Counter terrorism and the 2019 British General Election
In spite of the horrific terrorist incident in London on 29 November, counter terrorism did not feature prominently in the 2019 British General Election. But it will, nevertheless, be affected by the result in two main ways: possible departures from current policy are now off the agenda, and the existing framework is likely to remain for at least the next five years, albeit with opportunities for refinement both positive and negative.
The manifestos of neither of the two main parties had much to say about how terrorism should be tackled. The Conservatives merely promised to ‘combat extremism’ and to improve safety and security at public venues, to increase sentences for all forms of violent crime, to invest in the police and security services, and to provide the powers necessary for new threats to be addressed. Labour also promised to take effective measures against the ‘growing problem of extreme or violent radicalisation’ and undertook to improve coordination between the police and security services, to ensure the latter’s powers are proportionate and human rights compliant, and that relevant agencies are accountable. Reviews of existing security strategies, the circumstances requiring judicial warrants, and the Prevent and Protect programmes were also promised with, in the case of the latter two, an emphasis upon effectiveness and avoiding ‘alienating communities’.
The relationship between election manifestos and the delivery of their commitments is never straightforward. But different risks lurked behind the banal façades of these two recent iterations. There were particular problems with Labour’s perspective, more over what was suggested than stated. While Jeremy Corbyn and other prominent figures in the party have routinely condemned each terrorist outrage suffered in recent years, the Corbyn-Milne-Momentum analysis was, and remains, fundamentally flawed. Most eloquently articulated by Seumas Milne in his frequent columns in The Guardian before becoming the party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications in October 2015, it goes something like this. While jihadi terrorism is horrific and condemnable, it is largely a predictable and avoidable reaction to western meddling in ‘Muslim lands’, including the establishment of and subsequent support for Israel, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In other words, the west has largely brought the crisis upon itself. Therefore, rather than concentrating upon finding a domestic security solution, the UK should formally acknowledge and apologise for its interference in the Islamic world, undertake to stay out of it in future, and support those struggling for liberation from oppressive western-backed regimes here and elsewhere. The stigmatisation, vilification and criminalisation of Muslims by domestic counter terrorist law and policy, especially the Prevent programme, should also end.
There is an undeniable kernel of truth in this analysis. For centuries the west has indeed been involved in the ‘Muslim world’. But, for prolonged periods over the past millennium and a half, the various Muslim empires of the Mediterranean and middle east presented a much greater threat to the west than the west did to them. It was only when the Ottoman and Mughal regimes began to decline from the eighteenth century onwards that this balance of power was gradually reversed.
Moreover, in essence, jihadi terrorism is only one of several strategies intended to restore the status quo ante. Therefore, contrary to the Corbynite perspective, it is fundamentally a type of ‘alt-imperialism’ rather than anti-imperialism. In fact, the overwhelming majority of its casualties are Muslim and it divides Muslims from each other much more than it pits them against non-believers. However, one of the most significant of the many differences between it and Northern Irish terrorism is that there is no counterpart to the political wings of the various paramilitary organisations which appeared in the latter, with whom negotiations could be conducted in pursuit of a domestic political settlement. It is difficult to see, therefore, what other alternative there is except to stiffen public resilience, attempt to deradicalise potential recruits to terrorist causes before it’s too late, and to ensure that security and criminal justice policies are as effective as possible and fully compliant with democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
But all is not well with the Conservative approach either. Here the principal challenges are complacency, over-reliance on heavier sentences, and the need rapidly to repair whatever damage Brexit causes to security cooperation with the EU and its member states. It is, for example, difficult to understand what longer prison sentences for the most serious terrorist offences are supposed to achieve. Deterrence is unlikely since most of those who commit them expect, and even hope, to die in the process. It is also well-known that long terms of imprisonment, without the intervention of appropriate initiatives, tend to harden rather than soften inmates’ commitment to violent causes. Secrecy surrounding current rehabilitative and re-education arrangements also makes it difficult to determine what they entail and how effective they are.
Under pressure from a legal challenge, Lord Carlile has also recently been ‘stood down’ as ‘independent’ reviewer of Prevent. The inquiry will now start afresh under a different chair and possibly with altered terms of reference. Those who know him were rightly confident that, as an experienced and judicious lawyer, Alex Carlile QC was more than capable of suspending personal opinion and assessing the evidence impartially. Nevertheless, the review’s appearance of independence had been irreparable damaged by his long-standing vocal support for the programme. It would, however, be premature for the anti-Prevent movement to conclude that the abolition of its bête noire is now on the cards. Any fair and open-minded review is more likely to recommend that Prevent be retained and reformed and that the myths which it has acquired should be systematically dispelled.
In addition to the challenges posed by Brexit, what is most required on the counterterrorist front now is much greater transparency about how the various components (especially on the preventive front) work, their efficacy, and much more careful, and effectively communicated, articulation of the implications. For example, official counterterrorism figures across the landscape show variations in impact related to gender, age, race, religion and nationality. But this does not, of itself, indicate that the relevant laws and policies are sexist, ageist, racist, Islamophobic or xenophobic, or that they systematically operate in such a manner. In fact, counterterrorism in the UK broadly reflects the profiles of those most likely to engage in the various types of terrorism the country currently faces. Official statistics also indicate that age and gender are much more potent factors in the Prevent process than race or religion and that referrals stemming from concerns about vulnerability to far right recruitment now equal those for the Islamist equivalent in spite of the fact that the latter currently presents by far the greater risk to public safety.
Had it won the December 2019 British general election, Labour may have weakened domestic counter terrorism in pursuit of a flawed analysis of the problem. Nevertheless, in spite of having addressed the debacle surrounding the Prevent review, the Conservatives may yet damage it by seeking to strengthen it in inappropriate ways.
Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Bristol Law School.