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Losing control: radical reform of anti-terror laws

The violent progress of the Islamic State (IS) through towns and villages in Iraq has been swift, particularly when aided by foreign fighters from Britain. IS has now taken control of large swathes of Iraq and there are growing concerns amongst senior security officials that the number of British men and women leaving their country to support and fight alongside the extremist group is rising. Today marks ten years since the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005–but how effective has terrorist legislation been in tackling terrorism?

The exportation of British-born violent jihadists is nothing new, but the call to arms in Iraq this time around has been amplified by a slick online recruitment campaign, urging Muslims from all over the world to join their fight and post messages of support for IS.

In response to increased threats from IS, the British government has introduced a range of powers that form the basis of the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which seeks to prevent British citizens from engaging in terrorist activity.

Over the course of many years, the British government has gained substantial legislative experience in tackling different forms of terrorism, introducing new powers and provisions. For example, in order to respond to terrorist threats relating to the long and violent struggle in Northern Ireland, legislators created five separate pieces of legislation. This included the Prevention of Violence (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1913 and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts of 1974, 1976, 1984, and 1989.

While this was a swift response to terrorist threats at the time of their enactment–arming law enforcement and the military with greater provisions to tackle dissidents and paramilitaries–the post-9/11 genre of international terrorism represented a very different threat to national security and public safety. As terrorist threats from Northern Ireland waned, the world bore witness to the full extent of the threats arising from the indiscriminate mass-casualty attacks of al-Qaeda.

Because the anti-terror measures designed to pursue domestic terrorists in Northern Ireland were made up of a collection of temporary provisions, the British government realised that a changing security landscape required updated, permanent measures.

Prior to 9/11, the Terrorism Act of 2000 had already been created in the wake of the largest overhaul of terrorism legislation in British legal history. While it still remains the primary piece of terrorism legislation in operation today, new pieces of legislation were also introduced in direct response to 9/11 and the subsequent backlash against terrorism overseas.

These new pieces of legislation included the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act of 2001, which was designed to cut off terrorist funding and protect the aviation and nuclear industry, as well as the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2005, which introduced Control Orders to monitor and restrict the movements of suspected terrorists.

After the London bombings of 2005, legislators introduced the Terrorism Act of 2006, responding to the growing numbers of British terrorist recruits. This piece of legislation extended police powers by creating nine new terrorism-related offenses, significantly lowering the threshold for individuals to be arrested.

Soon, the Counter-Terrorism Act of 2008 was added to this expanding legal framework, tightening controls on terrorist finances and fund-raising, in addition to introducing measures for questioning of terrorist suspects charged with specific terrorism-related offenses.

During December 2011, the Terrorism Prevention and Investigations Measures Act of 2011 introduced the new system of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs).  These measures replaced the controversial Control Orders and were designed to better protect the public from deported foreign nationals and a small number of people who posed a real terrorist threat but could not be prosecuted.

The latest addition to the anti-terror legal framework is the new Counter-Terrorism Security Bill, which provides the government with the power to seize passports, bars the return of foreign fighters, and re-introduces compulsory relocation powers under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act of 2011, marking the return of old measures to tackle a contemporary threat.

Evidently, the post-9/11 pace of legal change regarding anti-terror laws has been relentless and unprecedented.  The five previous anti-terror acts, which established temporary provisions, had been brought to the statue book over a period of eighty years; the government’s legislative response to the mass-casualty threats of al-Qaeda and IS, on the other hand, has introduced seven pieces of legislation over the course of just fourteen years.

People in positions of authority have come to learn that political stakes are high in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Legislators, afraid of being perceived as lenient or indifferent, often grant broader powers to the executive branch without thorough debate. New special provisions intended to be temporary turn out to be permanent.

This haphazard approach to tackling contemporary terrorism cannot continue. Surely, now is the time to introduce a Consolidation Act, a single statute into which all counter-terrorism legislation can be placed and codified? It would be for the benefit of all if counter-terrorism law set the example for the codification of British criminal and regulatory law.

No doubt, the hope we all share is that exceptional powers–which almost all counter-terrorism laws provide–will cease to be necessary. But it is important that we recognise an uncomfortable truth: the terrorist attacks we have seen in Britain are not simply random plots by disparate and fragmented groups.  The majority of the attacks, successful or otherwise, have taken place because terrorists have a clear determination to mount attacks in an attempt to destroy our free and democratic way of life.  This remains the case today and there is no sign of it diminishing.

Image Credit: “Tribute in Light” by Tim Drivas. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] powers and made the arrest of terror suspects much easier (though these anti-terror measures are of debatable efficacy). Along with contemporary concerns over accountability and openness – exemplified in changes […]

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