Blind faith

April 27, 2007

Why are some British academics so eager to deny the organised Islamist threat to the security of Britain, asks Anthony Glees

On August 5, 2005, after the 7/7 and 21/7 bombings, Tony Blair announced 12 new measures to make Britain more secure. He defined the threat as Islamist and related it to the incitement of young British Muslims by extremist imams. But parts of the academic and legal communities remain unconvinced. They reject the definition of the threat and, thus, the means designed to counter it - new laws and a stronger intelligence and security community that faces up to Islamism in the UK. For them, it is Blair, not the Islamists, who are waging "the politics of fear".

Last October, social anthropologists turned down a government offer of Pounds 1.3 million to study how to "combat terrorism by countering radicalisation". One London School of Economics lecturer explained that this was because the work had "an overtly security-research agenda, starting from the premise of a link between Islamism, radicalisation and terrorism".

Richard Jackson of Manchester University recently organised a conference to "challenge the myth of Islamic terrorism", saying there was no empirical evidence for any direct link between Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Bill Durodie, senior lecturer in risk and corporate security at Cranfield University, said recently: "Increasingly, particularly in the UK, we have seen that the bombers are essentially loners and small groups where it is very hard to detect any organisational affiliation."

No al-Qaeda networks here; indeed, if anyone is to blame for terrorism, it is us. "We too become terrorists," writes Jackson. "The terrorists'

cultural roots lie not in the sands and slums of the Middle East but in the salons and suburbs of the West," said Durodie. "It is we who are at war with ourselves."

Legal minds seem to share some of these views. In December 2004, Lord Hoffman said, "There is no state of public emergency threatening the life of the British nation." He added: "The real threat to the life of this nation comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these."

In January, Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, warned against a "fear-driven and inappropriate response" to terrorist attacks.

Even David Cameron, the Conservative leader, told Parliament in November 2006 that Blair had "chosen fear to cover up his failures", though he seems to have a different view now.

But those who, even after the London attacks, think that Blair and others have exaggerated the extent of the threat and turned Britain into a security state, where the intelligence and security community presides over democracy's destruction, could not be more dangerously wrong.

The evidence of a link between the incitement to extremism of young British Muslims by Islamist preachers and their turning to terrorism is now so convincing that only academics with a vested interest in denying the facts can dispute it. That a significant amount of this happens under their very noses, on campuses, would be funny if it were not so serious. The Government has now twice had to remind higher education providers of their duty to do what is possible to stop this taking place.

We do not know how many agents MI5 runs, but for the UK by 2008 there will be only 3,500 MI5 officers, one to every 16,285 people - still too few for the threat we face and hardly a police state (East Germany had one Stasi member to every 70 people). Certainly, it would be better if we could do without CCTV cameras, communications interception and laws criminalising incitement. But, as recent trials of alleged and convicted terrorists show, these things are needed. In dealing with secret conspiracies, secrecy is vital. And it must be a criminal offence for people to call publicly for the beheading of those they don't like, given the readiness of some young Muslims to do as they are bid.

It is not that there are tens of thousands of terrorists out there (MI5 has identified more than 200 networks, 30 plots and 1,600 individuals involved in terrorist activities). But a few people can do great damage. What's more, MI5's recent successes suggest that much of the risk may be preventable.

The 7/7 bombings generated 6,973 investigations, and one recent alleged plot took up 34,000 man-hours of surveillance, the interception of 97 phone lines and 12 covert searches of targets' property. The reason for this workload is that MI5 acts within and upholds the law. Courts decide who is or is not a terrorist, not MI5.

British academics might reflect on this fact and understand that lawful security does not threaten democracy; it sustains it.

Anthony Glees is director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University. He will speak at Spooked: Cultures of Intelligence in Britain , 1945-2007 at Warwick University on May 12.

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