The politics of identifying potential terrorists

Is it possible to identify someone who might, one day, go on to commit an act of terrorism? And if it is, is it possible to intervene in order to disrupt or mitigate this potential? These questions have been central to state responses to the “war on terror” and have led to the creation of new security practices focussed on the problem of radicalisation – understood as the process by which an individual becomes involved in terrorist violence.

The UK’s “Prevent” strategy represents the cutting-edge of global counter-radicalisation practice. Central to Prevent is “Channel,” the institutional space in which vulnerabilities to radicalisation are reported, and where decisions are made on whether and how to intervene. First trialled in 2007, Channel has grown to become a central pillar of the UK’s response to terrorism. Controversially, in 2015, engaging with the Channel process became a statutory duty for many authorities, encompassing those who work in, for instance, education, healthcare and social work. Therefore, those who work in these fields must now pay ‘due regard’ to those who might be “vulnerable to radicalisation,” vigilant to this potential, and reporting concerns where they arise.

Yet, as I demonstrate in this article, this process of identification is not as unproblematic and apolitical as government guidance suggests. Rather, Channel guidance and training produces a visualisation of the potential future terrorist. And this visualisation is political, reproducing assumptions concerning who is seen as a threat. In exploring the mechanisms through which a vision of the potential future terrorist is produced my article, recently published in Security Dialogue, contributes to a broader understanding of how security can often function through the visualisation of threats.

Key to many security regimes is the production of an optics of that which is risky, requiring securing, and that which is not. In my article I show that security often functions through what I call “regimes of (in)visibility,” which are constituted by security guidance and training. Who does this training and guidance make visible? Who does not require attention, becoming invisible? In locating the production of the security gaze as central to British counter-radicalisation efforts, what emerges is an account of Prevent that seeks to restructure the gaze of relevant professionals towards new threats. It is a desire to transform how millions of workers with Prevent responsibilities see and engage with their environments.

The question at the heart of Channel is, therefore, what gaze does it seek to produce? As has been widely discussed in the context of British counter-terrorism, it is a gaze that is concerned with identity and the vexed question of “Britishness.” With extremism being defined in opposition to “British values,” and with many “vulnerability indicators” highlighting questions of identity and religiosity, it is a security gaze directed towards those seen to not cohere. In this way, it is a gaze that cannot escape existing ideas concerning who is seen to unproblematically belong within “Britishness” and who is not. It is a gaze that is thus often attuned to those who are identified as Muslim.

In addition though, by locating vulnerability to radicalisation within a wider safeguarding framework, Channel mobilises an already existent pastoral gaze. In doing so, it integrates pre-existing safeguarding concerns within this counter-radicalisation framework. In producing the visible world anew, the gaze Channel seeks to attune one that therefore sits at the intersection of concerns of vulnerability and care, and those of extremism, values and ‘Britishness’, producing new subjects of risk. Channel thus represents a central site in the production of who is seen to be risky, requiring attention, and who is seen to be secure within the war on terror.

Moreover, as the article concludes, what we see emerging with Channel is a novel ambition that seeks to embed security at the heart of everyday social relations. If part of the human condition is change over time – of becoming – then the promise held by Channel is that, with the right training, becoming that is becoming dangerous can be made visible in the present, can be identified, and, ultimately, can be mediated before such danger manifests. Channel can thus be read as a strategy of (in)visibilisation at the forefront of visibilising life itself as a process of (potentially dangerous) becoming. It is the frontline of a profound merging of a politics of care and a politics of identity, enabling new subjects and objects of risk to be identified, and with significant implications for our understanding of how contemporary life must be secured.

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