Monday, January 31, 2005

Freddie on Civil Liberties

Frederick Forsyth takes aim at the government's anti-terror policies at the BBC Website.

I rather like Frederick Forsyth, for all that his work represented the very apogee of BBC bias (during the Biafra conflict, Forsyth fell strongly for the Biafran cause and lavishly doctored his reports in order to prevent as positive a face for the Biafrans as possible. He lost his job as a result and promptly put his money where his mouth was by buggering off and fighting as an officer in the Biafran armed forces. Following the loss of the cause he found himself without work and embarked on writing Day of the Jackal to keep the wolves from the door. Now that's classy - if you're going to do something, go hog wild I say). I think his instincts are sound on most of the issues and I'd cheerfully vote for him were he to stand for public office.

As an opponent of such things as ID cards and whatnot, I agree with the broad sweep of his argument. However, I do feel that he is perhaps a touch cavalier.

Comparisons with the IRA do not ultimately convince. The IRA was less of a fundamental threat than radical Islam is. This isn't because the IRA were nicer people - the only good IRA man is one who is about to spend an extended period of time face down in a ditch with a bullet in the back of the head and his arse on fire - but because the IRA operated within a different strategic framework to al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Both organisations operate according to strategic principles - it is a mistake to perceive AQ and friends as some strange breed of strategic nihilists - but the IRA recognised that in terms of targeting civilians, it trod a fine line between successful coercion and the destruction of public support. The Americans - or sections of American opinion at least - had to be kept on side. Real mass casualty attacks would have been entirely counterproductive for IRA strategy. Whether the Salafists are peering through the same lens is highly debatable (though there is a debate over whether or not "superterrorism" is truly an attractive option strategically for Islamic terrorists).

Forsyth is also surely wrong in asserting that British security forces have equal difficulty penetrating the IRA and AQ. At numerous points during the conflict in Ulster the British had the IRA leaking like a seive and high level Republican staff structures were penetrated up the wazoo. AQ is an entirely different beast on any number of levels - ethnicity, cultural background, required language skills, recruitment, promotion structure Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. It is beyond the scope of this piece to go into AQ recruitment methods at length but the process of penetrating the procedure - especially to the extent of getting an operative in at a high level - is extremely difficult. The radically decentralised organisational structure also presents problems to an extent that the IRA did not.

The citizen can be arrested and held without charge or trial, not even on
the careful consideration of an experienced judge, but the whim of a political
activist called a government minister.


This is not - thank God - quite true. The Home Secretary has recently made clear that independent judicial oversight with be operative in these cases.

All in all though I would commend readers to take note of Forsyth's criticisms, as this is a very serious issue with profound implications. Given that we live in a period in which governmental meddling and general intrusiveness has never been so marked, the necessity for these measures - is necessary they are - could not have come at a worse time.

For a critique of post-9/11 British terrorism legislation, I recommend Helen Fenwick's essay in Lawrence Freedman (ed.) - "Superterrorism: Policy Responses".

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