The increased threat of Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom since September 11 in the US and the 7/7 bombings in London has had a significant impact on the UK government’s ability to relate to its Muslim communities, especially in the light of alleged human and civil rights violations, accusations of an emerging police state and highly controversial cases of international cooperation in counterterrorism operations. Yet we only have to look back a few short years to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland to see that these issues are not entirely without precedent.
The start of the most significant period of violence associated with Northern Ireland can be traced to the wave of riots and civil rights demonstrations by the Catholic communities seeking redress from the predominantly Protestant Stormont regime. Fears of a Catholic ‘revolt’ led to major violence from both communities and the failure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, also predominantly Protestant, to stymie a virtual civil war led to the British Army being called in as ‘peacekeepers’. Increased sectarianism and changing global politics caused the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to split at the end of 1969, leading to the creation of the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). PIRA represented the more significant and enduring threat. What should have only been a short few weeks or months of British military intervention, devolved into approximately thirty years of antagonism and violence.
The British treatment of the PIRA’s campaigns led to much criticism including corruption, collusion with Loyalist forces as well as PIRA informers, interrogation methods amounting to torture and other ethical quagmires in the intelligence gathering methodology. Whilst the Islamist threat is ostensibly different – a globally dispersed and structurally advanced network incorporating unpredictable individual-led attacks – the British treatment of this issue in either a domestic or international framework has been dogged by a learning curve which implies a lack of knowledge transfer from its long history of dealing with ‘cells’ of Republican terrorists.
In the early 1970s, 14 PIRA members were interrogated using internment and the techniques of sensory deprivation such as stress positions, lack of food or sleep, hooding and continuous uncomfortable noise – methods that, in a 1979 inquiry, were labelled as ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ liable to strengthen ‘the propaganda campaign [...] for the enemies of society’. The balance here was sacrificing long-term legitimacy for short-term gains for intelligence and imminent threat disruption. At this time the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was the main policing body and took the brunt of these criticisms, but the United Kingdom government and security services were not exempt for allowing these methods to continue.
The same techniques have reportedly been used on prisoners accused of being Islamist terrorists. There have been reports of mutilation, forced nakedness and other tortures such as the removal of fingernails. In contrast to the case of PIRA members mistreated in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and in Britain, those such as Salahuddin Amin, Rangzieb Ahmed and Rashid Rauf were captured or detained in Pakistan by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Intelligence Bureau (IB), two of Pakistan’s main security and intelligence agencies. They both confirmed, on several occasions, the presence of MI5 members. In some cases, the alleged MI5 members were aware that the detainees were being ‘processed in the traditional way’. Alam Ghafoor, detained in Dubai after the 7/7 London bombings, was so badly treated that, according to a consular official, he is likely to have signed confessions alluding to prior knowledge of the bomb plots. Another detainee, Zeeshan Siddiqui, was in such a terrible physical state that, upon being brought to court, the magistrate demanded that medical treatment be sought without delay.
Cicero once wrote ‘silent enim leges inter arma’ – ‘in times of war, the laws fall silent’ – and whilst most citizens would readily concede certain rights in a legitimate war, a ‘War on Terror’ does not fit the bill. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA echoed Cicero in modern sporting vernacular, ‘after 9/11 the gloves came off’. However, more than stepping up the game, what the case of Islamist terror suspects highlights is a development from the Northern Ireland example in the ‘outsourcing’ of reprehensible methods and the virtual lack of an infrastructure for ethical international counterterrorism cooperation. This lacking was certainly an issue from the 1980s onwards when Prime Minister Thatcher attempted to work against the PIRA’s efforts to seek funding and arms from US-based support networks, European arms dealers as well as the PIRA’s troubling relationship with Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. It would seem that, once again, history’s lesson has been ignored or misused in the creation of altogether more worrisome framework for liaison – strategic partnerships which allow tactical distancing from issues of accountability.
Since 9/11, what we have seen is a greater demand for openness in issues of national security and intelligence work. This need undoubtedly stems from the technological and fast-paced, information-sharing age we live in, but the ethical core of the issue remains the same. If embarrassing public inquiries are to be avoided, accountability and the long-term good of the United Kingdom’s citizens must be balanced with careful consideration. Many of these lessons could have been gleaned from the under-publicized and tardy Steven’s inquiry of 2003 into police and military collusion, which highlighted numerous failures in the military, intelligence and policing structures in Northern Ireland.
Whilst counterterrorism policy and scrutiny of police powers have come a long way since the 7/7 bombings, the virtual demonization of the UK’s Muslim citizens is only just beginning to be rectified. The main concerns are intrusive counterterrorism measures such as racial profiling and the monitoring of university students which prejudice Muslims as well as other ethno-religious communities in much the same way that ‘stop and search’ campaigns prejudicially target black people. It is easy to forget that Irish people were subject to the same invasive scrutiny in airports at the height of the Troubles. Essentially, the ethical problem between Northern Ireland and islamist terrorism has transferred from a national prejudice, to a racial and religious prejudice.
In addition, ethically dubious debates such as raising the maximum allowable period for detention without charge to 42 days has also, perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, raised the concern of ‘special powers’ to hold suspects and gain large amounts of personal information. Reminiscent of internment without trial during the Northern Ireland Troubles, the social and political cost of such detention measures risk drastically outweighing the success of threat prevention which is seldom publicized.
The threat of terrorism does not constitute a trump card for governments to neglect or do away with civil liberties, but where do we draw the line between ethical practices and protecting the population?