Robin Simcox was appointed as Interim Commissioner for the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) in March 2021. He was appointed as the substantive Commissioner for Countering Extremism in July 2022, for a three-year term. Before his appointment, Simcox worked for public policy centers based in the United Kingdom and the United States. Most recently, he was the founder and Director of the Counter Extremism Group, a public policy center providing non-partisan research, commentary, and policy looking at all forms of extremism. Simcox is a past contributor to CTC Sentinel.
CTC: What is the Commission for Countering Extremism, and what role does it play?
Simcox: The Commission was established in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks in the U.K. in 2017. The then Prime Minister Theresa May talked about the Commission’s purpose being to help fight extremism in the same way as we have fought racism; that was the framing behind the formation of the Commission. We exist to provide the government with impartial expert advice and scrutiny on how to counter extremism in this country. I am, as Commissioner, the Home Secretary’s independent advisor on extremism; and I’m supported by a small secretariat of civil servants. We do undertake external engagement, but the way I’ve tried to orient the Commission is to emphasize advice and scrutiny to government. That’s not just with the Home Office, but it’s also the Department for Education, it’s the Department for Leveling Up, it’s the Ministry of Justice. There’s counter-extremism work going on throughout government, and I want the Commission to be able to bring its expertise to bear wherever it can. So we have very much taken on a government-facing approach over the last couple of years.
In terms of the scope, obviously there’s some crossover between our work and counterterrorism concerns, but we’re focused on the challenges below the counterterrorism threshold as well—segregation, community isolation, communities being cut off from one another, the normalization of intolerance and bigotry. Our thresholds would be different to that of counterterrorism police or MI5, for example.
CTC: When it comes to your overall assessment of the violent extremism landscape in the U.K. today, can you speak to how you see that across the ideological spectrum: Islamist, far-right, far-left, other forms of extremism and violent extremism?
Simcox: Islamist extremism is definitely the dominant terrorism threat here. That’s been the case for a couple of decades. I don’t see a convincing argument as to why that would change, certainly in the short term. Again, looking at this beyond just the CT point of view, the challenge we have with Islamism in this country isn’t just about terrorism, though that’s obviously the most violent manifestation. But you’ve got the values questions as well. The most pertinent issue is probably about freedom of speech. Because there’s been a form of activism that has sought to police the limits around what can be said around religious prophets; we had death threats towards teachers who showed a depiction of Muhammad in the school classroom during a discussion of freedom of speech. It’s a concern that we could be drifting as a society informally into a kind of de facto blasphemy law, which is obviously a key issue for us. Not just because we as a Commission have a stake in protecting free speech, although of course we do, but because of some of the violent acts carried out against perceived blasphemers: the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015 or the recent attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie or if you want to look beyond the West, look at the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistana and the broader flow of momentum regarding limitations of free speech in Pakistan. The threats being made towards people over this issue aren’t a bluff. There are those who are willing to kill, essentially, over defense of the honor of the Prophet. And so I also look at the Commission’s role as being helping defend pluralism, helping defend key values, and trying to push back on the assassin’s veto.
When it comes to the problem set posed by the extreme right-wing, there have been various attacks in recent years. Jo Cox MP was assassinated in 2016; we had the fire-bombing of a migrant center in Dover as well recently.1 Various extreme right-wing groups have been proscribed, white supremacist groups like National Action.
Similarly with the Islamist challenge, there’s a variety of those who sit below the terrorism threshold who operate legally but who promote unacceptable views that we clearly have a stake in wider society in rejecting and challenging: hatred of Muslims, hatred of Jews, the idea there should be a kind of ethnically homogeneous country, hatred of minorities. Again, these are all quite fringe views, but that doesn’t mean we should ever tire of doing the work needed to reject them. And that’s the work the Commission sets out to do, [it’s] to challenge those kind of ideological excesses.
