By Azfar Shafi, a London-based who focuses include counter-terrorism, policing and British state racism.

Since its formation in early 2018, the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) has undergone a noticeable evolution in its personnel, political approach, and degree of patronage it enjoys from the government. The transition from the inaugural lead commissioner Sara Khan to the current commissioner Robin Simcox, and their respective relationships to successive government administrations, has reflected the shifting character of those administrations. And, perhaps more importantly, it also reflects the tensions between different camps within the British security industry.

Simcox currently sits at the heart of an increasingly hawkish counter-terror apparatus that has returned to its original modus operandi of targeting Muslim communities, after a brief period of expanding its focus to other ideologies.

This turn has been fuelled by aggressive security think tanks, such as the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange, the ideas and staff members of which are readily absorbed by the government and various state institutions. Perhaps the most pertinent of this is the case of Simcox himself.

These think tanks have increasingly hegemonised the policy space for counter-terrorism in recent years, and have reduced the clout of regular civil society organisations which were cultivated and bankrolled by the Home Office under various funding pots – including Prevent – and from which the CCE once sought to draw its own legitimacy.

Finally, and most disconcertingly, there has been a gradual alignment across major European countries – foremost among them, France and Austria – of assertive attempts to criminalise ‘Islamism’ and introduce a suite of state powers to target, undermine and even dissolve dissenting civil society organisations This European model has its supporters in Britain, and has been an object of interest to the CCE under Simcox’s leadership.

This piece traces the development of the CCE since 2018 and provides a picture of the state of counter-terror policy in Britain.

The early days of the CCE

The CCE was announced in the Conservative Party’s 2017 General Election manifesto under Theresa May’s tenure and was founded at the beginning of 2018 under the leadership of long-term securitisation advocate Sara Khan.

According to the 2017 manifesto, the role of the CCE would be ‘to identify examples of extremism and expose them, to support the public sector and civil society, and help the government to identify policies to defeat extremism and promote pluralistic values[1].

The Commission was formed at a time when counter-terror policy in Britain was undergoing a notable shift: the development of ‘counter-extremism’ policies had been hindered by the government’s inability to define ‘extremism’ on a legally-sound footing[2]; the murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016 had spurred a new focus on tackling the far-right through the likes of Prevent; and there was a renewed emphasis on the part that government might play to embed counter-extremism within civil society. Examples of the latter include the formation of the now defunct Building a Stronger Britain Together fund, which came to assume the role played by Prevent in its earliest days.

The CCE was intended to resolve or bolster these trends, and to solicit support for ‘counter-extremism’ work among those sections of the population that had found themselves alienated by it –  in short, it was to give securitisation a ‘human face’. In a 2019 report CCE Exposed: The Islamophobia Industry policing thoughts and beliefs, the advocacy group CAGE argued that,

the government has all but given up on defining ‘extremism’ legally, but will instead build support around a ‘popular’ definition, the implications of which will likely be mobilised through PREVENT, other censorious counter-extremism powers – and any legislation proposed by the CCE itself.[3]

Tellingly, the CCE sidestepped the most controversial aspects of British counter-terrorism by initially placing Prevent outside of its remit, stating that [it would] ‘not be reviewing the Prevent Strategy, or commenting on the effectiveness of Prevent itself in our study.[4] 

Its first major project under Khan’s tenure was a public outreach and evidence-gathering exercise meant to ‘consult” and build consent around the project of counter-extremism – as part of what Khan termed her mission to build a “powerful counter-extremism movement”, tackling an ever-expanding list of ‘extremisms’.

This exercise culminated in the CCE’s 2019 report Challenging Hateful Extremism, released shortly before the Conservative Party’s landslide victory at the 2019 General Election. Alongside calling for the Commission to be placed on a permanent/statutory footing, the report’s main contribution was to propose that the government adopt its definition of ‘hateful extremism’ in place of the current government definition. This new definition of ‘extremism’[5] was stretched so thin as to be analytically useless, but it did allow the CCE to be operationally broad and target an even wider range of beliefs and behaviours than the government definition. –

Khan’s CCE gains momentum, then stalls

The CCE gained much momentum during its first couple of years, including through the support of then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who spoke alongside Khan at a major policy event titled Confronting Extremism Together in July 2019[6].

