An Alternative to PREVENT? A Pre-Crime Perspective


PREVENT continues to attract significant criticism.  A northern-based human rights organisation – JUST Yorkshire – is to launch a report supported by the Open Foundation on the 29th of August.  It concludes that PREVENT is built on a “foundation of Islamophobia and racism”, with a “reliance on stereotypes”, contributing to a “climate of fear”, self-censorship and discrimination.  These are findings which are have been repeated through the years by, academics, organisations like CAGE and SACC, and reported by teaching and student unions. In this piece, contrary to the PREVENT propaganda pumped by the Home Office, it will be shown that these are natural outcomes based on inhering conceptual problems.

I found the title of this soon-to-be published report particularly interesting however.  The title “Rethinking PREVENT: A Case for an Alternative Approach” plays on the trends that see efforts to develop “an alternative to PREVENT”, which is community-owned.  It is my assertion that there is no “alternative approach” to PREVENT, be it ostensibly rooted in the community, civil society or the state. Further, it is not PREVENT that requires a rethink because it is symptom of a much bigger problem.  It is the injection of “pre-crime” into laws, policies and the criminal justice system as a whole.  It is the encroaching sceptre of pre-crime that is producing new risks and threats across society that not only needs to be re-thought, but arrested and reversed – de-precriminalised if you will. And it is in this vain that I endeavour to critique the misguided call for a “community-based” response to the state-defined threat of terrorism.

The Epistemology of Contemporary Pre-crime

In the first article, I drew attention to how pre-crime policies like PREVENT were modes of controlling demonised identity groups firmly rooted in colonial power relations. Pre-crime is a continuation of the counter-insurgency doctrines employed by colonial powers against target populations. Those interested in exploring this particular perspective on policies like PREVENT and the discourse of extremism can read the article here, as well as the important article by Rizwaan Sabir.[1]

Pre-crime, through its constitutive element of “pre-emption” and the demarcation of the “presumptive enemy”, has continued to feature in the West through the internment programmes during the World Wars, the “Red scare”, “wars” on crime, and now, the War on Terror.  George Bush, surrounded by neoconservative hawks, articulated what has become the basic understanding of pre-crime intervention in the War on Terror world.  In George Bush’s 2002 West Point speech, he stated,

“We must take this battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge”.

Fifteen years on, little has changed.  Earlier this month, Donald Trump unleashed his Jacksonian “ferocity and repeated the pre-emptive doctrine along similar lines:

“From now on, victory will have a clear definition… attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

As I highlighted last year, the Bush-era military doctrine of pre-emption was advocated by the likes of neocon Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz.  Constructing the enemy threat alongside the need to pre-empt the threat of an academically weak “new terrorism”, Wolfowitz infamously stated on the eve of the Iraq war that “we need an Islamic reformation”, thus setting the narrative that Islam itself was the cause of this “new terrorism”.  The call for a deformation of Islam is a theme which has now become firmly intertwined with the discourse of extremism and terrorism.

This background is imperative in understanding how contemporary pre-crime counter-terrorism discourse posits its enemy.  The enemy from the outset is the Muslim.[2] It is for this reason that the slippery slope which parades the menace of Al-Muhajiroun-like characters as justifying fronts for counter-extremism efforts inevitably disguise policies that target whole Muslim communities and their faith.

The operating frame of reference is a neoconservative, pre-crime one and dependent on the claim that the problem is Islam itself.  The solutions – i.e. the need to “deal” with the terrorism problem – exist within this epistemology.  The community adoption of pre-crime policies engrains a collective culpability on the part of Muslims for actions of a fraction of individuals, helping the endorsement of the basic neocon thesis.  Problematizing Islam also then helps establish assimilationist solutions against state pressure and facilitation of deformation of Islam projects that coerce Muslims to adopt a state-compliant version of Islam.

