What became of Blair’s

 “several hundred” terrorists?


"What they [the security services] say is you have got to give us powers in between mere surveillance of these people - there are several hundred of them in this country who we believe are engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts - you have got to give us power in between just surveying them and being sure enough to prosecute them beyond reasonable doubt. There are people out there who are determined to destroy our way of life and there is no point in us being naive about it.” [my emphasis]


These are the words of the Prime Minister on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 on 28 February 2005, when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was before Parliament (see Times report here).  The Bill became an Act on 11 March after much toing and froing between the Lords and Commons.


The Act allows the Home Secretary to impose a “control order” on any individual who in his opinion “is or has been involved in terrorism-related activity”.  When the control order deemed necessary by the Home Secretary amounts to house arrest, he has to apply to a court for it.  But in neither case is the individual charged, let alone given the opportunity to answer the charge against him.


On the basis of the Prime Minister’s remarks on Women’s Hour, one could be forgiven for thinking that by now, two months after the Bill became law, “several hundred” individuals would be subject to control orders.  But, in fact only about a dozen individuals have been, and none of them from the “several hundred” referred to by the Prime Minister.  All of them are foreign nationals, who had already been detained under Section 23 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.  


In other words, literally none of the “several hundred” terrorists said by the Prime Minister to be “engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts” have been made subject to control orders, even though, he said, the security services were demanding powers to deal with these people, whom they weren’t in a position to prosecute.


It seems that the Prime Minister was, as usual, playing fast and loose with the truth when speaking on Women’s Hour on 28 February.  As I wrote last March:


“The reality is likely to be that, with a few exceptions, these apparently dangerous terrorists will continue to roam our streets uncontrolled – because they are not really dangerous at all, but the Prime Minister felt the need to mention them in order to frighten Parliament into passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act.”


It appears that I was wrong: to the best of my knowledge, there have been no exceptions.


The introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was prompted by the House of Lords’ ruling last December that Section 23 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (see here).  Section 23 allowed for the detention without trial of foreign nationals suspected of terrorist links, who couldn’t be deported to their country of origin, because they might be subject to torture there.


Section 23 was due to expire on 14 March 2005, and the Prime Minister attempted to frighten Parliament into passing new legislation by raising the spectre of dangerous terrorists walking free (even though the Conservatives offered to support the renewal Section 23 for a limited period).  And since the new legislation was to apply to British as well as foreign nationals, in order to justify its enactment, he felt the need to raise the spectre of “several hundred” terrorist suspects of British nationality on the loose.


In fact, by the time the new legislation came into force, the foreign nationals originally detained under Section 23 were out on bail under conditions that placed severe restrictions on their liberty.  When the new legislation came into force, they were put under control orders, the terms of which bore a striking resemblance to their previous bail conditions.


All this begs a number of questions:-


(1)     Why did the foreign suspects, who for years were deemed to be so dangerous that they had to be locked up in solitary confinement, suddenly, and simultaneously, become so much less dangerous that they were allowed to live at home, albeit with severe restrictions on their liberty?


(2)     If the Prime Minister’s “several hundred” British suspects did exist, why did he wait until the legislation applying to foreign suspects was about to expire before taking measures to deal with them?


(3)     If the Prime Minister’s “several hundred” British suspects do exist, why have none of them been made subject to control orders under the new legislation?


Few convictions

The Home Office published a series of background papers when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was going through Parliament.  The first of these reveals (p2) that an extraordinarily small number of people have been convicted in the UK under anti-terrorist legislation in recent years, at a time when the Government has being warning unceasingly of the dangers from “international terrorism”, by which they mean terrorism emanating from the Muslim world.


Prior to 9/11, a comprehensive anti-terrorism law, the Terrorism Act 2000, was passed.  Amongst other things, this allowed the proscription of foreign terrorist organisations and allowed individuals to be tried for engaging in terrorism abroad.  It came into force in February 2001.


According to the Home Office paper, post 9/11 and up to the end of 2004, there were 701 arrests under this Act.  Of these, 119 were charged under the Act but only 17 were convicted.  What is more, by no means all of those convicted were from a Muslim background.  When the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme looked into the convictions, according to a BBC News report:


“Information gathered with the help of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Institute of Race Relations provided details of 13 [of the 17] convictions.

“It emerged that three of the convictions related to Irish republicanism and four to the Irish loyalist movement.

