Solicitor Aamer Anwar (center) with Mohammed Atif Siddique's family members arriving for the start of his appeal against conviction and sentence of terrorism offenses in October 2007, at Edinburgh High Court.
"Radical Approach to Thwarting Islamic Terrorists"
Op-Ed, The Scotsman
February 16, 2010
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
FROM start to finish, the case of Mohammed Atif Siddique has been an example of how the judicial and political systems should not handle cases of suspected terrorism.
Cumulatively, the twists and turns of the case as it unfolded, before coming to an end last week, can teach us a lot about how Scotland can improve. I write this now that the dust has settled not to criticise those involved, but rather to set out what those lessons are to make sure they are learned for the future.
The first issue is equality under the law. Nobody disputes that the principle of the rule of law demands that it treat each person equally. But, in practice, this cannot happen when judges themselves disagree about what the law means. That is what happened in this case, and it resulted in something of a legal mess.
Imagine you find that someone you know has been downloading online material from Islamist sites about weaponry, explosives and the like. Are they a terrorist? What if they are downloading it as part of a research project or "simple curiosity" on Islamist terrorism and its motivations?
I advise an Islamic education organisation — the Solas Foundation — which requires me to take a professional interest. Does that make me a terrorist? Since the Terrorism Act was passed in 2000, the UK has been making up its mind on questions such as this. But that has resulted in serious and avoidable legal inconsistencies.
In the poisonous post-Glasgow-bombing atmosphere of 2007, shopkeeper's son Mohammed Atif Siddique was convicted for this, among other things. The trial judge, Lord Carloway, had explained to the jury that because he had looked at similar sites, he was indeed a terrorist. But while he was in prison, the House of Lords ruled that the defendants in a similar position were not terrorists.
Eventually, the law was ironed out: it was decided that you are only a terrorist under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000 if there is evidence that the article possessed is genuinely linked to an intent to commit a specific act of terrorism. In other words, simply having possession of propaganda and extremist literature is not a crime in itself.
There was no such evidence in Siddique's case. Last month, an Appeals Court judge said that his conviction had been a miscarriage of justice and last week he was released. The appeal judge said that Lord Carloway "materially misdirected" the jury about the terms of the Terrorism Act. In this case, the grey area has led to inequality under the law, and a miscarriage of justice.
So, the first lesson we can learn from this debacle is that justice demands that we clear up any remaining grey areas in the law. It is unacceptable that we are not clear on what makes someone a terrorist. There must be proper, statutory guidance for laws which are clearly too vague from the off. Lack of them leads to inequality under the law, which brings the law itself into disrepute.
Siddique's release was in large part thanks to legal activists such as Aamer Anwar, the solicitor in his case. Following his criticism post-verdict, he was himself put on trial for contempt yet cleared a year later. Compared with England, we do not have much of a tradition of campaigning lawyers, but Anwar is just that.
Like anyone with strong views, he attracts his fair share of controversy, but the fact is that he has a habit of sticking his neck out for unpopular causes, and being proven right, such as the Siddique case and the handling of the Surjit Singh Chhokhar murder before that.
The second aspect which we can learn from this case is the urgent need for credible deradicalisation programmes in our prisons. In the long-run, the only way to reduce terrorism is to reduce the motivation to radicalise. And to do this, we need to understand why radicalisation happens.
Over the past ten years, the causes of radicalisation have been the focus of some sustained and very impressive research.
Ten years ago, western governments such as our own could have been forgiven for not acting effectively to reduce the motivation to radicalise. But now that the research on how it is done is out there, to ignore it is to waste what we know about how to keep us safer.
In short, those researchers who studied radicals saw one factor recur again and again: they tend to have minimal education in authentic Islam. Often they were just thuggish, petty criminals who had been recruited by terrorist Islamist groups, but who had had no exposure to genuine Islam at all.
A former CIA officer, Marc Sageman, analysed more than 500 profiles of Islamist terrorists, and looked at why they took that path. He found that the one stage in the process which turns an angry young man into a time bomb is when they start to believe that Islam justifies violence and close their mind to other points of view.
Other countries understand this, and have started to act on it. The tactic of undermining the intellectual conditions which foster radicalisation has been used by governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for many years.
In these cash-strapped times, it is a way to keep us safer that is cheap or free. The Scottish government should be sending credible, authentic Islamic scholars into prisons, to speak to those convicted and to show them that they have been hoodwinked by a perversion of Islam that justifies violence.
I spoke to Anwar last week, and he told me that this young man, Siddique, had asked him for theological advice. Of course, Anwar was not qualified to give it. But the request illustrates the point that there is often a genuine hunger for real religious education which, if provided, would put young men like Siddique back on to the right path.
The sad irony is that, without such deradicalisation programmes, prison is likely to radicalise young people even more.
The second lesson we must learn from the story of Siddique's trial, wrongful conviction and release, is that the Scottish Government must take action to prevent this kind of thing happening again, by sending teachers of authentic Islam into prisons to make sure that after release, any would-be terrorists know that real Islam demands that they pursue a path of peace.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the strategic adviser to the Solas Foundation.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
Full text of this publication is available at:
For Academic Citation: