Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
The work of our security and intelligence agencies goes largely unrecognised. That’s the nature of the job. There are no medals, no victory parades, no trips to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and receive the thanks of a grateful nation.
But we’ve got a lot to be grateful for. Last week, the Home Secretary revealed that around 40 terror attacks have been disrupted since July 2005. These included plans to bring down airliners, to assassinate a British ambassador, to conduct a Mumbai-style gun rampage on our streets. Since 2010, 148 people have been successfully prosecuted for terrorism-related offenses. At the London Olympics in 2012, our agencies successfully mounted one of the biggest security operations in British history.
That’s not to say that they don’t make mistakes. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into the murder of Lee Rigby identified a number of failings: delays encountered, processes unfollowed, decisions unrecorded. Nor should they be immune from criticism, whether from Parliament or civil society.
But it’s important to recognise their job is getting harder. Technology is changing the way terrorists operate. The internet means British citizens can be radicalised in their bedrooms without ever meeting their ideological counterparts. The diffuse, globalised nature of these networks mean they can’t be defeated just by taking out a few key personnel at the top.
It’s also harder to tackle the underlying ideology. “Brits out of Ireland” left some space for politics and negotiation, it was a claim about nationhood rather than our right to exist as a free society. But when a jihadist says it’s his goal to make Britain part of the Islamic State there is no room for compromise. And the enemy won’t compromise because he is not afraid to die, a point brought home to me when I’ve met with Kurdish Peshmerga battling ISIL in Iraq.
So the security services need our help. Not just in terms of extra powers and resources, but also through broader social participation in this fight.
This begins with counter-extremism. Prevention is better than cure, so if we can stop individuals becoming radicalised in the first place this reduces the pool of would-be terrorists. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill brought before Parliament last week addresses this. Public organisations such as schools, universities, prisons and local government will have a statutory duty to prevent people being drawn into extremism. The successful Channel project, which combines deradicalisation with supervision and monitoring, will be put on a statutory footing.
Legislation isn’t enough however. It’s long been recognised that the most effective counter-terrorism tool of all is “changing the narrative” – challenging the stories extremists tell themselves to justify their worldview. Grassroots campaigns need to get out the message that jihadists have killed far more Muslims than anyone else, that the golden age of Islam to which ISIL hark back was one of theological debate and intellectual advance, and that Islam’s core belief in social justice makes it a natural ally of democracy.
I’ve argued in Parliament that the internet giants also have a responsibility to act. This starts from a recognition that they are not just another company but, like the banks, are part of the basic infrastructure of our lives. Just as we expect banks to freeze criminal assets, act against money laundering and implement sanctions against hostile regimes, so too we should expect the internet giants to prevent their networks becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
These companies already have automated systems monitoring online communications for their own business purposes, so the technical capability exists. Indeed, the principle that they have a moral responsibility to society is now established when it comes to child abuse. The ISC reports that for online accounts linked to terrorism, information is only “very rarely” passed on to the authorities, whereas for child sexual exploitation cases, information is passed on “regularly”. It seems extraordinary that several of Michael Adebowale’s Facebook accounts were closed down, but that there was no system in place for alerting this to the authorities. I’ve proposed that Government and the companies work together to establish a “Rigby Rule” to put this right.
Finally, we need to make sure that Parliament takes an active role in shaping this debate. The age-old trade-off between liberty and security is a fundamentally political question – in the sense that it is about what we value as a society and can’t be answered simply by appealing to statistics. It is for us to answer, not the security services – and we should not put them in the position where they have to decide where to draw the line. So I welcome the inclusion in the Counter-Terrorism Bill of an independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to make sure we as legislators get the balance right.
This is a complex problem, and there are no easy answers or silver bullets. Those who claim Western intervention is the problem need to explain Syria, where there was no intervention. Those who blame Islam need to meet the Muslim Kurds of Iraq, who’ve provided a refuge for the region’s religious minorities. Tackling this threat is the work of a generation, and the whole of civil society must play its part. And we must always remember the vital work of our security and intelligence agencies who, as the Prime Minister has said, are Britain’s silent heroes.