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Police-Community Engagement and Counter-Terrorism: Developing a hub Report Logo

Police-Community Engagement and Counter-Terrorism: Developing a hub

09 December 10

What follows is a summary of the proceedings of this workshop led by Dr Basia Spalek which brought together experts from the UK and USA to share their knowledge, experience and thoughts on how best to proceed to develop a hub at the University of Birmingham providing a unique platform for collaboration between researchers, communities, policy makers, police officers and other practitioners in order to produce applied, policy and practice-focussed outputs based on rigorous research in relation to examining the role of communities in helping to defeat and/or endorse terrorism and the interface between community and state efforts to counter terrorism. The event was supported by the Religion and Society Programme.

Context & Aims

The workshop confirmed the necessity for developing knowledge and skills in relation to police-community engagement and counter-terrorism, the reasoning simple and compelling:

  • Current social and economic challenges will inevitably contribute to personal and communal grievances, creating vulnerabilities which may be exploited by terrorist strategists seeking to encourage and recruit individuals to violent extremism and terror crime.
  • Developments within counter-terrorism policing indicate a growing confidence to engage more openly with the public and with communities, to share understandings of the risks and challenges, and to build partnerships and cooperation across the public sector and within communities.
  • Community understandings of state and human securities are increasingly sophisticated. As counter-terrorism policing looks towards gaining legitimacy and accountability with local communities, the development of partnership work has become crucial.
  • The need to connect expertise and share best practices within the counter-terrorism context requires a mode of exchange, accessible locally, nationally and internationally.
  • Seeking to seize the moment of opportunity the University of Birmingham will create a virtual research and resource hub to connect researchers, communities, policy makers, police officers and other practitioners and their work.
  • The hub will instigate a programme of applied research that will help inform and empower, contributing to the development of knowledge relating to community-focussed counter-terrorism approaches and partnership work.
  • The hub will act as a body to provide oversight and coordination for research, resource sharing, events and networking.

Issues & Areas of Interest

The workshop provided a forum for speakers and participants from both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Australia, to share their experiences and expertise in relation to state and community engagement and partnership in countering terrorism. This section of the report attempts to summarize the key points made during the day.  Perspectives reflect the diversity of contexts in and from which individuals operate providing a range of invaluable insights that will inform the development of the hub, and act as pointers to the progression of research questions and future projects.

Impact of Social and Political Contexts

  • The politicisation of the security agenda, particularly in relation to the stigmatisation of Muslim communities impacts negatively on actually achieving both state and human security.
  • An equality of suffering in relation to Muslims must be recognized in the wider public sphere. The increasing Islamophobic atmospheres of the UK, the US and Europe, and rise of anti-Muslim hate crime undermines security in all its forms.
  • The use of New Terror language and discourse feeds the notion of a ‘war on Islam’, increasing the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement felt by many young Muslims. An increasing sense of marginalisation is considered a major driver in the process of violent radicalisation.
  • The conflation of counter-terrorism with issues of immigration, cohesion, national identity and values serves to isolate the very communities with which the state needs to engage.
  • ‘Hard’ counter-terrorism tactics, such as stop and search, raiding and covert operations performed without sensitivity to communities undermine the trust, confidence and willingness of community members to engage.
  • Islam – theology, personal belief and identity – plays a fundamental role in the prevention of violent extremism and in challenging violent extremist ideology.

Role of Religion, Faith and Theology

  • The role of religious duty and ethical consciousness more broadly are key elements of individual and community involvement with the security agenda.
  • A level of unity within Muslim communities and schools of thought, despite theological and cultural diversity is necessary to counter the divisive discourse of violent extremism.
  • The attempt to define moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of Islam amongst some popular commentators, academics and policy makers, particularly in relation to Sufi and Salafi communities undermines a coherent community response to violent extremist rhetoric.
  •  Jihad is an important and basic Islamic concept and practice: jihad is not terrorism and terrorism is not jihad. The use of the term in relation to violent extremism legitimises the actions of terrorists who seek to justify their actions with a cloak of authenticity and righteousness.
  • The recognition of community expertise and experiences that currently and potentially contribute to countering-terrorism is vital.

Community involvement

  • Good success stories are rarely heard: community involvement and perceptions are influenced greatly by the popular perceptions and attitudes that the media and politicians have the power to change.
  • Inclusive practices are being developed, with partnership between communities and state institutions increasingly viewed as important. Comparisons between the UK, the US and other countries are of great interest, illustrating the importance of wider context and variation in security objectives.
  • The empowerment of communities including education and legal support regarding civil rights does not undermine security; rather it is vital to the functioning of liberal democracy and the building block of active citizenship.
  • Neighbourhood policing and its tradition of community engagement offers valuable insights for the changing world of counter-terrorism, in which overt work is gaining increasing credibility as a vital strand in the prevention and disruption of violent extremism and terror crime.


