On Monday, Abu Qatada, widely recognised to be one of the world’s most dangerous men, was released on bail. Everyone thought it was wrong, including the government. But when the executive starts blaming the judiciary for the implementation of the laws its own leaders are responsible for drafting and maintaining, something is usually wrong.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper gave rather a good summing up:
“…the Government could have appealed the decision and begun urgent negotiations with the Jordanian Government. Instead the Government did nothing, leaving a judge to decide there was little progress being made in deporting Qatada”
It was handy for the Tories to have a Euro-bogeyman, the European Court of Human Rights, to blame, and it is true that the ECHR’s tunnel-vision about possible torture of suspects, irrespective of the circumstances, did not help. But it was operationally inept; plus, if the government hasn’t got good enough legal controls, it needs to get some in place, fast.
In any event, this is only the tip of the iceberg. A counter-terrorism strategy needs to work across government: it encompasses police, border security, armed forces, judiciary, education and so on. And all of those strands must work, both separately and together: the failure of any one can create a breach into which terrorism can and will filter.
Looking at the evidence from outside the Westminster bubble, you can’t help feeling that it doesn’t seem to be working.
Not only is a dangerous man is released from detention: there’s the problem of stopping undesirables getting in, who look to radicalise the young. Racist preacher Raed Salah was ultimately excluded from the UK, but only after a long drawn-out appeal process – and having been invited to speak at the Houses of Parliament, for heaven’s sake – when he should never have been let in in the first place.
A revised Prevent strategy, aimed at stopping the radicalisation of young people into terrorists, has reportedly had some modest success, but then only in Islamist-related terrorism – not in the growing problem of neo-fascist groups.
In education, the apparently wilful stupidity of some of the educational establishment allows openly anti-Semitic groups to operate on campus and to invite preachers with terrorist links to preach. UCL, among others, has a history of inviting such people while denying there is a problem. The East London Mosque still manages to invite similarly unpleasant men to preach such as Haitham Al Haddad or Sheikh Saad al-Beraik. It is playing with fire, whatever its noble history as a place of worship for thousands of decent Muslims.
And finally there is the reaction of the media and much the public. The week before last, four Islamist terrorists were jailed for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange. It’s not often I agree with James Delingpole, but this time he was spot on. Our reaction was very British: we tittered about them, we said “bless those pretend terrorists, far too incompetent ever to do anything serious”. How soon we forget. We laugh nervously, because we don’t want to go back to the paranoia of 2005. We prefer to make them into harmless, inept characters from an imaginary film, Carry On Jihad. Not so funny when they start making bombs, though. Oh, no.
Now, that’s not to say Labour did a great job in recent years – it didn’t. The government was right to point out that, despite its tough rhetoric, Labour had somehow ended up funding organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain, which stopped when it was found defending terrorists. And at the same time, it sometimes went too far: even anti-extremism group Quilliam protested that the original Prevent strategy was collecting too much information on the entirely innocent.
In 2012, it’s worse: even the signals from the Labour front bench are mixed. It’s true that Cooper is making a decent, robust fist of her shadow role. But it does not help when the Labour leader himself suggests in his conference speech that Britain should be more, not less, liberal on counter-terrorism. And it is not putting things too strongly to say that the wider labour movement is in real danger of being captured by a far-left tendency sympathetic to Islamist regimes, a caucus now visible in all major unions as well as the Labour left.
What all our well-intentioned, tolerant, civil-liberties-minded folk may not realise is how things look from outside Britain. Or how close our own civil liberties may be to being ruthlessly violated. Or just how attractive the UK – particularly London – looks to a terrorist, for several reasons. Our easy-to-get-to capital with its wonderfully diverse population, where foreign nationals go entirely unnoticed. Despite the normality and tolerance of the vast majority, the pockets of home-grown radicals in our Muslim communities, among whom extremists may be welcomed and even abetted. And we have handily stopped those nasty control orders. Where better to strike than Britain, especially if security is not quite what it was?
And, oh yes. Unlike most Continental countries, who see them as common sense, we eschew identity cards, because we see them as an affront to…ah yes, our civil liberties. Lib Dem supporters particularly, and the Tories – who, ironically, were the first to suggest the idea – in opposition brazenly committed to can them, in a moment of anti-Labour hubris. This all makes it, quite simply, harder to trace people. Identity cards are not about some Daily Mail reader’s wet dream to curb mass immigration; their overriding value is on specific threats: crime, and particularly terrorism.
And then there are the various crazies with a grudge against the UK. Bin Laden may be dead, but Al Qaeda most certainly is not, particularly not in the Arabian peninsula, and there are other radical groups apart from it, not all of them Islamist. Theresa May is right about one thing: the Olympics beckon as a golden opportunity for terrorists.
Picture the conversation: “So, let’s go over this once more, Permanent Secretary: in addition to all the things we’ve discussed, we have this summer an over-stretched police force, millions of foreign visitors and the eyes of the world on London.” Yes, what could possibly go wrong?
One site well worth visiting is that of the government’s threat level to the UK, published since 2006. Despite being currently only “Substantial”, meaning a terrorist attack is merely a “strong possibility”, it is interesting to note that it has spent the greater part of the last six years at the higher rankings of either “Severe” or “Critical”.
All sides of the House need to wake up. This problem is real. Alarm bells sound, but they go unheeded in a cross-party mess of naiveté, politicking, misplaced fears for civil liberties and sheer incompetence.
What it all tells us is simply this: despite our attempts to brush off the prospect with bravado, there will, in all probability, be another attack in the UK. And it is difficult not to conclude that its likelihood is high, in part, because our politicians, and we who hold them to account through our own opinions, do not seem to have a firm grip on the issue.
We need to, because one defining thing about terrorism is that it needs to be dealt with ex ante, not ex post. The difference between the two might be the difference between the dismissive relief with which we react to the Stock Exchange plotters, and the horrific tragedy of King’s Cross.