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Fifteen years on from 9/11, how the UK bypassed justice to become a counter-terrorism state

The sinister story of legislation in Britain following the New York terrorist attacks.

Fifteen years since 9/11. 11 years since 7/7. 16 years of counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom.

Before the Terrorism Act 2000, terrorism legislation was made up of a series of temporary, but renewable measures. Even in the height of The Troubles, terrorism legislation was regarded as temporary emergency measures.

Now, the UK has several pieces of terrorism legislation such as the Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. This does not include several secondary laws such as the Immigration Act 2014 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 – all of which have provisions dealing with terrorism.

And the government is not done with terrorism legislation, with the Extremism Bill due to be published as soon as the government can decide what extremism is.

The United Kingdom is now a counter-terrorism state, where the duty to prevent terrorism encompasses almost every facet of our lives, from nurseries, to schools, hospitals, and the posters on bus stops telling us all to be vigilant.

Significantly, living in a counter-terrorism state profoundly alters the relationship between the state and the citizen. The rule of law is a key tenet of the relationship between a state and those within its jurisdiction. And the rule of law, touted as a key British value, depends on the presumption of innocence. No one should be punished except for when they have been convicted of a distinct breach of the law.

But counter-terrorism legislation relies on a bevy of administrative and executive measures that effectively sidestep the rule of law, deploying punitive measures before the criminal justice system becomes involved. This has been the case from the very beginning. As a result of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, foreign terrorist suspects – who were never charged or tried of any crime – were sentenced to indefinite detention in Belmarsh Prison.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, responding to the House of Lords ruling that indefinite detention breached the human rights of the detainees, created the control order regime, now known as Tpims (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures). Tpims are punitive measures applied to individuals before they actually commit a crime. If a person is suspected of involvement with terrorism, they can be subjected to curfews, have their internet and phone use curtailed and even be forcibly moved to another city, away from their family and friends. The presumption of innocence is bypassed. 

Executive measures such as these abound in terrorism legislation. The Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2015, for example, created Temporary Exclusion Orders, by which the Home Secretary can prevent those suspected of terrorism from returning to the UK and can be imposed on anyone with right of abode in the UK, including British citizens. This essentially invalidates British passports creating a type of enforced exile.

Similarly, the deprivation of citizenship power enhanced by the Immigration Act 2014 enables the Home Secretary to deprive someone of their British citizenship if this is deemed to be in the public good. Again, no criminal conviction is necessary and the courts have minimal involvement. Deprivation orders are usually issued when British citizens are abroad, minimising the chances of legal recourse. All of this happening before an individual has been charged, let alone tried and convicted of a crime.

By virtue of their executive nature, these and other terrorism powers take place virtually outside the criminal justice system, severely testing the limits of the rule of law. As the academics Jude McCulloch and Sharon Pickering argue, due process protections that underpin the presumption of innocence – such as the right to a fair trial – have been severely undermined within the counter-terrorism framework. This represents the breaking of a central tenet of the relationship between a state and its citizens, where the citizenry is viewed solely through the lens of security.

The saying goes that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. We assume the government knows what it’s doing when it deploys executive measures. But it remains that, technically, terrorist suspects are suspects. As long as they have not been charged or tried for a crime, they remain suspects. As such, the presumption of innocence should still apply. It seems like a small technicality. But technicalities matter. Law and justice are built on technicalities.

It is then no surprise that the UK government has such distaste for the current human rights framework, a collection of technicalities protecting human dignity. It is absolutely no coincidence that the more terrorism law there is – and the more power the state has to operate beyond the criminal justice system – the more distasteful human rights become.

The human rights framework was develop to protect the people from the state. Over and over, from the Belmarsh case, to rulings regarding control orders and deportations, the human rights framework has been an irritant to a state that relies on executive measures.

This is how we’ve ended up living in a society where the government can argue that human rights – rights that protect universal human dignity – are against national security; where the Attorney General is able to say with a straight face that repealing the Human Rights Act will actually protect human rights. What once used to be the line of tyrants and dictators is now accepted government policy.

All of this fundamentally alters the relationship between the state and the citizen. It also affects the relationship between citizens, where teachers, doctors, neighbours, colleagues, are all asked to be vigilant, to watch one another for signs of danger. Especially in an atmosphere where the authorities publicise thwarting a “significant” suspected Islamic State plot to attack the UK.

Sixteen years since the first general terrorism act, 15 years since 9/11, 11 years since 7/7, this is what it is like to live in a State that Counters Terror: a society where the state does not trust its citizens and its citizens don’t trust the state, or each other.

With more terrorism legislation on the way and plans to revoke the Human Rights Act, what kind of society will we become in the next 15 years?

That is the question that should be at the forefront of all our minds.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.


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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.