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Britain's micro-monitored Muslims

Are the UK's security services using terror fears over Syria as a hook to win ever more powers of surveillance?

Last updated: 19 Mar 2014 08:02
Rachel Shabi

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.
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Syria's nightmarish conflict has been described as a 'magnet' for radical Islamists around the world, writes Shabi [Reuters]

The British media has been full of fears about UK jihadists fighting in Syria - and then wanting to commit acts of terror upon returning home. Hundreds of Brits are thought to be waging war in Syria - and the government has warned that such individuals may face arrest upon return.

A British lorry driver is thought to have carried out a suicide bomb attack in Syria, detonating a lorry packed with explosives at an Aleppo prison in February. There are blood-curdling stories of British Muslims boasting about killing in Syria and trying to attract fresh recruits.

One fighter from the UK reportedly talked up a "five star jihad" in Syria - referring to its "relaxing" nature.

Fighters 'magnet'

And there have already been arrests - including that of former Guantanamo Bay detainee turned civil liberties activist, Moazzam Begg, on suspicion of terror-related offenses in Syria, allegedly dating back to a visit in 2012. Begg has said that he has only ever been involved in charity work in Syria; his trial, on terrorism charges, has just been set for early October.

This, after all, is the same government that openly supports the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backs the Syrian rebels pursuing this goal, lost a parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria last year - and is fully aware that its allies in the Gulf are funding al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

Syria's nightmarish conflict has been described as a "magnet" for radical Islamists around the world - there are thought to be around 2,000 foreign fighters in the country.

Now, the worry is that fighters returning from Syria do so with "enhanced capabilities", as UK home secretary Theresa May stated, to launch attacks at home. But, however real this concern may be, the scary warnings emanating from the UK government and security services are crying out for some context.

One key factor - which may well undermine government attempts to defuse any potential threat - is the inconsistency of its own approach.This, after all, is the same government that openly supports the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backs the Syrian rebels pursuing this goal, lost a parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria last year - and is fully aware that its allies in the Gulf are funding al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

What message is this supposed to send out, to any individuals who act on the idea that what war-ravaged Syria really needs right now is more gun-wielding fighters?

Inconsistency

On top of that is inconsistency over which fighting, in which part of the world, constitutes an extremism that becomes dangerous upon return to the UK. Several commentators have pointed out that British citizens went to fight in Libya, too - during the 2011, NATO-backed uprising that led to the removal of Muammar Gaddafi's regime. On that occasion, individual involvement in the fighting was not deemed to be a danger.

Indeed, analysts have pointed out that security officials and terror "experts" may have badly wired the connection between fighting overseas and intentions to attack the UK.

Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, extremism and the domestic War on Terror, says: "There's a tendency amongst the experts, who develop this radicalisation model to think of a conflict like Syria in a way that overemphasises the role of extremist religious ideology, and doesn't pay attention to the very specific political factors."

Kundnani, whose book offers a critique of counter-radicalisation strategies, explains that what draws foreign fighters into Syria is the mass killings, torture, violence and starvation carried out by the regime - none of which are factors in Britain.

Meanwhile, the government has also issued warnings on Muslim charitable ventures to Syria, amid reports that British fighters use aid convoys as cover to get into the country.

Community workers say that mosques have been leafleted over the risks of questioning or arrest under terror laws for independent charity operations to Syria, while those who have engaged in aid work have been visited by security and counter-terrorism officials.

Salim Bhorat, a community activist in Bolton, north-west England, says that Muslims selling cakes to raise money for Syria are now feeling scared and angry because "anything they are doing is being conflated with terrorism".

Ex-gitmo detainee talks to Al Jazeera about Syria visit prior to UK detention
Micro-monitored population
Nafeez Ahmed, who has written extensively on counter-insurgency and the war on terror, says that this sort of blanket, "criminalise everything" approach may be more about "politicking and being seen to be doing something in the public eye".

And like others, he argues that such measures are ultimately counterproductive - last year, Ahmed reported that even intelligence gathering officials admitted that the government's counter-terrorism strategy is "fundamentally flawed".

The problem is that such strategies, as implemented through the government's widely criticised Prevent policy, view certain factors - being a non-violent Islamist, say, or being critical of British foreign policy - as placing Muslims on a "conveyor belt" that leads inexorably to violent extremism.

Community workers have for some time warned that this operating premise is squashing space for legitimate grievances to be aired, thereby exacerbating alienation - and potentially giving free recruitment opportunities to violent groups.

None of this is to ignore the fears of radicalisation regarding Britons who have been in Syria - exposed both to the emotionally altering obscenities of the war in Syria and, potentially, the abhorrent ideologies of violent groups operating there. Concern, whatever the scale, cannot be ruled out.

But if, as the UK's security and immigration minister, James Brokenshire, has said, the issue is something that will be with us for "the foreseeable future", we need to find better ways of tackling it.

The current approach has reinforced a sense that terror fears over Syria are being used as a hook by security services to win ever more powers of surveillance and arrest over an already micro-monitored population of Muslims in Britain. And that is the last thing likely to help.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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