Britain’s Anti-Terror Laws Are a ‘Complete Mess’
Leading human rights lawyer Tayab Ali says Muslims are criminalised for doing the same things that non-Muslims are free to do.
At the tail end of last weekend, Londoners were given yet another reason not to want to go to work in the morning – the fear of being blown up on their morning commute. A hoax text message, purportedly from the Metropolitan police, was doing the rounds, claiming that “every single police officer in the Met” had been called into work at 4AM to deal with “a terror threat” on the tube. A lot of people saw the text for the bullshit that it was, but for those who did believe it, perhaps the hoax rang true because of the dread vibes emanating from Westminster recently.
The text came just two days after the UK raised its terror level from “severe” to “substantial.” On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to bulk up counter-terror measures in Britain. The plan would enable police to confiscate the passports of suspected terrorists. It would also, controversially, and maybe illegally, extend Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), which allow for terror suspects to be relocated and for their mobile phone use & Internet access to be restricted.
Meanwhile, British officials continue their efforts to prevent British citizens from traveling to Syria. Scotland Yard claims that of the 500 British citizens who have reportedly gone to wage jihad in Syria, around 200 have returned to UK soil. In June, Cameron warned that terrorists in Syria and Iraq “are also planning to attack us here at home.”
A growing number of experts claim that Britain’s anti-terror measures strip innocent people of their rights and unfairly target Muslims. One such critic is Tayab Ali a London-based solicitor whose clients include the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, and “many, many” British citizens who have been charged with terrorism offences. Tayab, who regularly advises members of the British parliament on terror-related issues, agreed to have a chat with me. We talked about and the effectiveness of Britain’s war on terror, and how it is felt by British Muslims.
VICE: On Monday, PM David Cameron announced that he would extend Terrorism Prevent and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). What is a TPIM and how does it work?
Tayab Ali: TPIMs are executive orders issued by the Home Secretary. They control the activities of individuals – in instances when intelligence suggests that those individuals could be involved in terrorism, but insufficient evidence to actually prosecute them.
What does that mean for a person issued with a TPIM?
TPIMs are onerous and control every aspect of a person’s existence. They can be even more restrictive – and even more punishing – than an actual criminal sentence. TPIMs prevent a person from having regular and free contact with everyone else in society. They control who you can speak to, where you live and who can come to your home. They restrict access to electronic devices including iPods, Play Stations and computers. TPIMs and their predecessor, Controls Orders, have been highly criticised, for obvious reasons. Controlees are not convicted of any offence in a court – and the intelligence used to initiate them is secret and cannot be directly challenged. In fact, an individual is not even made aware of why he is subject to a TPIM. One of my clients was placed on a control order and then a TPIM over a two-year period. He told me how he often considered suicide as an option to “escape”.
TPIMs sound like a good idea on paper, but are not. They make communities feel like they are being persecuted. It would be much better to simply prosecute individuals when there is evidence to do so.
"The point is not that the laws are strong – it’s that they are a complete mess, open to discretion and abuse."
There’s some debate as to whether Cameron’s plan to let cops confiscate passports is legal. What’s your view?
By removing an individual’s passport or preventing British citizens returning to the UK, the Prime Minister is interfering with Britain’s fundamental constitutional rights. The Prime Minister might do well to remember the fight against terror does not include rubbishing British values and riding rough-shot over our constitutional rights.
Wasn't PREVENT, Britain’s counter-terrorism policy, meant to stop people being lured into extremism in the first place?
The government’s strategy has failed in the most dangerous way. The Prime Minister's plan will not work because it does not address the root cause that inspires British citizens to join foreign military organisations, from the Islamic State to the Israeli Defence Force. It is inconsistent and smacks of bullying. But worst of all, it will exasperate the problem by further isolating members of our society. The strategy fails to recognise that people travelling to these foreign places are our people. They are not a sub-race of outsiders, programmed from birth to do us harm. We lost them along the way. Most of them were young children when the twin towers were attacked in 2001.
Our current threat level is the second highest it can be, with a terrorist attack in British mainland deemed likely. Any attack on British soil will be a direct result of the massive and repeated failure of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and foreign policy over the last decade.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters gather outside an Egyptian court last year. The Muslim Brotherhood are amongst Tayab Ali's clients. Photo by Adam Ramsay
But isn’t it fair to say that, over the last decade, we have seen a continuous strengthening of counter-terrorism legislation in Britain?