Discrimination: The Shift from Conduct to Identity

Pre-crime’s heritage in colonialist counter-insurgency doctrines demands the production of “enemy identities”.  Through the collapsing of war frameworks into crime viz. the War on Terror, “the task also shifts from detecting crime to identifying foes”.[3]  Suspicion makes its entry, and with the perpetual War on Terror society is imbued with a perpetual state of suspicion of “the enemy”, forcing yet another shift in focus: from the individual to the group. In other words, all the ingredients necessary for structural discrimination to foster the demonisation of Islam and Muslims are present in the War on Terror paradigm.  Unsurprisingly therefore, discrimination is inherent and a product of counter-extremism efforts.

This discrimination is strengthened through pre-crime mechanics.

Pre-crime policies like PREVENT and counter-extremism efforts pin “liability” or the point of coercive intervention much earlier than traditional criminal offences.  A criminal conviction makes requisite the actus reas and men rea, i.e. the conduct as well as the intention to pursue the illegal conduct.  The focus of the law is on the conduct and the state of mind.   Inchoate or preparatory offences (attempt to commit crime, incitement etc.) have been recognised in criminal law, however, they are still dependent on evidence of a guilty mind/act.  Similarly, risk frames, despite their fundamental problem being the inability to prove intention to commit a crime in the future, still demands information and data tied to the past to generate a calculation (such as past offences).

Pre-crime however, severs the link to the past and looks only to the future in its attempt to pre-empt a neocon-defined threat that is categorically unknowable, or in the words of Thomas Martin, “the ‘known unknowns’ of the Rumsfeldian epistemology.”[4]  It extends the temporal gap between the anticipated crime i.e. terrorism offences and intervention to the point where no evidence is required to demand intervention.  It goes well beyond the normative exceptions of inchoate offences to a territory approaching revelation. Critics “liken pre-crime’s attempt at future prophesy to ‘crystal ball-gazing, ‘sacrificial astrology’ or ‘medieval witchcraft and inquisitorial non-sense’”.[5]

As a result of moving further and further away along the temporal spectrum from the future crime, there is greater reliance on (a demonised) identity as the basis of establishing the “guilty mind”,[6] and intelligence, suspicion and imagination to plug the gap in evidence. Incidentally, this last point, i.e. dependence on intelligence, also flatly refutes the assertion made in the face of overwhelming evidence by PREVENT proponents (such as Nazir Afzal) that PREVENT is not about gathering intelligence.  PREVENT, which seeks to predict the future, cannot operate without the gathering of intelligence precisely because of its operation in the pre-crime, pre-emptive frame.[7]

Justifying Discrimination

What does this mean? The practical implication is that ideological policymakers and “experts” are able to justify intelligence-gathering, racist, discriminatory and Islamophobic policies and targeting on the grounds of identity and suspicion. PREVENT becomes the embryonic step to an end point of internment based on identity.

Establishment voices seemingly courted by the PREVENT industry’s Muslim misery merchants delectably whitewash this discrimination by drawing false parallels with sexual abuse before stating that because terrorism offences exist predominantly among Muslims the policy will invariably target them.  Nazir Afzal, for example, argued that,

“Wearing my former National hat safeguarding those at risk of sexual abuse, more than 80% of referrals were girls because that’s where the greatest risk is. That’s not being discriminatory, that’s just a fact. I don’t see women and girls complaining that they are 4 times as likely to be referred for support.

There are too many assumptions being drawn here which are just plain wrong.  Policies on sexual abuse will not target baseless, imaginary “indicators” or religious/ideological traits specific to white/black/Jewish communities but deal with the dynamics of sexual abuse which has signs related to a history.  In other words, the basis for the intervention is not identity, but rather conduct.  PREVENT, which Afzal calls a “safeguarding tool” has nothing to do with safeguarding. I have previously drawn attention to the incompatibility of the safeguarding framework and PREVENT specifically. Finch and McKendrick identified how “safeguarding” had been recast within the context of a non-linear war (War on Terror) with the notion of pre-crime undermining “fundamental tenets of justice”.[8]

There are further incompatibilities. Afzal draws parallels with “risk” (itself problematic in dealing with criminal issues),[9] however, pre-crime does not employ risk frames but severs the relationship with the past and therefore the ability to calculate risk.  It is entirely forward-looking in its orientation and hence requiring focus on identity.  Furthermore, safeguarding of those at risk of sexual abuse identifies the victims of an eventual crime; PREVENT identifies the criminal in a future crime that is presumed fixed (i.e. the identified will commit a terrorist offence) without any evidence whatsoever. The parallels could not be more different or baseless. Not only is Afzal’s sophistry poor, his arguments consolidate the production of enemy identities that are necessary for pre-crime policies like PREVENT to work.  They justify discrimination.

