Bruce Newsome is lecturer in International Relations at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Government has finally revealed one reform of its counter-terrorism strategy, but it is focused at the wrong end of the terrorist life-cycle – after terrorism has already occurred.
On 14th July, the Ministry of Justice announced that a scheme to allow members of the public to challenge some criminal sentences (the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme) will be extended to terrorist offences, too.
The scheme epitomises the pathology of Western governments generally to pretend that they need new laws or new ways of criminalising terrorism, even when they already have all the powers they need.
Revealingly, the Government has suggested to reporters that it is hoping that terrorists will be held in jail longer if the public petitions judges to extend sentences, but the Government does not need the public for that – it could issue new advice to judges on sentencing.
No, what governments need are new ways of criminalising extremism before terrorism. We should be getting hold of extremists and turning them around before they ever become terrorists; that takes law enforcement, but the Government is over-invested in community engagement.
The Government has been shy of criminalising extremism short of terrorism, given the mistaken mantra from Tony Blair’s administration more than 15 years ago that intervention would further inflame extremism, while a free society would teach the superiority of moderation. Amazingly, most of Britain’s current counter-terrorism strategy dates from the Blair administration, even though it was not scientifically founded then, and terrorism has adapted since.
For more than 15 years, the Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service have instructed police to avoid criminalising extremists, but to focus on “public safety” and “community policing” – the former means practically separating extremists from their victims, while the latter means practically being nice to self-segregated communities in the hope that they self-de-segregate. This strategy undermines the rule of law and allows for more extremism, illustrated by widely-circulated video of police literally running away from Islamist protesters who called them “cowards” and “unbelievers.”
The British Government has long pretended also that counter-extremism is peculiarly constrained by human rights (even while it evaded human rights by out-sourcing to foreign jurisdictions and hiding behind secrecy on national security grounds). All crimes, not just terrorist offences, are constrained by human rights, but that doesn’t mean we give up the rule of law. For instance, we all have the right not to be detained without cause, but that right should not prevent our detention when we commit a crime; we all have the right to free speech, but that right ends at incitement to violence.
Blair’s administration extended to terrorism its promise to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” but often suggested that crime was caused by society, not the criminal. Even today, popular culture sometimes treats terrorism as society’s fault. Thus, British reporters were quick to explain Adrian Ajao’s (Khalid Masood’s) murderous spree on Westminster Bridge in March as triggered by “racism” – the same excuse that his defence counsel made for non-terrorist violent crimes stretching back 35 years.
The British strategy for countering extremism (as distinct from terrorism) is still almost entirely non-judicial: community engagement, social work, and verbal warnings. These things are necessary but insufficient. If these things turn the extremist around, then great, but what if they don’t? The Government has no powers to compel the extremist to participate in counter-extremism.
The newest terrorists are more skilled in avoiding self-incrimination and in cutting themselves off from friends and families, on whom police and intelligence services rely for tip-offs before an extremist is officially flagged. None of the five British terrorist murderers of the first half of 2017 were in the official programme for countering extremism (“Prevent”).
The current government is not adapting. David Cameron’s premiership contained no reforms of countering extremism, although in July 2017 he retrospectively claimed that the youth holidays that he had mischaracterised as “national service” when launched in 2011 should now be regarded as “countering extremism.” Since 2016, the May administration’s big initiative is to stop extremism in cyberspace, but this wastes police resources on curbing free speech with little inconvenience to extremists. The Conservative Party’s manifesto before the 2017 election promised to “develop” “counter-terrorism strategy” but did not specify any reforms. The new government’s agenda (as revealed in the Queen’s Speech on 21 June) promised “to ensure that the police and security services have all the powers they need, and that the length of custodial sentences for terrorism-related offences are sufficient”. Presumably, the extension of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme fulfils that promise. The Queen’s Speech mentioned terrorism only once more, to promise a “leading role in international military action to destroy Daesh in Iraq and Syria” and to “lead efforts to reform the international system to improve the United Kingdom’s ability to tackle mass migration, alleviate poverty and end modern slavery”, but all of these promises have been made repeatedly for years without fulfilment, and none addresses extremists at home.
Criminalise extremist behaviours
Extremists should be detained for deradicalisation as soon as they commit a crime but before they can escalate to terrorism.
The British government has long claimed that terrorists do not follow a predictable trajectory. This is false. Explaining the Government’s assumptions on terrorism is notoriously difficult due to lack of transparency, but they seem to be based on shoddy analyses. One analysis that we know about, thanks to a leak nine years ago, was by a misnamed “behavioural” unit of MI5 – it focused on demographic profiling, which is unreliable and often illegal, rather than behavioural profiling, which is reliable and can justify official intervention.
Valid behavioural analyses, including of a new database that I and colleagues are currently developing, show that the terrorist trajectory is predictable behaviourally, and predictable behaviours are opportunities for official interventions before the extremist can escalate to terrorism.
Extremists start as drop-outs despite privileges and opportunities: in fact, most terrorists – not just in the West – are under-employed relative to their education. Incidentally, typically terrorists are not poor, which makes a nonsense of the current government’s enduring agenda to “alleviate poverty” in the name of counter-terrorism, not to mention its excessive, misguided overseas aid budget.
After dropping out of employment, extremists escalate through anti-social behaviours and petty crimes, such as protesting, intimidating out-groups, inciting violence, and misappropriating funds (including welfare benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance – what Anjem Choudary called the “Jihad Seeker’s Allowance”; when he was jailed in September 2016 for supporting a proscribed group – the Islamic State – prosecutors revealed that he had received about £500,000 in welfare payments over more than 20 years, which bankrolled full-time protesting and proselytising). Another early indicator that has barely entered popular reporting is gendered violence.
Alone, gendered violence is a weak predictor of terrorism, but put several indicators together and you start to identify a high-risk sub-population, whose behaviours can be criminalised under existing legislation.
Enforce the law
The Government has got in the habit of claiming it doesn’t have the laws to counter extremism or that the laws are nullified by human rights.
What the Government should be doing is enforcing existing laws: when extremists protest with banners stating “Behead those who insult Islam” (a recycled slogan that critics have been urging the government to criminalise for more than a decade), they should be prosecuted for incitement for violence. This offence is almost never indicted, even though some of the statutes are 140 years old (and were used to prosecute Abu Hamza al-Masri, and leaders of the British National Party, in 2006, at the same time as Blair was pretending that he needed new counter-terrorism legislation). Similarly, extremists should be prosecuted for disrupting traffic, trespassing, harassing, and misappropriating funds.
Given a conviction, the judge should note that extremism is an aggravating factor – justifying a more severe sentence in jails segregated for extremists only, where they can be deradicalised without opportunity to radicalise non-extremist prisoners. (In April 2017, the Government finally announced plans to build a segregated prison block, but the plan lacks capacity for the current terrorists in Briton’s jails, let alone extremists.) Release should be conditional on evidence that the prisoner is deradicalised, and should be subject to parole.
Fifteen years ago, other countries (such as Singapore) treated counter-extremism as mostly law enforcement; they quickly eliminated terrorism.
It’s time to enforce the law here; use the criminal justice system to disincentivise extremism and you would prevent terrorism; treat extremism as a cultural difference and you allow extremism to escalate to terrorism.