The aftermath of the “terror arrests” in Hudson Rd in Portsmouth has been all over the front pages of The News for the last few days, so I’ll assume familiarity with the case and dive straight in. But if you aren’t familiar with it, see this on the case of the Portsmouth man who became a jihadist and died in Syria (and there is a good Channel 4 News report linked at the bottom of that piece), and this on the arrest of a number of people (believed to include his parents) at his former home.
The second article I linked to tells us what the people arrested were charged with. Section 41 of the Terrorism Act is the provision which allows the Police to detain those arrested for 14 days without charge if there is suspicion of an offence being committed, as explained above. Section 38(b) (in paraphrase) makes it an offence not to tip off the authorities if you suspect someone may be engaging or planning in terrorist activity. Section 17 of the Act makes it an offence to make property or money available to someone in the expectation that it will be used for the purposes of terrorism. Section 1 5 of the 2006 Act says it is an offence to intend to commit any acts of terrorism.
There’s a lot of law there, but the matter is simple enough. If you do anything at all that might further terrorism, you’ve broken the law. If you house or support financially anyone engaged in terrorism, and you suspect they might be a terrorist, you’ve broken the law. If you think someone might be involved in terrorism, and you fail to tip off the authorities, you’ve broken the law. It is on suspicion of those things that these people have been arrested.
We have sweeping terror laws, and they generate big headlines. Of course, arrest is never proof of guilt; but there are some offences where people are inclined to say “there’s no smoke without fire”, and it can generate unease, or the authorities may trumpet it. Indeed, the generation of big headlines is necessary to justify the existence of the legislation, such have the doubts about it been.
Let’s look at the figures to see how arrests translate into charging and convictions. Between April 2001 and March 2014, there have been a total of 2645 arrests under our various terror laws. This has led to 1027 people being charged. Of that number, 838 were charged and 713 were convicted (data taken from the tables here on the Home Office site). That takes in every arrest under terror legislation, which as we see from the case above can include people linked in any way at all to a terrorist case. Those statistics should give some reassurance anyone inclined to believe that “there’s no smoke without fire”. There is a lot more smoke than there is fire.
The justification for our surveillance society goes well beyond terrorism, of course; the surveillance state interferes if you just want to go for a night out. I went out in Southsea with some friends who live over the back of the hill recently and they were struck at how unfriendly the place seems with bouncers on the door of every pub, and that if you want to go in even a Wetherspoon’s, you have to have ID which they scan. It’s ridiculous, and at some point this nonsense must be pushed back.
Two of the people arrested have been released on bail. Two remain in custody. Everyone else is left wondering what on Earth has happened. The News has carried a story featuring local leaders calling for calm, and those quoted make good points. But the really interesting bit is that down the page, under the subheading ‘Radicalised men do not have views challenged’:
Sumaiya Ahtia, 19, worships at the Jami Mosque in Victoria Road North. She said: ‘It’s silly to ignore the fact a number have gone to fight in Syria from Portsmouth. It’s a high concentration for such a small community. Predominantly they are male Bangladeshis. They’re being ostracised by other members of the community. They don’t really have a platform to discuss and have their views challenged. They can’t go to the mosque and talk about it or their parents. They’re going to online forums.’
This view cuts across the stereotype of Asian-origin communities, and especially that promoted by some sections of the media who imagine that mosques are incubators of terrorism, or that the community which surrounds them is tolerant of extremism. It equally challenges people like me who would otherwise dismiss Portsmouth’s statistically anomalous contribution of 5 out of 200 Britons in Syria as a blip.
More importantly, it suggests that the Bangladeshi community in Portsmouth are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” attempt to influence those who may follow the extremist path. But that just mirrors wider society – we all know that if parents tell their kids not to do something, they may well just goad them into challenging parental authority. Do nothing about challenging behaviour, though, and you’re a “bad parent”.
Being challenged over flirtation with religious extremism might well generate the same response in disaffected people as being challenged about smoking, drinking, or “getting in with the wrong crowd” as soap operas used to put it. No answer is guaranteed to be the right one. Shock news for the EDL: kids from ethnic minority backgrounds are just the same as yours, and you face just the same challenges as their parents in understanding what your kids are up to when you’re not looking over their shoulder.
Social media can have effects which challenge the norms of society; that is generally understood. The way in which religious extremism spreads online is the same way that fraud is perpetrated, vulnerable people are drawn into sexual exploitation, that furious outbursts of flaming (so often misidentified as trolling) online brew up. The internet itself is transparent, it will transmit whatever you put into it without itself having a moral filter or restricting its influence to one section of society. Some politicians and Policemen would have you believe otherwise, but they generally have an agenda to push. The internet (including the “dark web”) is an amoral network, and religious extremism is just one of many unfortunate viewpoints travelling over it. The internet is not to blame.
My comment on the “appeals for calm” we always get on these occasions from politicians and “community leaders” is that it is the state that creates a lot of the panic, more than the terrorists. We have flurries of arrests on a battery of charges, those arrested disappear into the criminal justice system to end up convicted in only just more than one-in-four cases, and behind them they leave a vacuum in the community they are disappeared from. All sorts of confusion and emotion can fill it.
There is no reason to panic, but not necessarily for the reasons implied by terror arrests. The reality is just that extremism isn’t prevalent, and you are much more likely to be run over by a careless driver than killed by a jihadist. Some of that is because of the work the authorities do against terrorists, true, but given the powers they have, they had damn well better be catching the terrorists.
Everyone now is bored to tears of the “Keep calm and carry on” meme. But it was good advice in 1939 when we started a war, and it’s good advice in 2014 when we are still fighting a variant of that same one. The enemy was terror then, and it’s terror now. Don’t let it scare you.