Pre-Crime/PREVENT, Self-Perpetuating, Self-Justifying

Afzal in his response explains that he has seen the work of organisations using PREVENT to safeguard the vulnerable.  There is a distinct problem here of “evidence” used to prove this false safeguarding thesis.  Through its fictional indicators and broad and ambiguously defined problem identities (Islamist extremist), pre-crime produces its own “crimes” and “success” stories.

In Texas, US, during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial, jurors are required to answer several questions, including whether there is a probability that the defendant would be a continued threat to society. The preconstruction drama of the court hearing and “expert evidence” which determined “future dangerousness” masked the problems of predetermining future crimes through the perception of due process. In the present, the sentencing would establish certainty of the uncertain future. A study by psychologists examining 155 capital cases revealed that expert witnesses were wrong in 95% of the cases.

PREVENT is similarly self-perpetuating and self-justifies its existence through false positives and the veneer of “radicalisation” and “deradicalisation” experts. As Thomas Martin in the context of PREVENT notes,

Importantly, as this danger is always understood as one of potential, the threat cannot be diminished without confronting the lack that gives rise to it. In confronting this absence before its potential materialises (or does not), such subjects are rendered ever-potentially dangerous; the intervention denies the acting out of the un-intervened reality, the future is foreclosed. And in denying such futures, such subjects are not allowed the chance to demonstrate their potential undangerousness. The interventions of Prevent thus render their subject ever-potentially problematic.[10]

McCulloch and Wilson further state,

“The suspicion that underpins the search for pre-crime also establishes pre-crime so that pre-crime proves itself and creates the justification for the continued pre-emptive targeting of communities that are viewed with suspicion… The targeting of Muslim communities reproduces Muslims as terrorists, thereby confirming preconceived ideas about propensities and threat that justified the original and ongoing targeting.[11]

Asim Qureshi, after demonstrating how the counter-terrorism apparatus works interdependently to “reinforce threats, intimidation and coercion”, makes the following grim observation:

“…once one is profiled within the system it becomes difficult to escape it. Proving innocence can be futile, as there is no way to disprove a false positive, but further, that such a construction can ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy.[12]

Compounded Uncertainty

As already highlighted, in the absence of evidence to prove an intention to commit a future threat, there is an increased reliance on intelligence.  However, intelligence is nowhere near as reliable as evidence, which is constrained by evidentiary rules and procedures within the criminal justice system. Intelligence is not aimed at proving the act or guilty mind but “provides background on affiliations – religious, political, ethnic, and ideological”.  Moreover, the production of intelligence may be “gossip about personal and family connections and circumstances, innuendo and hearsay”. It is “unreliable, inaccurate or unfairly prejudicial, but it is not widely distributed”, and therefore not subject to public scrutiny.  Due to its speculative nature, its interpretation is wholly political, forming a picture of the threat that is driven by the ideological politics of the day. [13] Martin avers,

“…by imagining the future in particular ways and not in others, and then by making the imagined futures the subject of intervention in the present, these acts of imagination are inherently political.[14]

Thanks to the construction of presumptive enemies, the presumption of innocence and beyond reasonable standards are transplanted with uncertainty, speculation and imagination through pre-crime. Doubtful hypotheses become entertained through imagination, and suspicion leads to intervention to restrict that fictional, imagined future from becoming a reality.   In other words, speculation and uncertainty is used to drive suspicion to inhibit an uncertain, unprovable future.  And this compounded uncertainty is exploited by the fantasies of neocons.

