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UK Prevent strategist to build counter-extremism programmes in Central Asia

UK military veteran to work with agencies 'covert and overt' despite widespread concerns about rights abuses across region
Participants of Turkmenistan's Council of Elders attend a meeting in Ashgabat in September 2016 (AFP)

A senior official involved in implementing UK counter-extremism policies has been appointed by the UN to develop similar programmes in Central Asia despite fears they could be used by the region's governments to suppress dissent.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) confirmed to Middle East Eye that Simon Cornwall, a British military veteran who is currently a strategic lead for the Home Office's Prevent counter-extremism strategy, had been appointed to the newly created post of UN counter terrorism adviser to Central Asia.

In an update to his profile on the LinkedIn website, Cornwall said his role would involve “supporting Central Asian states to strengthen national and regional frameworks for preventing and countering violent extremism”.

Other aspects include working with government agencies “covert and overt to manage flow of intelligence”, and setting up NGOs “to work to integrate FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters] and those vulnerable to the ideology and propaganda of extremist groups”.

According to a profile on the website of the German Institute of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies (GIRDS), where he is a fellow, Cornwall spent 14 years in the UK military and was involved in counter-terrorism work in Northern Ireland. He then spent 12 years as a military contractor in Saudi Arabia, the profile states.

The post has been created by the Vienna-based UNODC's terrorism prevention branch even though the UN's own counter-terrorism watchdog and others have warned that initiatives to tackle extremism may be counterproductive in countries with weak human rights records.

Human Rights Watch earlier this year described human rights protection as being "in crisis" in Central Asia, while Amnesty International said that "repression of dissent, critical opinion and political opposition" remained the norm across the region's former Soviet states.

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council last year, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights and counter-terrorism, said that any efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism in countries where good governance and respect for the rule of law were lacking would likely be “ineffective, detrimental to human rights, and even counterproductive”.

Highlighting how some governments had used “overly broad” counter-terrorism measures against “forms of conduct that should not constitute terrorist acts”, Emmerson also said that without an internationally agreed definition of violent extremism, the use of the term “as a basis for the adoption of new strategies, measures and legislation may prove even more dangerous for human rights than the term terrorism”.

Exporter of expertise

Prevent has previously been subjected to scrutiny by several UN bodies and other human rights organisations because of widely voiced complaints that it is discriminatory against Muslims and potentially undermines free speech and civil liberties.

In a report last year, Maina Kiai, the UN's special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, wrote that Prevent was “having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population”.

Several nations earlier this month flagged up concerns about counter-terrorism policies during a periodic review of the UK's human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council, with Norway urging the British government to review all counter-terrorism legislation to “ensure that it complies with the highest human rights standards”.

Nonetheless, the UK has established itself as an exporter of counter-extremism expertise. MEE earlier this month reported on how the European Union was promoting UK-style counter-extremism initiatives across its member states after the head of the bloc’s Europol law enforcement agency described Prevent as a “best practice model in Europe”.

On Wednesday, the British government will co-organise a session on "Civil society engagement in preventing and countering violent extremism conducive to terrorism" at the UNODC's Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, an annual forum bringing together policy makers and experts to identify international priorities in combating crime and develop common strategies.

Advocates for Prevent argue that it has provided support and safeguarding to thousands of people at risk of being drawn into extremism-related activities, and cite examples of individuals who they claim might otherwise have travelled to Syria.

The UK’s foreign office has also identified “work to counter the ideology of Islamist extremism around the world” as one of its departmental priorities.

Concerns about radicalisation in Central Asia have been heightened by estimates that up to 4,000 fighters from the region may have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups, according to an International Crisis Group (ICG) report, and by a spate of recent attacks in Europe blamed on suspects with Central Asian backgrounds.

Last month, an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan killed 14 other people in a suicide bombing on the St Petersburg metro system in Russia, while an Uzbek national was arrested in Sweden on suspicion of killing four people by driving a lorry into pedestrians in Stockholm.

Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals are suspected of having carried out last year’s IS-claimed bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and an attack on a nightclub on New Year’s Eve in the same city.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security organisation working in Europe and former Soviet states, has also launched initiatives to prevent violent extremism in the region.

Earlier this month the OSCE organised a workshop for “young experts” in Almaty, Kazakhstan, attended by Peter Neumann, a professor at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the OSCE's special representative on combating radicalisation.

'Political cover for tyranny'

But experts on the region argue that efforts to address radicalisation are based on flawed and misguided assumptions and could end up creating a “terrorism problem” where one currently does not exist.

In January, a group of Central Asia scholars wrote an open letter to the ICG in which they complained that a series of reports by the NGO on Islamic radicalisation in the region were based on “prejudice and bias” and “methodologically weak”.

John Heathershaw, a signatory of the letter and a Central Asia researcher at the University of Exeter, told MEE that most Central Asians who had joined IS or other groups had done so after leaving their homelands, often travelling first to Russia as economic migrants.

Terrorist attacks in Central Asia also accounted for less than 0.1 percent of all attacks worldwide between 2001 and 2015, according to the Global Terrorism Database, while Islamist militants had been unable to gain a foothold in the region, he added.

“Mr Cornwall will find that his work is counter-productive if it is directed at supporting Central Asian states with a track record of arbitrarily arresting, imprisoning and torturing their opponents in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’,” said Heathershaw.

“No amount of training or capacity building will fundamentally alter the political logic of dictatorships who abuse their citizens with impunity. The risk of appointing a UN adviser to these states is that it provides political cover for the consolidation of tyranny in Central Asia and may thus make a future terrorism problem more likely.”

Western initiatives to influence Central Asian counter-terrorism efforts have backfired spectacularly in the past.

The most high-profile IS recruit from the region, Gulmurod Khalimov, was formerly the commander of an elite paramilitary police unit in Tajikistan and took part in military training in the US on three occasions as part of a state department anti-terrorism assistance programme.

In a subsequent appearance in an IS propaganda video, Khalimov said: "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims. You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims. God willing, we will find your towns, we will come to your homes, and we will kill you."

Gulmurod Khalimov commanded an elite paramilitary police unit in Tajikistan before defecting to IS (Screengrab)
Prior to his reported death last month in an air strike in Mosul, Khalimov was reported to have risen to the rank of "minister of war" within IS, with the US State Department putting a $3m bounty on his head.

The UN has encouraged all of its member states to develop national strategies to address violent extremism as part of a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism presented to the General Assembly by then-secretary general Ban Ki-moon in January 2016.

But human rights groups and think tanks have warned that the failure to establish a robust definition of extremism – the UN plan states that the definition of the term is a prerogative of member states – means that such programmes could be abused by repressive governments.

The UK's Prevent strategy defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Beards forcibly shaved

But Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at the Chatham House think tank, warned in a paper in September 2016, that the UK risked inadvertently bolstering repression by cooperating on counter-extremism programmes with countries, such as those in the Gulf, where governments rejected liberal democratic values.

Several Central Asian states have already implemented their own counter-extremism initiatives, with police in Tajikistan last year forcibly shaving the beards of about 13,000 men as part of an "anti-radicalisation campaign".

Adriana Edmeades, the legal and policy director of Rights Watch (UK), told MEE that Prevent's “extraordinarily broad and vague definition” of extremism had led to numerous human rights violations in the UK including “the chilling of free speech” and impeding children’s right to education.

“Insofar as this appointment suggests that those with expertise in Prevent are proposing to hold themselves out as experts in countering non-violent extremism to governments in Central Asia, we have serious concerns,” said Edmeades.

"Prevent has caused significant harm in the UK: exported to repressive regimes in Central Asia, where there is no rule of law, and where it is much more difficult for civil society to criticise government, it could do untold damage."

Cornwall is currently a strategic Prevent coordinator based in the London borough of Wandsworth, reporting to the Home Office-based Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT). Previously, he worked in the UK prison system with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences.

MEE contacted Cornwall but he declined to comment. The UNODC also declined to comment.

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