Thursday, March 13, 2008
Swimming Upstream

The great and the good of British counter-terrorism policing were in Brighton a couple of weeks ago for the first ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) Counter Terrorism Conference. There were plenty of top cops present, British and overseas, as well as Government officials, legal professionals and academics.

Opening the conference, in his last week as head of Counter Terrorism Command at the Met Police, Peter Clarke told delegates they needed an open mind if they were going to "understand the picture," adding that "old or stereotyped thinking simply will not do." It's worth paying attention to the speakers at a conferences like this one because they're providing the brain food upon which Britain's counterterror cops are being encouraged to feed.

One topic everyone wants to get a handle on is radicalisation. How does it happen? How can we recognise it? And how can we stop it from happening?

Martin Innes, a Professor of Criminology at Cardiff University, presented some interesting research. Muslim communities, he suggested, are pretty well functioning, certainly compared to British society as a whole. They have a high level of social capital - shared goodwill, sense of fellowship and shared values - and a collective efficacy. Crucially, according to Innes, that means people from these communities feel safe within their own environment.

This seems to me to be pretty profound. If a community feels cohesive, if individuals within it feel secure - and we're talking about a pretty fundamental human need here, a sense of security - then why would they have any interest in integrating with the wider community, when to do so, they feel, would be to put at risk their feelings of safety and security?

To put it another way, individuals from a tight-knit Muslim community look out at the rest of neighbouring society and take the view, rightly or wrongly, that it cannot look after their security as well as they can look after it themselves. That means they don't call the police when there's a problem.

The second interesting finding, related, is that within Muslim communities there is - relative to society as a whole - a high degree of awareness of "deviant behaviour", as sociologists call it. In other words people know who is up to no good in the neighbourhood. Crucially, however, there is a reluctance to give up that information to authority figures - like the police - drawn from outside the community. To do so carries a risk to family and wider kin, even those abroad.

This also strikes me as important because it appears to run counter to the assertion, often heard, that parents have no idea what their children are up to; indeed can’t be expected to know what they’re up to. In well-functioning communities, this research suggests, parents do know. That's not to suggest the parents of a suicide bomber are aware of their son's intentions. But it is to suggest that parents, or other authority figures from within the community, might be well-placed to spot signs of a possible drift towards violent extremism.

Put these two points together and you have a scenario where the police are not seen as the best guarantors of security ... but where there is a high level of potential intelligence available from within the community. The conundrum for the police is how they can best get hold of it.

From Andrew Carey
News and observations on the threats to international security and the challenges posed by terrorism to societies around the world. From breaking news to background stories, from serious analysis to casual asides, if we think it's interesting we'll post it here.
• February 2008
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