“Two stemmed from a Sikh terrorism case and one involved Tamil terrorism.

“Only three related to some form of Islamic terrorism.”


There have been more convictions this year (for example, of Saajid Badat and Kamel Bourgass) but overall the number of convictions of Muslims for terrorist offences in Britain since 9/11 has been extraordinarily small.


The Home Office paper does not say how many of the 119 charged under the Act had the charges against them dropped before reaching trial.  It does say that of the 119 charged under the Act, 45 were also charged with other offences, and that 135 others arrested under the Act were charged under other legislation, “including charges for terrorist offences covered in other criminal law such as the use of explosives”.   The paper doesn’t say how many arrested under the Act were convicted of offences under other legislation.  I suspect not many, otherwise the paper would have told us.


Time and again, over the past few years, arrests of alleged terrorists from a Muslim background, have been reported in banner headlines, with the obvious encouragement of the Government.  In David Blunkett’s time in the Home Office, he sometimes convicted them on the spot.  Since very few of these arrests were followed by high profile trials, it must be assumed that many of them were followed by the quiet release of most or all of the suspects, or the equally quiet charging of them with relatively minor offences.


The ricin ring

The most high profile case that came to court – the al-Qaeda ricin ring uncovered in January 2003 – ended in farce.  Around 90 people were arrested in this investigation, of which nine were eventually charged.  In the first trial, which lasted six months and finished on 13 April 2005, the five defendants were acquitted of conspiracy to murder by plotting attacks with ricin.  One individual, Kamel Bourgass, was convicted of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance with poisons.  Earlier, at an unpublicised trial, he had been convicted of killing a policeman at the time of his arrest.  A second trial of the other four defendants was abandoned.


In reality, the ricin ring produced no ricin, and wasn’t a ring.  What is more, two days after the public announcement that traces of ricin had been discovered in a flat in Wood Green, North London, Porton Down scientists had concluded that the original finding was a false positive: no ricin had been produced, and there were no other poisons in the flat.   Needless to say, these basic facts were not announced to the public, then or since.


Recipes for ricin, and other poisons, were found in the flat, but they were of US origin and probably obtained by Bourgass from the internet, rather from an al-Qaeda handbook, as asserted by the prosecution.  In any case, they were useless for producing poisons capable of killing an individual, let alone large numbers of people, as widely reported.  Bourgass may have wanted to produce ricin and other poisons, and to kill people with them, but the chances of him doing so were remote.


This case would never have got off the ground if it wasn’t for a confession by an Algerian, called Muhammad Meguerba, to his Algerian interrogators, a confession which he later recanted.  He told them that he was part of a UK-based poison cell, having received special training on poisons with Bourgass in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and he said that ricin had already been produced.  This is what got the hare running.


Even when the trial ended with the acquittal of all but Bourgass, the Government was clearly determined to keep the hare running, and present the investigation as having foiled a serious al-Qaeda plot to produce poisons and use them to lethal effect.  And by and large the press obliged by telling this story.


For the truth of the matter, see GlobalSecurity.Org notes on the case:

(1)     UK TERROR TRIAL FINDS NO TERROR: Not guilty of conspiracy to poison London with ricin, 11 April 2005

(2)     MORE UK TERROR TRIAL: Evil foiled or more mendacity?, 13 April 2005

(3)   PLAYTIME RECIPES FOR POISONS: The Bourgass notes of mass exaggeration, 18 April 2005


*  *  *  *


The lesson of all this is: when the Government speaks about terrorism, be sceptical, be very sceptical.




The following statements were made in the House of Commons on 10 March 1993, during the annual debate on the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Hansard, cols 972–5):


“It must be accepted, as it was accepted when the power was introduced, that prima facie the power is offensive to the basic principle of the rule of law, which is that deprivation of liberty should be through the courts and not through politicians.”


“It is not good enough to say that the Home Secretary will exercise them in a proper way, because the very principle of the rule of law is that that decision should be made by a court, not a politician.”


“The notion that one should be detained by executive power rather than order of the court is contrary to the provisions of the convention on human rights. If the right hon. . . . Gentleman cannot understand that, he cannot understand the basis of British law.”


“It is important that the power is vested in a court because in this country we believe that the powers of detention should be exercised by courts, not by politicians, civil servants or parts of the Executive.”


The speaker was an up and coming opposition Home Affairs spokesman, named Blair.



Labour & Trade Union Review

May 2005