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The Fear of Homegrown Terror Is Breeding Repression in the UK

In the name of fighting terror, the UK is enlisting public sector workers to scrutinize neighbors for signs of radicalization.

UK mounted police unit. (Image: UK mounted police via Shutterstock)

Two weeks before The Washington Post reported the identity of the masked ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John,” the British government assumed vast and wide-ranging new powers to counter the perceived threat of domestic Islamic extremism. The controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security (CTS) bill enables UK authorities to strictly control the movement of suspected terrorists, with minimal judicial oversight. It also mandates that a vast number of public sector employees – including doctors, professors and youth workers – report possible signs of radicalization to the government, or risk arrest.

These signs are broad and subjective, building upon an existing anti-terror strategy designed to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” in part by scrutinizing the daily behavior of entire communities. Official British policy holds that terrorism is driven by both violent and nonviolent extremist ideologies; extremism is defined as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” The CTS legislation, introduced in November 2014, was pushed through with a new sense of urgency in the wake of attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, both carried out by young people born and raised in Europe.

The revelation that Mohammed Emwazi, the man seen beheading ISIS captives in widely circulated videos and photographs, came from a privileged London background has heightened this sense of urgency. The Washington Post reported that Emwazi “started to radicalize after a planned safari trip in Tanzania,” where he was held by police and deported. Both friends and a representative of the London-based group CAGE, which advocates on behalf of communities targeted by the war on terror, told the Post that Emwazi faced constant harassment from the security services upon his return to the UK. Counterterrorism officials reportedly prevented Emwazi from traveling to his native Kuwait to marry and settle. CAGE was first approached by Emwazi in 2009 and communicated with him for about two years before he left for Syria. (Disclosure: I previously worked as a researcher for CAGE.)

The Emwazi case, closely following the passage of the CTS bill, highlights the deepening divisions within British society over the question of how to stem radicalization without undermining civil liberties, or further eroding trust between the state and its Muslim communities. Moazzam Begg, director of outreach for CAGE, spent nearly three years in detention in US facilities at Bagram and Guantánamo Bay. After his release in 2005, Begg became an outspoken critic of the UK’s counterterrorism policy, as well as British complicity in torture. In 2014, Begg was arrested on several dubious Syria-related terrorism offenses, fomenting fear in Britain over the threat posed by returning fighters. Although the charges against Begg were suddenly dropped just days before he was set to go to trial, this public fear helped propel the CTS bill through Parliament.

Among the most sweeping powers the bill bestowed upon government officials is the ability to issue “temporary exclusion orders,” which prohibit British citizens suspected of terrorism-related activity abroad from returning home for a period of up to two years. The bill also expands the government’s powers to seize passports from people suspected of involvement in terrorism. Both powers can be applied without any initial judicial oversight. “All [the bill] is doing is forcing people to remain in a place where their choices are few,” Begg told Truthout. He also pointed out the bill makes it impossible for those fighters who have put down their arms and returned from Syria to discuss their experiences in a way that might dissuade young British men from becoming radicalized or joining ISIS.

In addition to significantly expanding government control over the movement of suspected terrorists, the CTS bill also legally requires a broad range of public sector workers to participate in Britain’s anti-recruitment strategy, called PREVENT, by watching for and reporting possible signs of radicalization.

PREVENT draws on existing links into communities, particularly public sector workers, to identify people at risk of radicalization, and divert those individuals into re-education projects. The indicators of “risk” vary by sector, and are not available to the public. However, according to advocates and researchers who spoke to Truthout, these indicators are often very general, including significant or sudden changes in behavior, dress or religiosity.

Under the CTS bill, participation in PREVENT is mandatory for almost all public sector workers meaning that doctors, prison staff, local authority officials and even nursery school teachers, are now required to report at-risk individuals. Under the legislation, anyone who fails to fully comply could be charged with contempt of court and imprisoned.

The most vocal objections to the CTS bill warned of the potential chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech. The legislation requires, for example, academic institutions to screen and vet proposed speakers to root out any extremist ideologies. University professors and graduate students are likely to feel pressure to report Muslim students who are expressing particular religious or political beliefs, or simply showing signs of depression or other mental health issues.

