The government's initiative to tackle violent extremism is welcome but its timing is certain to raise a few eyebrows. The strategy, announced today, suggests that the Home Office is looking to develop a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to countering radicalisation. But the publication of the strategy sits awkwardly with the current controversy over pre-charge detention and Gordon Brown's insistence that raising the number from 28 to 42 days is the right thing to do. Its potential to inflame further tensions in Muslim communities should not be dismissed lightly.
The strategy published today is not entirely new either. The preventing extremism together initiative was started by the government in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2005, and for two years the Department of Communities and Local Government has had formal responsibility for this programme. Both the Radical Middle Way (a government-funded platform to allow preachers of international renown to speak with young British Muslims) and the "pathfinder" projects to counter radicalisation in local communities were started last year.
The new strategy does contain some positive elements. Acknowledging that people can "radicalise" for a variety of different reasons and in different ways recognises the weakness of profiling, while admitting UK foreign policy is a major contributing factor. It's something counter-terrorism experts have long argued is behind terrorist attacks in the west - though it has not been until recently that they have been allowed to air this concern in public. The current trial of Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the leader of an alleged terrorist gang accused of planning mid-air carnage, is testament to this. Giving evidence at Woolwich crown court yesterday Ali said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had influenced him to take action.
Of course, any government attempts to counter violent extremism will be fraught with difficulty, but this strategy will be especially problematic because the nature of violent extremism itself is changing. Across Europe violent Islamic extremists are not only getting younger, they are showing less and less interest in ideology. The motivation does not lie solely with injustice in Palestine or religious fervour inculcated by Saudi preachers. A big part of the appeal is now the excitement, the notoriety, the chance to rebel. Add this to changing attitudes to jobs, socialising and schooling and the result is a potent mix.
Government funded de-radicalisation programmes can therefore only go so far. While there is no doubt that community-based programmes, such as the one in Leicester, play an extremely valuable role in mentoring "vulnerable individuals" the government must develop this initiative closely with local communities. After all Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the July 7 bombers, was himself a mentor and had built a solid reputation as a youth worker dealing with young Pakistanis.
Preventing young people from being attracted to violent extremist ideas by pushing liberal scholars to interpret the "correct" version of Islam, as the strategy seems to suggest, is unlikely therefore to work. Violent extremist groups like the now-outlawed al-Muhajiroun attracted followers because of their opposition to "liberal" and government supported scholars who they call "palace lackeys" and "sultans of power".
Lastly, al-Qaida is no longer a religious terrorist network, it's becoming more like a brand. And like most brands popular with young people, it has mystique and glamour. The task for the security services and communities is to recognise this, and work to demystify and remove the glamour of being a violent extremist, a task just as important as countering the ideas they advocate.