Internment: We’ve been here before and it didn’t work

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Thursday 1 June 2017 12:47 UTC
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After the Manchester attack, there have been increased calls in Britain for a French-style state of emergency, the introduction of martial law and even internment. But history proves this will only make matters worse

A few weeks before the Manchester attack, I wrote: “There must be a point at which this country stops and asks an extremely serious question: why has everything it has done to fight terrorism internally and externally for 17 years only made the threat worse than it's ever been?”

Internment in Northern Ireland led to mass demonstrations, which led to Bloody Sunday, which led to the most violent terror campaign in the history of Britain

No one could have envisioned just a few years ago that soldiers would be on the streets of Britain doing the police’s job because the latter were understaffed but that is exactly where they are today. In the immediate aftermath of the horrific Manchester attack carried out by Salman Abedi, the threat level was raised to “critical” - meaning further attacks were perceived to be imminent. The level has been reduced back to “severe” - meaning future attacks are still likely.

But what does this mean for security and law enforcement? Could, God forbid, another attack put us in a state of emergency here, just like in France - or even the introduction of martial law if things get worse?

The call for imprisoning terror suspects without charge has been increasing since the attacks happened. To some, despite its connotations for Britain, the land of laws and freedoms, internment is the answer. In the wake attacks, Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson tweeted:

The lessons of history seem to have been lost on her, but she wasn't the only one.

Richard Kemp, the former head of the British government's crisis response committee (COBRA), went much further:

“It wasn't successful in Northern Ireland," Kemp said, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster. "It was counterproductive in Northern Ireland but we can do it in a different way than we did it in Northern Ireland and make sure it is both productive and effective.”

Tarique Ghaffur, an assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard and the most senior Muslim former police chief who held office during the 7/7 bombings in 2005, argued for the internment without charge or trial of 3,000 “extremist” suspects to prevent further attacks in the country. Like Kemp, he recognises the utter failure of past attempts, so he advocates for a community-based internment programme:

“These would be community-based centres where the extremists would be risk-assessed. Then the extremists would be made to go through a deradicalisation programme, using the expertise of imams, charity workers and counter-terrorism officers," Ghaffur wrote.

It's a novel idea, making imprisonment without trial into a community activity, but I doubt it will catch on. There’s too much history.

A history lesson

I’ve spent much time in Belfast and Derry meeting with former internees and the “hooded men” who were subjected to torture techniques - including waterboarding - that were later used on internees like me in places like Bagram and Guantanamo. A few months ago, I spoke alongside former prisoners at an event entitled Internment: Then and Now. Although it happened almost four decades ago, the recollections made the scars sounded like they’d just been inflicted.

For those who have forgotten the history, internment in Northern Ireland led to mass demonstrations, which led to Bloody Sunday, which led to the most violent terror campaign in the history of Britain. Internment didn't stop terrorism. It was a major cause behind it.

As I recently explained, in 1972, a year after mass internment of Irish Republican prisoners was introduced in Northern Ireland25,000 people took to the streets of Derry to protest. They were greeted by trigger-happy British soldiers who shot 26 of them, killing 15. It took successive British governments more than 40 years to issue an apology - but no one was ever held to account.

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Consequently, the IRA campaign and recruitment drive increased with unprecedented intensity. Peace was only achieved after negotiations with “terrorists”.

Troops on streets, calls for internment and more terror legislation prove that the existing unparalleled anti-terror measures and laws spanning this country over 20 years have utterly failed.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said on the BBC Question Time debate last week that new laws and measures were being prepared by the government to tackle the terror threat. She refused to get drawn into the details. Internment may not be on the cards for now, but neither can it be ruled out. Fatuously inflating the number of terrorism suspects from 3,000 to 23,000, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall told the BBC:

"I think we've got to look at ways of ensuring that our people are safe, whether that is a return to control orders, whether that is tagging these people, who knows in the future maybe a return to internment."

Britain’s own Guantanamo

The day I returned from Guantanamo in 2005, where I’d been imprisoned without trial for three years, my lawyer, Gareth Peirce, had to rush off after meeting me because of an impending court decision over 13 men imprisoned in Britain.

Most people are aware that the UK has been complicit in the imprisonment without trial of its own citizens in the case of the Guantanamo prisoners. What they may be less aware of is that, contrary to popular belief, it has been involved in interning terror suspects without trial since the outset of the “war on terror”.



Several Middle Eastern and North African Muslims were interned in top-security British prisons in 2001 as a response to the September 11 attacks in what became known as “Britain’s own Guantanamo” at HMP Belmarsh.

The Crime and Security Act (2001) was rushed through parliament to allow the home secretary to arbitrarily detain foreign terror suspects without trial. It was introduced in November as a bill and, by the following month, it was law. Nine of the internees eventually won their case after the House of Lords ruled that their detention had been unlawful, but only after spending three years in prison. The ruling was based on the discriminatory nature of the law and deprivation of the right to liberty.

One of the judges noted: “Indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law. It deprives the detained person of the protection a criminal trial is intended to afford...[This case] calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has until now been very proud: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.”



