Tara Lai Quinlan’s research examines the post-9/11 policy formation of community engagement and partnership programmes with Muslim communities in the UK and US. Here, she outlines some of the key similarities and differences in how each country has approached post-9/11 counterterrorism.
There are a number of similarities and differences in counterterrorism policy strategy between the United Kingdom and United States. One of the striking areas of contrast is the degree to which each government legislates against the expression of unpopular, offensive or ‘extremist’ views, particularly those attributed to members of Muslim communities. While both countries have long traditions of protecting the freedom of expression, my research illustrated the UK government’s increasing tendency to legislate against allegedly ‘extremist’ speech, even in the absence of a connection to substantial criminal steps or potential violence.
By contrast, the US government has been particularly loath to intervene or legislate against the expression of unpopular, offensive or ‘extremist’ views so long as that speech is unconnected to violent or criminal action. This stark contrast between the two nations is aptly illustrated by the UK government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The Act, and related proposals, place affirmative duties on universities, schools and other public institutions to ban expressions of so-called ‘extremist’ speech, even if unconnected to violence. Such sweeping measures not only indicate strong potential to chill speech in important public forums, but may also backfire by creating greater disillusionment and alienation amongst a number of populations, which in turn can lead to greater insecurity.
States of exception
Despite strongly contrasting approaches to legislating against ‘extremist’ speech, a number of aspects of post-9/11 counter-terrorism policing focused on Muslim communities reveal far greater similarities than differences. For example, both countries have adopted what Carl Schmitt and Georgio Agamben refer to as the ‘state of exception’. The state of exception refers to the implementation of emergency laws under an actual emergency or serious threat of an incident like a terror attack, as well as the generalised suspension of a variety of legal limitations, along with the curtailing of traditional checks and balances on government activities.
Drawing on my own research and the works of esteemed colleagues, there is clear evidence in both the United Kingdom and United States of the implementation of broad new criminal laws and terrorism legislation, which have expanded police powers and restricted civil liberties. These heavy-handed approaches have focused respective domestic counterterrorism efforts on hard power tactics to combat terrorism, including monitoring, surveillance, covert intelligence-gathering, infiltration, subversion, use of confidential informants, raids, stops and searches, detentions and arrests.
Post-9/11 Community partnership programmes
By contrast, UK programmes like the London Metropolitan Police Service’s Muslim Contact Unit and the national Prevent programme were designed to use soft power to develop long-term trust, partnership and cooperation with Muslim communities. To what extent these programmes have been effective in fulfilling their intended missions is contested. But the more significant point revealed in my interviews with elite counterterrorism practitioners clearly illustrated that terrorism cannot be solved by governments ‘arresting their way out of the problem’. Curbing the long-term domestic terrorism threat requires a more multifaceted approach combining both hard and soft power measures for sustained counterterrorism success.
The United States has also implemented proactive community engagement partnerships, although until now they have been primarily developed at the local level in cities including Los Angeles, Dearborn, Boston, Minneapolis, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. These highly regarded American countering violent extremism programmes are generally more holistic than the UK’s Prevent programme, working with a broad array of faith communities including Muslims, Christians and Jews, and frequently employing aspects of gang prevention tactics. Using such approaches addresses the risks of youth alienation or violence that might lead to radicalisation, as well as gang membership or common crime. By having a broader focus, such programmes are more likely to be effective and less likely to (further) alienate Muslims and other youth. In 2015 these locally-driven programmes finally received well-deserved recognition by The White House.
The reasons for the differences in UK-US counterterrorism approaches are particularly complex. They may lie in the unique social and political histories of each nation, as well as different historical experiences in dealing with terrorism and terrorism threats, not to mention different socio-economic dynamics of target populations.
My project has been motivated by a desire to provide empirically driven research to better inform public policy discourse on domestic counterterrorism policing. Looking at the United Kingdom and United States, I have found both politically infused policymaking disjointed from operational realities, as well as promising partnership practices developed at the local level. Such practices address not only threats of violent extremism but also threats of a broader array of violence, and do not solely concentrate on Muslim communities. These practices, developed at the local level, can and should provide beneficial guidance to policymakers constructing post-9/11 counterterrorism policies
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(Featured image credit: Eric CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)