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Mon 6 December 2021

The Home Secretary’s new Prevent strategy czar once directed an alt-right lobbying group that sponsored her trip to Washington DC, reports Nafeez Ahmed

The appointment of an independent reviewer of the controversial Prevent strategy appears to have been “rigged” by the Government, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North-West England has told Byline Times.

Nazir Afzal said that he seems to have been turned down for the Government-appointed position – which went instead to William Shawcross – because Home Secretary Priti Patel had already made up her mind about appointing the latter to the role. 

“I was strung along to give an impression of open selection”, said Afzal.

The Prevent strategy – introduced in 2003 – aims to “safeguard vulnerable people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism by engaging with people who are vulnerable to radicalisation and protecting those who are being targeted by terrorist recruiters”, according to the Home Office. It is one pillar of the Government’s wider counter-terrorism policy and has attracted criticism for its methods and disproportionate impact on Muslims.

Shawcross’ appointment as the individual who will independently review the strategy represents a potential conflict of interest as he is a former director of a lobbying group – the Henry Jackson Society – which has close ties to Patel.

Afzal, who has previously criticised an “industry” of particular Muslim groups in the UK for undermining the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme, told Byline Times that he applied to the post in May 2020, days before the deadline, after a senior official in the Government called and urged him to do so.

“It was the importance of the ‘independence’ in the role that made me decide to bite the bullet and apply – under the hope that ‘independence’ is what the Government really wanted,” he said.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that Afzal had been shortlisted among the ‘appointable’ candidates in July, and was due to go through a final interview process by Government ministers as a frontrunner alongside three other candidates.

As that interview process was delayed, news leaked early in November that Shawcross was seen within Government as the “frontrunner” most qualified for the role. Yet, this was a week before Afzal was even confirmed for a final interview with Home Office ministers.

Afzal notified the Cabinet Office of his intent to withdraw his application, but received a call from a Government official who, in Afzal’s words, “literally pleaded” with him to attend a final interview, assuring him that no decision had been made about the appointment.

Afzal went ahead with the interview, but Priti Patel was not involved and it was conducted by two junior ministers.

On 15 January, Afzal was informed that his application was unsuccessful. The announcement of Shawcross to the role came a week later. 

“The fact that it was leaked that Shawcross was the Government’s favourite even before I was interviewed by ministers suggests that the Government had already made up its mind about its preferred candidate from the outset, and was simply going through the motions to avoid scrutiny about the appointment,” Afzal told Byline Times.

“It looks like the reason it was insisted that I stay in the application process was to give the impression that this was an open selection, when in fact the Home Secretary already knew who she planned to appoint from the beginning.”


Bannon Trumpworld Background

The new independent Prevent reviewer, William Shawcross, is a former director at the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a London-based think tank with close ties to far-right media executive Steve Bannon and Mike Pompeo – who both once held senior roles in the Donald Trump administration. 

In 2013, Priti Patel received £2,500 from the HJS to sponsor her trip to Washington DC. She also sat on the group’s political council until 2016.

The HJS has longstanding ties with the Home Office. From 2015 to 2017, the Home Office funded the HJS to produce a report on Islamist militancy. The Government has kept this report confidential, refusing to disclose it in the face of Freedom of Information requests, on the grounds that doing so might jeopardise national security. The following year, the HJS also had a staff member in the Home Office, working with the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

In the same period, the HJS appeared to play a direct role in promoting the idea of a ‘Muslim ban’ to a key figure influencing Donald Trump’s policies – namely, the notorious Barack Obama Muslim ‘birther’ conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. Gaffney would, three months later, be cited by the Trump campaign when it first launched endorsed a ‘Muslim ban’. 

In 2017, while still in receipt of Home Office funds, the HJS participated in the notorious alt-right gathering hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. Known as the Restoration Weekend, this annual event played an instrumental role in the rise of Trump, and hosted a full spectrum of white nationalists, anti-black activists, homophobes and anti-Semites. 

A Byline Times investigation into the sources of the HJS’s funding confirmed that it uses a US non-profit entity to receive ‘dark money’ donations from the very same foundations that have funded major alt-right movements in the US. 

Shawcross’ connections to a lobbying group with ties to both the Home Secretary herself and alt-right nationalist movements in the US raises urgent questions about his suitability to review the Government’s flagship counter-extremism programme.

The revelation that Shawcross was the Government’s favoured candidate before Nazir Afzal was interviewed by ministers for the role also raises deeper questions around conflict of interest for Priti Patel.

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that the recruitment process to find the new Independent Reviewer of Prevent was “full and independent” and that the panel, led by an independent chair, assessed “found that Mr Shawcross met the criteria and possessed the right range of skills and experience to conduct this important review.”

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