However, following the December 2019 General Election and a ministerial reshuffle in February 2020, momentum on the Commission appeared to stall – particularly with the change in approach of then Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Under Patel, the focus quickly shifted towards expanding ‘hard’, punitive counter-terror laws and powers, while moving away from the type of civil society-centred and ‘community engagement’ model of Khan’s CCE. This newly punitive posture was reflected in Patel’s controversial decision to defend the inclusion of Extinction Rebellion on guidance around extremism ideologies developed by counter-terror police[7] – even as the police themselves sought to distance themselves from the guidance.

Meanwhile her shift away from ‘soft’ counter-extremism was symbolised by her move to quietly axe the Building a Stronger Britain Together fund in 2021, alongside scrapping David Cameron’s Counter Extremism Strategy and winding up the Counter Extremism Unit[8], in the face of internal opposition. In September 2020 – with 6 months until the end of her 3-year tenure – Khan complained in a Parliamentary hearing that the government had not yet responded to the Challenging Hateful Extremism report[9].

In what may well have been a last-ditch attempt to salvage Khan’s role, December 2020 saw the publication of a report, titled Countering Extremism: Time to reboot?[10]by Crest Advisory – a crime and justice consultancy organisation staffed by ex-police and former government apparatchiks whose clientele include the Home Office, National Police Chiefs’ Council and various Police forces.[11]

Developed in close collaboration with the CCE – three of the five advisors to the project were or had been members of the CCE, including lead Commissioner Khan, who also provided the foreword – the report was patched together off the back of a two-day online survey and interviews with senior police figures and MPs. Its main recommendations included that the government adopt the CCE’s definition of ‘hateful extremism’ and task the CCE with a statutory responsibility to annually review powers for disrupting ‘extremists’.

In February 2021, the CCE published its legal review Operating with Impunity – Hateful extremism: The need for a legal framework[12], which represented a noticeable shift away from Khan’s original civil society-led approach towards a criminalising approach more in line with the new Home Office leadership. The report called for the introduction of a new criminal framework to tackle ‘hateful extremism’, which would make the designation prosecutable under criminal law. This would vastly expand the scope of the CCE’s disruption powers.

Nonetheless, in March 2021 Khan’s tenure as lead commissioner of the CCE came to an end, and she was demoted to Independent Adviser for Social Cohesion and Resilience[13]. The Home Office had still ignored her flagship 2019 report[14].

The rise of Robin Simcox

In June 2021, the role of lead commissioner of the CCE was granted on an interim basis to Robin Simcox[15], for a term that was extended a number of times before Simcox was formally appointed as lead commissioner in July 2022[16].

Prior to this role Simcox had served as Director of the Counter Extremism Group and worked for the Henry Jackson Society.He was a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a neoconservative US thinktank that had played an instrumental role in American politics under the Republican Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Bush I and II, and Donald Trump – whilst also arguing at the time that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be identified ‘as the most justly fought war in the history of modern warfare.’[17].

His credentials don’t end there. Simcox himself has argued that Islamophobia is “a word used to narrow the parameters of legitimate debate”, while also advocating a freeze on government engagement with groups like the Muslim Council of Britain due to their perceived  ‘extremism’[18].

Simcox’s interim term was defined by a largely behind-the-scenes restructuring and reorientation of the CCE, shunting it away from the ‘community engagement’ model of Sara Khan towards a more traditional advisory body to the government, akin to an internal think tank. Tellingly, despite her earlier stonewalling of the CCE, then Home Secretary Priti Patel provided the keynote address at its inaugural conference under Simcox[19], giving her approval to the Commission’s new direction.

The End of Year report for the first year of Simcox’s tenure, published in April 2022, gives further indication of the CCE’s new direction of travel[20]. Simcox’s engagements included ‘present[ing] his vision for the CCE’ to Munira Mirza, then-Director of Policy under Boris Johnson and key architect of Johnson’s political agenda. The report also mentioned that Simcox had met then Home Secretary Priti Patel to “deliver advice and insights on key issues and challenges for government in countering extremism”, as well as then Security Minister Damien Hinds “to discuss extremist threats and express the urgent need for a robust response to extremism”.

Simcox also met with a number of well-known pro-security think tanks, such as Policy Exchange, the Counter Extremism Group, Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Moonshot – as well as with the French Embassy, and the Austrian Observatory (or Documentation Centre) on Political Islam, which has played a major role in legitimising the Austrian government’s documented crackdown on Muslim civil society.

This latter point – of Simcox’s engagement with European representatives – is a telling, and troubling, signal of the possible direction of British counter-terrorism under the banner of Prevent.

