The government and the right-wing press launched into a week of frenzied xenophobia when, on 10 April, 12 men – 11 of them Pakistani nationals, 10 of them living in Britain on student visas – were arrested on suspicion of planning a terror attack. At long last, cried the hawks, we’ve been proved right – these people are coming over here on phony visas and are planning to bomb their way to a British khalifah (a muslim state as envisaged in the time of the prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors).
A “very big plot”
The public were assured that a very great danger had been averted – an “Easter spectacular”, no less, of coordinated suicide bomb attacks on shopping centres in the North West of England.
The police spoke of a ‘bomb factory’ in Liverpool, just waiting to be discovered by Merseyside’s finest coppers. Prime Minister Brown, with characteristic rhetorical hyperbole, told us that we had narrowly avoided being the victims of “a very big plot”.
The excitement of the affair was augmented by the fact that the arrest plan had to be “hastily brought forward to Wednesday afternoon after the country’s most senior anti-terrorism officer, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, of the Metropolitan Police, was photographed going into Downing Street carrying a briefing paper with top secret details of Operation Pathway in full view”. (‘Al-Qaeda terror plot: searches continue over alleged plan to bomb Easter shoppers’, Daily Telegraph, 10 April 2009)
The guilt of the arrested men was, of course, beyond question – they were nasty Islamic extremists just like those who wanted to poison us all with cunningly-disguised ricin (which turned out to be nothing more dangerous than Brylcreem). The ‘compelling’ evidence? These men had been caught taking photographs in a shopping centre, and they were known to frequent an internet cafe in Cheetham Hill, “where it is thought the men communicated using emails”!
Spread of racism, islamophobia and state surveillance
From across the political spectrum, there were calls to step up security. The papers and the politicians were calling for more immigration control, more surveillance, more counterterrorism measures, more suspicion, more power to Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ strategy, and fewer visas for Pakistanis. Immigration Minister Phil Woolas asserted that the student visa system was “the major loophole in Britain’s border controls”. (Ibid)
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the private University of Buckingham, wrote in the Telegraph: “Faced with the Islamist threat, many universities initially shut their eyes, angrily criticising those who spoke of it. When the government finally saw fit to issue them with ‘guidance’, neither of the two versions it produced – in 2006 and last year – mentioned the word vetting, let alone the need to vet and interview every applicant from Pakistan and other areas associated with terrorism … As long as Britain remains a target for Islamists, our universities must be made to understand that national security takes precedence over financial gain. A terrorist attack could be the price we pay if they drop their guard.”
Natalie Rothschild noted in Spiked Online: “When the UK government recently suggested that universities have a responsibility to monitor extremist groups and individuals on campus, many academics reacted angrily. They warned that this would demonise muslim students and they objected to being asked, effectively, to spy on their students.
“Yet when it emerged that 10 of 12 people arrested last week on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in the north west of England were Pakistani students, the government’s academic spying proposal started to be looked on more favourably. There have been widespread calls for heavily reducing the number of student visas granted to Pakistanis. This, some say, is the only way to eliminate ‘the terrorist threat’ emanating from Pakistan.” (‘Don’t close the door to Asian students’, 14 April 2009)
One would have thought that intelligent and educated people such as university professors would hardly be prone to such hysterical outbursts when there was nil evidence of involvement in terrorism of the Pakistani students concerned. Clearly one would have been mistaken!
How many times have phoney ‘terror threats’ been used to stoke up racism, in particular Islamophobia, over the last few years? All of these supposed terrorist plots make front-page news for several days when arrests are made, but the publicity is sparse when the suspects are released without charge and the case is dropped, as almost invariably happens?
Everybody heard about the ricin plot, but how many people found out that the case was dropped without a conviction? Everybody heard about the raid by 250 armed police officers in Forest Gate, east London (during the course of which they shot one of the ‘suspects’ in the shoulder), but how many people found out that the two brothers arrested under suspicion of possessing a chemical bomb were released without charge a week later when no chemical materials whatsoever had been found?
How many people are aware that, according to Home Office statistics released in May, of the 1,500 or so people arrested under the anti-terror laws, only around 13 percent have been convicted of terror-related offences?
As Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, noted: “In free societies we arrest on suspicion, charge with evidence and convict when there is proof. These figures remind us that the overwhelming majority of those arrested for terrorism were not guilty of any charge and half weren’t charged at all. All the more worrying that wholly innocent people may be held for a month without charge or indefinitely without charge under control orders – based on secret suspicions and intelligence alone.” (‘Just one in eight terror arrests ends with guilty verdict, admits Home Office’, The Independent, 14 May 2009)
Charges quietly dropped
In the case of the Pakistani students, too, a mere couple of days after the arrests, some doubts started to emerge about whether charges would be brought. Asked if the incident was yet another high-profile raid that would end without charges, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, Peter Fahy, said: “There will always be situations where … either we can’t achieve the evidential threshold or as a result of the investigation we find that the threat was not how it appeared to us at the time.” (‘Student visa link to terror raids as Gordon Brown points finger at Pakistan’, The Guardian, 10 April 2009)
It turns out that the “evidential threshold” was indeed insurmountable. After 13 days in custody, all the suspects were released quietly without charge. There was no press furore over the release; it was noted in a few short inside-page articles and forgotten about. As Mohammed Ayub, a lawyer representing three of the men, pointed out: “Our clients were arrested in a blaze of publicity and speculation … The wrong that has been done to them deserves to be accompanied by a similar amount of publicity.” (‘Pakistan wants terror raids apology’, Financial Times, 22 April 2009)
Eleven of the men were transferred not to their normal abode but to the UK Border Agency in order to be processed for deportation. Why? “We are seeking to remove these individuals on grounds of national security,” said Gordon Brown. He kindly reminded us that “the government’s highest priority is to protect public safety. Where a foreign national poses a threat to the country, we will seek to exclude or deport them where appropriate.” (‘Anti-terror case to be reviewed’, BBC News Online, 23 April 2009)
As you can see, logical reasoning isn’t his speciality. The arrests and investigation to which these 12 men had been so ignominiously subjected had established precisely that they were not “a threat to the country”, so what’s the justification for deporting them? Clearly the message is: OK, they’re innocent, but they’re ‘guilty’ of being Pakistani muslims, and therefore inherently suspicious, so we’ll send them home so as not to be seen as being soft on immigrants or ‘extremists’. And, of course, their deportation will convince many that, although there was no evidence against the men, the terrorism charges must have had some foundation after all.
The government, the police and elements of the press have conducted themselves in a thoroughly racist and reprehensible way. British workers and progressives must demand the unconditional release of the 11 men, and they must step up the fight against the so-called anti-terror legislation, which is designed precisely to spread racism and Islamophobia and to restrict the right to speak out against injustice.