Terrorist on a tag

By Paul Ellis, Legal Officer

30th November 2019

Yesterday’s terror attack on London Bridge brought us images that are now depressingly familiar: Londoners and tourists attacked by a knife wielding jihadi, tales of heroism and tragedy, and the suspension of general election campaigning.

Little was more formulaic than the statements of thoughts and prayers from people who clearly give neither, with Katie Hopkins wryly tweeting that Sadiq Khan could easily have reposted his 2017 London Bridge attack statement as his response to London Bridge #2, without changing a single word. The killer’s body would still have been warm as Twitter filled with faux anxiety about the ‘far right’ and ‘islamophobia’, by those desperate to shut down analysis of what had occurred and why.

The attacker has now been identified as Usman Khan, a former member of al-Muhajiroun the terrorist organisation founded in Saudi Arabia in 1983 by Osama Bin Laden’s brother in arms Omar Bakri al-Mohammed.

The UK’s attitude to this group from the start to the present has been marked by extraordinary naïvity. When the Saudi’s expelled al-Muhajiroun in 1986, the organisation found a hospitable new home in London where it became the centre of a complex web of terror, based around Finsbury Park and Brixton Mosques, with links to 9/11, 7/7, the shoe and underpants bombers and many more attacks.

Omar Bakri Mohammed was never prosecuted in the UK for any offence although he was refused re-entry after making a foreign trip in 2005 (he currently languishes in a Lebanese prison). His successor Anjem Choudhary was allowed to take his place and continue to preach jihad for another decade to the likes of Lee Rigby killer Michael Adebolajo and London Bridge 1 leader Khuram Butt, until 2016 when he was sentenced to a derisory five years for inciting support for ISIS (to be released last year after just two). Incredibly Khuram Butt and Anjem Choudary even starred in a Channel 4’s documentary The Jihadi Next Door.

So it is with a sense of despair rather than shock that we discovered last night that Usman Khan, who had been given an indeterminate prison sentence in 2010 for a plot to establish a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and/or plant bombs in a range of possible targets in the UK (local pubs and the London Stock Exchange had been discussed) had had this sensible sentence reduced by the Court of Appeal to a fixed sentence of sixteen years, of which half would be served on licence; that is to say eight years.

Raffaello Pantucci comments in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life’ that at the time of the trial, the British media ridiculed Khan’s cell for their amateurism and compared them with the hapless jihadis of the then recently released comedy Four Lions. A hint of this arrogance can be seen in Lord Leveson’s reasons for granting the sentence reduction, as he described them as ‘novices’ and commented that there was no evidence that had received training or were in a position to put their plans into immediate effect ‘however keen they might have been to do so and however much they might have talked up their prospects between themselves or to others whom they sought to influence.’

It does not seem to have occurred to them that any idiot can stab people.

Never such innocence again. The first and most important lesson to relearn is one that was known to our ancestors from medieval times. The common law, possibly these island’s greatest achievement, with safeguards and procedures designed to carefully balance the rights of the individual against the requirements of public safety has evolved to govern misbehaviour within society. It is utterly unsuited to the task of protecting that society from a group of insurrectionists in its midst; fanatics who kill for the love of killing and fear death less than capture.

In past centuries, treason was treated outside the normal criminal processes by a special court, the Star Chamber. It is time now to recognise the distinction between law and war by establishing a special court to deal with acts of jihad. Those accused of wrongdoing of any sort must of course always be entitled to challenge the evidence against them before a fair and impartial tribunal: anything else would be tyranny.

The public must be trusted with as much information as it is safe to reveal about what is being done in their name, to avoid the distrust that has dogged the secretive US military tribunals of Guantanamo Bay. Basic human rights must be respected or we destroy what it is that we seek to preserve.

But charges of treason are not to be dealt with as though they were ordinary crimes. The same rules of disclosure and evidence are not warranted, and the adage that the punishment must fit the crime has no application to those who are ideologically committed to launching more attacks.

Most importantly, once convicted, an active jihadi – whether a British-passport holder or not, whether personally guilty of violence or not, should lose forever the right to be released back into the society they have declared war upon. Never again should innocents lose their lives to a terrorist on a tag.

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