Counter terrorism: Home Secretary's speech at the UN on Prevent

This speech was delivered by the Home Secretary at the UN symposium on counter terrorism in New York on 19 September 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP


Here in this city, ten years ago, we witnessed a massive crime. That crime deserved an unprecedented response.

Action from many countries around the world has now weakened Al Qa’ida severely. Its leadership has been disrupted. Its ability to conduct terrorist attacks, communicate and train operatives has been reduced.

But we have also learned there are limits to how far military or police action alone can take us in our struggle against any form of terrorism.

Governments and policy makers realise that if we are to defeat terrorism, we must not only defeat terrorist organisations, we must also defeat the terrorist ideology. I want today to focus on the ideology that lies behind Al Qa’ida, while recognising terrorism comes in many forms and has many sources.

What is the Appeal of Terrorism?

To begin to tackle this ideology we must first understand its appeal. According to our own research and academic work, radicalisation often occurs as people search for identity, meaning and a sense of belonging.

They reach out for answers. And, at their most vulnerable, they may be influenced - even groomed - by people who offer deceptively easy answers to difficult questions. The poverty of those answers has been proven by the events this year in the Middle East and North Africa. 
The Arab Spring has dealt a  significant blow to Al Qa’ida’s ideology and credibility. We must seize the historic opportunity that brings.

How Can We Deal With It?

The question for us, as governments, is how to seize that opportunity - how can we further undermine terrorist ideology and help vulnerable people to resist its appeal?

In Britain we have spent several years working to counter radicalisation. We have had some success and, yes, we have made mistakes along the way. In no way do we have all the answers but I would like to share with you what we’ve learned, and what we are doing to ensure our approach is as effective as possible in the future.


Our strategy is now based around three areas: ideology, individuals and institutions. First, the ideological challenge.

At the heart of Al Qa’ida’s terrorist ideology, as I say, is the notion that the countries of the West are at war with Islam - and that in response terrorism is justified. This is completely false. The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem. Islam emphatically is not.

But the terrorist ideology also claims that Muslims are oppressed; that Muslims must not participate in democracy; and that we cannot live side-by-side in peaceful and prosperous societies.

Here, it is not just for governments to act. Here, we need non-government organisations, civil society groups, faith groups to challenge these claims. Every single Muslim, wherever they are in the world, can best disprove the claims made about them by terrorist groups. These messages must be amplified. Combating ideology is a big element in the fight against all terrorism whatever its source.


As well as taking on and defeating the ideology of terrorism, a successful counter-radicalisation strategy must also help those individuals who are at risk of the radicalisers’ dangerous messages.

In the UK we have learned that there are often opportunities to spot and interrupt the radicalisation. Early intervention is vital. In Britain, we use community groups, local councils, health workers, teachers and other professionals to help identify those people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation.

Those at risk can then be referred for help. It is this referral mechanism that is the key aspect of the programme. Help can then be tailored to the individual. It might involve one-to-one mentoring to explain how wrong the terrorist ideology is. It might be through help with social issues like getting a job.


The problems of terrorism and radicalisation are international, but the solutions are often very local. They need to take place in homes, at schools, in mosques, at universities, in hospitals and even in prisons. They rely on local communities, professionals, families and friends.

So we must do what we can to assist those institutions where there is a risk of radicalisation. Finally, there is a particular challenge of radicalisation on the internet, which clearly requires a global solution.

And I know this is something the United Nations is working on. We know terrorists use the internet for radicalisation and the circulation of extremist ideologies, as well as for attack planning and recruitment. We also know that terrorist and extremist use of the internet is becoming more sophisticated.

So we are working more closely than ever before with our counterparts in other countries and with internet service providers to stop the dissemination of extremist messages on the internet.


In the decade since 9/11 we have had great success in tackling terrorism.   The ideology of terrorism is more persistent than any one group. We must - as an international community - do more to defeat that ideology.
We must all come together to say that the ideology of terrorism is wrong and in particular that the West is not at war with Islam; that Muslims and non-Muslims can and will live together in harmony. Only then will we further discredit a damaged, but resilient, ideology. And only then will we defeat the terrorist threat.

Thank you.


Published 19 September 2011