It was refreshing to see David Miliband is today shifting the Government’s line on the “War on Terror”. Most UK officials stopped using the phrase some time ago on the grounds that it helped provide a justification for those who use terrorism as a tactic in pursuing their objectives by glamorising them as enemy combatants in the “war”, and unhelpfully lumped together all sorts of groups whose only common feature was a willingness to use terrorism. Now, however, David Miliband has confronted the issue head-on, sparking the debate at an international level, about the extent to which the measures taken to combat and pursue terrorists run the risk of alienating communities (indeed whole nations) and make individuals more likely to fall prey to those who want to recruit them to the cause of violent extremism.
This is not to say that any of the authorities should go soft on pursuing those who are terrorists, or who are planning terrorist acts or who are recruiting terrorists. It is clear that in the UK alone there are many hundreds (2,000-plus, according to successive Director-Generals of MI5) who are engaged in terrorism in one way or another. They have to be identified, their activities disrupted and the individuals brought in to the criminal justice system. However, in the planning of every police operation an assessment has to be made of the appropriateness of the tactics used and the risks that are being confronted – not only of the potential terrorist acts themselves but also what effect individual responses will have on the future flow of those tempted to go down the road of violent extremism.
This is already – I believe – very much part of policing practice in the UK: senior officers planning operations routinely assess the PREVENT implications of individual PURSUE operations (to use the jargon of the CONTEST counter-terrorist strategy). Thus, the impact of the use of Section 44 stops and searches (the random power that the police can deploy under the Terrorism Act 2000 to stop people to deter would-be terrorists) is being reviewed, so as to minimise the sense of alienation felt by many young people when it is used in a widespread fashion – as recommended by the Metropolitan Police Authority in its “Counter-Terrorism: The London Debate” report.
The issue raised by David Miliband, of course, raises wider issues and is timely – just days before President Obama’s inauguration – in that US foreign policy needs to be tested against the same template. Drone bombing raids in the FATA areas of Pakistan may have been effective in removing senior people in the leadership of al-Qaeda but what effect are they having on young men in Pakistan (or for that matter on the future direction of Pakistani politics)? To say nothing of the impact of abstaining on the UN resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.