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UK uses health workers in counter-terror plan

Muslims in the UK say they are unfairly targeted by programme asking medical workers to identify potential 'terrorists'.

Last updated: 10 Apr 2014 08:23
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Al Jazeera's Matthew Cassel reports on the Prevent programme from Birmingham 

Medical workers, most would agree, have one important job to do: look after the well-being of their patients. However, in the UK, employees of the National Health Service are now being assigned another task: identifying potential terrorists. 

This new directive comes from the Prevent programme, part of the UK government's counter-terrorism strategy created in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

As part of this mission, since last year Prevent has been providing mandatory training to employees of the National Health Service (NHS) on how to identify potential terrorists among patients, visitors and other medical staff, and report them to the authorities. 

Documents given by Prevent to medical workers, copies of which were obtained by Al Jazeera, say the following: "The NHS has been identified as a key player in supporting the Prevent strategy as healthcare staff are considered to be well placed to help to identify concerns and protect people from radicalisation." 

'Government informants'

Al Jazeera spoke to a nurse working for the NHS on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media. (Al Jazeera also learned of similar Prevent training being offered to educators, firefighters and others in the public sector; however, none agreed to discuss the training on record.)

UK counter-terror plan

The four elements of CONTEST, the UK government's counter-terrorism strategy, include:

Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks

Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism

Protect: to strengthen the UK's protection against a terrorist attack

Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack

"The healthcare worker's job is to ultimately treat your patient," the nurse said. "It doesn't matter what they walk in the door with - you, as a healthcare professional within whatever specialty you work, you've been trained to support them." 

The nurse was concerned by the vague characteristics presented as indicators of possible radicalisation. One of the Prevent documents listed factors such as "identity crisis", "personal crisis" and "unemployment" that could make someone vulnerable to radicalisation. 

The document also listed political views that NHS staff should look out for, such as a "rejection of UK foreign policy", "mistrust of Western media", and "perceptions that UK government policy is discriminatory [eg counter-terrorist legislation]".

The nurse said trainers were careful to avoid mentioning Muslims. However, medical staff were told that the main terrorist threat to the UK comes from Islamist groups, and the violent acts mentioned were mostly incidents perpetrated by Muslims.

She added that identifying potential terrorists was not part of her job as a health worker. "It's actually something that the police should be doing," she said. "Offering this training, it's almost as if we're becoming government informants." 

Outreach 

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester and national lead for Prevent's police programme, confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical workers and other civil servants were being given counter-terrorism training. 

Sir Peter Fahy describes the goal of the Prevent programme 

"If there are health professionals who have serious concerns that the person they're dealing with is getting involved in extremist activity and that is harming their well-being and harming their community, then yes, absolutely, it's about them being able to raise those concerns," Sir Fahy said. "Clearly, there is a significant terrorist threat to this country. We can understand that people can feel very strongly about international issues and other political issues, and it's trying to identify people who may be at risk of taking that concern to a level of violence."

On its website, Prevent says it seeks to tackle terrorist threats wherever they occur. However, it also says that the "most serious is from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organisations". With the overwhelming majority of Prevent's efforts focused on British Muslims, many in the minority community believe they are being unfairly targeted. 

Sir Fahy acknowledged the grievance, and said he hopes to address complaints by making Prevent's efforts more transparent to the public. "It's really about how we... confront the threat of terrorism, but at the same time maintaining the confidence of the Muslim community as we go along."

Lost confidence 

But that confidence may already be lost. Jahan Mahmood, a historian and former adviser to the government's counter-terrorism unit, said that while Prevent mentions possible extremism from a range of groups, "there is a disproportionate focus on Muslims, there is no doubt about that. And that's also one of the reasons it's failed to gain traction with the Muslim population".

 Journalist Reyhana Patel on how the perception of Prevent has changed among British Muslims 

In Birmingham's predominantly Muslim Sparkbrook neighbourhood, Mahmood pointed above his head to lampposts where in 2010, the government installed hundreds of surveillance cameras - ostensibly for monitoring crime in the area.

But it was soon exposed that the counter-terrorism unit installed the cameras to monitor residents. After an outcry from the Muslim community, bags were placed on top of the cameras and they were eventually removed, with authorities assuring that they had never been turned on. 

Mahmood said the incident led to a serious breakdown of trust between Muslims and the police. Al Jazeera spoke to a number of British Muslims in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who said they believe Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts are less about preventing violence than about monitoring every aspect of Muslim life. This has left many in the community feeling alienated from the rest of British society.

But Mahmood warned that it's not only British Muslims who should be concerned over the government's counter-terrorism laws and programmes like Prevent. 

In recent years, Mahmood said: "We've seen draconian legislation introduced - and that means we are surrendering our civil liberties. Where will this end? The rest of Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we are sleep-walking ourselves into very serious times."

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @matthewcassel

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Al Jazeera
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