveness and preparedness of European counterterrorism (CT) strategies. The United Kingdom’s CT strategy, named CONTEST, was first implemented in 2003 and has served as a model for the European Union’s CT strategy. CONTEST, a clever shorthand for ‘COuNter-TErroriSm sTrategy,’ is comprised of 4Ps: Pursue, Prevent, Protect, and Prepare.[i] Although some have praised the strategy, since there have not been any high casualty terrorist attacks on British soil since 2005, there has been harsh criticism of the ‘Prevent’ objective from some quarters. The effectiveness of any CT policy is difficult to measure, as its success is largely marked by nonevents – the absence of terror attacks. However, an examination of the UK’s current and past policies not only allows for insight into their successes and failures, but also sheds light on how the United States can learn from the British experience and attempt to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with CONTEST.

The most controversial part of the UK’s comprehensive CONTEST policy is its counter-radicalization element, Prevent. CONTEST’s stated aim is to “reduce the risk to the UK and [its] interests overseas from terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence.”[ii] In pursuit of this goal, the Prevent element seeks to limit the draw of violent extremism in Britain by investing in a community-driven approach, largely aimed at the British Muslim community.[iii] Although the policy is not intended to be discriminatory, many in the community have seen the “magnifying glass” that it has placed on British Muslims as widening the “schism between the Muslim ‘us’ and the British ‘other.’”[iv]

In 2011, the government sought to address some of these concerns by updating previous versions of Prevent. The newer policy, which bluntly acknowledges past flaws, identifies several areas for improvement, a number of which focus on the need to separate community ‘integration’ efforts and counter-radicalization.[v] The conflation of the two has often resulted in the portrayal of religious groups as ‘the problem,’ rather than part of the solution. However, the updated policy, introduced under David Cameron’s leadership, excludes possible partnerships with Salafists or Islamists. These two changes are contradictory. On the one hand, the policy seeks to break away from the perception that it is targeting or marginalizing conservative Muslims, but it refuses to work with members of the very community who may be essential to the policy’s success.[vi] Therefore, while some updates to the policy are encouraging, as they show the government is making serious attempts to address a very complex issue, the Prevent strategy still struggles to engage local partners without marginalizing community members and risking counterproductive results in the process.

The deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Harun Khan, argues that even with the updates, the strategy still places a target on Muslims and the “institutions they associate with,” such as conservative mosques.[vii] For example, one Imam in northern England disagreed with the materials that officials proposed to him regarding citizenship classes for teenagers. The Imam, and those in the local community in which he preaches, argued that the material implied that “al Qaeda was behind every street corner, in every mosque.”[viii] As a result, those in the community felt like they were being treated as ‘suspects’ and as a result lost trust for both the officials and programs they were attempting to put in place.

In addition to questions of stigmatization, the CONTEST strategy more broadly has fallen short in answering whether efforts that emphasize social cohesion are the most effective approach to counterterrorism. While Richard English acknowledges that criticism of CONTEST often comes from those who lack a viable alternative, he also notes that the United Kingdom has been somewhat slow to apply the lessons of its past experiences with terrorism to the current terrorist threat.[ix] Despite the long history the British have with confronting terrorism, the CONTEST strategy has largely been driven by the notion that the post-9/11 threat is unique and exceptional. For example, according to Mr. English, the least successful parts of the UK’s policy to counter IRA terrorism from the 1970s onward were those that addressed terrorism as a “community problem,” which tended to label the Irish as a separate community and subsequently heighten tension between them and the British.[x] The current Prevent strategy, despite its updates, still struggles with this balance, indicating that it might serve the UK well to revisit its own history when assessing its current CT policy.

Counter-radicalization efforts are important for preventing ‘lone wolf’ or homegrown attacks, and yet these policies can be counterproductive if they are perceived to marginalize and discriminate against those who may be most vulnerable to violent extremist influence. As the United Kingdom continues to parse out the most effective way to address radicalization within Britain, the United States is facing similar issues with its programs to “empower local partners to prevent violent extremism” within its borders.[xi] Therefore, the United States would benefit not only from an examination of the pitfalls and nuances of the UK’s current strategy, but also of the UK’s history in dealing with terrorism, particularly related to the IRA. The tendency to classify the current terrorist threat as exceptional is even greater in the United States than in Britain, meaning processes to learn from the past will likely prove more difficult.[xii]

The UK’s CT strategy is not perfect, but it should not be written off as wholly problematic either. The criticisms levied against the Prevent element have merit, but the government has shown itself willing to reevaluate its strategy in order to soften associations with discrimination and assess its effectiveness. These efforts should continue. Counter-radicalization and counterterrorism policies in both the United Kingdom and United States will likely never satisfy all their critics, but paying attention to mistakes, both historical and recent, will do much to level the learning curve.

[i] David Omand, “What Should be the Limits of Western Counter-Terrorism Policy?” in Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, ed. by Richard English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 65.

[ii] “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department by Command of Her Majesty, July 2011, accessed April 20, 2016,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Aminul Hoque, lecturer, University of London, as quoted in: Frank Gardner, “Prevent Strategy: Is It Failing to Stop Radicalisation?” BBC News, March 6, 2015, accessed April 21, 2016,

[v]Prevent Strategy,” Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department by Command of Her Majesty, June 2011, accessed April 25, 2016,

[vi] Robert Lambert, “Competing Counter-radicalisation Models in the UK,” in Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation Challenge: European and American Experiences, 2nd ed., ed. Rik Coolsaet (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2011), 216.

[vii] Dominic Casciani, “Analysis: The Prevent Strategy and Its Problems,” BBC News, August 26, 2014, accessed May 4, 2016,

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Richard English, interview by author, St. Andrews University, United Kingdom, March 31, 2016.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” White House, National Security Strategy, August 2011, accessed April 25, 2016,

[xii] English, interview, March 31, 2016.

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