Detail from the Wiki Magna Carta (Wikicommons)

That ancient liberty to which the judge referred was no doubt Magna Carta. We have been extolling its virtues as proof of the best of British values for millennia. The contradiction against internment could not be starker: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land... to no one deny or delay right or justice."

Additionally, following the 7/7 bombings, prime minister Tony Blair tried to get pre-charge detention at police stations increased to 90 days. He failed. It currently stands at 14 days.

In 2015, Britain celebrated 800 years since this Great Writ was written with an exhibition in the British Library and a hand-stitched Wikipedia page. I sewed the words "held without charge".

CAGE and I spent a lot of time campaigning against such laws over the past years. It is truly shocking that this discussion is taking place again.

A quarter century of bombing

'Foreign policy' is a vacant term, a cliche, like 'terrorism', until its effects are detailed to the public. That is why we are rarely shown graphic footage and images of the results of both.

Muslims have been told to disconnect themselves from foreign policy and the concept of the ummah (the Muslim world community) in order to prevent negative radicalisation and, ultimately, terrorism. Simultaneously, they have been told to adhere to “British values”. Being involved in the affairs of countries far removed from it, however, is as British as it gets.

The untold truth is that the same coalition has been bombing Iraq continuously since 1991 and has never stopped. That’s a 26-year-long transcontinental bombing campaign

The BBC recently reported that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, “in 2016 alone, the US dropped 12,192 bombs in Syria and 12,095 in Iraq”. Britain, a leading player in the US-led coalition, “dropped bombs on 69 of the 99 days of 2017 to 9 April".

The untold truth is that the same coalition has been bombing Iraq continuously since 1991 and has never stopped. That’s a 26-year long transcontinental bombing campaign.

Our leaders tell us repeatedly that there can be no justification for the killing of children - under any circumstances whatsoever. Most of us could not agree more. But how can they explain away the fact that coalition air strikes in Syria alone have killed almost 1,500 civilians including 319 children since 2014. Forty-four of those children were killed in the past month. Clearly, we’re being lied to.

The youth speak out

Salman Abedi’s sister, Jomana, recently told US media: “I think he [Salman] saw children - Muslim children - dying everywhere, and wanted revenge."

It appears that Abedi, barely an adult himself, was convinced that killing children to avenge the killing of children was somehow logical, justified and a worthy entry ticket to paradise. Twisted ideology may, of course, have played a role, although it is almost impossible to find Islamic centres, mosques or Imams who support this view.

In fact, sadly, many of these places have been reduced to places of worship where internal and external government policies can hardly be discussed. Besides, as MI5 concluded in a 2008 report: "Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices."



Salman Abedi travelled to Libya during the country's 2011 revolution (Police handout)

Perhaps it was best put by someone who knew Salman Abedi. In a BBC Radio 4 interview, a young British Libyan and former friend of Abedi said: “In my personal view, what radicalises children straight up always, without a doubt, always, is foreign policy. Because that's how it starts. Even if it takes, for example, a religious stance at the end, I think the beginning is always a questioning of foreign policy. You’d have to be stupid to not realise that certain foreign policies are fuelling extremism. You have to be either living on a rock or just in complete or utter denial or delusional in a sense.”  

In 2014, the Tehrik-e-Taliban attacked a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan and killed scores of children as a result. The local paper published my Facebook post: “The truth is that the lives of all our children are precious: children of ruthless politicians, children of torture victims, children of terror suspects, children of anti-terror SWAT officers, children of drone operators, children of mujahideen, children of soldiers, children of judges, children of farmers and children of the homeless and the hopeless. The children of our friend and the children of our enemy are still innocent. That is why the Prophet Muhammad explicitly forbade targeting them, especially in times of war. Every law based on any aspect of human decency since concurs with this view.

'Unless our government opens its eyes, we know we are only another in a long line of parents on a list that continues to grow'

- A relative of Georgina Callander, who was killed in the Manchester attack

“The product of terror, torture and violence is more of the same. To end it, we must stop regarding understanding and explanations of perpetrator’s actions as justification. Every crime has a motive, a mens rea behind it, even the most despicable ones. The deliberate killing of children in Peshawar was a twisted and sick act.

“But this sickness has developed as a direct result of indiscriminate killing of faceless terrorist suspects and their families.

“It is time to stop this cycle of uncontrolled rage and internecine violence that will only drive us to the pits of hell. Incessant calls for revenge each time need to be tempered with reflections on the consequences of what that means. There are no winners in this.”

There were 22 fatalities in the Manchester attack, seven of whom were children. The family of one of them, Georgina Callander, said: “I wish I could say that Georgina is one of the last to die in this way but unless our government opens its eyes we know we are only another in a long line of parents on a list that continues to grow.” Such voices can no longer be ignored.

- Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on twitter: @Moazzam_Begg

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Police clash with republicans in the Oldpark area of north Belfast in Northern Ireland, in August 2015, after police stopped an annual anti-internment parade. The annual march is organised to mark the introduction of internment without trial during the height of the Troubles in August 1971 (AFP)