British jihad: Why our anti-terror strategy isn't working

There is a deep and dangerous confusion at the heart of the government's approach to the threat pose

Towards the end of March two short films were shown in very different circumstances, each in its way issuing a challenge to how we think about violent jihadi Islam, both with serious implications for our approach to combating terrorism in Britain. The first was an item on BBC2's Newsnight of 31 March discussing the work of the former Islamic extremist Hassan Butt, who now claims to be working on the streets of Manchester to "deradicalise" his former comrades-in-arms in the so-called British jihadi network.

Over the years, Butt has become something of a fixture on our screens, often speaking as a member of the radical group al-Muhajiroun, calling for a holy war against Britain and America in Afghanistan. He has now publicly renounced violence and is writing a book with the journalist Shiv Malik, a regular contributor to the New Statesman.

The interview, carried out by Newsnight's Richard Watson, amounted to a series of confessions by Butt of serious crimes. These included helping to recruit hundreds of young men from Britain to fight allied forces in Afghanistan, fundraising for terrorist activities and even, it seems, acts of jihad. At one point, Butt said plainly: "I got involved in terrorism."

The questions is: what do you do with Butt? On the one hand he is a self-avowed terrorist; on the other, he is now apparently doing excellent work with radical young Muslims in Manchester. Butt and Malik have met the Home Office minister Tony McNulty, one of the few government ministers to have taken the trouble to think laterally about terrorism, whom they claim offered to fund the deradicalisation work.

Greater Manchester Police are clearly confused. In a move with serious implications for press freedom, the northern force has decided that rather than arrest Butt, it will attempt to force Malik to turn informant and hand over any material that may be useful in its case against the former jihadi.

Just as ministers were beginning to explore new approaches to radical Islam, Greater Manchester Police obtained a "production order" in court to force Malik to hand over all his research for the book, including an early draft. Malik intends to fight the order and a campaign is building around him with the help of the National Union of Journalists.

The Butt conundrum is a knotty one. Should he be imprisoned for the crimes to which he has admitted, or left on the streets to continue his work of turning young Muslims away from the path of violence? The reaction of Rachel North, a survivor of the 7 July bombings, is interesting. "What is important is stopping people blowing up people," she said, adding that it is probably better to keep Butt out of prison.

The other short film should provide a warning of what happens when all hope of a solution is lost. Fitna was made by the right-wing Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders and is a direct attack on Islam's claims to be a religion of peace. Taking its title from the Arabic word for "strife", the crude 15-minute film was released on the website LiveLeak on 27 March. Made in the style of an al-Qaeda propaganda video, the images of violence it uses make for deeply upsetting viewing. Passages from the Quran, apparently emphasising the importance of martyrdom and urging violence against Jews, are intercut with atrocities such as the attack on the twin towers, and the bombings of Atocha station in Madrid and the London Underground. These are juxtaposed with the words of radical preachers and indoctrinated children spouting anti-Semitic propaganda, as well as images of Islamic militants making the Nazi salute.

Alternative vision

The film, as the title suggests, is intentionally provocative. Wilders argues that liberal western culture must make a stand against an ideology every bit as pernicious as fascism and communism. But any political programme that flows from the fear of mass immigration and the "Islamisation" of Europe is every bit as authoritarian as the movements Wilders is attempting to expose. He has already received the obligatory death threats, with crowds in Jakarta, Indonesia calling for his execution. Meanwhile, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has issued a statement condemning the film.

Fitna is a vision of supreme reactionary pessimism, suggesting that Europe is already engaged in an internal civil war with Islam. But unfortunately, no European government, of the left or right, has yet been able to provide a coherent alternative vision. The contradictory approach of the British authorities to the work of Butt and Malik is evidence of a deep confusion at the heart of this government's terror strategy. The pursuit of a journalist whose work has been praised by ministers and the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, is an act of desperation.

Sometimes it is difficult to see where the government gets its inspiration from. But as far as its latest anti-terror legislation is concerned, it seems ministers must have been watching reruns of Dad's Army and taking their lead from Corporal Jones. This is "don't panic, Mr Wainwaring" policymaking. The measures in the new Counter-Terrorism Bill do little to reassure, or perhaps the hope is that, like the Home Guard in the Second World War, we will muddle through in the end.

But this is no sitcom. Getting the policy wrong has deadly consequences, as we saw most clearly on 7 July 2005, when few had foreseen the growing threat from home-grown terrorism. The 42-day precharge detention period for terrorism suspects is a classic case of policy made on the hoof. The number of days was snatched from the air in an attempt to prove that the government was tougher than the Tories on terror and Labour spin doctors are still convinced this is playing well with the public despite polling evidence to the contrary.

Even backbenchers who supported Tony Blair's 2005 proposals to extend the period of imprisonment without trial to 90 days have their doubts about the present bill. Andrew Mackinlay, MP for Thurrock, said: "I was a 90 days man, but a lot of water's gone under the bridge since then. Basically it's a question of trust. Any dates are arbitrary. What is so magical about 42 days?"

Andrew Dismore, chair of the joint committee on human rights, who is usually viewed as a hardliner on terrorism, told the NS that he has changed his mind because he now believes there are better alternatives on the table. The new offence of "acts preparatory to terrorism" has helped persuade Dismore that it is now easier to charge terrorist suspects, as has the introduction of "threshold charging", which allows the police to bring a prosecution on the "realistic suspicion" of terrorist activity, rather than the usual need for the reasonable prospect of conviction.

It is deeply embarrassing for the government that the Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald, the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith and the former lord chancellor Charlie Falconer have all spoken out against the 42 days.

According to Dismore: "We now have the experience of the 28-day limit and that has proved adequate, to both the DPP and the Crown Prosecution Service. I don't believe the government has made the case for extension based on the level of terrorist threat, and the impact on minority communities and the safeguards in place, if 42 days were brought in, would be woefully inadequate."

A recent open letter opposing the 42-day extension was signed by everyone from Lord Ahmed to the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the actor Colin Firth (you know you are in trouble when Mr Darcy is on the other side of the argument). But how did the government get itself into this mess and who is to blame? A poll of insiders from across the political spectrum, carried out for the new website PoliticsHome. com on 1 April, showed that nearly 60 per cent felt the root of Labour's difficulties on this issue lay with the Prime Minister, not with the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith or opposition from Conservative or Labour MPs. Ultimately, Gordon Brown has to take responsibility and show that there is a driving philosophy behind the government's anti-terror strategy. The alternatives, such as those offered by Fitna or the Greater Manchester Police, are too awful to contemplate.