Islamist terrorism continues to pose a serious threat to international security. This type of terrorism has materialized in the United Kingdom several times in recent years, with attacks spiking in 2017. While terrorism in places like Iraq and Syria has inspired many perpetrators, a majority of them were British citizens who grew up in the UK and had never trained abroad. However, there is another Islamist threat to Britain: Islamic State (ISIS) foreign fighters are now returning home. As the UK faces these and other dangers, the government’s current response to different kinds of Islamist terrorist threats is inadequate. An urgent and different response is required.

There are three problems with the British government’s current approach to counter-terrorism. First, Islamist radicalization in the United Kingdom continues and frequently targets children and teenagers. Second, the UK has failed to prosecute ISIS foreign fighter returnees. Third, returning ISIS foreign fighters constitute a serious threat because they may perpetrate terrorist acts on British soil or may recruit and train others to do the same. However, instead of dealing with each of these problems, the UK government has preferred a broad “one size fits all” policy for all forms of terrorism and extremism.

The Counter-Terrorism Strategy

The British government has published three versions of its counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST). Prior to 2011, CONTEST focused on terrorism (as already legally defined in the Terrorism Act 2000) and violent extremism linked or leading to terrorism. However, the newest strategy from 2011 progressed in a different direction. It emphasized the dangers of both violent and non-violent extremism and suggested that terrorism is the inevitable result of extremism, while there is no evidence to substantiate this.

Subsequently, the 2015 CONTEST Annual Report on the strategy further focused on combating extremism and emphasized terrorism less. The report, for instance, indicated that its updated “Pursue” strategy sought to “improve our ability to prosecute and use immigration and nationality powers against people for terrorism-related activity and those involved in extremism and unacceptable behaviours.” Hence, the previous focus on terrorism was broadened to include extremism and even unacceptable behaviors. While extremism is itself a vague concept, the reference to unacceptable behavior means that now virtually any act could be subjected to the Pursue strategy.

Some measures implementing CONTEST’s “Prevent” strategy, namely a strategy to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, are commendable. Restricting access to and availability of terrorist material, building communication capacity with civil society groups, and other measures that prevent people from being drawn toward terrorism are all helpful. The dynamics of the introduced measures change, however, once the strategy focuses on extremism broadly rather than terrorism or violent extremism specifically. Said measures also become more susceptible to abuse. Safeguards are not in place to protect individuals from misuse of the Prevent strategy, which can result in limitations of human rights and stigmatization of communities.

The Counter-Extremism Strategy

Even though the UK already had a counter-terrorism law and strategy that continues to be updated as explained above, on October 19, 2015, the government released a new strategy, the Counter-Extremism Strategy. It is allegedly aimed at addressing CONTEST’s shortfalls and extremism, but the new strategy is very vague. As a result, it may excessively restrict—if not violate—individual rights, especially freedoms of speech and religion or belief.

The Counter-Extremism Strategy 2015 defines extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.” The definition suggests that any view that is contrary to mainstream views may be perceived as extremist. Extremism in the strategy incorporates all forms of extremism, including violent and non-violent versions, and terrorism. Such a generic approach cannot address the challenges adequately as they require a more targeted and nuanced approach. Furthermore, the definition is too broad to ensure any degree of certainty and can cover virtually any acts.

As already mentioned above, extremism under the Counter-Extremism Strategy 2015 incorporates “calls for the death of members of our armed forces.” But calls for death should be categorized as complicity in terrorism or violent extremism leading to terrorism, and not put together with “vocal or active opposition” to British values. Calls for death are already a criminal offense, as complicity, and should be treated as such rather than using a euphemism of extremism that is neither legally defined nor criminalized.

Contrary to the previous work of the British government on countering terrorism, the new approach to combat extremism aims to address the issues of “the ideology of non-violent and violent extremists alike,” including Neo-Nazi and Islamist extremism. This would include: “countering extremist ideology, building a partnership with all those opposed to extremism, disrupting extremists, and building more cohesive communities.” Furthermore, the government aims to “develop a clear plan of international work to reinforce [the] efforts to defeat extremism at home.”

To justify this generic approach, the Counter-Extremism Strategy 2015 states that “a range of extremists in the UK promote hatred of others and justify violence, even if they do not act violently themselves.” This justification is erroneous; the act described is a complicitous act to terrorism or violent extremism linked or leading to terrorism and should be classified as such. Cases of Islamist extremism supporting ISIS atrocities should also be clearly branded as complicity to terrorism or violent extremism linked or leading to terrorism, rather than discussed in terms of extremism. Similarly, the acts of promoting violence and terrorist acts fall under complicitous acts to the principal’s acts (for example, under the Terrorism Act 2000). It is evident that the categorization of terror offenses within the Counter-Extremism Strategy 2015 is incorrect and requires a review.

The Ever-Present Issues 

The very broad counter-extremism strategy is inadequate to address terrorism and violent extremism, Islamist or otherwise. For the British approach on countering Islamist terrorism in the UK to be successful, it is crucial that the adopted strategy is targeted and focused on terrorism and violent extremism without adversely affecting the rights of all. This targeted approach must be supplemented with a comprehensive follow-up procedure that would ensure that any red flags are dully investigated, and tangible steps are taken to neutralize the threat. In recent cases, the judicial interpretation of “extremism” and the duties attached are much narrower, as is clear from Justice Ouseley’s judgment in the case of R (on the application of Dr Salman Butt) – v – Secretary of State for the Home Department. The counter-extremism strategy must incorporate such judicial interpretation as indicated in the case to ensure legal clarity.


The British government’s current counter-terrorism approach is too broad. The new strategy may be counter-productive, diverting resources from the real problems, namely, terrorism and violent extremism. The current approach focusing on all forms of extremism, even if they are not violent and do not incite violence, has an adverse effect on human rights. Meanwhile, authorities cannot adequately address the issue of ISIS foreign fighters who are now returning back to the UK. The threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK will never be addressed properly if known perpetrators can enjoy a growing atmosphere of impunity while the rights of law-abiding people are excessively restricted. The United Kingdom must ensure that its approach to counter Islamist terrorism is comprehensive, addresses the threat effectively, and does not infringe upon individual rights.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. She works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. She has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights, and medical ethics. Follow her work on Twitter: @EwelinaUA.

Photo Credit: Floral tribute at Parliament Square following the terrorist attack on March 22, 2017. By Prioryman, via Wikimedia Commons.