Britain was always slightly different to, say, the States – because we had the experience of the Irish troubles. Even prior to 2000, so prior to 9/11, there were pieces of legislation that were designed specifically to deal with domestic terrorism. In 2005, we had the London bombings. And a year later, you saw aspects of the terrorism legislation being strengthened. For example, supporting or glorifying acts of terror became substantive offences in their own right. But the point is not that the laws are strong – it’s that they are a complete mess, open to discretion and abuse.
The Terrorism Act 2006 was meant to make it easier for law enforcement to arrest would-be terrorists at earlier points in an alleged terror plot, right?
What you’re referring to is Section 5 of the 2006 Act, which concerns “preparatory acts” of terrorism. The law is designed to catch people who the state thinks might become embroiled in terrorism later on. Section 5 can criminalise acts that, on their own, would be completely legal – if prosecutors can show that the end purpose of those acts might be terrorism. Often intention is proven using things like internet search history. I think this is very bad legislation. It is often described as "thought crime". And it doesn’t apply in any other aspect of criminal law.
"Young Muslims run the risk of being criminalised for the very same things that non-Muslim kids do."
Can you give me a specific example of that happening?
One case I worked on involved a group of boys aged about 17 to 22. My client and his friends were in perpetual conflict with a group of other boys in their hometown. They met often and discussed how they might deal with the other group. They bragged and talked tough, but they never actually did anything. Separately to these conversations, the boys were involved in an Islamic group that regularly advocated its perceived Islamic grievances in public.
Eventually, the boys’ conversations were picked up on covert surveillance. What they said in private was intermingled with "mindset" evidence, ie. their Islamic advocacy, and my client was arrested and charged under section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006.
Young Muslims run the risk of being criminalised for the very same things that non-Muslim kids do. If you have a bunch of non-Muslim kids playing paint ball or acting out James Bond fantasies, I doubt they would run the risk of prosecution. But the situation seems to change when you add the words "Islamic" or "Muslim" to it. I have even been consulted by worried Muslim parents, asking if it is lawful for their children to attend paint ball games, or whether that would be seen as terrorist training.
Have you been involved in any Section 5 cases concerning Syria?
Yes. The standard cases concern young Muslim men: people who have come of age in an environment where they feel rejected from mainstream society. Look, plenty of adolescent boys have a rebellious streak in them. But whereas a non-Muslim of that sort might go and join an anti-capitalist movement or Anonymous, some Muslim boys might get together with friends and discuss the crisis in Syria. While doing that, they might discuss the possibility of traveling to Syria to help out.
"If he had been Muslim, we’d have convicted him."
Have any of your clients actually gone to Syria?
Yes. The British government bears some responsibility for this. Its foreign policy has woefully failed to support non-violent democratic movements in the Middle East, leaving those who use violence to prevail. During the early part of the Syrian conflict, the British government championed the violent rebel movement that was fighting against Assad, as it did previously in Libya, against Gadhafi. This sent a strong signal to many that it was OK to go to Syria to join in – and that no criminal liability would follow. Clearly, this is not correct.
The British government’s policy on these matters is incoherent and inconsistent. For example, I am often asked why British men fighting against Assad are prosecuted, while British men fighting with the Israeli Defense Force in Palestine are not prosecuted. The answer is political: it is the attorney general who decides.
As of this year, British citizens who travel to Syria are almost guaranteed to be stopped at the airport under Schedule 7 – and then interrogated and possibly charged with terrorism offences. Innocent people can find themselves at the wrong end of a prosecution.
To what extent is Section 5 used on Muslims, compared to non-Muslims?
It is completely disproportionate. Terrorism legislation is seen by many to unfairly target and silence Muslims. I have also represented people who have been accused of far-right extremism. In one particular case, I represented a white British chemist who was accused, under the Explosive Substances Act, of possessing potential bomb-making chemicals in suspicious circumstances. The case went to trial and the man was acquitted. Afterwards, when leaving court a juror approached the defence team and said, "Do you know something? If he had been Muslim, we’d have convicted him.”
More controversial anti-terrorism: