When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses

Chapter Five: The Animal Liberation Front on UK campuses

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Chapter Five: The Animal Liberation Front on UK campuses

Those who believe that the only way to achieve their aims is to physically abuse or to verbally threaten with violence or murder are, thankfully, in a minority. However, it does not need many people to terrorise successfully. This truth can be demonstrated in the case of those groups who have links to animal rights extremism.
While several universities are themselves the targets of attacks by animal extremists, there is only circumstantial evidence to suggest that students are involved in the type of intimidation that has seen bodysnatching and people’s lives being threatened. Even so, the evidence shows clearly that universities are not able to protect their members from the terrorist work of some Animal Liberation Front (ALF) supporters.
Before the ban on fox-hunting, it was not unusual to see hunt-saboteur societies at universities but even this seems to have somewhat diminished. However, it is known that some of the leaders of the extremist groups are graduates. Despite their relatively small numbers, the likes of the Animal Liberation Front and SHAC have successes well out of proportion to their size.
It has been reported that tough new tactics by the police against animal rights activists have resulted in a decline in attacks. The police strategy of “beheading” movements by arresting suspected leaders, and the actions taken in the civil courts, by solicitor Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, to fight back against ALF terrorists, has sometimes been claimed to constitute a real change from the position which existed previously when some leading members of the British pharmaceutical industry had publicly questioned whether research work could carry on in Britain.154 Those respected journalists, like Nick Fielding of The Sunday Times - who argued that “all was quiet in the animal lab” and who had, he said, detected “signs that the well-organised animal rights movement is in crisis” - have clearly got things badly wrong.
In May 2005, prior to the attack in Oxford in July 2005 and the forced closure of a guinea pig breeding farm the following month, Oxford University announced that it was ordering an investigation into how an animal rights group appeared to have secured access to names and addresses of staff and even job applicants. The investigation was ordered after one individual who applied for an administration post at the University in a department that was presumably targeted by an extremist group received a letter saying: “I am writing to you as I suspect that you are an employee or student of Oxford University. I am sure that you are aware of the university’s plans to build a large animal research laboratory in the centre of Oxford. I am asking for information on contractors working on the new laboratory, individuals involved with it, information on the locations and activities of any existing labs or breeding facilities operation, and any information, no matter how sketchy, you have relating to animal research.”
A spokesman for the University said it was unclear how the group had acquired personal details adding: “A number of individuals have received letters claiming to be from an organisation called the Oxford University information appeal. We take the protection of personal data extremely seriously and it is a matter of concern that individuals have been contacted at home. The matter is currently under investigation and we are unable to comment further at this stage.”
Last year, home addresses and phone numbers of university staff were displayed on an animal rights website. The service provider Yahoo later removed them.155
The situation at Oxford took another step in July 2005 with an arson attack on a boathouse, causing some £500,000 worth of damage. The Animal Liberation Front’s Bite Back website issued a statement claiming responsibility. Before deploying incendiary devices, they padlocked the doors and glued all the locks to avoid the possibility of people entering before the devices ignited. The purpose of the attack was to terrorise Oxford University into halting all lawful experimentation on animals. The University was advised by the arsonists that “nothing is off limits, nothing you own, rent or have dealings with…We will not let you off the hook”. 156
Two US academics, Tom Regan (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina State University) and Steven Best (Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Texas) recently spoke at the International Animal Rights Gathering 2005 (AR2005) in Kent. In his speech, Best said: “Now Communism is dead, we are the new spectre in the world. We are named as the number one terrorist threat in the US and UK. Can you believe it?”

He added: “We are not terrorists, but we are a threat [our emphasis]. We are a threat both economically and philosophically. Our power is not in the right to vote but the power to stop production. We will break the law and destroy property until we win.”

He compared the animal rights struggle to the fight against slavery. “We are abolitionists. We don’t want to reform them [vivisectionist companies], we want to wipe them off the face of the earth. We will fight, and die if necessary, to free the slaves”.
The British Government announced, in late August, that Best would be banned from speaking at a rally by animal extremists. The Home Office told Best his presence in the UK would not be conducive to the public good.157 The AR2005 conference saw attendees taught the finer points of unarmed combat, surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques, how to infiltrate vivisection firms and computer security.158

Chapter Six - The response from the university authorities

While several groups and individuals operating at universities have been identified over the years as posing a real or potential threat to the security of this country, the response from the universities themselves is at best muted and at worst, naïve and non-existent.

