How not to fight extremism in the UK

As UK revises counter-terrorism policy, it must ensure it does not stigmatise Muslims or trample on citizens’ rights.

UK police
Terrorist attacks are a concern, but we should not give up civil liberties for such protections, writes Awan [EPA]

Following the tragic and horrific murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month, a number of serious questions have been raised about the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which aims to reduce the likelihood of people becoming radicals, and its effectiveness in the Internet age.

The Woolwich murder and other recent planned acts of terrorism – in February, three men in Birmingham were convicted for plotting bomb attacks – have convinced UK policymakers that the policy needs to be strengthened.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, British Home Secretary Theresa May told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Prevent needs to better address online radicalisation. In the case of the three men in Birmingham, evidence showed the men may have been radicalised after reading and listening to extremist material online. Prevent is currently limited to providing communities with measures to help “work together to challenge online extremism”, but does not expand on the methods required to help communities do so.

A new group, the Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Task Force (TERFOR), first met on June 3 and is currently reviewing the Prevent policy. It consists of a special committee chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron, and includes senior ministers and security personnel.

This new taskforce has made it a priority to tackle online radicalisation by pre-emptively censoring and taking down websites deemed to be extremist, that teach people how to make bombs or other weapons, or that feature speeches inciting racial or religious violence. (The taskforce will also consider banning extremist preachers from TV screens.)

The ‘snoopers’ charter’

Removing such websites is an exercise in futility, as they are likely to simply reappear with a different domain name.

But the government also hopes to go further, by keeping track of internet users browsing such material, in order to prevent people like Roshonara Choudhry – who stabbed her local MP, Stephen Timms, in 2010 – from being radicalised over the internet.

For instance, measures such as the Communications Data Bill, aptly nicknamed the “snoopers’ charter”, would allow the government the power to store details of internet users’ communications and browsing history for a year, without having to obtain a warrant. (However, a warrant would be required for the police to read the contents of emails and other communications.)

The UK government’s new taskforce must ensure that it does not label all Muslims as potential targets, because this will only further stigmatise and marginalise Muslim communities in the UK.

Over the last 10 years, my research into online radicalisation has shown that there is a fine line between trying to prevent people from visiting certain websites and overly controlling access to online material. Such counterterrorism measures can easily become heavy-handed and impinge on our personal liberties.

The Terrorism Act (2000) and the Terrorism Act (2006), for example, have created a number of controversial offences to do with prosecuting people for downloading and publishing material deemed to be encouraging terrorism.

Those of us who argue that personal liberty always outweighs threats to national security are troubled by such laws. Take the case of former University of Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir, who in 2008 downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Justice Department website, as part of his PhD research on counter-terrorism. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act (2000) for downloading extremist material, and held for seven days without charge before being released.

In 2011, Sabir was paid £20,000 ($31,280) in damages by Nottinghamshire police following his arrest, arguing that the police had violated the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Human Rights Act 1998, as well as falsely imprisoning him. The police settled before the case went to trial.

Although Sabir was vindicated in the end, the case demonstrated how crudely implementing counter-terrorism policies can have devastating effects on ordinary people’s lives.

Accordingly, the UK government’s new taskforce must ensure that it does not label all Muslims as potential targets, because this will only further stigmatise and marginalise Muslim communities in the UK. While terrorist attacks remain a concern, we should not give up our civil liberties for such protections. This type of Orwellian society will only lead to further unnecessary powers given to the police and the state, whose scope is already too broad and intrusive.

The British government should not seek to imitate the US National Security Agency’s PRISM programme – which monitored the internet activity of web users around the world – and ensure that any such powers under a new “snoopers’ charter” are not exercised for spurious reasons. And the new taskforce should make clear that the golden thread that runs back to the Magna Carta – justice, due process, and the principle of habeas corpus – is not broken by these proposals.  

Imran Awan is a senior lecturer in criminology at the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. He is co-editor of the book Policing Cyber Hate, Cyber Threats and Cyber Terrorism published by Ashgate (2012).

Follow Imran on Twitter: @ImranELSS