Policy Exchange applauds Europe’s ‘documentation centres’

The deeply repressive approach of the French and Austrian government under Emmanuel Macron and successive ÖVP-led governments, respectively, have been noted approvingly by hardliner security think tanks in the UK. These same think tanks have alleged that the British government is too mired in ‘political correctness’ to be comparable to Europe.

A 2022 report by Policy Exchange argued that France and Austria’s approaches to ‘Islamism’ “offer important case studies for the ways in which the liberal state can counter those who deny the fundamental principles on which it has been built – recognising that it cannot simply be ‘neutral’ in the face of that challenge. The British State would do well to reflect carefully on their experience”[21], while the report’s co-author John Jenkins praised the establishment of the Documentation Centre as an example of “the innovative thinking and the policy activism’ that he lamented as lacking in Britain”[22].

Another Policy Exchange report, released as an effort to shape the then-unreleased Independent Review of Prevent, used the Austrian Documentation Centre as one of its examples of good practice while calling for the formation of a ‘Centre for the Study of Extremism’ government research unit[23] in the UK, as well as a government ‘rebuttal’ unit to handle negative feedback related to its counter-terror strategies – the latter of which was later recommended by by fellow Henry Jackson Society alumnus William Shawcross in his recent, beleaguered Prevent review.

And in late 2020, the Henry Jackson Society hosted an event titled President Macron’s “Response to Islamism and Jihadist Terror: Lessons for Other Nations which sought to ‘examine the course taken by the French President, and ask whether it is one that could be adopted in other European countries[24] 

In March 2023, the CCE hosted an international conference on European approaches to terrorism and extremism that was keynoted by Home Secretary Suella Braverman[25], shortly after the release of the Independent Review of Prevent – authored by Shawcross. In the report, Shawcross lauded how ‘France has successfully sought the dissolution of groups across the ideological spectrum that openly act or agitate against the values of the Republic’[26].

Britain’s new era of counter-terrorism

The much delayed publication of the Independent Review of Prevent in February 2023 marked the culmination of long-term shifts within British counter-terrorism that have been reflected in the changing dynamics of the CCE since its formation.

The review recommended a return to focussing Prevent on ‘Islamist extremism’ and away from issues such as the far-right or other ‘extremisms’, once-and-for-all abandoning the ‘equal opportunities counter-extremism’ approach adopted by Sara Khan during her tenure as CCE commissioner. This has symbolised the consolidation of power around a wing of the British security industry[a] which had been demanding a more aggressive and ideologically assertive version of Prevent, and had been disillusioned with the expansion of Prevent to other ideological targets.

This expansion to other ideologies was something that the Henry Jackson Society, for example, had argued was an example of political correctness and tribal identity politics’ hindering counter-terrorism”[27].

The review’s proposals also signal a centralisation of Prevent under security services and a removal from it from local authorities, a hardline shift away from the community engagement model that had prevailed for much of Prevent’s lifetime. Such a redirection both mirrors Khan’s fall from grace and the replacement of her civil society-centric model of the CCE, towards Simcox’s elite security think tank model.

More directly, the review also called for a more substantive role for the CCE in overseeing aspects of Prevent, by reviewing “all Prevent advisory boards and panels to ensure membership includes necessary, credible and impartial expertise on extremist ideology”. It also proposed that the CCE should oversee Prevent products informed by consultation with advisory boards, such as those used to identify and assess risk”.

This is a complete inversion of the CCE’s original attempt to distance itself from Prevent under Sara Khan, and a shift that will centralise Home Office-CCE control over Prevent, making it more difficult to interrogate and hold accountable at all levels.

The capture of politics by think tanks

With the government’s wholesale endorsement of Shawcross’ review and recommendations – and with the 2023 CONTEST strategy describing the CCE as “the government’s independent ‘centre of excellence’ on counter-extremism”[28]– Simcox’s ambitions to transform the CCE into an internal government advisory body – in effect a quasi-public body led by an unelected de facto public servant, appears to have come to fruition.

More broadly, it has also illustrated the growing entrenchment of right-wing security think tanks, not as mere lobby groups, but as having a share in the administrative landscape of the state. Through this, the role of such think tanks and their personnel has transformed from that of providing ideological stewardship to the government, to helping administer high-level state functions.

This is evidenced by the Henry Jackson Society’s former director William Shawcross having led the Prevent review, as well as being picked as the Commissioner for Public Appointments[29]. It is seen in the fact that the review of Britain’s Border Force is being overseen by Policy Exchange chair Alexander Downer[30] – to give just two more examples.