In the interests of maintaining what can seem ill-defined concepts of free speech (ill-defined, because for many years speech has definitely not been free in Britain) and of sustaining apparently liberal attitudes to political events on campuses, many universities are plainly loath to interfere with what their students do out of the class room. Cynics might add: they increasingly avoid interfering with what their students do in class room. Increasingly, lists of non-attenders may, or may not be taken; students are given several attempts at passing modules and, in some cases, may have failed modules condoned as if they were passes. Students, as customers frequently demand to read job references written for them, or when asked to leave one university, will demand references to admit them to another. Dons who refuse to write them may find themselves subject to formal complaints.
It is perhaps not hard to see the dogged adherence to the idea of free speech as little more than a convenient way of disguising a laissez-faire attitude towards higher education on the grounds that it requires far less effort to do nothing than to do something. Most British universities are already severely understaffed and under-resourced. Inevitably, things must be given up.
The fact that most students spend only three or four years on campus adds to the pressures on dons to ignore what they do wherever it seems plausible to do so. As such, many student societies and groups are free to operate as they please and unless specific complaints are made, it often seems that transgressions can go unpunished or at the most, are dealt with by a slap of the wrist. However, it has been proved that people from British campuses have gone on to commit terrorist actions, so why aren’t university authorities involving themselves more with identifying potential problems
Despite the assumption that university security departments would play some part in involving themselves in dealing with potential problems on campuses, the fact is that rather than carrying out pro-active measures to identify troublespots, security departments can only react to incidents. From the information we gathered on groups and suspects, several universities were identified as being likely or known centres of potential subversive action and were asked whether they wanted to participate in this study. Few were willing to do so; claiming that such discussions were too sensitive but some did respond and particular thanks must go to George Blanchflower, who is chair of the Association of University Chief Security Officers (AUCSO).
AUCSO was set up during the 1980s to consolidate the working practices and standards of university security officers. Members meet for conferences to share information and techniques and discuss relevant issues. There are also working groups to train security staff. Otherwise, there is little official communications between security officials on a day-to-day basis.
The primary role of university security departments is, of course, to ensure the safety of staff and students and to help prevent crime on campus. This is no easy task and university populations can reach into the tens of thousands, while grounds are often open to the public. An official from one university said: “Most of the issues on campus are theft-related as students are pretty poor at security and fail to close doors or lock windows. The majority of incidents are relatively minor in that they involve alcohol or people fighting over, say a girl. Furthermore at our university, there are little or no problems relating to politics, race or religion. Even when someone may be, say racially abused, it’s usually the case where alcohol is involved and we’ll try and talk to the accused person and deal with the incident quietly.”159
The head of security at another university agreed, saying that his main role was to prevent crime and that his role was nothing glamorous and depended much upon simple common sense.

The spokesman at the first university claims that groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir do occasionally appear but according to him are “more vocal than actually doing anything.”160 He also said that Far Right groups were absent from the campus, though this comment has been debated and a member of that student union claimed that at least one BNP poster had been seen on campus.161

