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The Chatham House Report and the British Government

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  • July 25, 2005

    New Delhi July 25 A Briefing Paper published by the independent British think tank, The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), has become an embarrassment for the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair even as Britain is trying to overcome the shock of the terrorist attacks on July 7 in London claiming the lives of more than fifty as well as the foiled attacks on July 21. The Briefing Paper for July 2005 titled “Security, Terrorism and the UK” says:

    The UK is at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the United States, has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and has taken a leading role in international intelligence, police and judicial cooperation against Al-Qaeda and in efforts to suppress its finances.

    The report clearly states that extremists have been recruited and deployed within British borders and that for an open society like the UK it is really difficult to prevent the sudden co-ordinated suicide bombings bearing the trademark of Al-Qaeda. However, what Tony Blair would have found even more embarrassing is the depiction by the authors of the report, Frank Gregory and Paul Wilkinson of the UK, as a pillion rider of a powerful ally and their conclusion that the ride in fact has proved costly in terms of British, US military personnel and Iraqi civilians killed as well as the damage to the counter-terrorism campaign.

    Getting termed as a pillion rider would certainly not be gratifying for the British government, because the report questions the whole rationale of the War against Iraq. Observers may recall the tumultuous days of 2003 when in spite of the sad episode of suicide of the British weapons expert, David Kelly, resignations of ministers from the British cabinet and mass anti-War demonstrations in European cities did not prevent the “Coalition of the Willing” led by the UK in Europe to go ahead with the War against Iraq. As expected, the British government has not shared the assessment of Chatham House. The British government spokesman was rhetorical when he asserted that there have been attacks in twenty-six countries over the past twelve years and questioned whether the report (of Chatham House) was simply suggesting that the UK should have put her head down and hope not to be attacked?

    Nevertheless, can it be denied that there have been not enough indications that a terrorist attack might take place in the UK? After 9/11 and especially after Britain went to War in Iraq, there have been regular warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the UK. The threat seemed to be more imminent given the considerable presence of Islamic dissidents from West Asia and rabid Islamic preachers in London. These radical Islamists have been continuing their activities in London though toned down but almost uncontrolled even after 9/11. In February 2004 Stephen Ulph of the Terrorism Monitor termed the British capital as Londonistan. Very recently the German security portal, Sicherheit-Heute (Security Today) depicted London as “Metropolis of Islamic International”. The Chatham House report is right in its observation:

    By the mid-1990s the UK’s intelligence agencies and the police were well aware that London was increasingly being used as a base by individuals involved in promoting, funding and planning terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, these individuals were not viewed as a threat to the UK’s national security, and so they were left to continue their activities with relative impunity, a policy which caused much anger among the foreign governments concerned.

    Moreover, recent experience are that British Jihadis have been found in Iraq and Israel ready to take part in terrorist attacks or for suicide bombings. Given these early warnings and disturbing incidents, it seemed that the British government had perhaps taken the situation a little bit casually. In contrast, for the masterminds of these terrorist attacks on July 7, the timing couldn’t have been more opportune to attack the British government when: the UK had taken over the rotating half-yearly European presidency just seven days earlier and London had snatched the Olympic bid from its traditional rival, Paris.

    One would find the assessment of Chatham House rather justified if the whole internal security situation in Europe is taken into account. In fact, 2004 was a remarkable year in recent European history as far as its internal security is concerned. If the terrorist attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004 claiming 191 lives were an indication of the capability of Islamic sleeper cells in Europe to successfully orchestrate attacks on such a large scale, the brutal killing of the controversial Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004 in broad daylight in Amsterdam emphasised the accomplishment of a lone terrorist to execute his plan unhindered. In the case of Theo van Gogh it must be mentioned that he had been under continuous threat by Islamists prior to his killing. The co-producer of Theo van Gogh’s last controversial film “Submission”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born Dutch Member of Parliament, has for months been facing death threats and under state protection. However, in both the cases of Madrid and Amsterdam the findings are almost the same: the perpetrators are mostly young, belong to the immigrants’ community or have dual citizenships, do not have any terrorist antecedents or even if they were earlier apprehended or approached by the authorities, the reasons were petty crime.

    At present it appears that the British government would not undertake a serious revision of its Iraq Policy. Simultaneously, given the unipolar moment it is also not possible for the UK to exchange the driver’s seat with pillion riding in the Coalition against Terror. Hence the likely British action to prevent further terrorist attacks would be three-pronged: (i) to legislate stringent anti-terrorism laws; (ii) to enhance intelligence and police cooperation internationally and specifically with European nations; (iii) to increase dialogue with the 1.6 million strong Muslim population in Britain.

    Regarding the cooperation at European level, there is already a Solidarity Clause under Part I, Article I-43 with implementation in Article III-329 in the European Constitution (Article 42 with Article III-329 in the Draft Constitution of 2003). The Clause highlights the solidarity of member states in case of a terrorist attack in one of the member countries. Moreover, after the Madrid terrorist attacks a post of the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator was also created for effective counter-terrorism coordination. But the recent rejections of the European Constitution in the French and Dutch referenda and the subsequent one year period of reflection on the future as decided by the EU leadership, the most important issue of European integration in security affairs is likely to experience delays. Justice and Home Affairs, which constitute the third pillar of the EU, still remains the contentious issue amongst the member countries. Cooperation amongst the European intelligence agencies would also face hindrances because of traditional rivalries and distrust.

    Therefore, at this point the primary onus of tackling indigenous threats and preventing further terrorist attacks would certainly lie with the British government. Undoubtedly London in recent times has become the safe sanctuary of all the West-Asia based radical Islamic organisations, global Islamic movements, individual hate preachers and Islamic indoctrinators. Given the liberal atmosphere of the British system, legal hurdles, lack of harmonisation in common EU counter-terrorism efforts it is very difficult to try or eventually extradite an individual charged for inciting hatred, communal disharmony or even Jihad. Recent instances like Abu Hamza in Britain and Metin Kaplan in Germany are clear instances of hardship faced by the government authorities to legally extradite a convicted individual outside Europe. The European Arrest Warrant, which could have been an effective tool to combat intra-EU crime and terrorist activities, is not yet accepted by all the EU member nations. On the contrary, the German Constitutional Court this week ruled the European Arrest warrant as null and void.

    Consequently the primary task of the British government should be to not ignore the Chatham House report on principle, but rather to formulate time-bound, concrete measures to deal with these hate preachers and indoctrinators who otherwise have been under observation of European agencies. Except investigative stories on unearthing serious issues pertaining to British and European security, European mainstream media may also ponder over providing prominence to these publicity-mongering individuals.

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