London: police and "terrorists"
By Mike Marqusee, originally published in The Hindu, 25 June 2006
At 4 AM on June 2nd, another grim episode in the war on terror was played out on a quiet residential street in east London. In what the media initially hailed as a major anti-terrorist triumph, 250 heavily armed police descended on a house where, it was alleged, Muslim terrorists were manufacturing chemical weapons to unleash on innocent Londoners.
In the course of the pre-dawn raid, 23-year old Mohammed Abdul Kahar was shot. He and his brother, 20 year old Abul Koyair, were arrested and subjected to seven days intensive interrogation, after which both men were freed without charge. No evidence of chemical weapons or indeed illegal or suspicious activity of any kind had been found.
At a press conference after their release, the brothers described their ordeal. They seemed patently sincere and painfully bewildered. When Kahar heard the front door being smashed down, he assumed it was a burglary and left his bedroom to come down stairs, where, at a distance of "two or three feet", a policeman opened fire without issuing a warning or identifying himself. "We had eye contact and he shot me straight away," recalled Kahar. The bullet entered his chest and exited through his shoulder, sparing his life by inches. "I was begging him, ‘Please, please, I can't breathe,' and he just kicked me in my face. He kept on saying, ‘Shut the fuck up'.... one of the officers slapped me on the face ... I thought that they're going to either shoot me again, or they're going to start shooting my brother."
Koyair, the brother, was also sworn at and beaten. Their elderly mother was dragged out in handcuffs. Their sister, Humeya Kalam, told the BBC, "I heard doors being smashed, windows being broken. I woke up, opened my door and saw a person dressed all in black, gun pointing towards me." Meanwhile, the police raided the house next door, where the residents received similar rough treatment.
Compounding the error and terror of the raid has been the police attempt to smear the victims. Newspapers reported, first, that Kahar had been shot after he had struggled with officers, then that he had actually been shot by his brother during a scuffle, and then that a police officer had "accidentally" discharged his gun as a result of wearing thick gloves. It was also stated that the brothers had attended militant Islamist demonstrations and that Kahar's wound was superficial. It is now acknowledged that there was not a shred of truth in any of these claims - as the police officers who made them must have known.
It has emerged that this massive and aggressive police operation was based on an uncorroborated tip-off from a single informant, a young man serving a prison sentence with a purported IQ of 69. According to reports in the press, the government insisted the raid go ahead despite warnings from Scotland Yard that there were "serious reservations about the credibility" of the source.
Given the feebleness of the intelligence, the scale and timing of the raid, the publicity that accompanied it, and the subsequent revelations, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the government was over-eager to stage a high-profile action that would vindicate the war on terror, which can only be sustained if the fears of the public are regularly fanned.
The police have issued an ambiguous, half-hearted apology for "any hurt that may have been caused". Even that is more than the politicians have offered. Tony Blair's response to the shooting was to assert: "I don't want them [the police] to be under any inhibition at all in going after those people who are engaged in terrorism." Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, accused critics of trying to "smear" the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who, along with the government, bears ultimate responsibility for the raid.
Kahar works for the post office, Koyair for a supermarket. Neither has any record of criminal activity. Indeed. Koyair had recently sent off for an application to join the police. They are hard-working, law-abiding British citizens who happen also to be devout Muslims. As Kahar said at the press conference, "I believe the only crime I had done was being Asian with a long beard."
The raid was an extreme example of a broader policy. In the two months after the July 7th 2005 bombings, some 10,000 people were stopped and searched in the London streets under the anti-terrorism law; 27% were Asians, who make up only 12% of London's population. Not one of the searches resulted in an arrest or a charge related to terrorism. The statistics reflect more than the racism of individual police officers. The Home Office's guidance states that: ‘It is appropriate for officers to take account of a person's ethnic background when they decide who to stop in response to a specific terrorist threat (for example, some international terrorist groups are associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Muslims).' In March 2005, a senior government minister told Muslims that they should accept as a "reality" that they will be stopped and searched more often than others.
It has become commonplace for politicians (including the Prime Minister) and columnists to suggest that ‘British tolerance' has permitted terrorism to flourish. We are told we are under threat not because of the backlash against British involvement in brutal, unjust foreign wars but because the ideology of multiculturalism and a concern for human rights have blunted our willingness to defend ourselves against the Islamist menace. The fact that an innocent, unarmed Londoner was shot by police, at nearly point blank range, without warning, has done nothing to make these people think again. Rather, they see in the complaints by Muslims - remarkably restrained under the circumstances - an unwillingness to collaborate with the war on terror. Some have suggested that the bogus tip-off must have come from Al Qaeda.
The Observer, in bygone years a bastion of British liberalism, headlined its editorial on the affair: "Better a bungled raid than another terrorist outrage." That lofty, callous calculus never adds up. The raid has done nothing to deter terrorism. It's likely to make it even more difficult for the police to gather meaningful information about real threats to public safety. Formulations like The Observer's merely sanctify violent police racism, which poses a danger to Londoners as serious as any terrorrist.
More than two hundred years ago, during a fiercer period of repression (the putative menace in those days coming from the French revolution and its English sympathisers), William Blake wandered the streets of London and found evidence wherever he looked of "mind-forg'd manacles" - the fears and prejudices that keep people in thrall to an unjust social system. But he also imagined another London, a meeting-place for all humanity:
In the Exchanges of London every Nation walk'd,
And London walk'd in every Nation, mutual in love & harmony
That democratic vision is profoundly at odds with the ideology being preached and practiced in Britain these days. London is often cited as the most harmoniously multi-ethnic city in the world, and there's some truth in the boast. But that's no thanks whatsoever to its police, its newspapers or its politicians.