However, the fact is that one of these universities was the centre of a police investigation and several students and a staff member were arrested on terrorism charges and the case is now sub judice. Here, the security department was involved in assisting the police in its actions against the arrested individuals but the fact that the incident occurred makes a mockery of the statement that there are no problems relating to politics, race or religion.
A close relationship with the police is key to the success of university security departments and while one official admitted that it wasn’t close at every university, at his it was. Indeed, a small building is presently under construction on the edge of the university grounds that will be used by police officers to allow them access on to the grounds. Furthermore, discussions are being conducted into whether the police can be integrated into the university’s radio network.
At other universities, an officer from the local station is always allocated to the campus and is the first point of contact in any incident.162
Nevertheless, officials warn that too many police on campus may create an atmosphere of distrust and worry. Additionally, the concept of running more covert operations on campuses against students is also discouraged due to the fear of such operations being blown and resentment growing as a result.
Another important partnership for university security officials is to work closely with the student unions, and here there appears to be some success. Both the security departments and the unions want the same thing, namely the well-being of the students. As such, there has been an increase in security cameras and lighting across many universities, with little or no opposition. It is interesting to note that, only a decade ago, when students would very likely have been against this increased surveillance.
There is no set manual for dealing with serious issues on campuses and if there is an incident that warrants further investigation, the university will phone the police and get them involved and then steps can be taken. But officials claim that it is not for the university to conduct investigations, the security department does not have the skills and such an action could be theoretically dangerous. Blanchflower was the only official to talk about being pro-active, saying that his team were active during freshers’ weeks, concentrating especially on foreign students. He said: “This can be useful if we have a particularly large ethnic group coming to study at the university at any one point.” However, given the present climate in the UK, it must be asked whether security departments should not be doing more pro-active work on their grounds?
Student demographics have changed significantly over the past ten years. As universities are forced to be more financially independent, so they turn to a wider and more diverse base to attract students from. One official noted that there had been a substantial rise in the number of students coming from the People’s Republic of China.
This is particularly interesting in light of recent reports noting that Chinese students are said to be running spy rings in European universities. The European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre quoted an unnamed European intelligence source as saying that an economic spy network was being run from an educational institution in Belgium and had been under surveillance for two years. The ring is said to use groups of students and internship seekers as a front organisation with no obvious links to Chinese diplomats and these agents are planted around northern Europe including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Its main target, the report stated, were laboratories and universities.163
The university official in question reported that the Chinese students at his university, which is noted for its scientific and engineering excellence, are very friendly and deferential and they, along with the large numbers of other Asian students at the university, are happy to work with the security department when needed.
Overseas students are not vetted by university security departments; instead, as long as they are able to provide references from academic institutions in their own nation and providing they have a suitable student visa, they are able to enter the UK to study. Furthermore, there is no contact between the universities and immigration departments at entry points into the UK unless there is a serious problem with a student’s credentials. And even if there is, immigration departments deal with administration rather than security departments.
Furthermore, security departments do not keep records of the ethnic demographics of the students. The typical response when asked about this was: “Well, I’m sure some part of administration will have some kind of records.”
While administration departments do perhaps keep some records of ethnicity, one organisation that certainly does so is the student union clubs and societies office. Typically, students wishing to join a club or society have to fill out a form which indicates contact details, their student number and their ethnicity, though there is an option for refusing this information.
A spokesman for one student union said that while an individual’s privacy had of course to be respected, he would have no trouble in offering up membership information to the authorities if it were deemed necessary.164
It appears that university security departments have no knowledge of exactly who is entering the university or of what they might be up to. All they can do, and there is no reason to believe they do not do this well, is react to events once they have occurred. While the Data Protection Act protects an individual’s privacy, it would seem logical to think that a security department should know exactly who is studying at a university and that a list of names could easily be cross-referenced with any other list provided by the relevant authorities.
Many security officers say that they believe students are less involved with politics than they were during the radical days of the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst this may be true for the majority of students, who have greater pressure on them to manage their own financial affairs wisely, terrorism is not (thankfully) a majority activity. When it is noted, as one official did, that today’s students are full of the work ethic, this generalisation about the many easily conceals the facts about the few.
However, it is not at all clear that students are still less political, even if they were so a few years ago. During the 2003 demonstrations against the war in Iraq, for example, students were represented in immense numbers and when Jewish students resigned from the NUS over its supposed failure to deal with racism, the story made headlines around the world, likewise the case of the YBNP member who attends Salford University attracted much attention.
Similarly, Islamic Societies are claimed to be the largest and most active groups on campuses today and are playing an ever more active part in student politics. This is something, that according to at least one researcher, they are being resented for, which is causing some disharmony on campuses.165
The use of a club or society to mask one’s intentions is a useful cover in a university as there tends to be little overseeing of a group’s actions. Setting up a society is a straightforward process. The student has to be interviewed by the student union as to why he or she wishes to start an organisation. But that is all. There is no monitoring of what a club or society actually does. Where students are, perhaps, naïve enough to state precise aims, they can meet with rejection. The spokesman of one student union recalled that in 2004 some students had attempted to set up an official Al Qaeda society to “discuss topical events” but the request was denied.
If the go-ahead is given, the student then typically has to collect x number of signatures (and student ID numbers) from students who believe the organisation is a good idea. A trial period then begins and by its completion, the club or society has to have agreed upon a code of practice, recruited suitable numbers and appointed individuals to the key roles. The club or society is then supported by the student union and a budget is agreed upon which the organisation can use on advertising and promotional material.
Occasionally, students set up groups without going through the procedures laid down by the student union. While, strictly speaking, not illegal, the use of the university name could invoke the displeasure of the student union and as a result, any unofficial groups or societies would have to operate without the support (or of course the scrutiny) of the union.
The NUS No Platform policy states that “racists and fascists should not be provided with an opportunity to speak to an audience at any NUS event, and that no member of the NEC will share a public platform with a racists or fascists”. This is, of course, not the same as banning an official student club or society, still less does it tell us anything about unofficial clubs and societies on campuses.
This No Platform policy is endorsed by the NUS in order to ensure that both the national union and local student unions can provide a safe environment for their members. The NUS believes that groups such as the BNP, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun seek to incite violence and that by allowing them a platform there is the potential for members to be hurt should violence ensue. No Platform policies not only prevent groups from attending union events but can also include banning them from even entering union buildings and displaying their publicity on union property.
In reality, each student union is able to authorise the setting up of any group it likes. It uses the NUS ruling, if it uses it at all, simply as a guideline. Whilst we believe that the No Platform policy is usually adhered to, there is evidence that certain groups use considerable skill to get around these bans. Sometimes, for example, they simply dream up a new name for themselves.
Once set up, societies are compelled to follow the union’s rules and procedures and this includes ensuring freedom of speech and abiding by the guidelines about who can be invited to speak at the university. This latter point has been the subject of concern at many universities where controversial figures are often invited to speak.
One university official noted that it tended to be not so much the speakers who were the cause of concern at the university in question. Rather it was their entourage who caused problems. However, the cases he cited had to do with pop music, and the playing of specific songs and the resulting actions by students.
A spokesman for one student union also noted that the controversial MP George Galloway had once been invited to speak at the university but opposition from groups on campus resulted in his invitation being revoked. The university authorities did not intervene.
Of course, we cannot know (because we are not able to find out) precisely what goes on in student clubs and societies, whether official or unofficial. When student union authorities are asked, for example, whether non-Muslims or non-Jews can join Muslim or Zionist clubs, there is usually no clear answer. Even if there were one, it is not obvious that the answer would be accurate. The same applies to questions on gender.
It is, therefore, one thing to have a paper commitment to the liberal values of free speech and gender, ethnic and religious equality in all student societies. It is quite another to suppose these basic tenets of liberalism are enforced by the universities and colleges who claim they lie at the heart of what they do.

