The unmasking of Islamic State militant “Jihadi John” as Mohammed Emwazi, a 26-year-old man from London, has raised new questions about the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism. As the media searches through his past for clues to explain how a “polite, mild-mannered young man” ended up as the chilling figure in horrific execution videos, it was revealed that Emwazi was known to security services before he left the UK.
It has been reported that Emwazi claimed he was harassed by security services to the point of filing a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Commission over his treatment.
He had claimed that he was questioned by police in Tanzania when trying to travel there on holiday and was subsequently flown to the Netherlands, where he was interrogated by an MI5 agent. Upon returning to the UK, he said he was monitored by police and was prevented from leaving the country on several occasions.
He said that the surveillance and restrictions placed on him prevented him from finding work and damaged his relationships.
It should be noted that his claims may have been false or exaggerated. But they nevertheless serve to highlight the potential for counter-terrorist measures to have counterproductive effects – particularly if they target a specific minority group.
The UK has past experience of counter-terrorist measures doing more harm than good. In Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles, tactics like the erosion of procedural rights, the use of arrest powers for information gathering purposes, and the use of internment without trial were deployed almost exclusively against Catholics.
Rather than helping in the fight against the IRA, this further strained the relationship between the security services in Northern Ireland and the Catholic minority, making some people more sympathetic to the IRA’s cause.
Today, David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, is also aware of the damaging effects of counter-terrorist powers. When tentatively proposing the reintroduction of powers to relocate people placed under government control orders, he also stressed the need to assist those subject to a forced relocation to be helped to find work, training and housing.
Unfortunately, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was subsequently passed in 2015, giving the government the power to relocate people, but without evidence of Anderson’s more holistic suggestions also being followed. People can therefore be moved away from their home and connections and be left to reconstruct their lives without assistance.
Police outside a flat believed to be the former home of Mohammed Emwazi. PA
The UK is aware that terrorism cannot be defeated exclusively by locking up convicted or suspected terrorists or restricting their rights to liberty and privacy. This can be seen with the case of Brusthom Ziamani, a 19-year-old former Jehovah’s Witness and Muslim convert who was recently convicted of planning an attack similar to the murder of soldier Lee Rigby.
Prosecution and a prison sentence were the last resort for security services in this case. Prior to this, they had sought to enter Ziamini into the government’s PREVENT “de-radicalisation programme”. A difficulty with PREVENT, though, is that it operates in a way that requires trust between Muslim communities, and local authorities and the police. If this trust is damaged it can instead be seen as a vehicle for surveillance.
Good existing relationships between communities and public bodies therefore are vital. If these relationships are damaged, this strategy can run into difficulties. Take Project Champion in Birmingham, for example. This saw more than 200 security cameras set up in predominantly Muslim areas between 2010 and 2011 – leaving locals feeling victimised and threatening legal action. Breaches of trust like this may live long in the memories of communities.
Of course, even if Emwazi felt ostracised and victimised, none of this condones, justifies or excuses his horrific actions. However, taking a heavy-handed approach causes problems for the people being monitored. And as much as we might rail against that resentment being used as justification for violence, we must also face up to the fact that it may simply not be productive for people to have their lives stunted by counter-terrorism efforts.
After appalling attacks such as the Charlie Hebdo murders in France, we must remember not to vilify an entire group of people. Indeed many, if not most of those most hurt by IS are Muslims themselves. Since 9/11, there has been a fivefold increase in deaths from terrorism and the Middle East is the area most affected.
We must be careful not to paint all individuals of a minority with the same brush when a terrorist attack happens or when one individual is named as a murderer. We must also realise that ostracising a minority group, while at the same time expecting them to “uphold British values”, is woefully contradictory.