Irish Shadows on British Counter-Terrorism Policy

Friday, 11. September 2009     0 comment(s)

The long conflict between the British state and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland was central to creating UK counter-terrorism policy. But what was really being created was a policy specifically to counter Irish republican terrorism, and this has turned out to not be the optimal solution in facing other types of threats. In a major speech in 2007, Peter Clarke, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, made this point: “the fact is that the Irish campaign actually operated within a set of parameters that helped shape our response to it”.

For the UK the emphasis is now on the threat of violence from Jihadi terrorism rather than Irish groups, but for the security establishment it has taken time to adapt to the different situation. This point was very well made by Tufyal Choudhury of University of Durham at a conference I attended this week at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies called “Social Cohesion in the Context of Counter-Terrorism Policies: A Contradiction?” Choudhury noted that in the Northern Irish situation, the Republican movement had a shared aim of Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic. This was equally true for those in the IRA who believed in ‘armed struggle’ and those in SDLP who rejected all use of violence. In the case of Islamic extremism in the UK, the situation is the opposite: the extremists not only share no political project with the wider Muslim community, but indeed self-identify in opposition to the wider community. They see themselves as ‘true Muslims’ and the wider community as ‘bad Muslims’ for adopting less fundamentalist views. For the security establishment looking on, it took time to realise this meant that, unlike in the Northern Irish case, the wider Muslim community generally did not understand or even know about the extremists. The exact same point has also been made to me by a senior London counter-terrorist police officer.

According to Choudhury, this phenomenon also meant that there has been denial within British Muslim communities about the reality of Islamic extremism amongst ‘their own’. Because the police and security service were conditioned by the Irish campaign into an expectation that the wider community would know about extremists within their midst, this created distrust in both directions. The police thought that they were not getting intelligence from an uncooperative community, and British Muslims believed the police were blaming them for a phenomenon that they did not see or have experience of. This is why Choudhury argues that the investigation and prosecution of terrorist cases within the current legal system is so important. He believes that the verdicts of the lengthy terrorism trials, (such as the one that concluded this week with guilty verdicts for Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar for the 2006 plot to down numerous airliners over the Atlantic using liquid explosives), have been central to dispelling that denial within the Muslim community and increasing trust in the police and judicial system.


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