Chapter Seven: The Response from Government and Police

The July 2005 bombings in London will represent a significant change in how we view the security threat in this country. Prior to the events of July, the Prime Minister and the former and the present Metropolitan Police Commissioners have spoken of several hundred people in Britain plotting attacks, though Home Secretary Charles Clarke said that there were only a tiny number of people who represented a terrorist threat.

The figure of hundreds is said to relate to the number of Britons who are known to have or suspected of having visited Al Qaeda-related training camps in Afghanistan, Chechnya or Pakistan or who have returned from Iraq. According to one report, the actual number of individuals willing to carry out an actual attack is about 40.166
It is also estimated that there are some 35-40 individuals in the UK who are willing to carry out acts up to and including violence in the name of animal rights.167
In April this year, Commissioner Sir Ian Blair told BBC’s Breakfast with Frost that: “There’s real clarity now that Al Qaeda affiliates are targeting Britain.” And he used this argument to hammer home his belief in ID cards.168 In January 2005, there was a report in Police Review magazine that the Metropolitan Police held fears of a Bali-style attack on a London entertainment venue.169
Prior to 7 July, the Security Services were credited with foiling eight attacks in the UK within the previous three years. Some of these were discredited and no one was charged, such as the apparent plot to bomb Old Trafford football ground. However, in 2000, a man was convicted for plotting an explosion against an unspecified target and it was also claimed that terrorists were plotting a car bomb attack against nightclubs in Soho or in a car park beneath a prestigious London hotel.

