I knew why the TV van was parked outside the shop on Desborough Avenue the moment I saw it. News had broken earlier that afternoon of an arrest in High Wycombe. The local paper, the Bucks Free Press, had reported that a 19 year old man, Yousaf Syed, had been arrested “on suspicion of being concerned in the Commission, Preparation or Instigation of acts of Terrorism”. The paper also said that about 40 police officers, “some of who were armed”, were involved in the arrest, that three other addresses in the town were being searched, and that three men had been arrested elsewhere. It had earlier named Desborough Avenue as the location. The road is one of the main ones in the town, connecting the centre with the approach to the M40.
The Bucks Free Press said nothing to connect the arrests with today, Remembrance Sunday. Other papers were more speculative (and doubtless briefed). The Daily Telegraph headline said that the men had been arrested amidst “fears of [a] Islamist Remembrance Day terror plot”. It referred to “fears of a possible attack on servicemen and civilians gathering to pay tribute to those who fell during Britain’s armed conflicts”, and said that “it is understood that the men were thought to have been plotting a possible gun attack rather a bombing”.
As to Syed himself, the paper reported that he had moved to the town from Harrow three years ago, that neighbours claim that he has been “recently radicalised”, and that “his home is understood to have been raided by police earlier this year after he returned home from a trip to Pakistan”. The Telegraph also said that a house in Deeds Grove (a pleasant location, by the way) had been searched and a “substantial find” made. It named the location of the arrest as Desborough Road, not Desborough Avenue, and gave a figure of 30 police officers rather than 40.
The Guardian reported that “one theory officials are exploring was a that there was a plot to attack a forthcoming public event. One possible target is the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall” [my italics]. It said that Syed had been “detained in April after security officials suspected he was intending to travel to Syria”: he was not charged, but his passport was revoked. The detail seems to have come from “friends of his family”. The Telegraph quoted John Trantham, a neighbour, who had had a run-in over the volume at which he played hip-hop music with Syed.
The Sunday Times (£) today picks up a theme also present in the Guardian – the reported view of the family. Zia Ullah, described as “a community advocate who knows Syed”, said: “The family feel pretty harassed – it’s scared the living daylights out of the mother. There’s no case against him”, and referred to the removal of Syed’s passport. Ullah was a community worker when I was the local MP. The paper also reports him as saying that Syed was “repeatedly questioned by the authorities in the lead-up to his arrest last week”.
The Guardian made a point of writing in its account that “some high-profile terrorism arrests in the past have been based on intelligence that has turned out to be untrue, and have led to accusations that police and MI5 have exaggerated the nature of plots”. The Sun on Sunday today strikes a cool note about the arrests, saying that they “were described as a ‘preventative measure’ following intelligence that jihadists were plotting a knife attack at last night’s gala. Sources yesterday stressed no specific targets were mentioned.”
However, the Telegraph report named two other men with High Wycombe connections in relation to terror generally and Syria specifically: Omar Hussain, “a former Morrisons supermarket worker [who] travelled to Syria to join Islamic State extremists in January this year, and “Shabazz Suleman…who attended the town’s Royal Grammar School, disappeared during study leave for his A-levels in May and is thought to have fled the country in order to fight alongside jihadis”. Assad Sarwar, the jailed quartermaster of the liquid bomb plot, is from the town.
What does all this tell us? That Syed had been on the police’s radar; that has been arrested for the reason given; that any connection with Remembrance Sunday may be no more than speculation – and that more details about him have become public than about the other three men who are being held. We can also see that the Telegraph’s report paints Syed in a less favourable light than the Guardian‘s – though the Sunday Times also quotes the claimed view of the Syed’s family – and that the Bucks Free Press sticks strictly to the known facts.
I’m familiar with what will happen next, whether Syed is charged or not. Local mosques and community organisations will issue a statement explaining that the vast majority of British Muslims reject terror, that local relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are good, and that it would be wrong for the town to be presented as a hotbed of terror. All this is correct. But my sense is that each time these truths are said they make a little less impact. The Sarwar case is on record. Hussain appeared on Newsnight saying that he would “only return to the UK to plant a bomb”. The video will have been widely seen.
My excellent successor, Steve Baker, has posted an incisive statement on his blog which cuts to the chase: “a tiny minority…wish to destroy our society by attacking that which we value most, including the memory of those who gave their lives that we might enjoy liberty, peace and justice”. One last point. Local ventures nationwide, such as High Wycombe’s Council for Christians and Muslims, work patiently away, as do many mainstream mosques. But the teenagers and very young men who are radicalised towards extremism don’t go to the mosques and aren’t touched by the local initiatives.
Rather, they are going directly to the net or social media – where there’s no shortage of propaganda material from Syria and elsewhere – or friends and contacts are coming to them. In terms of security, the police and security services take the strain. In terms of politics, the local ventures lack national projection. Attempts to create a strong, Islamic, UK-wide voice against extremism – the British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Muslim Council – have produced many talking heads but no massed voice. The Quilliam Foundation deserves praise for helping to change the terms of the wider debate, but it is not a mass membership body with a regional and local presence. The emergence of a nation-wide group might help in the longer term to treat the soil from which extremism grows.
A departing snapshot. More people seemed to be wearing poppies in the centre of High Wycombe yesterday than I have seen in previous years at the same time.