The Lockerbie bomber? A likely story . . .

In all the furore over Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, we have lost sight of one important fact.

So, the British ambassador to the US says that the government "deeply regrets" the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie atrocity. Meanwhile, US senators are calling for an inquiry into allegations that BP lobbied the British government to let Megrahi go in order to protect their interests in Libya.

News of his release on compassionate grounds a year ago prompted a similar wave of indignation. The papers bleated about Megrahi showing no compassion to his victims, that this was not "justice", and that the government was ignoring the victims of the bombing. This post from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin was fairly typical.

What is rarely mentioned amid all the outrage is that there is considerable doubt over Megrahi's guilt.

As the late Paul Foot pointed out, having sat through the whole of Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands in 2001, the prosecution's case was farcical.

That Megrahi felt the need to write 300 pages about his innocence is odd -- one ought to have sufficed.

To summarise, Megrahi is meant to have planted a bomb on a plane in Malta, which then travelled on to Frankfurt, and then on again to Heathrow, before finally exploding on Pan Am Flight 103 in the sky above Lockerbie. We are supposed to believe, then, that the bomb got on to three planes in a row without being detected. It seems a lot more likely that the bomb was planted at London than anywhere else.

In their judgment, the three judges at the trial also pointed out that there was nothing that proved Megrahi had put a bomb on the plane in Malta. They noted: "The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 [Air Malta] is a major difficulty for the Crown case."

What's more, Megrahi was apparently aided by a conspirator, yet his co-accused at the trial was unanimously acquitted.

The prosecution's star witness was Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, who claimed to remember Megrahi buying clothes from his shop. These same clothes apparently found their way into the case in which the bomb was concealed.

Gauci also said, however, that he remembered it raining on the day Megrahi came in, yet meteorological records show this was not the case. This alone does not discount his testimony, but it must give pause for thought.

His claim to be able to identify a particular customer many months after he came into his shop is much more difficult to sustain. Again, the court expressed its reservations, saying that "Mr Gauci's initial description to DCI Bell would not in a number of respects fit the first accused" (Megrahi).

Perhaps those calling for an inquiry into the circumstances of this man's release should dig a little deeper into how he was convicted in the first place.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.