Unconfirmed reports have suggested Al Qaeda cells had considered flying hijacked aircraft into skyscrapers in Canary Wharf in East London. One terror suspect was also thought to have been planning to hijack a plane and fly it into London’s American embassy.170 Meanwhile, Mohammed Afroz Abdul Razzak was sentenced to seven years in jail in India for planning to crash aircraft into landmarks such as the House of Commons and Tower Bridge. Prosecutors said the 30-year-old, an educated Muslim from Mumbai, had spent considerable sums of money training as a pilot, both in the United Kingdom and Australia.171

Of course, prior to 7 July, MI5 had reduced its threat level to severe, though it did not deny the threat was still serious. A spokesperson for the Security Service said that exact numbers of operatives were unknown and while there were some people who were keen to commit terrorism, the focus was primarily on Iraq and would-be terrorists were travelling to the Middle East. Only weeks after announcing the reduction in the threat level, London faced two terror attacks.
The police and security agencies have more than once identified universities as a key area to help defeat terrorism. There has, however, been no real attempt to adopt a pro-active approach to the problem. There are one or two exceptions, such as the establishment of community liaison officers with certain campuses, Goldsmith’s College in London being an example.172 Equally, leading police officers take the point that campuses may be a cause of problems but could also be the source of answers. One former senior anti-terrorist squad officer believes that while universities are vulnerable and pose an obvious target for recruitment and even for an attack, they also provide an answer to the problem of integrating minorities into the British way of life.
A spokeswoman from MI5 noted that since 2001, academics had been responding to police requests to identify problems where they could and there has been at least one case where a student has been denied entry into the UK, only for it later to be discovered that he was a member of Al Qaeda. Furthermore, in the late 1990s, a special MI5 unit was set up to investigate young British Muslims. Apparently, informants at universities were recruited and students who were suspected of gathering information useful for their nation’s attempts at building weapons of mass destruction were placed under close scrutiny.173 As far back as 1997, two MI5 officers were said to have asked members of the London Chamber of Commerce: “If you know of any Iraqi students studying chemistry at a British university for more than three years, that would be of great interest to us.”174
MI5 also believes that academics can help the authorities on those key subjects where the police and security services are not knowledgeable. However, at the moment, any schemes in monitoring students or providing assistance are entirely voluntary and the spokesperson was worried about pushing universities too hard for fear of interfering with academic freedoms.175
Since these points were raised, it has been revealed that some 200 foreign scientists have been barred from studying in the UK over the past four years amid fears that they could pose a terrorist threat. The scientists were among 2,000 vetted after applying to post-doctoral or post-graduate work.176
The scheme, whereby universities can request checks on scientists from 10 countries, including Pakistan and Syria, is said to be under review and it has been claimed that several prominent universities have refused participate in it, claiming it is an interference in their academic freedom.
An FCO spokesman said that the system had been under review since well before the July 2005 terrorist attacks. He said: “The major loophole with the scheme at the moment is that it is voluntary. If a university doesn’t take part, it is theoretically possible for an Iranian student to gain an education in nuclear physics in Britain and become part of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. It is possible and very undesirable. The review is to see whether there is any way of preventing that. It could consider that the only way is to impose it by means of a legislative bill.”177
Meanwhile, Special Branch has personnel who are dedicated to working with universities. However, they limit their access to the security departments of universities even if, on occasion, they have been known to monitor freshers’ fairs to see whether any students are being unduly pressured. However, such policing is strictly reactive: it kicks in only if there is evidence that an event has taken place.
Officers note that dealing with students and academics is difficult. Many people are wary of dealing with the “secret police,” which is often the perceived notion of Special Branch. On the other hand, academics, students and university staff are more willing to have uniformed officers regularly visiting campuses.
Though it has occurred on at least one occasion, Special Branch is largely against running covert operations on campuses for fear of the mission being compromised, thereby putting their role into the spotlight and driving the suspect groups and individuals even further underground.178
Yet their argument that a friendly janitor or some other member of staff might tip them off has its flaws. University staff are unlikely to be privy to the kinds of information that may be relevant and the only way to know whether a traveller or outsider has visited, or is about to visit, not something that can be discovered by overt means. Terrorists work in secret and do not announce their plans.
One of the other great problems facing the authorities is the impact of the war on Iraq on young Muslims. In the immediate aftermath of the 7 July bombings, the Government took great pains to point out that the bombers would have struck, regardless of the British stance on Iraq. While this can be and is being debated, what is a fact is that both the police and MI5 are concerned by the number of young Muslims travelling to the Middle East to join insurgent operations. It is estimated that up to 100 Muslim men have left Britain to fight against coalition troops in Iraq and at least three have been killed in combat.179 The spokesperson for MI5 noted that an even greater fear was that if, or when, these insurgents returned to the UK, they would have valuable skills they could pass on to other would-be insurgents or terrorists.180
According to the media, MI5 has drawn up an extensive report on why young British Muslims become radicalised. As well as monitoring human traffic between Britain and Iraq they have been looking at the problem of young Muslims becoming indoctrinated in prison and elsewhere. What they identified mirrors the findings of researchers like Marc Sageman, that there are those that are young, British, middle-class and well-educated and secondly, there are those from North Africa, who see Britain as an important target. It is estimated that there are around 30 or 40 such people, who have both the capability and the will to carry out attacks like those of 7July. Some 200 have returned from training camps in Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Bosnia, and perhaps 1,000 sympathise with the notion of a “global jihad”. It was also claimed that the names of some 1,200 British citizens who had trained with Al Qaeda, were found in a cave in Tora Bora in Afghanistan.181
The Home Office’s Project Contest made many recommendations on how the Government could build better relations with young disaffected Muslims. These included combating recruitment by terrorist groups, combating Islamophobia, improving dialogue with Muslims groups and strengthening the power of moderate Muslim student and youth organisations such as FOSIS.
Yet, of course despite all these discussions of possible threats and Britons leaving for Iraq, on the 7July 2005, bombs ripped through London’s travel infrastructure. It does not look like there was anything the law enforcement and security services could have done to stop the attacks and accusations of there being too many police being drafted up to, or too much attention being diverted to, the G8 conference in Scotland are spurious.
But while of course the attacks are, of course, shocking, it must come as no surprise if one considers the events that have unfolded in the past decade. The Government has claimed that several attacks have been thwarted and one has only to read further back in this paper to see examples of British or British-based individuals engaging in terrorism. As we have seen, their link to campus life in Britain is an established fact.
So what should be done?

