UK government monitors more than social media

UK government’s anti-radicalisation powers are extending so what is life like for those being monitored for extremism?

Residents speak to police officers guarding a cordon after an explosion in Tipton, central England
The government's anti-terror legislation watchdog is raising concerns about proposed new powers [Reuters]

Umm Khalid watches her pretty two-year-old toddler playing on the floor of a rented house in the North of England.

Her daughter rifles through her mum’s handbag pulling out the usual motherly jumble; wet wipes, mobile phone, a Quran translated into English.

Formerly Sophie, before her conversion to Islam nine years ago, Umm Khalid needs the full time support of her mother since returning home in December 2014 following a second 28-day term in a specialised mental health unit. 

After entering a downward spiral of paranoia and depression, she was detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act which allows a patient to be admitted without their consent, at the behest of family members – or police.

What has lead her to her lowest point is what she describes as a three year “nightmare”. Her experience at the sharp end of UK government policy raises issues which human rights campaigners say amounts to the ability for government and social agencies to criminalise nominative parental behaviour.

A radical home environment

Acording to Umm Khalid her difficulties began in 2012 after a a row over child contact arrangements with her ex-husband. Subsequently he made accusations to the government’s anti-terror intervention programme, saying he feared his sons were being raised in a radicalised environment.

“I had already made comments to the school about my children not attending music class because it was against our religion,” says Umm Khalid.

“I had also asked a teacher if they could wear a different shirt on a school football day because the Manchester United one has a devil on it. They reported these things to Channel officers saying they were proof I was an extremist. I lost the boys really quickly after that. The kids and I are still all in shock,” she tells Al Jazeera.

There was no record of abuse at home, she says, and the boys, aged 7 and 9, were doing well in their state-run primary school. However, once concerns relating to potential “radicalisation” were raised, protocols had to be followed.

Channel is a key element of the UK governments Prevent strategy set up in April 2007 as part of the government’s evolving programme to counter extremism ideology, with powers extending into education, health and home.

Prevent is the multi-agency cooperation aimed at protecting vulnerable people who may be at risk from radicalisation. Existing collaboration between local authorities, education and health sectors, social services, children’s and youth services and offender management services, police and members of the general public are used to identify  “at risk” individuals.

For Umm Khalid, the authorities notification of her sons “at risk’ status by both school and father triggered an intense period of social services investigation which eventually led to the children being placed into the Channel programme. They were later placed with their father.

I had made comments to the school about my children not attending music class because it was against our religion... They reported these things to Channel officers saying they were proof I was an extremist.

by Umm Khalid, a mother on the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme

Their distraught mother was placed on the Prevent programme for de-radicalisation. 

Between 2008 and 2013, more than 500 young people, considered vulnerable, were given support within the programme’s guidelines. 

But the numbers referred by the police and others to the $4.56m-a-year anti-radicalisation programme are far higher – at more than 2,500.  

The flagship intervention programme is targeted mainly at 15 to 24-year-olds whom authorities deem at risk of being drawn into Islamist ideology. As with Umm Khalid’s sons, primary aged children may also be referred.

The process involves monitoring, workshops, mentoring and – in some cases – leads to the removal of the children from the home of the parent deemed to be involved in any radicalisation.

Being outspoken or being extreme?

Moazzam Begg, founder and director of the rights lobby group Cage, feels the language in the both current and the proposed new legislation leaves space for normal faith-based behaviour and even family discussions to fall foul of counterterrorism measures.

“The definition of “extremism” in the Prevent strategy cannot be used as a reference point for determining risk due to its wide terms,” he tells Al Jazeera.

“The definition provides little clarity in the law and would allow for abuses against those children and families that might be wrongly assessed as part of overzealous reporting. The bill and supporting documents provide no guidance on how religious practice and indeed, legitimate difference of opinion within normative practice of religion is to be understood by the service providers,” says Begg.

Umm Khalid, found out she had undergone almost a year of online scrutiny.

“I found out my posts on Facebook had been monitored by the authorities for ages,” she says. This lead to an increasing sense of paranoia.

The Counter-terrorism and Security Bill 2014-15 entered the Committee stage this week – a line by line examination of the bill – the final stage before being passed into law. It includes provisions to remove the citizenship of those suspected of joining foreign armed groups. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking new powers, to equip intelligence agencies with a legal framework, including the removal of what officials describe as no-go areas on the internet. Giving security agencies the ability to break into encrypted communications of suspected radicals.

Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire feels sure upgraded powers are both necessary and just.

We must ensure that poisonous, divisive ideologies are not allowed to spread, including through our universities. There is no contradiction between promoting freedom of speech and safeguarding the interests and well-being of students, staff and the wider community

by James Brokenshire, Immigration and security minister

“The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill represents a considered and targeted response to the very serious and rapidly changing threats we face. These important new powers will only be used when it is necessary and proportionate and are subject to stringent safeguards and oversight'” he tells Al jazeera..

“We believe the bill strikes the right balance in strengthening security whilst protecting civil liberties. We will give careful consideration to the Committee’s report,” he says.

Terror toddlers

A 39-page consultation document accompanying the Bill and issued by the Home Office was heavily criticised for identifying nurseries and pre-school childcare providers as having a duty to to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.

The consultation paper said: “Senior management and governors should make sure that staff have training that gives them the knowledge and confidence to identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism and challenge extremist ideas which can be used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups.”

Brokenshire agrees, “We must ensure that poisonous, divisive ideologies are not allowed to spread, including through our universities. There is no contradiction between promoting freedom of speech and safeguarding the interests and well-being of students, staff and the wider community. The measures in the bill will build on these existing arrangements and ensure Prevent is delivered to a consistent standard across the country,” he says.

Begg was released in August 2014 after being held for seven months in prison on accusations – subsequently dropped – that he had supported terrorist activity in Syria, feels new legislation stigmatises Muslim families.

“Some parents may become fearful of sending their children to schools or healthcare services, if they feel they may come under unwarranted scrutiny by those who do not understand their beliefs or culture,” he says.

A Home Office spokesman responded to accusations that new measures may disenfranchise an already maginalised Muslim community in the UK.

“It is important that children are taught fundamental British values in an age-appropriate way. For children in the early years, this will be about learning right from wrong and in practitioners challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes.”

Recovering from a stress related disorder, Umm Khalid is determined to give her children as normal a life as possible.

“They said I forced my extreme views on my sons and deemed it appropriate for me to only see them for seven hours a week over three days. I feel my family was broken up not for having extreme or radical views but simply for being practising Muslims with opinions about British foreign policy.”

Does she see a chance of being permanently reunited with her sons?

“No, not in this climate,” she says, staring at their last school photo. Sent to her in their absence.