Home secretary Priti Patel is proposing a new terrorism offence. And it’s one that should worry us all. Not just because the UK already has an array of draconian terrorism laws but because of the implications for freedom of speech and what might be included.
Patel is looking at whether there is “a gap in the legislation” and is proposing creating an offence prohibiting possession of terrorist and extremist material. Currently, it is a crime to distribute terrorism information, but not simply to own it.
Just in itself, this is a frightening prospect that criminalises thought – especially given that while terrorism is defined in law, extremism doesn’t have a legal definition. But in the context of a policing strategy that equates protest with terrorism, it is utterly terrifying.
The proposals for the new offence came after the inquest into the deaths of the people killed during the London Bridge attacks. Chief coroner Mark Lucraft raised concerns that:
While there are offences of possessing a document likely to be useful to a person in committing an act of terrorism (Section 58, Terrorism Act 2000), and of disseminating terrorist publications (Section 2, Terrorism Act 2006), there is no offence of possessing terrorist or extremist propaganda material. It may be impossible to take action even when the material is of the most offensive and shocking character.
Whilst propaganda is too slippery a term to be useful in defining a criminal offence, I think there is a good case for focusing on possession of the most violent forms of terrorist imagery such as torture and beheadings… it may be sensible to prohibit possession of extreme terrorist material.
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While it’s hard to imagine a scenario that isn’t academic or journalistic to possess images of beheadings, it’s important to remember there’s a myriad of existing terrorism laws – laws which are already draconian. In fact, one of the only pieces of legislation that passed through our Brexit blocked parliament was the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act. Amongst other provisions, this Act widened the offence of “inviting support to a proscribed organisation” to:
cover expressions of support that are reckless as to whether they will encourage others to support the organisation.
A slippery slope
But while Hall rightly states that propaganda is a “slippery term”, one of the biggest problems lies in defining terrorism and extremism. Because the way the state uses both is already a slippery slope.
And on 10 January, environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) hit the headlines after its inclusion in a counter-terror policing document for safeguarding young and vulnerable people.
Although Patel accepted XR wasn’t a terrorist group, she defended its inclusion, stating it was “based in terms of risk to the public, security risks, security threats”. But while the liberal establishment is shocked and ‘scared’ by her defence, anyone with even a passing knowledge of protest policing will tell you this isn’t anything new.
Writing about XR in 2018, I warned:
Those protesting fracking have regularly been presented as extremists in Prevent counter-terrorism training. And in September 2019, the Guardian reported that a retired doctor was reported to Prevent over his involvement in XR.
Blurring the boundaries
I’m not arguing that if this legislation is enacted, people will immediately be prosecuted for having the XR logo or having photos of people blocking bridges. But it is a warning of how the boundaries can be blurred.
And it’s not like those boundaries haven’t been blurred before. For example, when the controversial S44 terrorism search powers were introduced that gave police blanket powers to stop anyone without needing reasonable suspicion, there were promises they wouldn’t be used on protesters.
But the reality was somewhat different. They were both used frequently and as a means of harassment and intelligence gathering on protests. In fact, they only stopped after two people took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, in 2018, 15 people were convicted of a terrorism-related offence for a peaceful protest that prevented a deportation flight taking off. The original offence was introduced in the wake of the Lockerbie bomb.
While it’s possible to see the potential, XR won’t be affected by this legislation overnight. However, it’s likely other groups will – especially groups associated with the Kurdish Freedom movement that the state is desperate to label as terrorists.
While the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – is a proscribed group in the UK, other Kurdish groups aren’t. And the YPG and YPJ are western allies, defeating Daesh (Isis/Isil) in Northern Syria aka Rojava. Many internationals, including those from the UK, have been inspired to travel to Rojava – both to fight Daesh and to learn and help with a progressive political movement that puts women and ecology at its centre.
Unlike XR, those involved in the Kurdish Freedom movement are already being prosecuted as terrorists. There are currently several people under police investigation for having travelled or attempting to travel to Rojava. In one instance a parent is on bail for sending their child money whilst there. Another person is on remand for attempting to travel there. All for terrorism offences. Meanwhile, both Kurdish people and anyone associated with Kurdish politics are regularly stopped entering and leaving the country under Schedule 7 terrorism powers.
Given these movements are already being treated as terrorists, how “extreme” would “extreme terrorist material” need to be? Would possessing images of Kurdish freedom fighters count? Or what about, for example, the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader whose work on democratic confederalism has inspired many of the ideas enacted in Rojava? These are not terrorist movements or ideas. But it’s easy to see how quickly and easily this law could be abused to cover them.
A very slippery slope
This proposed legislation is draconian and deeply worrying. And even excluding the documented ways the state regularly abuses terrorism laws and definitions, it would be chilling.
There’s going to be a lot we need to fight against under Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority. But it’s essential that issues such as this one aren’t ignored as the potential implications for all of us are massive. And if we want to ensure we don’t slip into an increasingly totalitarian state, the fightback has to start now.
Featured image via screengrab
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