Conclusion: So what should be done?

There is no doubt that Britain faces a terrorist threat which is not new in a theoretical sense, in so far as there have been numerous terrorist attacks in Britain over very many years. At the same time, the current threat from extremists is also quite unlike anything that has been seen before. No one who examines the evidence can be in any doubt that British higher education and its institutions of higher education, its universities and colleges, are now deeply, if unwittingly and unwillingly, ensnared in the extremist-terrorist nexus.

One of the major differences between previous terror attacks and those we face now is that today’s international terrorists, unlike the Red Brigades of the 1970s, have a social base and, in the case of Jihadists, an ethnic base from which to develop their plans, strategies and operations – and a base into which they can vanish if the pressure on them becomes too intense. Jihadist extremists do not speak for Muslims, whether British or otherwise. Indeed, polls show that most Muslims despise those who carry out attacks, apparently in their name. Yet the fact that Britain, like mainland Europe, has not achieved full integration of its multi-cultural society, means that individuals are able to melt back into certain communities, almost undetected.
Today’s modern, media-conscious terrorist will stop at nothing to achieve his or her aims. The terrorists tend to be better educated, not just in a particular academic discipline but in world affairs in general.
A hallmark of Al Qaeda and its affiliates’ attacks has been the targeting of transport nodes. They know that such attacks will reap maximum publicity for relatively low expense. The same can be said of animal rights extremists. There have been several incidents where members of the Animal Liberation Front have made public accusations of paedophilia against their targets, knowing full well that in today’s climate, the accused will be considered guilty until proven innocent.
Combating such individuals is by no means easy and, while there have been successes, there seems little to suggest that we are winning the war on terrorism, both internationally and in the UK.
Until 7 July, the Government has faced many problems convincing the public of the threat level to this country. Earlier this year, a former senior anti-terrorist official pointed out that if it was not possible to convince the Law Lords of the danger, the Government would have real trouble convincing the public. He said: “It is import to marginalise operative’s support, depict them as murderers, criminalise them, this will go a long way to helping our cause. We shouldn’t go down the Guantanamo Bay route, but instead do it by using criminal law. We can do lots to stop terrorist essentials in the UK, such as logistics. Each strand of the chain can be impacted upon.”182
A serious problem is that those individuals who have been arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000, or the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, have rarely been charged with terrorism offences. Out of the hundreds of suspects arrested since the events of September 2001, the majority of those that have actually been charged, and not simply released, were done so for offences such as illegal immigration.
In 2001, Omar al-Bayoumi, a business studies student in Birmingham, was arrested on suspicion of funding terrorists, yet was soon released. The collapse of the 2005 Ricin trials, where eight of the nine defendants were acquitted, is a similar case. One lawyer was reported in The Guardian as claiming that for some of those people who had downloaded recipes for poison or explosives from the Internet as similar to young people downloading pornography since it did not necessarily mean they were going to do anything, but they got a thrill from talking about and looking at it.183
Prior to the July bombings, the Government had clearly failed in its task of convincing the population that the terrorist threat was real. There is no reason to doubt this scepticism was shared within Britain’s universities. The Government and the security and intelligence community need to rethink how they present the problem. So do our universities. This was a point made by Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell on 19 July 2005. He said: “We’ve got a real challenge in higher education. The whole thrust has been about the importance of free speech on campus. But we also have a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus. That won’t be easy. I do think it’s a debate we need to be having.”184
It will, of course, take rather more than a debate to tackle extremism on Britain’s campuses. The record of universities to date has been lamentable, partly as a result of one of the unforeseen consequences of expanding the higher education system to generate exponential grown in student numbers without a consequent increase in staff. Higher education in Britain today is, in most universities, not what it was even ten years ago. The drive to increase student numbers ever higher, because cash depends on this, has produced the most blatantly ignorant lapses in security thinking by Britain’s university chiefs.
In an open letter to The Financial Times on 5 July 2005, all 120 members of Universities UK, the body that represents the heads of Britain’s universities, condemned Government plans to abolish the right of appeal for international students who are refused visas. Universities UK claim that overseas students contribute £1.2 billion per annum for their tuition, spend a further £1.86 bn on their expenses in the UK, and that overall overseas students earn some £4 bn each year for the British economy.185
They appear blissfully unaware of the fact that an unvetted or poorly vetted overseas student admissions scheme could give potential terrorists access to state of the art techniques not just in the field of WMD but also in information technology. At some universities, for example Imperial College London, all the “tools of the trade” are available. Everything for making weapons, from nuclear reactor technology to supplies of chemical fertiliser, is to be found on site.
But more than teaching students about leading edge weapons, universities allow milieus to be constructed in which recruitment to terrorism and extremism can very easily take place, within British society but also conveniently hidden from it. Indeed, it is the cultural haven that British campuses still offer which will be most attractive to prospective terrorists. In their obsession with expansion, earning money and displaying their entrepreneurial excellence to Government, university chiefs have forgotten that universities are first and foremost designed to serve the needs of liberal democracies and their values. Cash considerations must come second, if they come anywhere.
By failing to address the problem of security – a failure which has many sources, not least a fear of being deemed illiberal or even Islamophobic, extremism has been allowed to propagate itself. Yet the victims of the London bombers included Muslims, and the Islamic community in Britain has clearly and definitively distanced itself from extremism. Even so, British dons would sooner do anything than say to a student, “your attitudes are outrageous and they remove us from any obligation to teach you - unless you undertake citizenship and democracy classes and prove you can live in a liberal democracy and abide by its rules”.
The Government wants to introduce a series of measures including banning Al Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir. To do so will require support from Parliament and the Law Lords, something that is not a foregone conclusion. Furthermore seeing that there are a number of opponents in academe to the Government’s anti-terror plans, even if the ban does go ahead, there is no guarantee that the universities themselves could support such a ban, even if they wished to, which is unclear.