When it comes to the extreme left, my sense is it’s generally under-researched, certainly in the U.K. context, within the counter-extremism field. Some single-issue groups sometimes associated with the left, like environmental groups, offer a quite particular challenge as there is significant public support for the broader goal of protecting the environment. However, that doesn’t mean that scrutiny shouldn’t be brought to how some of these groups are looking to achieve their aims. The level of disruptiveness caused by certain groups focusing on environmental issues in the U.K. is pretty significant at the moment. And I think there’s a reasonable concern that some of those tactics could get more extreme over time. These groups have got to respect the democratic process. Civic society cannot choose to turn a blind eye to the severe disruptiveness they cause just because there are some sympathies with their overall goals. We have to be consistent. Otherwise, on what grounds can you speak out against the far right, if they were to launch a campaign of disruption, once you’ve essentially already given a pass to groups whose aims you agree with? There is a need here for consistency that Western democracies have struggled with in the past.
To go to the other issues that I think we need to understand better that are relevant to the U.K.: pro-Khalistan sentiment in Sikh communities,b Hindtuva and Hindu nationalism; integrating incels who feel rejected, cut off by society, hopeless. They don’t all represent pressing CT issues; they may ultimately not be CT issues at all. They don’t even always fit neatly into the extremist paradigm, but they are definitely relevant community cohesion issues in the U.K. They’re bubbling under the surface.
CTC: Coming back to the far-right side of the ledger, violent far-right and extreme, non-violent far-right, can you elaborate on what the concern set is in the U.K.?
Simcox: The concerns would be that there is an uptick in far-right terrorist activity. You’ve seen a variety of senior CT police officers and MI5 talk about this: The majority of live investigations are on the Islamist side but you are seeing an uptick with regard to the extreme right-wing. You’re seeing prosecutions of extreme right-wing terrorism cases, although it is worth remembering that some of the prosecutions (as with other ideologies) are for possession offenses as opposed to live terrorist attack planning.
But there seems little doubt there’s been an overall uptick of far-right activity. I also mentioned earlier the broader cultural challenge. That relates to the idea that concepts like the Great Replacement Theory are being pushed with greater enthusiasm or that the far-right may feel more emboldened to spread poison about certain minorities than they once were.
However, there are also reasons for some optimism. The far right consistently perform very poorly in elections here. There has not been a groundswell of electoral support for the far right in this country in a way that we’ve seen in other parts of Europe. Long may that continue.
I know there’s a lot of policy and media focus on the far right in the U.S. at the moment. We have to make sure we keep it in context when it comes to the U.K. The vast majority of terrorist attacks in this country over the past couple decades have been committed by Islamist terrorists; that’s still where most live investigations from a policing and security service point of view are focused. Just because there may be an increase in this threat in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily track that there will automatically be an increase in this threat in the U.K. So it’s just a case of ensuring that there’s an appropriate focus on the far right from a CT point of view, while organizations like mine look to challenge the ideology of the far right wherever and whenever we can.
CTC: In his February 2023 independent review of Prevent,c William Shawcross stressed that: “Prevent must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.” He noted that “at present, 80% of the Counter Terrorism Police network’s live investigations are Islamist while 10% are Extreme Right-Wing. The fact that only 22% of Prevent referrals for the year 2020-21 concerned Islamism suggests a loss of focus and failure to identify warning signs.” He also stated that “Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism.”2 What for you are the key takeaways from the independent review?
Simcox: There’s a lot in it. In terms of my big-picture takeaways from the independent review, obviously there is firstly that desire that Prevent gets back to first principles: that Prevent is a CT program first and foremost, that it’s not overly focused on safeguarding, it’s not just an exercise in community cohesion, and that maybe there was a bit too much emphasis on that by Prevent in the past. There’s also been—and this came out in the review as well—this tendency to treat those who’ve been referred into the Prevent program through a lens of vulnerability. The idea that radicalization was a process that was occurring to the unwitting or easily manipulated, or that there was a lack of agency, as opposed to this being a political choice that was consciously made. I would say—and I think the independent review would agree with this—that meant that the role of ideology was sometimes underplayed.
