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When is a threat not a threat? The UK's terrorism double standards

The UK's terrorism legislation is not being applied evenly and should be scrapped in favour of a more common sense approach

British soldier Ryan McGee, who is from the Manchester area and is also a supporter of the far right English Defence League (EDL), was handed a two-year sentence on 28 November after it was discovered that he had made nail bombs filled with 187 pieces of shrapnel to maximize damage. He was prosecuted and convicted under the Explosive Substances Act (1883).

McGee was further found in possession of knives, axes and imitation guns and had watched videos of victims being beheaded and shot in the head under a Nazi swastika flag. He also had an EDL "No Surrender" flag in his room. McGee ticked every box to be branded a terrorist except the de facto one: he was not a Muslim. In fact, the prosecutor agreed that McGee was not a terrorist, just an immature teenager.

In 2007 former British National Party (BNP) candidate Robert Cottage was accused of planning to shoot Prime Minister Tony Blair and preparing for a race war in the UK. Despite his radical beliefs against foreigners and immigrants he was never charged with terrorism. Cottage was found in possession of the largest cache of chemical explosives of its type ever in the country and pleaded guilty in a Manchester court under the same archaic Explosives Substances Act. Both arrests required the presence of police and bomb disposal experts. Both posed the threat of extreme physical violence to the British public in pursuit of a xenophobic ideology that was palpable and real.

Police statements reassuring the public that there was “no threat to the British public” have followed almost every Syria-related terrorism arrest in the UK. The same was true when I was arrested for terror charges earlier this February. Yet paradoxically, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the government seek to portray Muslim returnees from Syria as the greatest threat this country has ever faced, charging them and seeking convictions for terrorism offences not connected to Britain in any way. This is especially true since the majority of those imprisoned in the UK were not part of Islamic State (IS) and had in fact returned home before its confrontation with the West had begun. One man from Derry, who explained how he was with the largest Islamic coalition in Syria fighting against IS, was still arrested for terrorism on return.

Contrast this with the fact that no threats of prosecution or Terrorism Prevention and Investigations Measures (TPims) - tantamount to house arrest which includes forced relocation, asset freezing, passport revocation, re-entry bans or citizenship removal - have been issued to British mercenaries (non-Muslims of course) who have joined Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga units who fight alongside banned terrorist organisations like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Iraqi militias who fight next to the Assad regime alongside proscribed terrorist group Hezbollah.

There is a clear double standard at work and we can all see it.

The starkest evidence of this parallel legal system is in yet another Manchester based case. It was fated that former Royal Air Force (RAF) Iraq veteran and convert to Islam Stephen Gray was arrested on the same day that McGee was convicted. Gray described in the past how he had seen Iraqi prisoners abused by British and American forces during his tour and subsequently left the service in 2004. More recently, he was detained at Manchester airport and his passport was confiscated. He had made video logs addressing how Muslims were being harassed at international ports and wanted to pursue this further.

His passport was seized because government officials deemed that he was “involved in Islamist extremist activity”. Just as they have done to me twice in ten years, no evidence was offered regarding what that extremist activity was. That’s because it was done under another archaic power called the Royal Perogative. Theresa May has sought to migrate this power to the police in recent days, and she’s likely to get her way.

Last week two brothers I was held with in Her Majesty's Prison (HMP) Belmarsh, before my own case dramatically collapsed, were sentenced to prison terms for terrorism offences that again posed “no risk to public safety”. They had been in Syria for three weeks and were not part of the Islamic State (IS) group. Their crime was to bring back five trophy bullets and pictures of places they had visited. More convictions and sentences for such men are to follow in the coming weeks. Two others from Birmingham will be sentenced today, despite returning from Syria due to their disagreement with rebel infighting, as they told me in Belmarsh. They were teenagers when they were arrested, just like soldier McGee.

Whatever the strategy has been to fight terror over the last decade, it has failed miserably. There have been innumerable laws passed over the last thirteen years since the outset of the war on terror. Governments past and present have insisted that its because the threat level is higher than its ever been. I don’t know how tangible the IS threat to the ordinary British person is, but I do know someone is lying.

Perhaps they’ve forgotten the IRA attacks (and British Army atrocities and resultant internment) in Derry, Brighton, Guildford, Birmingham, London, EnnisKillen and Omagh and the 3,000 people who died in that conflict. Perhaps they don’t recall when the MI6 building and 10 Downing Street itself was hit by rockets (even though peace was possible by recognising “terrorists” in the end). Perhaps they know things we don’t, just like the threat posed to the world by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps they’re hoping we’ve forgotten Britain’s role in creating the threat in the first place.

When police stated in Gray’s case "there is no risk to any communities in Manchester”, we should have taken note. When bomb-makers driven by an ideology of hatred are given preferential treatment by our judges because they don’t fit the stereotype, we need to ask why. 

Had Ryan McGee been Muslim he probably would have been put away for the next 30 years. CAGE - a UK based advocacy group working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror - has documented countless cases over the last thirteen years where Muslims are convicted of terrorism based on much less, including possessing documents where no plan, plot or ability exist.  

The approach taken in McGee's case should be replicated in cases relating to "terrorism" in the UK and the whole conceptual framework of terrorism laws should be scrapped in favour of a more common sense approach.

Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and currently the director of outreach for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE.

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

Photo: British police officers marshall a protest in London (AFP)

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