CAMPACC articles, reports...


Pakistani students turned into terror suspects

Les Levidow, Campaign Against Criminalising Communities looks behind the recent high-profile arrests. Labour Briefing, May 2009

"We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot.... We had to act pre-emptively to ensure the safety of the public", said the Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 9th April. The mass media parroted this account of the police operation which arrested 11 Pakistani nationals who had had entered Britain on student visas. One, a Liverpool University student, was thrown to the ground and held at gunpoint there for an hour, before being interrogated for several more hours. Although the authorities made no specific claim about any timing or targets of a terrorist attack, some reportage went much further, even inventing a 'Scramble to find the Easter bomb factory' (The Times, 10th April).

According to Whitehall sources, the plot indicated al-Qaida was adopting new tactics to send people not known to security services. 'Within Britain's counter-terrorism community they are known as the "clean skins": highly trained, professional killers whose blameless backgrounds provide not the slightest clue as to their true, evil intent,' said the Daily Telegraph on 10th April.

Police were asked whether this would be yet another high-profile raid ending with no charges for terrorist offences. The Greater Manchester police chief responded, 'There will always be situations where... either we can't achieve the evidential threshold or .... we find that the threat was not how it appeared to us at the time.' This statement covered the police in case the detainees were eventually released, while permanently stigmatising them as terror suspects, thus continuing doubt about their innocence afterwards.

These raids fit a familiar pattern from recent years. Arrests are carried out in a joint media-police operation depicting suspects as immediately dangerous. They are labelled 'al-Qaida cells' and are declared guilty by politicians. Normal activities are labelled as clever means to disguise a terror plot. The term 'clean skins' has several roles - to explain why the police had little prior grounds to suspect detainees, to explain the difficulty in finding evidence against them, and to cast suspicion against other apparently ordinary individuals.

In this case, student visas were deemed a pretext for terrorist activity. Thus the 'terror suspect' category could be extended to all 10,000 Pakistanis who arrive in Britain every year on student visas. The raid triggered demands for better screening of student applications, especially from Pakistan. Proposals also renewed previous efforts at turning universities into surveillance agents on political activities of Muslim students.  The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has rejected such government proposals, but university administrations already face burdensome government requirements regarding foreign students.

The 9th April raid extended a campaign of police terror that began several years ago.  Numerous raids have labelled individuals as 'Al-Qaida cells', often with politicians adding to the character assassination. When detainees are eventually released without charge, it's rarely mentioned in the mass media.  In 2002 the 'ricin conspiracy' arrests were used to justify the 2003 US-UK attack on Iraq, yet the trial revealed no conspiracy - except perhaps a state conspiracy to spread fear. The 2006 Forest Gate raid terrorised an entire community yet resulted in no criminal charges. Last February's raids on the Viva Palestina convoy turned out to be purely political persecution.

That state terror campaign promotes a politics of fear, justifying special 'anti-terror' powers as essential means to protect the public. It turns Muslims and migrants into suspect communities, just as the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act did to the Irish. Unstated aims are to deter dissent against state terrorism and and to deter solidarity with resistance against the UK government's allies.

Such raids become central for the government's latest strategy, 'Contest 2', as elaborated in The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism. This emphasises threats from domestic terrorist threats, due to 'an extremist violent ideology associated with Al Qaeda'. To counter that supposed threat, the government has a four-part strategy:

  • Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks,

  • Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism,

  • Protect: to strengthen our protection against terrorist attack,

  • Prepare: where an attack cannot be stopped, to mitigate its impact.

The policy emphasises sources of terrorism in political views. The prevention strategy will challenge 'views which fall short of supporting violence and are within the law, but which reject and undermine our shared values and jeopardise community cohesion.' To counter that threat, Contest 2 justifies greater use of 'non-prosecution actions', hence various special powers to impose punishment without trial, such as house arrest, asset-freezing and deportation.

In government policy, 'our shared values' apparently mean acceptance of British state terror at home and abroad. Conversely, 'extremist' views are defined broadly. According to a leaked Home Office document, extremism includes any support for armed resistance anywhere in the world, and even refusal to condemn attacks on British troops abroad (The Guardian, 17 February). This account complements the Terrorism Act 2000, which defined terrorism to include any activity which may threaten property in pursuit of a political cause.

The UK counter-terror policy justifies a practice of state terror. Within this mindset, state functionaries expect to find terrorist plots, to identify more and more 'terror suspects' and to treat them as guilty. Our response must be to oppose all anti-terror laws and political surveillance.