Secondly, the significant majority of CTP [counterterrorism police] and MI5 work focuses on Islamism. Most terrorist attacks take place in this country by Islamist terrorists, but the number of referrals into Prevent of individuals where there were concerns about Islamist radicalization was—generally—pretty small. If individuals where there is an Islamist radicalization concern are, for whatever reason, not being referred into Prevent, then there’s an issue. Prevent can only deal with the referrals it receives into the system. The fact that Islamist referrals into Prevent were shrinking, but the terrorism threat from Islamism remained so significant and that terrorist attacks were still taking place committed by Islamist terrorists, suggests to me that something had gone slightly askew.
The independent review is also concerned with disparity with the way Prevent was treating different ideologies. Training material on Islamism had a focus on proscribed groups: really just al-Qa`ida and Islamic State. There’s nothing on some of the Islamist groups operating legally that may be contributing to violent narratives. But the scope of the training material on the extreme right-wing was really broad. It included proscribed organizations like National Action that would be analogous to al-Qa`ida and ISIS … but then also street movements like EDL [English Defence League], football hooliganism, some of the far-right political parties. So there was almost this disparity ingrained into the way Prevent was being trained out. That’s one reason why I think the understanding of Islamist ideology was imperfect and there was inconsistency in the system. So that is really important to address.
Finally, I would just say that I think Prevent has a better story to tell than its critics allow. It’s been a pretty important part of our CT infrastructure for a long time now, used by other countries as a model for their own efforts at terrorism prevention, and has doubtless saved lives. But Prevent has also been subject to quite a lot of criticism and a pretty concerted attempt to undermine it by various activist groups who attempt to depict Prevent as repressive state surveillance. The independent review says the government should look to push back on this more, and I’d go along with that. I think it’s probably overdue.
CTC: As you’ve noted previously, “the Independent Review identified several areasd where the CCE should play a vital role in helping Prevent”3 including “training and upskilling government’s understanding of extremist ideology.”4 You have also stated that an important part of your work will be “scrutinising the government’s response to the Independent Review of Prevent’s findings, to ensure its recommendations are implemented in both letter and spirit.”5 It would be great if you could elaborate on the work you will be doing in these respects.
Simcox: I’ll start with the second point in terms of ethos and spirit. We go through such fluctuations on this point. This is not the first Home Secretary, nor would it be the first Prime Minister, to say we need to get serious about dealing with the terrorism problem we face. Tony Blair said in 2005 that “the rules of the game have changed.”6 Theresa May said in 2017 that ‘it’s time for some difficult conversations.’7 So there’s always been a political desire to take a more forward-leaning approach to dealing with extremism and violent extremism. I see the role of the Commission as trying to ensure this time there’s really some follow-through. The Home Secretary said we would need to ditch “cultural timidity” if we’re going to deal with extremism effectively. I agree with that. Where we at the Commission can be helpful is helping to scrutinize how the recommendations, as put in the Prevent review, are being put into practice. The government’s committed to implementing all 34. I am enthusiastic about the fact that this is a chance for a reset across the system. There are a variety of areas where there’s been an insufficiently forward-leaning approach in the past; this is a chance to rectify it.
One of my first priorities when I first took the job was increasing awareness on extremism across the system. By this, I mean primarily improving the offer around training. We’ve done a lot of work with government at various levels getting a sense of what training is out there on extremism and what people working within Prevent and beyond need. What’s their current level of knowledge and what do they want it to be? How do we fill that gap? And where is there an absence of expertise at the moment? So we have done a lot of work looking into the current training offer across the system. We’ve commissioned a suite of training products, most particularly focused on ideology, looking to address those gaps, and there’s a few recommendations in the government response to Prevent that talks about the role the Commission is going to play.
As I say, the Home Secretary talked about cultural timidity and also institutional hesitancy. Sometimes that’s not a deliberate desire to be timid or hesitant. It’s often because people just don’t have the expertise and the knowledge to be able to know that ‘this is religious conservatism,’ for example, versus ‘this is a manifestation of ideological extremism.’
So through the work that the Commission does on training, what we’re trying to do is empower those in Prevent and beyond, those across government who have a stake in this issue, to give them greater confidence about being able to go about their day-to-day job. It’s where I hope we add value as an organization in terms of having that specific expertise that some parts of government may not have at present.
CTC: We’ve touched on this already, but you have noted that “individuals or groups that do not plot acts of terrorism can still create permissive environments for the spread of extremist ideologies.”8 What is being done and what needs to be done to address this challenge? How do you see the link between non-violent extremism and violent extremism?
Simcox: I’m surprised sometimes how contentious the link between non-violent extremism and violent extremism still is. Take Samuel Paty, who is beheaded in Paris for blasphemy, essentially, showing an image of Mohammed in [his] class. He’s murdered by an Islamist terrorist, but the Islamist terrorist had picked up on a social media campaign that had been launched against Paty by some local community activists. So one individual was culpable for Samuel Paty’s murder, but I’d argue there was a wider ecosystem that essentially painted the target on Paty’s back prior to his murder.
I believe that those who sit below the thresholds of counterterrorism investigations can still create a permissive environment in which ideologies that inform terrorist behavior incubate. Then you have academics like Noémie Bouhana at UCL who talk about ‘extremism-enabling environments’ and emphasize the importance of geographical location.9
Take another example: ISIS recruitment. It’s inconceivable to me that the tens of thousands of recruits ISIS drew in, including those from Western Europe, were all drawn in by online propaganda (as effective as I know the propaganda was and as ‘smart’ as some of it was). There was also a socialization into extremist beliefs by the permissive environments in which they lived. Again, look at some of the work by Hugo Micheron, for example, who identifies certain key hubs where ISIS recruited from—very, very specific locations across Europe.10 This is where we get to it not being so much a radicalization problem as a socialization problem.
Building upon this point, in the U.K. we’ve had groups and individuals who have for many years relentlessly, publicly, promoted this idea that creating a caliphate is a religious obligation. This has been an argument that has sat below the terrorism threshold. I would say rightly; I don’t think they should be criminalized. However, it seems unlikely to me that there would be no connection to this messaging whatsoever and 1,000-odd British citizens and residents leaving this country to travel to a caliphate when it emerges in Syria and Iraq.
The Prevent Review talked about the need for the government to do more on this; it’s exactly where the CCE sits because we are not an operational body in terms of CT. We are designed to look at those knotty issues that fall below the CT threshold. This is a vital piece of the jigsaw, and maybe one that more could be done on than has been in the past. But of course, you can imagine the challenges. You’re dealing with organizations and people that aren’t breaking the law, that have a right to freedom of speech, but are championing all sorts of concepts that fundamentally oppose some key values we have in this country. That is what makes it such a challenging issue to take on.
CTC: You previously spent a lot of time researching and analyzing CT challenges, including in the pages of CTC Sentinel. How has this helped you in your new role?
Simcox: Perspective and context would be the main things because the challenges that I look at in 2023 aren’t so unrecognizable from what we were facing more broadly 20 years ago. There are obviously differences; there are nuances. But a lot of the challenges are still the same. So I think having that perspective can help you not to overreact to certain issues. Yet awful atrocities like the November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2017 Manchester attack also remind you why it’s so important to remain engaged in this area and to get it right.
Having a broader view informed by experiences of researching and analyzing this area can also guide your approach to policy work. Most of my work has previously focused on Islamism, but it also helps inform my understanding of other forms of extremism. Islamism in many ways has a very apocalyptic vision. White supremacist groups are similarly apocalyptic at times: they are talking about the extinction of the white race, the Great Replacement Theory. They are not two sides of the same coin—I think that’s an overly reductionist way to view two very specific and distinct ideologies—but they echo each other at times.
CTC: In the July 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel, you co-authored an article looking at the threat posed by Europe’s jihadi prisoners and prison leavers.11 It’s been a big concern. What is your updated assessment of this problem set in the U.K.? What for you are the lessons learned in addressing this particular problem set? These are people who have been convicted of terrorism offenses, in jail, getting out of jail, and potentially posing a threat.
