On Tuesday 12th February 2019, the Counter-terrorism and Border Security (CTBS) Bill secured royal assent, thereby becoming an Act of Parliament. Days later, it emerged that ‘Bethnal Green girl’ Shamima Begum, who left the UK in 2015 to join IS, was seeking to return to the UK.

Whilst coverage of the CTBS has been comparatively muted, Shamima Begum’s story has been met with a torrent of stories and opinion pieces since it broke. Many of these pieces have revolved around the questions of whether she should be “allowed” to return or not, however, some have included resorting to demands for ratcheting up punishment, with Camilla Cavendish writing for the Financial Times that only updating the crime of treason would be sufficient for her “betrayal of her country”.

This punitive impulse, as well as the kneejerk response to introduce further offences and ramp up securitisation, lie at the heart of the British political establishment with regards to countering terrorism. This has also brought us to the point where the CTBS can comfortably join the over a dozen major pieces of terrorism-related legislation since 2000, without any reflection or introspection on how little these laws have served to make society safer in any way.

As CAGE have previously stated, the dangers presented in the CTBS are threefold. These include:

  1. Strengthening the hard arm of policing by introducing new and broader terror-related offences and longer prison sentences;
  2. Widening the scope of surveillance and intelligence-gathering outside the sphere of crime, with new powers to stop, search and detain individuals without suspicion; and
  3. Securitising the public sector and space further, by co-opting local authorities further into PREVENT and thereby extending and deepening the counter-terror apparatus.

Under the ever-present pretence of adapting to face the evolving threat of terrorism, this legislation – like those before it – effectively doubles down on the attack on civil liberties, resulting in the narrowing of civil space. This is a characteristic of War on Terror laws in the UK and worldwide.

This counter-terror grip has had the effect of both undermining freedoms for all, and weakening the ability of society to fight back against such government encroachment,  through a climate of fear and surveillance, and through isolating groups and individuals that dissent.

The threat ahead

Though the Bill did not capture as many headlines as its predecessors (with some key exceptions), it highlights the direction that British counter-terrorism is going, which should be a concern for us all.

The introduction of ‘Designated Zones’ offences effectively criminalises travel to certain regions as a terrorist offence, for example. This takes inspiration from existing offences in Australian law, illustrating the global cross-pollination of counter-terrorism policy.

Meanwhile, new powers to stop and detain people at ports mirroring those enforced under Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act will be brought in – steamrolling over the opposition long levelled at the draconian Schedule 7 powers and instead expanding them further.

The CTBS also more directly attacks the latest frontier of counter-terrorism, namely the online space. It does this by criminalising the viewing of ‘radicalising content’ online; that which is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. Initially the government appended this conviction with a 3-click threshold, however it has now been reduced to a possible single click offence. Such laws are draconian as they disregard intent – legally mens rea – which makes such laws alarmingly sweeping.

It has been no secret that the government has long been angling for a crackdown on the online space, particularly social media, due to the threat that alternative and social media has presented to the state’s previous monopoly on truth.

This attack has been multi-pronged, instrumentalising distinct but interrelated issues and building consent from the public for the wholesale control of the online space.

This has followed media spectacles that have honed in on identifying ‘fake news’ to ‘online hate speech’ and abuse to clamping down on the promotion of online harm and, finally, to criminalising the viewing of violent content, as addressed by the CTBS.

Irrespective of the merits of these individual concerns in the eyes of the public (which are understandable), it should be clear that in the hands of the government, online regulation inevitably means censorship, criminalisation of users, crackdowns on those promoting critical political stances and more – since the governments notion of ‘fake news’ and ‘harm’ are essentially subjective and carry a political agenda, and often at odds with lay understandings of the terms.

Essentially what this allows is the re-assertion of the dominance of state-sponsored narratives whilst silencing others.

Whilst countering terrorism has all too often been a justification for pushing through draconian legislation, we must remain aware to the full spectrum of government tactics in doing so; ‘tackling hate crime’ and other means of ‘safeguarding from harm’ are increasingly being used as a Trojan Horse for deepening securitisation and surveillance.

The challenge we must face

Some of our readers may note that the date of the Bill coming into law is 4 years to the day of the Counter-terrorism and Security (CTS) Act becoming law – 12th February 2015.

As the last major piece of counter-terror legislation, the CTS Act made the Prevent duty legally binding on the public sector, as well adding further intrusive measures of interception, data retention, and temporary exile from the UK, and did so in the face of widespread public condemnation.

Damningly, it is evident that the government has taken on nothing with regards to this criticism of its counter-terror approach since then. Indeed, government ministers took Parliamentary debates that brought to light this criticism as an opportunity to attack its critics, smearing them (also here) as “flipside of the recruiters of extremism”.

Perhaps more disquieting is how smoothly this most recent bill was pushed through.

The Bill was more or less waved through with minimal challenge from the Labour opposition, with more rigorous interrogation to be found by the Lords than by elected MPs.

Whilst some human rights NGOs and press organisations fought for and to a degree secured important safeguards primarily with regards to press and academic freedom, these unfortunately will do little to defend those in society most likely to face the sharp end of counter-terror abuses.

Our advocacy at CAGE has brought to our attention the impact of War on Terror policies on those often not afforded the outrage, attention and energy rightfully elicited by abuses against those with media credentials or a public profile who suffer similar, though often less traumatic, ordeals.

Instead of calling to light the full implications of the Act, press coverage recently shifted to, and will likely remain on, laudatory mentions of the government’s concession to an ‘independent’ review of PREVENT as part of it.

Either that, or, lay the groundwork for further legislation scaffolded by the re-emergence of Shamima Begum and any future returnees.

And this illustrates the narrowing of political horizons brought by years of counter-terror laws and shrinking civil society space: an increasing inability to demand or envision justice or transformative change in the face of mounting threats.

Any such change will come from a renewed movement on the ground, building on the important groundwork of campaigners and organisations doing their best to challenge and chip away at the ever-growing set of oppressive laws.


Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)