A prime example of this is the Trojan Hoax scandal of 2014.  A fabricated letter depicting a plot to “Islamise schools” became the basis of a state inquisition which saw teachers and governors suspended and schools in Muslim communities targeted by the state. Tahir Abbas explains that,

“the Trojan Horse forgery in Birmingham not only reflected Islamophobic tropes, fantasies and simplicities which already existed but also acted as a gift horse for certain pre-existing agendas and interests… The “Trojan Horse” investigations were slapdash, presumptuous, weak, and in many cases simply wrong.[15]

The basis for the state bans was dubious hearsay evidence, but lives were turned upside down and a climate of fear and suspicion reigned.  Three years later and after judicial scrutiny (as well as a subsequent shift in attitude in the DfE-established teaching panel hearing the cases), the state bans were overturned (see here, here and here).  Among the cases it was found that there was an “abuse of justice” by government lawyers.

A further layer of uncertainty is introduced through the dominant counter-terrorism lexicon.  As already explained, the need to identify the “threat” inexorably demands a definition and indicators that lead to tests of “acceptability”.  The definition of “extremism” and “terrorism” are so broad that legal actions and beliefs are rendered suspicious and “terrorist-like” if combined with the identity that has been deemed by the politicians and media a “threat”. When this is combined with the mantra that there are “no set pathways to terrorism”, the logical implication is that there is no limit to what can be deemed suspicious.

The Implications of a “Grass-roots Response” to Terrorism/Extremism

Were the Muslim community to develop its own “grass-roots” response to terrorism, the effect of discrimination and demonisation would be stronger: it would crystallise the enemy identity, especially with Muslims being the only group feeling the need to develop such a response; internalise the perpetuation of discrimination and add fuel to the misplaced perception that Muslims are the threat.  This would be coupled with the dangerous implication of a pre-emptive logic embedded in pre-crime: the perpetual, ever-present threat cannot be tolerated.  Therefore, Muslims, being the presumptive threat, cannot live with themselves. A community approach to pre-emptively tackling terrorism/extremism would mean that we would not be able to live with ourselves.  It would imbibe self-hate, doubt and insecurity into the community.  Given the indeterminacy and inability to prove eventual terrorism, Muslims would also entrench the perpetual state of suspicion that is currently being enforced through counter-terrorism laws and policies. Moreover, it would prove to society and policymakers that something needs to be done about the “Muslim problem”, justifying further state intrusion.  This possibility would be accentuated in the event of an attack demonstrating the “failure” of the Muslim community.

The multi-layered uncertainty is a pillar of pre-crime and therefore, any “alternate solution” proposed to replace PREVENT.  By forwarding a community-based response to “extremism” there would be an adoption of this compounded uncertainty albeit disguised in differing forms.  Countering extremism would become an issue of “safeguarding”, whilst those targeted would perhaps be subjected to the language of “vulnerability”. Solutions advanced would be in the name of “community cohesion”. And yet, due to the very nature of pre-crime, any alternative would, for reasons already outlined, have nothing to do with safeguarding and vulnerability.  Instead these terms would – as they do now – “establish a means of making a radically knowable future actionable in the present”.[16]  The framework of “community cohesion” is dependent on a threatened identity, and therefore a community response in its name or the like would reinforce the demonising view that the Muslim community is a threat.  Suspicion, the lynchpin of pre-crime, would permeate the Muslim community, mosques and centres (and indeed it already has thanks to deceptive PREVENT work by the likes of Faith Associates).  Mistrust fostered by this uncertainty and suspicion would lead to a community that is fractured to its core and myopic in its vision.

There is a question here for the Muslims, Ulama and Imams engaged in PREVENT, countering-violence extremism (CVE) programmes, and/or efforts to develop a community response to terrorism:  when the very basis of such efforts is suspicion, speculation and multi-layered uncertainty, how is this to be reconciled with the Islamic tradition, which strongly establishes the necessity of evidence, the presumption of innocence, husn-al-dhann (having a good opinion, i.e. giving benefit of the doubt) and prohibits spying?[17]