Simcox: It’s definitely still an issue. Some of the most recent Islamist terrorist attacks in the U.K. were committed by prisoners who were either still in custody—so attacks in the prison itself—or had been recently released.12 And there’s been some really good work done on this recently. The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, had a report called “Terrorism in Prisons” that came out last year13 that had some very constructive ways of framing terrorist risk behavior so that prison staff were able to look out for key signs and understand certain key indicators. I mentioned the research of Hugo Micheron earlier. Some of his work on how to frame the jihadi experience in prison I think is really important because he talks about how jihadist activity behind bars isn’t necessarily just focused on violence or planning attacks, but strengthening networks, making new contacts, deepening their faith, deepening their dedication.14 That’s an example of research that definitely helped shape my thinking about how to conceptualize that problem.
The Independent Review [of Prevent] also particularly drew out the problem of those who may appear cordial, may appear compliant, but still pose a terrorism risk. Obviously, the case of Usman Khan [who carried out an attack at] Fishmongers’ Hall [in 2019] has been very influential in shaping the current thinking in the U.K. There was an inquest15 into this terrorist attack, which was really revealing in terms of some of the signs that were missed, things that were overlooked, maybe there had been an overly optimistic view of the extent to which Khan changed his views and deradicalized. As some of the work we looked at for the CTC Sentinel article and Thomas Renard’s work16 previously demonstrated, there isn’t a super high percentage of convicted Islamist terrorists relapsing, but it’s really high impact when they do. And so I understand why there’s been such focus on it across government.
CTC: In the March 2021 issue of CTC Sentinel, Douglas Weeks, a researcher who has focused on counter-radicalization efforts in the U.K., argued that “there is too much pessimism over deradicalization efforts [of terrorist offenders]. While there are many challenges in changing the mindset of terrorist offenders, some mentors have employed approaches that have proven effective in rehabilitating a not insignificant number of terrorist offenders and helped reduce the overall threat.”17 What can the government do to empower those pursuing effective approaches?
Simcox: I don’t know whether there’s too much pessimism. DDP, the Desistance and Disengagement Programme part of Prevent, is quite new, and so I think there’s still some analysis that needs to be done about its effectiveness. We as a society are all invested in the success of this because the failures are really visible. The failures look like Usman Khan. While I would stress the importance of getting this piece of work right, what that looks like depends on your objective. Is what we’re really looking for here the desistance part (changing people’s behavior) or is it disengagement (changing people’s mindsets and beliefs)? Is it both?
The desistance part is potentially easier to deal with as most people who leave prison after committing a terrorism offence don’t go on to commit another one. But the office I sit in means inevitably I am interested in the mindset question. I am interested in challenging ideological extremism as we aren’t purely a CT-focused body. I am also aware that deradicalization is a monumentally difficult task. With some, it will be impossible. There will be failures again in the future, inevitably. Deradicalization of terrorism offenders is never going to be foolproof. It’s never going to be a silver bullet.
Yet, I see some fantastically qualified, dedicated people who devote their time to dealing with this, so that is a cause for optimism. And it’s a worthwhile pursuit because we have to do all we can to avoid another Usman Khan, another Sudesh Amman,18 and any other variety of previously convicted terrorists who’ve gone on to commit further attacks upon release.
CTC: You have stressed that a key part of CCE’s mission set is “bringing together practitioners, academics, experts and policy leads to help ensure a thorough understanding of the current extremism landscape and horizon scanning for any emerging trends” and that “engagement helps the CCE to develop our knowledge of emerging trends, research and evidence gaps.”19 It would be great if you could elaborate on these efforts. What for you are the lessons learned on making sure government officials have access to the best independent research and analysis? What for you are the lessons learned on how the research community can carry out research helpful to creating good public policy?
Simcox: I’m aware frustration can exist on both sides. A lot of experience and expertise lies outside of government but obviously the decision-makers are all within it. There can be an academic perception that government isn’t always guided by the best evidence; government can get frustrated that academics don’t package their work in a super digestible way or policy recommendations are not always realistic or feasible.
I can see how the policy world and academic world talk past each other at times. I would like to do all we can to lessen that because the Commission does have a foot in both of those worlds and government needs help on loads of these knotty issues.
The Commission operates the Academic-Practitioner Counter Extremism Network (APCEN), which is our attempt to bring together academia and government/policy folks in the same forum to discuss emerging trends, identify knowledge gaps, foster collaboration, get them talking to each other more. Putting funding questions aside for a second, which I know brings its own complications for both sides, for academics to be policy-relevant and influential they need to know what the top priorities for government are so [that] their work isn’t operating in a vacuum. What current workstreams are going on across departments? Where are the knowledge gaps? How can academic expertise go about filling them?
Government needs to know who can deliver the work, who can do it credibly, who can bring the expertise, who can do it on time, and who can do it within budget. So we as a Commission are committed to trying to connect academia with policy and we definitely want to support research which contributes to a sophisticated understanding of the extremism landscape. It’s helpful to government and helpful to wider society in improving our collective understanding.
CTC: You have highlighted the dangers of “giving extremists legitimacy through funding or engagement.”20 It is obviously also important to carry out outreach to communities vulnerable to radicalization and to empower voices within those communities working to counter extremism. Talk us through how see this issue. Is enough being done by U.K. authorities to understand, identify, and empower such voices?
Simcox: I would argue that we actually empower those working to counter extremism when we elevate those who share core values, and do not bolster those who promote division, who promote segregation, who promote sectarianism.
So one of the key areas of work which we are engaged in at the Commission is helping to improve how government engages; to make that engagement more strategic; to weigh up risk and reward when considering why engagement is taking place. Is government talking to the right people? Is there too much emphasis on gatekeeper groups? Are we just engaging with certain groups because that’s just who we’ve always engaged with? Is fresh thinking being brought to ensure that you get the most rounded and accurate view about what’s going on in different communities across this country as possible?
So the aim with that is obviously to improve community engagement and improve the process. It’s also designed to reduce potential risk around government funding or engaging with individuals and groups with extremism concern. This is hardly new. The review of Prevent by Lord Carlile in 201121 talked about government funding and engaging with extremist groups. The [recently published] Independent Review of Prevent that comes out over 10 years later makes the same point. I think back to the debates over whether the state should be empowering certain groups—legacy Muslim Brotherhood groups—as a bulwark against al-Qa`ida, for example, which was a hot debate in the U.K. in the post-7/7 landscape.
What we, as the Commission, are keen to do is encourage the government to take a more strategic approach to engagement, and this goes beyond Muslim communities. This is about communities up and down the country. It’s about making sure the government talks to people as citizens, not treating them in religious blocs or ethnic blocs. It’s something that government recognizes is a problem. It’s keen to act upon it, and obviously, we as a Commission are keen to advise and scrutinize and help them do it in the most effective way possible. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: In January 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad. Pakistan’s then Interior Minister stated that one of Taseer’s bodyguards had told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. “Punjab Governor Salman Taseer assassinated in Islamabad,” BBC, January 4, 2011.
[b] Editor’s Note: The Khalistan movement advocates for the creation of an independent Sikh state (Khalistan) in Punjab. For more on how “Britain has seen a recent upsurge in activity by the Khalistan movement,” see “The Security Challenge of the Khalistan Movement,” European Eye on Radicalization, April 7, 2023.
[c] Prevent is one of the four pillars of the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST). Prevent aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Pursue aims to stop terrorist attacks. Protect seeks to strengthen protection against terrorist attack. Prepare aims to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. “Counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) 2018,” U.K. Home Office, August 20, 2018.
[d] For example, the Independent Review called for the “Commission for Countering Extremism to review all Prevent advisory boards and panels to ensure membership includes necessary, credible and impartial expertise on extremist ideology. … The Commission for Countering Extremism should oversee Prevent products informed by consultation with advisory boards, such as those used to identify and assess risk.” “Independent Review of Prevent By William Shawcross CVO,” U.K. Home Office, February 2023, p. 160.
 Editor’s Note: See, for example, Noémie Bouhana, “The Moral Ecology of Extremism A Systemic Perspective,” U.K. Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2019.
 Editor’s Note: Ibid.
 Editor’s Note: Hugo Micheron, Le jihadisme français: Quartiers, Syrie, prisons (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2020).
 Editor’s Note: See “Inquests Arising From the Deaths in the Fishmonger’s Hall Terror Attack,” Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, November 2021.
 Editor’s Note: See “Sudesh Amman: From troubled schoolboy to terrorist,” BBC, August 20, 2021.