  • A cultural shift within counter-terrorism policing in the UK, especially in relation to covert work and accountability is underway. The impact of these changes deserves further analysis, documentation and comparison with other contexts, including the US.
  • Community partnership and buy-in is imperative to successfully identifying and tackling violent extremism in all its forms.
  • Policing by consent – the Peelian mantra – is foundational for ensuring the requisite levels of accountability and legitimacy on which community engagement is built.
  • Trust and confidence is vital to the creation and maintenance of relationships between police and communities, and a cornerstone to partnership work.
  • Proactive policing engenders the trust and support of communities; reactive policing especially in a counter-terrorism context can create grievance and mistrust which undermine both state and community efforts to prevent violence.
  • Protection not persecution: the ways in which counter-terrorism practices are perceived and carried out by states, their security practitioners, and communities can be varied. The use of informants for example, may be viewed very differently according to context.

Intervention Work

  • The concepts and processes of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘de-radicalisation’ require further analysis, with input from practitioners – state and community – as well as academics.
  • Risk taking is a part of intervention work with individuals vulnerable to and holding violent extremist ideologies. Risk aversion, a common characteristic of public institutions, limits the process of intervention. It is important to explore ways in which risks may be taken and professional judgements of community workers and police officers supported.
  • Measuring success cannot be limited to the gathering of statistical data. A framework for understanding successful intervention – and prevention more generally – could be developed for use across a range of contexts.
  • Emotion, positive and negative, is an area that deserves further analysis, impacting on a range of aspects within the security agenda, including drivers of violent radicalisation, counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation, motivation for community members and counter-terrorism practitioners, and within the process of community engagement and partnership work.

Innovations in countering terrorism

  • Fostering credibility as individuals and organisations working within the counter-terrorism arena is a complex and important process, requiring further attention.
  • Notions of pre-crime and the policing of thought in the context of preventative counter-terrorism and intervention work deserves further analysis, from ethical, academic and practical perspectives.
  • Valuing human relationships and the ability of micro-level, personal interactions to influence the success of policing in a counter-terrorism context is an important but oft overlooked aspect of building security which should be more greatly valued as part of police training.
  • Risk, trust and a willingness to step beyond official remit are vital elements in the development of partnership within the counter-terrorism.
  • Meaningful dialogue and listening to alternative and marginalised voices has not yet been achieved within many counter-terrorism contexts: the mechanisms with which to do this, and the gains that dialogue can bring must be further explored and best practices shared.
  • Creating safe spaces – physical, emotional, virtual - in which all parties involved in the issues of terrorism and counter-terrorism including community members, vulnerable individuals and practitioners can explore issues and have those ‘dangerous conversations’ so often stifled in the public domain is vital to the development of innovative and progressive methodologies within counter-terrorism.  

Ways Forward

The following steps have been identified as the most pertinent to the project’s development:

  • The creation of the hub will begin in January 2011, starting with the development of an interactive website, making use of the new media, technologies and creative approaches necessary to communicate, innovate and connect.
  • Partners and interested parties will be kept informed of developments.
  • Ideas, in particular in relation to continuing to connect interested parties, stimulate debate, and continue conversations will be collected and explored.
  • Decisions, for example access to potentially sensitive information, will be made in consultation with partners, in order to structure and shape the hub to ensure its aims are met most effectively.
  • Where appropriate, partners will contribute resources, such as documents, reports and toolkits which partners may access and learn from.
  • Further financial backing will be sought in order to ensure the continued development of the project and related research.
  • The sustainability of community-led projects and the body of community expertise is vital: ways in which the hub can contribute to and support this work, including assistance in locating funding will continue to be high on the agenda.
  • Partners may contribute to a documentary film aimed at increasing public awareness of Muslim community engagement and partnership in the UK and US and their contribution to countering terrorism.
  • The hub will go live in conjunction with a launch conference in 2011.   

Report written by Laura Z. McDonald and Basia Spalek.


The Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham

The Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham in England is recognised as an internationally leading centre for research in social policy and social work.  In the latest Research Assessment Exercise, in 2008, some 95% of its research was internationally recognised.  This included 15% regarded as world-leading, and a further 45% as internationally excellent.  The centre includes a research theme about communities, securities and social justice.

Dr Basia Spalek: b.spalek@bham.ac.uk

Dr Basia Spalek is a Reader in Communities & Justice within the Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham. Basia’s research interests lie in community based approaches to counter-terrorism; young people, policing and security; criminal and social justice in relation to minorities; and faith/ethnicity and diversity in relation to victimisation. Basia has led two high-profile AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme funded projects focussing upon exploring partnership approaches to challenging religiously-endorsed violence involving Muslim groups and police. Access the report from the first project An Examination of Partnership Approaches to Challenging Religiously Endorsed Violence involving Muslim Groups and Police here. The second built upon this project and is entitled A Study exploring Questions relating to Partnership between Police and Muslim Communities in the Prevention of Violent Extremism amongst Muslim Youth.

Dr Laura Zahra McDonald: l.z.mcdonald@bham.ac.uk

Dr Laura Zahra McDonald is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Applied Social Studies, at the University of Birmingham. She has been a researcher on both of the Religion and Society Programme projects Spalek is Principal Investigator for listed above. Her research areas include Islam, gender and security, with a particular interest in the interface of state and community in relation to terrorism and counter-terrorism. She is keen to continue developing the links between academic research, grassroots activism and practitioner perspectives, particularly with regards to the impact of government policy on minority groups in Britain.

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