The decision to ban the groups received a mixed reception from student leaders. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, but probably unwisely (as we suggest below), the Union of Jewish Students supported it with campaigns manager Mitch Simmons saying: “We have been calling for this ban for over a decade. We are pleased that it’s happened. We’re also wary that just because you ban something they don’t exist anymore. The UJS will continue to be looking at freshers fairs to see what groups are around and will continue to alert university authorities”.
However, Wakkas Khan, the president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, said: “Proscribing groups that are understood to be non-violent is certainly a step in the wrong direction. Hizb ut-Tahrir is clearly understood to be a non-violent organisation with strong and vocal opinions which the Muslim community may agree or disagree with. This does not warrant a ban on this group as such actions will only be counterproductive.”
Jamal el-Shayyal, a member of the NUS’s national executive, said that the ban was unlikely to make a difference. “How can you outlaw an ideology? You can’t outlaw an ideology. As much as I disagree with them they are not inciteful to anything. It really won’t make a difference”.186
And even if the universities do support the plans and wish to make more of an effort to halt the spread of extremism, they have no systems or mechanisms for enacting them. Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir continually change their identities, methods and websites to avoid detection by authorities who have little understanding as to what actually goes on in some student society meetings. Alternatively they set up stalls “outside the campus, where the students can reach us but the authorities can do nothing”.187
Our research shows there are simply no control mechanisms in place in universities to police a ban, other than the most rudimentary reactive ones. It is quite likely that within only a few months, any bans will be only as effective as ones such as banning the use of mobile phones in cars.
The Dutch Ministry of the Interior suggested, in a report published in December 2004, that: “The tasks of the educational sector within the context of radicalisation problems are quite comprehensive. We may identify two distinct directions. Firstly, schools might play a role in the identification of radicalisation and informing the competent authorities. Secondly, they can obviously transfer and encourage the internalisation of the Western democratic ideas on legal order.”188
And as one former anti-terrorism official said: “Since September 11 there has been work done with the academic community in a whole series of unexpected ways. However, more needs to be done to establish conflict management as a discipline. They can also help us overcome our serious failure to communicate with the public. It is even more serious to fail to work together with marginalised groups and we need to focus on ways how we can prevent a 17-year-old becoming susceptible to the man who has just returned from Jihad in Iraq.”189
So everyone seems to agree that higher education has a role to play in combating terror and stopping the evolution of new generations of extremists. But how exactly can this be achieved?
What the above statements point to is a need to reflect, and act, on the twin functions which universities possess in today’s Britain. On the one hand, they can all too easily constitute safe havens and recruitment sites for extremism and terrorism – to an extent which many in them find hard to fathom. On the other, with a mix of serious security measures, including pro-active ones, and innovatory teaching and pastoral measures, it ought to be possible to enable universities and colleges to divert young radicals from extremism and terror into legal and acceptable modes of political expression. It is not a crime to oppose the Government’s policy on Iraq (or on anything else). It is most certainly not a crime to seek to change that policy through the established processes and procedures of liberal democracy. It is, however, a grave offence to try to make policy through terror, killing and maiming. Democracies must fight back against all those who seek to do so. Universities have a decisive role to play in that war.
Here we outline some of the broader measures that universities can take. First of all, it should be understood that we believe the problem of terror and subversion is primarily, but not simply, a criminal one. It contains an important political element. However, it is not, in itself, about a religion or religious beliefs. It follows that Jihadists are more than simple criminals, they believe in something and political ideas are clearly important to them. It is true, nevertheless, that their religion also seems to matter to them. We still do not know where the borders between faith and politics lie. We cannot tell whether preachers who preach political violence are clerics – or actually politicians. However, whatever the answer should prove to be, political dialogue and a clear statement of the political tenets of liberal democracy should always be placed at the front of any attempts to divert young radicals from extremism and terror.
We acknowledge that universities have become supermarkets, they are no longer delicatessens, established to be communities of knowledge for the benefit of a small number of the most talented in our society. However, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of profit. Even this would be acceptable if universities were run with a greater emphasis on security. In fact, financial pressure (Government funding for universities has declined by one third in real terms since 1989) means that most universities have no idea of who their students are. There are now 2,247,440 students in the UK, of whom 210,510 are international, that is non-EU students. The figures are even more startling in the case of post-graduate research students. International students constitute a staggering 38 per cent of full time research students. Even if we accept the universities’ proud trumpeting of the figure of £35 billion per year earned by the university sector as a whole, to expand to this extent without any real thought being given to security concerns within universities is surely a folly of the first order.

Appendix: Policy recommendations:

  • Institute proper screening to exclude dangerous students.

  • Interview all students to test them for their commitment to higher education.

  • Abolish “clearing”.

  • Establish direct links between university registrars and immigration officers at ports of entry.

  • Deny a university place to any applicant, home or overseas, who cannot provide proof of identity.

  • Maintain a friendly community police presence on campuses. Communities with populations measured in the tens of thousands need a regular police presence.

  • Ensure that the ethnic composition of any single university reflects, broadly, the ethnic mix of the UK as a whole.

  • Give serious thought to the content of courses currently being taught on UK campuses to test whether they are conducive to a culture of security in British campuses; reviewing all courses which appear to extol or glorify violent revolution.

  • Establish comprehensive lists of all student societies to check membership, aims and objectives and provide monitoring of activities. Include dons on all student society and club committees.

  • Maintain accurate student records based on clear proof of identity.

  • More actively promote liberal democratic aims and citizenship requirements courses for all students.

  • Teach students how to become part of an academic community, based on trust and shared values, regardless of race, religion and gender, whilst stamping out activities such as plagiarism which undermine the concept of a community of scholars.

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