Such pressing questions aside, the above should demonstrate how detrimental the development of grass-root responses to terrorism really are. If one understands that the question of “alternatives” is firmly embedded in the neoconservative enabled pre-criminal, politically exploitable sphere of war-crime hybridization, then one should realise that such a question is a deflection to far more structural problems.  Years of securitisation has possibly drastically reduced the analytical scope of sections of the Muslim community.  McCulloch and Wilson make an apt observation in this regard:

“For targeted individuals and communities, security makes the present more insecure and truncates future possibilities through coercive interventions based on forecast future criminality and threat”.[18]

The Muslim community, it seems is affected by this limitation of imposed, fixed futures.  When it comes to forming solutions, Muslims and in particular the Muslim leadership and scholars demonstrate an inability to extricate themselves from both neoliberal and neoconservative epistemologies and the interrelated pre-crime frame. This is a critical failure which must be recognised, reversed and remedied.

There is an endemic problem of engaging with distractions that circumvent the crippling issues facing the Muslim community. Among such distractions is the question raised in some scholarly circles, but isn’t something to be done about those who travel to Syria and those who actually want to join ISIS? It should be emphasised that pre-crime analysis applies to the entirety of the counter-terrorism apparatus. Therefore, there is a need to be aware of the interlinking problems of ambiguous definition, selective threats, and the need to do something on the basis of suspicion and speculation.  What is terrorism? Are all “terrorism offences” terrorism? Is traveling to Syria to fight oppression and protect women and children terrorism? Or is it only a problem in the case of Muslims?  And if we accept this premise, are we also acquiescing to the proliferation of the “threatening Muslims” trope and therefore self-demonisation? Is it also reinforcing discrimination in light of the government’s indifference to British-Israelis traveling to fight for an army that perpetrates war crimes?

Whilst cognisant that the smokescreen of ISIS is used to justify all manner interventions into the Middle East as well as the hearts and minds of Muslims here in the West, this imposed question is raised, but born of political pressure.  There are a number of problems with this question, the most fundamental of which is the perpetuation of the demonised Muslim identity.  The question is insidious in that it feeds the trope that assumes Muslims are harbouring and protecting terrorists; that nothing is being done in the first instance; and that unless engaging in public spectacles of condemnatory rituals and erecting programmes of self-persecution in the form of PREVENT-style responses, nothing is being done.   It deflects scrutiny from the state and its foreign/domestic policies and places it in the lap of the community. Through these demonising implications, there is a growth in the capacity for political manipulation of popular fears.

Were an individual to approach an Islamic scholar, would the said scholar not discourage and if necessary stop the joining of ISIS or acting on their behalf for that matter?  This is a given.  The discouragement by the scholar here would be valid. However, there is a world of difference between an Imam or Islamic scholar discouraging an individual about to join ISIS, and relying on behaviours and indicators to suspect involvement.  The first is based on evidence, the second on suspicion and hearsay.

What Now?

Where does this leave PREVENT? To say that PREVENT is left in tatters, would be an understatement. The numerous cases covered by Prevent Watch, for instance, that show repression and oppression of a targeted community are not because of “implementation” issues which the likes of Afzal, Inspire, Quilliam Foundation and other security contractor firms can simply “iron out”. Rather, the critique outlined above demonstrates the problems of pre-crime are systemic. They are seeded in the founding assumptions, flourish in the uncertainty of pre-crime and yield injustice as a natural product.

What needs to be done now? There is no question about it, “pre-crime produces injustices”. It actively produces new threatening risks which are as significant if not outweigh the risk of terrorism.[19] There needs to be a restoration of justice based on the presumption of innocence and evidence.  The rapid encroachment of pre-crime frames after 9/11 is crippling the (arguably already racist) criminal justice system, premising the entire counter-terrorism enterprise and the knowledge produced around it.  Pre-crime self-perpetuates the security threat and validates itself and so, despite poor attempts to “own” the alternative to PREVENT in the hope that it goes away, the slide to more pre-crime solutions is inevitable.

