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Sleeper Cells Undermine UK’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Counter terrorism officers march near the scene of the London Bridge terrorist attack on June ,4 2017 in London, England. (Getty)

Theresa May to “Rip Up” Human Rights if Necessary to Force New Restrictions on Terror Suspects

by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi

The UK has witnessed four terror attacks the past three months, which adds unprecedented pressure on the country’s security services to better respond to terrorism and prevent similar attacks from happening and claiming more lives in the future. The weight of the task made Theresa May go as far as saying she would “rip up” human rights laws if needed to force new restrictions on terror suspects. But what are these new restrictions going to look like?

The Prime Minister is planning to facilitate the deportation of foreign terror suspects and bolster up controls on extremists in cases where they pose a threat and there is a lack of adequate proof to get them prosecuted.

Following terror attacks on London Bridge, Manchester and Westminster, May said: “I can tell you a few of the things I mean by that: I mean longer prison sentences for people convicted of terrorist offences. I mean making it easier for the authorities to deport foreign terror suspects to their own countries. And I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terror suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court.”

She added: “And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.”

By these measures, the Prime Minister seems to aim at consolidating terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims). This might entail additional curfews, limits on association with other identified extremists, constraints on travel as well as restricted access to communication devices.

Measures could also include an extension of the period for which suspects can be detained in the absence of a trial and which currently stand at 14 days. The Prime Minister told the Sun that: “When we reduced it to 14 days, we actually allowed for legislation to enable it to be at 28 days. We said there may be circumstances where it is necessary to do this. I will listen to what they think is necessary for us to do.” But to what extent are these new counter-terrorism measures fruitful?

SLEEPER CELLS AND THE FUTILITY OF COUNTER-TERRORISM LEGISLATION

Of particular significance is that three of the four attackers responsible for recent attacks in the UK, Khalid Masood, Salman Abdefi and Khuram Butt, were all known by the security services before they committed their atrocities and they were not stopped. But why?

Problematically, the security services are flooded with an overwhelming volume of police reports and referrals from members of the public. The figure for sleeper cells in the UK recorded by Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command has reached a worrying 23,000. These sleeper cells are ranked according to level of threat they pose, with 3,000 believed to be of grave danger. The 3,000 are further filtered down to the 500 that must be given the highest priority.

Still, the security services are forced to deal with thousands of other suspects, encompassing between 3,000 – 4,000 arrests in addition to a substantial number that is subject to interrogation by the police.

Khuram Shazad Butt, named earlier as ‹Abz›, appeared in a Channel 4 documentary.

The Prevent programme, launched by the government in 2006* allows people to refer individuals who have expressed extremist tendencies to the security services. Last year only, 8,000 individuals were referred. Reasons for referrals vary from expressions of support for ISIS on social media platforms, to statements that show longing for a country that implements Sharia law. Some even cited Muslims’ belief in self-defence with violence if assaulted, or belief that Israel has no right to exist.

The security services are drowning in such referrals, and they are required to investigate them all. Meanwhile, the police and M15 officers are also responsible for a high volume of counter-terror investigations. Given the sheer number of cases to be investigated, M15 evaluates each case that corresponds to the ambiguous definition of extremism given by the government, to decide on those that warrant the use of resources. The task is simpler when the suspect has a criminal profile, exemplified in attempts to buy weapons or explosives, or proof of attack scheming. Such acts have previously given away 18 individuals plotting terror attacks since 2013, 5 of which were to take place the past 2 months.

However, the relatively low profile terror attacks that took place in Westminster and London Bridge show that in some cases the time gap between scheming and implementation is very limited.

The London Bridge attack specifically highlights the complexity of combatting terrorism today. The attacker, Khuram Butt, was reported to the anti-terror police twice before. He was also part of a Channel 4 documentary on extremism. However, the security services did not did not act in light of the absence of intelligence showing that Butt is scheming the attack. This raises grave concerns, given that there is a great number of men like Butt around Europe that flaunt extremist views yet lack a criminal record.

While Theresa May wants to introduce stronger control orders, elongate prison sentences, and facilitate deportations, it is unlikely that these measures would prevent anything similar to the atrocities that hit the UK most recently. The problem lies in that the prerequisite for all these measures is intelligence that shows the suspect is plotting an attack. This prerequisite was not met by any of the criminals responsible for all three attacks that shook the UK the past three months. Hence, none of the attackers were under surveillance. This shows that there is a real need to allocate resources to the improvement of the flow of intelligence from the public to the security services. Otherwise, the lack of hard intelligence will provide the scope for men like Butt to orchestrate more terror plots in the future, and more blood will be shed around Europe.

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