New York University professor Arun Kundnani, an expert on anti-radicalization policies, warns that the CTS bill risks turning people’s relationships with the public services they use into “security relationships.” So “teachers are expected to become the eyes and ears of the counterterrorism system, which contradicts the norms of trust and confidentiality that teachers should have with their students.”

Critics also say that PREVENT empowers the state – and those community members deployed under its purview – to be the arbiters of what constitutes innocuous religious ideologies or political beliefs versus pernicious ones. They stress that the almost exclusive focus on so-called Islamic extremism shows indifference to the threat posed to Muslim communities by far-right or neo-Nazi groups. Also ignored is a growing body of academic scholarship that undermines PREVENT’s central premise: that particular religious ideologies are more likely to manifest themselves in terrorism.

Kundnani believes that PREVENT is counterproductive in its potential to compromise or drive underground the safe spaces youth need in order to have political debates. “The more wide-ranging freedom that you can have for people to discuss foreign policy or religion or ideology, the better that insulates you from the risk of recruitment,” Kundnani said.

Ibrahim Ali, the vice president of students affairs for the Federation of Studies Islamic Societies (FOSIS), concurs. “[The CTS bill] is going to lead credence to the narrative that is perpetuated by groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS which says to Muslims in the West, ‘You are not at home; you can’t practice their religion freely,’ that there’s a fundamental clash between Islamic civilization and being a Westerner, that you have to choose,” he told Truthout. “That narrative is what drives alienation and by extension the appeal of extremism to young British people.”

Truthout contacted Britain’s Home Office for comment several times, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Following the footsteps of the CTS bill was a parallel development in Washington. On February 18, the White House hosted a three-day summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), an anti-radicalization project closely modeled on Britain’s. (PREVENT itself was previously referred to as PVE, or Preventing Violent Extremism.)

The definition of extremism provided by the US government, like that given by UK authorities, is very broad. “By ‘violent extremism,’ we don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people,” President Obama said at the conference. “We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists – the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence.”

CVE has thus far been implemented in three US cities, but these programs have already come under criticism from some American Muslims and advocates, who are pushing back. “Ethnicity, ideology and religious observance are poor predictors of violence,” Arjun Sethi, legislative counsel and policy adviser in the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Washington legislative office, told Truthout in an email. “CVE programs based on this false premise are discriminatory, fuel distrust in government and run the risk of aggravating prejudice and intolerance towards Muslims.”

The ACLU and eight other organizations published a joint statement, expressing their concerns about the summit as well as the CVE framework. Fahd Ahmed, acting director of DRUM – South Asian Organizing Center, one of groups that signed the letter, was invited to the summit but declined to attend. In an email to Truthout, he explained why. “As an organization that works with families that have been directly impacted by such discriminatory policies, including the manufacturing of terrorism cases by undercover officers and paid informants, I couldn’t in good conscience go and participate in this summit while being accountable to people I represent and work with.”

Back in Britain, the revelations around “Jihadi John” threaten to deepen the climate of fear and accelerate the clampdown on civil liberties. For Asim Qureshi, the research director of CAGE, there could be no more dangerous outcome.

“This case should trigger thinking about British domestic and foreign policy,” he said in a press release. “What risk assessments, if any, have been made about British counter-terrorism policy and the key part it plays in radicalising individuals? How have the security services been allowed to get away with abusing British citizens without redress? Why are the long-standing grievances over Western interventions in the Muslim world been ignored?”

He added, “All parties genuinely interested in achieving peace and safety ought to realise that revising British foreign and domestic policy is the only way forward. Acting otherwise would be irresponsible.”

Although CAGE’s analysis has been supported by the likes of Noam Chomsky, the organization has also been strongly criticized for suggesting that the security services played a role in the beheadings captured on video. Yesterday, Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond suggested that blame for Emwazi’s behavior rested partially with CAGE:

“The exposure of the alleged identity of one of the most murderous Isil (Islamic State or IS) terrorists over the last few weeks has seen some seeking to excuse the terrorists and point the finger of blame at the agencies themselves.

“We are absolutely clear; the responsibility for acts of terror rests with those who commit them.

“But a huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them.”