PREVENT, and the “alternate” industry are not the problem but a symptom.  The entire paradigm of counter-terrorism premised on neoconservative assumptions and protracted through pre-crime frames, is the problem.  It is a sprawling sub-system of structural violence and racism thoroughly exploiting the inhering mechanical deficiencies of pre-crime.  As the editors of What is Islamophobia? rightly identify,

We regard the state, and more specifically the sprawling official counter-terrorism apparatus, to be absolutely central to production of contemporary Islamophobia the backbone of anti-Muslim racism.[20]

The sooner the Muslim minority recognises this, the sooner that we can, as community, begin to catch up with the likes of CAGE. There is a pressing need to seek the removal of pre-crime laws from the Western political and legislative landscape and restore justice for all.


[1] Sabir R., “Blurred lines and false dichotomies: Integrating counterinsurgency into the UK’s domestic ‘war on terror’”, (2017)

[2] “Pantazis and Pemberton (2009), for example, argue that contemporary “political discourse has designated Muslims as the new ‘enemy within’ – justifying the introduction of counter-terrorist legislation and facilitating the construction of Muslims as a ‘suspect community’”.” Referenced in McCulloch J., Wilson D., Pre-crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future, 2015 p.29

[3] McCulloch J., Wilson D., Pre-crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future, 2015 p.26

[4] Martin T., (2014) “Governing an unknowable future: the politics of Britain’s Prevent policy”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 7:1, 62-78, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2014.881200

[5] Fn. 3, p.8

[6] Ibid., p.20

[7] Ibid, p.95 The authors write: “Pre-crime necessarily requires a greater reliance on intelligence gathering targeted at individuals and communities that seen to embody nascent threats”.

[8] McKendrick D., Finch J., “’Under Heavy Manners?’: Social Work, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and Non-Linear War”, The British Journal of Social Work, 2016

[9] Like pre-crime, the use of a risk frame produces its own set of problems: “Eric Janus’s (2011) analysis of sexual predator risk mitigation measures in the US over more than three decades concludes that such measures have had “an increasingly negative impact on the project of preventing (or decreasing) sexual violence.” Fn.3, Ibid., p.39

[10] See Fn.4

[11] Fn.3, pp.140-141

[12] Qureshi, A., “The Structural Racism of the UK” in Massoumi N., Mills T. and Miller D., eds., What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State, Pluto Press: London, 2017

[13] Ibid., p.95

[14] See Fn.4

[15] Tahir Abbas (2017): “The “Trojan Horse” Plot and the Fear of Muslim Power in British State Schools”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/13602004.2017.1313974

[16] Fn.4

[17] On suspicion: “O you who believe!  Avoid much suspicion; indeed some suspicions are sins.  And spy not, neither backbite one another… Al-Qur’an, 49:12,

On husn al-dhann“Why, when you heard [the allegation], did the believing men and women not think good of one another, and say: ‘This is an obvious falsehood!’?” (Ibid., 24:12)

On conjecture: “and conjecture is of no avail in (the matter of) Truth. (Ibid., 53:28)

Narrated Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him): the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said, “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false tales; and do not look for other’s faults, and do not do spying on one another, and do not practice Najsh and do not be jealous of one another and do not hate one another, and do not desert (stop talking to) one another.  And O Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers! (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

[18] Fn.2 p.48

[19] Ibid. pp.141-142

[20] Massoumi N., Mills T. and Miller D., eds., What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State, Pluto Press: London, 2017

One thought on “An Alternative to PREVENT? A Pre-Crime Perspective

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “Justifying Discrimination

    What does this mean? The practical implication is that ideological policymakers and “experts” are able to justify intelligence-gathering, racist, discriminatory and Islamophobic policies and targeting on the grounds of identity and suspicion. PREVENT becomes the embryonic step to an end point of internment based on identity …

    As the editors of What is Islamophobia? rightly identify,

    “We regard the state, and more specifically the sprawling official ‘counter-terrorism’ apparatus, to be absolutely central to production of contemporary Islamophobia – the backbone of anti-Muslim racism.”[20]

    The sooner the Muslim minority recognises this, the sooner that we can, as community, begin to catch up with the likes of CAGE. There is a pressing need to seek the removal of pre-crime laws from the Western political and legislative landscape and restore justice for all.”

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