‘So far this year’, Theresa May announced to the House of Commons, on October 13, ‘just over 100 people have been arrested for Syria-related [terror] offences, 24 have been charged, and five have been successfully prosecuted’. MPs should have responded with some basic but crucial questions. Why have the vast majority of arrests failed to yield prosecutions? Who has been arrested, and subsequently released? On what grounds have people been detained? The absence of such questions reflects the unwillingness of Parliament to scrutinise the British national security state and its far-reaching counter-terrorism powers. With the ‘threat level’ of potential terrorist activity rising from ‘moderate’ to ‘substantial’, the Home Office’s threats of passport confiscation for British citizens suspected of fighting in Syria, and the recent intensification of MI5 and police raids, this task is increasingly pressing.
Tarik Hassane would agree with this assessment. Hassane, a 21-year-old medical student studying in Sudan, was arrested on October 7 after police broke down his door at Princess Alice House in West London, threw a stun grenade into the house, and tasered him. Cerie Bullivant of the advocacy group CAGE UK has compared such excessive force to the militarised US police tactics used to respond to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Along with four other young men, Hassane’s arrest was, according to the police, ‘part of an ongoing investigation into Islamist-related terrorism’, with ‘a Whitehall source’ framing the raids as an ‘early disruption’ of what could have been a ‘significant plot’. No details of the alleged plot have been released. The evidence leaked to the press included a tweet from Hassane stating ‘Oi lads… I smell war’ (later revealed to be a reference to competition for girls with his friends), while his nickname, ‘the surgeon’ (a reference to his pursuit of a medical profession) became a front-page headline.
Hassane’s medical career will suffer from this publicity, despite the lack of credible evidence against him. Now known as a ‘student terror suspect’ and alleged conspirator in an ISIS plot, he has been criminalised by the media – with the assistance of the leaks provided by MI5, the police, and Whitehall. Unfortunately, Hassane is not the only young British Muslim to suffer at the hands of intelligence services and law enforcement. Mohammad Gul, a law student at Queen Mary University, was sentenced to five years imprisonment under Section 1 of the Terrorism Act for uploading videos to YouTube of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents fighting against American and British military forces. The Court of Appeal ruled that ‘those who attacked the military forces of a government or the Coalition forces in Afghanistan or Iraq with the requisite intention set out in the Act are terrorists’ – as such, Gul was guilty of the crime of glorifying terrorism. That is, it was deemed, an act of criminality to disseminate images of resistance to British and American military occupation. It is apparently, then, the prerogative of the state to determine who is a ‘terrorist’ and to define complicity in terrorism under whatever broad terms it chooses.
Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, students at the University of Nottingham, were arrested and incarcerated for six days in May 2008 after the university’s registrar informed police that Sabir had downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual, and emailed it to his classmate. The manual was recommended reading on their security studies course, and readily available at the university library – but when Dr Rod Thornton, a lecturer at Nottingham, defended Yezza and Sabir, and condemned their treatment, he was suspended by the university authorities. But the threat of extremism is real, and is particularly acute in the current context of ISIS’s rise, and the return of British citizens from fighting in Syria – where the possibility of radicalisation is high. Does this not warrant additional powers for law enforcement?
This question can be asked differently: what is the best way to combat the threat of terrorism? Should the state work within the rule of law or outside it? Which approach is most effective? The incoherence of our current approach has been demonstrated recently in the arrest of former Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, who had his assets freezed as a ‘designated person’ under anti-terrorism legislation upon returning from Syria in February. ‘The case against Begg collapsed’ on October 1, ‘after MI5 belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents that detailed the agency’s extensive contacts with him before and after his trips to Syria’. The agencies charged with keeping Britain safe were either unwilling or incapable of sharing critical information with each other in a high-profile lawsuit – this embarrassment does not inspire much confidence in their ability to combat a genuine national security threat.
Such cases resemble the abject failure of American counter-terrorism operations, most infamously the New York Police Department’s ‘Demographics Unit’, which spied on mosques and sent informants into Muslim community centres. As Ryan Devereaux puts it: ‘A senior NYPD officer involved in the program later testified that the department’s efforts did not produce a single lead, though their work did result in an extensive list of top-notch Middle Eastern restaurants and cricket fields’.
Successful prosecutions – such as those of Abu Hamza and Abdullah el-Faisal – have not required special new laws or police powers, but cooperation with local communities, prudent intelligence gathering, and due process of law. When British Muslim communities face excessive police raids, and blanket surveillance, they will inevitably be less likely to divulge potentially important information to British law enforcement. Trust may be the most vital component in eliminating – or at least reducing – the threat of extremism, but it is being systematically destroyed by Britain’s national security state.