The Challenge Of Trying to 'Ban Extremism'

The terror threat to the UK, and how to effectively deal with it, has again been across the UK front pages. And these stories have highlighted a growing and profound policy disagreement that must be resolved if the UK is to effectively adapt to the unique threat it faces today.

First we saw open criticism of a key proposed government policy from Max Hill QC, the independent watchdog/ombudsmen of UK counter-terror legislation, then followed a report warning of growing threats from returning jihadists, and finally a guarded attack on Hill’s comments from Sue Hemming, the head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service.

Hill chose to take very public issue with a proposed government policy to criminalise 'extremism', an approach Prime Minister Teresa May first proposed when serving as Home Secretary.

Aimed at tackling the issue of 'hate preachers' that frustrated authorities for decades, as part of a wider effort to counter those who still effectively reach and radicalise vulnerable British youths, the approach is intended to become policy when the government publishes its long-awaited update of the UK's counter-terror strategy.

Hill however argued that "We do not, and should not, ban thought without action or preparation for action... legislating in the name of terrorism when the targeted activity is not actually terrorism would be quite wrong".

The next day though, in a carefully-worded but clear statement in opposition to Hill's remarks, Hemming said that "We must recognise that specific counter-terrorism powers are necessary, and acting early to safe-guard public safety means that traditional investigative powers are not always sufficient... traditional criminal offences do not fit conduct that rightfully calls for punishment".

This followed a report warning that the defeat of Daesh/IS/ISIS in Iraq has already resulted in the return of thousands of their fighters to their home countries, including many British citizens, and that they will pose a very serious security threat for years to come.

This reports highlights the urgency of the policy debate and why this public disagreement between Hill and Hemming matters. For while there is little doubt that attempting to ban extremism - the concept of attempting to ban, in a legally enforceable manner, an idea, doctrine or ideology - is fraught with difficulty, it is a process that must be undertaken.

We are quite wise to be cautious of going down a legal path in which criminality is assigned to abstract concepts rather than action. However, it would equally be extremely naïve and highly counter-productive - in light of the current threat dynamic and the nature of radicalisation and recruitment today - not to appreciate the enormous role played by those who do no more than try to motivate the next generation of terrorists.

If the impact of skilled propagandists, preachers and writers is not successfully disrupted and diminished the UK will remain near powerless to stop the radicalisation and recruitment of groups like al Qaeda and Daesh/IS/ISIS.

The key area for focus is shown in Hemming's emphasis on "acting early" - if we only have legal measures for when an actual attack is in the planning stages or has already been carried out, while the authorities had to watch powerless those who radicalised and/or recruited the attackers, then we have failed to protect the public and our society.

We can no longer remain naïve enough to believe that words don't cause harm, that somehow we can allow this kind of discourse and targeted incitement to occur and that democracy is strong enough to do with it. It is not, as we are finding out the hard way - as threats change and morph, so must the laws and regulations.

We have seen time and again, over decades, that the failure to deal with incitement in the written and spoken word has had a direct impact on the creation of British citizens who go abroad to kill for a cause or remain here to carry out attacks upon the United Kingdom.

The term 'Extremism' itself is of course problematic - everyone using the term 'knows' what it means, yet all would define it differently. The term has no national or international legal definition nor meaning, as it has no history as a frame of reference in international courts, treaties or UN resolutions. Trying to come up with a definition, that can both satisfy political intent and public opinion while also being legally viable will be an enormous challenge.

But there are exemplars to replicate or at least learn from - Germany for example constructed its post-Nazi constitution to allow it to restrict or outright ban certain ideologies from being acceptable political options in its democracy. Australia meanwhile has also been working to stop 'extremists' from being able to freely behave and operate as they were able to in the past.

As hard as it will be to find the right balance, the attempt must be made. We do not want draconian powers introduced that would be open to overuse and abuse, and that might even create anger that could actually aid terrorist recruitment. But it is equally important that legal focus and law enforcement powers are adapted and enhanced to give UK authorities, police and prosecutors the updated legislative frameworks they require to deal with the threat posed today.

The current arrangements are quite simply insufficient and woefully outdated, and if this does not change the UK plays right into the hands of the supporters upon whom murderous terrorists rely.