The capture of the political space by these think tanks ensures a steady circulation of supporters and fellow travellers within and through state institutions as well. Immediate recent examples include current Metropolitan Police Chief Mark Rowley, one-time academic advisor to Policy Exchange, and recently-appointed lead reviewer into the Leicester disturbances, Ian Austin, a stalwart supporter of the Henry Jackson Society during his Parliamentary career[31] – not to mention the string of recent senior ministers who once sat on the Henry Jackson Society’s Political Council[32].

Although Boris Johnson’s downfall left his project to transform British political institutions and install his supporters in key institutional roles partially incomplete – victims of the anti-‘sleaze’ backlash during his latter months included former Daily Mail head Paul Dacre, whom Johnson had been priming to become head of the Ofcom regulator[33], and former Metropolitan Police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe, whom Number 10 had sought to make head of the National Crime Agency[34] – the Home Office remained firmly in the hands of the Conservative Party’s right wing under the ministership of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

One of the most politically consequential departments of this government remains the private fiefdom of the most ideologically aggressive faction of the ruling party. This ensures that, while counter-terror policy in Britain has gradually assumed secondary importance to national security and state threats in the echelons of policy making, it remains politically volatile and a profound danger to civil freedoms.

This state of play is aligned with and draws oxygen from, similar shifts away from responsible, representative governance in Europe. Advocates against the securitisation of social and political life must organise against any emerging European consensus on counter-terrorism, and should proactively seek to highlight and counter the work of the CCE as a crucial node in the development of this pan-European convergence.

 

Footnotes:

[1] https://ucrel.lancs.ac.uk/wmatrix/ukmanifestos2017/localpdf/Conservatives.pdf

[2] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/after-admitting-it-cant-define-extremism-conservative-party-pledges-defeat-it

[3] https://woocommerce-150299-430654.cloudwaysapps.com/cce-exposed-launch

[4] https://extremismcommission.blog.gov.uk/2018/08/16/questions-and-answers-from-the-commission/

[5]  Described as including:

‘Behaviours that can incite and amplify hate, or engage in persistent hatred, or equivocate about and make the moral case for violence;

And that draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at an out-group who are perceived as a threat to the wellbeing, survival or success of an in-group;

And that cause, or are likely to cause, harm to individuals, communities or wider society.’

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/confronting-extremism-together

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/13/priti-patel-defends-inclusion-of-extinction-rebellion-on-terror-list

[8] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/priti-patel-shuts-down-scheme-hailed-for-extremism-work-5zpf36wz2

[9] http://parliament.uk/oralevidence/901/html

[10] https://www.crestadvisory.com/post/countering-extremism-time-to-reboot

[11] https://www.crestadvisory.com/consulting

[12] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/commission-for-countering-extremism-publishes-legal-review

[13] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/sara-khan-appointed-as-independent-advisor-for-social-cohesion-and-resilience

[14] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/batley-school-cartoons-mohamed-extremism-b1823200.html

[15] https://extremismcommission.blog.gov.uk/2021/06/02/introducing-new-interim-lead-commissioner-robin-simcox/

[17] https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/report/fighting-just-war-iraq

[18] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/extremism-commissioner-robin-simcox-islamophobia-b1832832.html

[21] https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Grasping-the-Nettle.pdf

[22] https://policyexchange.org.uk/blogs/a-lesson-from-vienna-in-countering-islamist-extremism/

[23] https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Delegitimising-Counter-Terrorism.pdf

[24] https://henryjacksonsociety.org/event/president-macron-islamism/

[25] https://extremismcommission.blog.gov.uk/2023/03/15/the-cce-hosts-international-conference-focused-on-extremism-across-europe/

[26] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-prevents-report-and-government-response/independent-review-of-prevent-accessible

[27] https://henryjacksonsociety.org/publications/modern-day-britains-terror-threat/

[28] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/counter-terrorism-strategy-contest-2023/counter-terrorism-strategy-contest-2023-accessible

[29] https://publicappointmentscommissioner.independent.gov.uk/about-us/

[30] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/home-secretary-orders-wide-ranging-review-of-border-force

[31] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/leicester-unrest-reviewer-ian-austin-henry-jackson-society-links

[32] https://web.archive.org/web/20160507041509/http://henryjacksonsociety.org/people/council-members

[33] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/nov/19/paul-dacre-pulls-out-of-running-next-ofcom-chair

[34] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jul/29/boris-johnson-ally-out-of-running-for-top-nca-job-amid-cronyism-row

 

 

Image courtesy of Extremism Commission and used in line with open government licence

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