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.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.

Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.