By Grahame Anderson
Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced plans earlier in the week for MI5 to declassify and share information on UK citizens suspected of nurturing terrorist sympathies. In his first major speech since taking over from Amber Rudd, Mr Javid said: “Last year’s wave of terror attacks showed the need for wider and more local exchange of information. There must be no safe spaces for terror suspects anywhere. There has been a ‘step change’ in the threat to the UK, with 25 Islamist-linked plots foiled in the last five years, and four extreme right plots stopped since March 2017.
“Misapprehensions around Prevent are often based on distortions. They are based on a lack of understanding about the grassroots work involved, and the efforts by civil society groups and public-sector workers to protect vulnerable people.”
The first politician with a Muslim background to hold the office, argued right-wing extremists have more in common with Islamist terrorists than they think. He added: “As a home secretary with a name like Sajid Javid, I’m everything they despise.
“So, the way I see it, I must be doing something right.”
Faster Information Sharing
The move means MI5 will share information involving around 20,000 people who have been investigated but are not active suspects. Starting with pilots in London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, vital biographical data will be given to neighbourhood police, councils, the charity commission, probation service and the communities department. One of the key aims is increased and faster sharing of crucial intelligence.
Retailers for example, will be required to alert MI5 and the police much quicker regarding any ‘suspicious orders’, such as sizeable quantities of chemicals. The authorities are anxious to see a reduction in time between the conception and execution of terror plots. Another highlight of the revised strategy lays out plans for longer prison sentences for some terror-related crimes and strengthened management of offenders after they are released.
Reaction to the new measures has been mixed with Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott MP saying: “Tories have under-funded counter-terrorism policing and cut police officer numbers by 21,000. Police leaders and the rank and file have publicly complained that cuts are undermining their ability to fight terrorism.
“A properly funded police force, working with communities, counter-terror experts and MI5 that can make the difference. However, as we have seen with the Prevent strategy, these new plans could also lead to inappropriate targeting of communities, and lead to further alienation we need to reduce.”
Funding A Key Point
Funding seems to be key with Louise Haigh MP, Labour’s Shadow Policing Minister also critical of the government adding: “In the face of overwhelming evidence from senior officers and their own officials, it appears that the only people in the country who now believe the loss of 21,000 officers hasn’t made the blindest bit of difference to community safety is Theresa May’s Government.”
She commented after Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick had told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, it would be ‘naive’ to suggest reducing the number of Police officers has had no impact.
Backing the New Measures
There was however, some support and advice for the home secretary’s strategy from the Local Government Association, with funding again being highlighted. Chair of its Safer and Stronger Communities Board, Cllr Simon Blackburn explained: “We will be looking to work closely with the Government to ensure any new measures are effective.
“Information sharing could be a positive step but what is crucial is that councils are not treated as a replacement for the expertise and resources of the security services and police.
“We will continue to engage with government to ensure residents are kept safe and that local authorities can play their role in supporting and protecting communities.”
He also pointed out work to tackle radicalisation needs to be properly funded over the long term.
Dismay from Freedom Campaigners
Campaign groups were far from happy at the proposals. Corey Stoughton, Liberty’s Advocacy Director told Asian Sunday: “Terrorism is a serious issue deserving serious thought. Sadly this ‘strategy’ is a regurgitation of failed thinking – heavy on sound-bites, light on substance.
“The government continues to use dangerously vague definitions of extremism to tarnish communities, encourage policing by prejudice and press service providers and local authorities into becoming unwilling and untrained agents of the security services. Yet again they attack encryption and talk up data analytics, while offering no actual proposals and no explanation of how our privacy and cybersecurity will be protected. If and when they come up with something concrete, we will be scrutinising it closely.”
In recent times, the government vowed to offer greater transparency emphasising its anti-radicalisation programme is both voluntary and confidential. This could now be open to question by critics of the scheme. Some commentators believe Javid’s announcement might also put off people from Muslim communities offering information to the police and intelligence services. Being seen as a suspect remains a big fear, with any marginalisation making people feel they are being monitored themselves as they go about their daily business. It’s a fact declassifying MI5 information will mean anyone surrendering information to the authorities can’t be sure their identity will be kept secret.
But the upshot seems to be more detail must be given by the Home Secretary, in order to quell the concerns of individuals and groups across the UK. The security services have already confirmed the Islamist terror threat will remain at a heightened level for at least another two years. It seems certain the ongoing counter terrorism strategy will continue to be the source of emotional debate for some time to come.