*** From May 2009 but still very timely and relevant. MS ***
The conclusion of the trial of the three men accused of being co-conspirators of the 7/7 bombers means it is unlikely anyone is going to be convicted for that terrible crime.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the trial and a number of other recent events and trials in British counterterrorism all suggest one of two things: either the British government is chasing the wrong people, or the British legal system is unfit for purpose in effectively countering the terrorism the government thinks it is fighting.
This trial – part of the investigation, known as Operation Theseus, into the bomb attacks in London on 7 July 2005 – was the second against the group. The first ended in August when a jury was unable to reach a conclusion and were dismissed. Less than a month later there was the incomplete conclusion to the trial against a group accused of plotting to blow up a series of transatlantic airliners in August 2006 – seven of the men are now facing a re-trial. Then in December, a jury found only Dr Bilal Abdullah guilty of plotting with his now-deceased co-conspirator Dr Kafeel Ahmed for their part in a series of attempted car bombings in central London and at Glasgow international airport. His co-defendant, Dr Mohammed Asha, was cleared of any involvement, but is now facing deportation on visa issues.
And finally, last month, in a dramatic series of raids, police arrested a group of 12 mostly Pakistani students accusing them of being involved in a major "terrorist plot". The evidence, it turned out, was not there, and now nine of the men are facing deportation on visa issues.
For those of a conspiratorial bent, this will all provide much sustenance to the belief that much of this so-called terrorism is in fact alarmism targeting innocent Muslims. The reality, however, is that aside from the Pakistani students, in each case a jury found some elements of the plots credible and the men guilty. The problem, however, lies more in the presentational aspect of how these are played out in the arena of public debate – the only one that really matters when fighting an ideology as well as individual terrorist cells.
The presentational issue is that in all of the cases, the security services and government quite loudly proclaimed at various points that major terrorist rings had been broken up and arrested. However, when it came to trial, the evidence was found to be wanting and in some instances, after the individuals had been deemed innocent of terrorism charges, they were instead handed over to the borders and immigration agency. It does not really matter how valid their visa infringements might be, the appearance is that a vindictive and bitter state is pursuing these cleared individuals on any possible charge. Even in the cases of the re-trials, the fact that individuals were in the end completely exonerated of the charges against them does little to strengthen the government's hand.
The issues raised are multifarious: on the one hand, many of the initial indicators that a plot may be afoot come from the murky world of intelligence collection where information is never conclusive. Secondly, the current policy to not use intercept evidence in court, and the fact that often we are told to take at face value anonymous statements from intelligence agencies or sources that cannot be revealed further confuses matters. However, given the stakes – possible suicide attackers bent on killing as many innocent civilians as they can – the inclination is to err on the side of caution. But cases have occurred where police forces have gone in and not found enough incriminating evidence, leading to major public relations disasters.
The question is whether a better approach might be found, one that focuses on earlier disruption. The problem is that making the decision on what is acceptably dangerous or not is a very hard call to make. The UK has faced heavy criticism in the past where the balance was incorrect and this could easily take place again, but at the same time, the current efforts appear to be spending a lot of money with confused results. Continuing forwards in this mixed fashion is likely to produce mixed results at best.
The UK continues to face a long-term threat from violent terrorism. The question must increasingly be asked about whether we are actually pursuing the strategy to counter this in a coherent way. Given the fight is ultimately one that will take a long time to conclude and will involve persuading a section of society that its government is not at war with it, the fewer blunders that are made along the way that seem to support this narrative, the better.