A little bit of trust can go a long way

October 20, 2006

Police efforts to engage with local Muslim communities should not be dismissed as Islamophobic spying, argues Special Branch officer Brian Young

The strategic aim of the Special Branch Community Contact Unit is to maximise intelligence-gathering opportunities and provide reassurance to members of the public through community contact. Stories are circulating about university staff being asked to "spy" on their students, and the work that my colleague Mark Charnley and I carry out on behalf of Tayside Police has, on occasion, been misrepresented. What we are looking to do is identify any potential terrorist activity while providing public reassurance.

The unit was established by Tayside Police in August 2005 as a direct response to the London bombings. Its role is to forge strong links with minority faith communities, and we do this through talking to various groups and individuals in the Tayside community. The intention is not to treat sections of the overall community differently, but to ensure everyone has the opportunity to create meaningful contacts with the police.

Naturally, given the multicultural and diverse nature of educational establishments and university groups, we do spend a proportion of our time on both at Dundee and Abertay Dundee campuses. We are seeking the assistance of these communities to provide early indications of activity that could lead to acts of terrorism or extremism. The police have always asked for the public's help in preventing and detecting crime. Without the information they provide, our job would be much more difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, it is a dialogue and we aim to provide information and reassurance on issues pertinent to the people we speak to.

We make no secret of our role. Contrary to some speculation, there is no covert element to the unit. It would be more accurate to say that it enhances existing community policing. We make it clear to everyone we talk to that we are part of Tayside Police Special Branch. Very occasionally, this can have a negative effect. But we want to build meaningful relationships with minority faith communities based on trust. We can do this only by being open and honest about our intentions and requirements.J Freedom of speech and freedom to follow a religion are fundamental rights of everyone in the UK. These same rights are central to the ethos of university life, and students should be encouraged to express their opinions. It is only when such views promote or justify terrorism that they must be challenged.

The causes of the radicalisation process that leads a person with a strong commitment to his or her faith to plan or commit acts of mass murder must be debated so that we can learn what motivates people to become involved in terrorism. While I am happy to chat with students about the niceties and attractions of university life, the approach we have adopted in Tayside will work only if we are brave enough to talk about the sometimes sensitive issues that many seem reluctant to discuss.

Atrocities carried out in the name of Islam turn the international spotlight on Muslims. We have put particular effort into trying to build bridges with this community, an approach that has led to accusations - albeit from a tiny minority - of Islamophobia. I make no apologies for our direct approach because we will never tackle Islamic extremism if we do not engage with the people who are best placed to explain what lies behind it.

We do not operate on the basis that every Muslim is a potential terrorist, nor do we believe this to be true. To do so would be absurd and offensive.

Through my daily interaction with the Tayside Muslim community, it is clear that any such view could not be further from the truth.

We are developing a much more detailed picture of how our minority faith communities exist to better understand the issues that affect them. We are achieving this by speaking to as wide a cross-section of people as possible. By understanding the dynamics of these groups and communities and by continuing to build relationships, we will be much better placed to identify any significant changes.

The primary functions of a police officer are "to protect life and property, prevent crime and where a crime has been committed, detect offenders". The public's assistance is vital in helping us carry out these functions effectively. The key part of the National Counter Terrorism Control Strategy is the prevention of future attacks. We hope that by having the confidence of all our communities, they will feel comfortable reporting their fears and suspicions to the authorities so we can prevent further acts of terrorism. That would be far preferable to trying to detect an offender in the wake of an attack - a scenario that could mean a life or lives had already been lost.

Brian Young is a member of Tayside Police's Special Branch Community Contact Unit.

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