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Home > Politics

Terrorism: Is It Time to Cast the Net Narrower?

24 February 2006

This week four actors from the award-winning film 'The Road to Guantanamo' were detained at Luton airport as they returned from the Berlin film festival, where the film was premiered. The reason? They were travelling with two ex-terrorist suspects formerly held at Guantanamo, on whose story the film is partly based, and who had been to the film festival as well.

Shafiq Rasul and Rhuhel Ahmed, from the West Midlands, went to Pakistan in 2001 to arrange a wedding and later travelled to Afghanistan, where they were picked up as terrorist suspects. They ended up in Guantanamo Bay, and were eventually released in 2004 without charge. Al Qaeda masterminds they do not appear to be.

The six men were understandably annoyed when they were detained by police at Luton airport and questioned. One of the actors, Rizwan Ahmed, allegedly had a phone wrestled out of his hand when he tried to call a lawyer, and was referred to by one of the policemen as a 'fucker'.

Perhaps worst of all, a grave insult was levelled at Ahmed, who was asked 'Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?' This is more or less the worst thing you can say to an actor - it implies they don't have any 'range'. It's like asking Donald Sinden if he became a follower of Thespis so that he could star in 'Never the Twain'.

So what to make of this unsavoury incident? Arsehole comments aside, nothing *too* terrible happened to the group. None were arrested, and they were only detained for an hour. But the fact that the actors were questioned about the film suggests the group wasn't detained as a matter of routine because they included two former terror suspects.

This is a pretty sorry state of affairs. Since when did appearing in a film about Guantanamo Bay constitute grounds for police questioning? And is this the sort of treatment Shafiq Rasul and Rhuhel Ahmed can expect for the rest of their lives? Neither have been convicted or even charged with any offence, and both were picked up by the Americans in Afghanistan - hardly the most reliable indicator of involvement in terrorism.

In a way, the most disturbing thing about the whole incident is the farcical nature of it. None of the men detained were acting in a way that even vaguely resembles how an actual terrorist operates. Real terrorists tend to keep quiet about what they're doing, not collaborating with Michael Winterbottom on a feature film. The incident shouldn't be that surprising, though. Given that the government has taken a scaremongering approach to terrorism it's not surprising that some of the hysteria should filter down the chain.(Anyone remember Scimitar tanks at Heathrow? What were they going to do if there *had* been terrorists there? Open up on Terminal 1 with a 30mm cannon?)

This week Channel 4 showed 'Dispatches: Spinning Terror', another programme by Peter Oborne, political editor of the Spectator. One of Oborne's points was that government policy on terrorism is driven not by common sense but by the need to appear 'tough' on terror and grab tabloid headlines, something they certainly achieved when last year's hastily cobbled together anti-terror proposals prompted the headline 'VICTORY FOR SUN OVER NEW TERROR LAWS'.

In an echo of the recent questioning of actors, there was an interview with one of the suspects in the non-existent plan to launch a bomb attack on Old Trafford on match day. The attack was based on groundless rumours fuelled by the tabloids and the police, for whom the glory of having averted a major terrorist incident seemed to have completely obscured the fact that the incident wasn't real. Maybe they should try this approach with other crimes:

'We've found your bike.'

'But it's not been stolen.'

'We'll call that a result, then.'

Being hauled in by the police ruined the lives of several of the suspects, who lost homes, jobs and friends. One suspect still wanted to remain anonymous long after being completely cleared of any wrongdoing because of the ill-feeling toward him: he was still treated with suspicion, not merely by acquaintances or workmates, but by members of his own family.

Tony Blair must surely take some of the blame for these fuck-ups, having repeatedly made hysterical statements about the threat of terrorism. Try this one, made at the launch of the new terror proposals last year:

'There are people out there who are determined to destroy our way of life and there is no point in us being naïve about it.'

It's a comment that could equally have come from Nick Griffin. The good news is that Griffin is a twat with no real power. The bad news is that Blair isn't. (Without real power, that is.) Blair also claimed there were 'several hundred' people in the UK 'plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts'. He went on to justify new powers of detention and strange new offences like 'glorification of terrorism' by saying:

'What they [the security services] say is that you have got to give us powers in between mere surveillance of these people… you have got to give us power in between just surveying them and being sure enough to prosecute them beyond reasonable doubt.'

Assuming the 'security services' did actually say this, there is a very good reason for not giving them new powers: Islamic extremism in the UK isn't very well understood. The security services have been playing catch up since September 11, trying to recruit Arabic speakers (MI6) and gathering information on Islamic extremists in the UK (MI5). But they're still not up to speed. In contrast to Northern Ireland, where the security forces had excellent intelligence on terrorists (and were not hampered by language barriers) they're still feeling around in the dark, as evidenced by the high number of Islamic terror suspects released without charge.

Introduce more legislation and police powers into this environment, and you're bound to get more of what we've seen recently: wrongful arrests, misguided detentions, security operations based on hearsay, and so on. Not only do these create resentment among (mainly) Muslims, but the general population is going to get tired of the authorities crying wolf. It's not that the threat of terrorism isn't real, it's that for people who have to live with it (i.e. us) it's a fucking insult when the government turns it into a political issue or a chance to suck up
to Rebekah Wade.

Coincidentally, even as we write this a block of Swansea flats has been evacuated and a man arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act after the discovery of a 'potentially harmful substance' thought to be explosives. Police say the raid was based on 'information of a very sensitive and very delicate
nature'. We'll be interested to see how 'delicate' the information turns out to be. Delicate to the point of flimsiness, perhaps?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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