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Home Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 231-v
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Home Affairs Committee
Tuesday 14 January 2014
Evidence heard in Public Questions 398 - 498
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Home Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 14 January 2014
Keith Vaz (Chair)
Mr James Clappison
Dr Julian Huppert
Mr David Winnick
Examination of Witness
Witness: Cerie Bullivant, Journalist, gave evidence.
Q398 Chair: Mr Bullivant, welcome. Thank you very much for coming. Our apologies for making you wait. We had an additional witness.
The Committee is conducting a detailed inquiry into counter-terrorism. You may have seen some of the previous hearings. We are very keen to hear from you in respect of your history and past as someone who was the subject of a control order. You can take it as read that we understand the concerns that you had about having this particular order placed upon you. How can you describe life under a control order?
Cerie Bullivant: It is almost an oxymoron to use the term "Life under a control order". You don’t have a life while you are under a control order. Everything is as it says on the tin. It is claustrophobic and it is controlled. Every day every sort of action you are taking is being monitored. With all of the conditions upon you that you are constantly worried about breaching and trying not to breach, it is like having a sword hanging over your neck. You know that for the slightest mishap you could face an arrest, a trial and potentially five years in prison. It is telling that when I was in prison for breaching the order there were three other people in prison at the same time as myself for breaching control orders and all three of us were held on the medical wing because of severe reactive depression. One of the people was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. So every single person who was in prison related to this was suffering from severe mental health problems as a result of that.
Q399 Chair: Were you surprised that you were put under a control order, bearing in mind that you were about to travel to Bangladesh and Syria? Why do you think that the British Government felt that you were going to be a threat if you left the country?
Cerie Bullivant: I was very surprised when I was put on the control order. I had never been involved in criminality; I had never been arrested before; I had never even had any problems with the police. It is worth pointing out that at that time Syria was not the Syria that it is today.
Q400 Chair: Yes. Remind us of the timeframe.
Cerie Bullivant: It was 2006. Iraq was kicking off at that time and there was a lot of instability there, but I was going to Syria mainly looking to work with orphans and I wanted to study a bit of Arabic, just do some travelling, some backpacking. At that time Syria was a common place for people to go and see ancient architecture, the history from the Crusades.
Q401 Chair: Although you were not involved in criminality, it is alleged-and maybe you can tell the Committee the correct situation-that you knew somebody who was related to somebody else who was involved in terrorist-related activities. Is that right? Is that relationship right, you were not involved but you knew somebody who was related to somebody else?
Cerie Bullivant: I knew somebody whose brother was on remand awaiting a trial for a terrorism-related offence. At the time I didn’t know that his brother was. It is not the sort of thing that was put out there publicly. The person who was on remand had changed his name by deed poll and so had a different name to my friend, so I had no way of linking those two. But by two degrees of separation I was connected to somebody who on remand for a terrorism-related offence. He had not been convicted at that time either.
Q402 Chair: You received no explanation or apology from the British Government or anyone else as to why you have been put through a control order and through all the judicial proceedings that you have been involved in?
Cerie Bullivant: Quite the contrary. After I was cleared in the High Court and in the Old Bailey, the Home Office said that they still considered me to be a threat and a danger. I have since gone on to work with various human rights groups like Liberty and I have worked at Amnesty and Cageprisoners. I have been hampered from working on the issues that are closest to my heart and that I know the most about-control orders and TPIMs and these things-because my name has been on a list banning everybody I know who is on a TPIM from communicating with me even though I have gone through probably a more strenuous security check and proved myself as more innocent than anyone should ever have to. For even new people who came on to TPIMs, my name was on a list of people they were not allowed to speak to.
Q403 Chair: So how all of this has happened is still baffling to you?
Cerie Bullivant: About a month before my High Court appearance we were given little bits of information, but the main piece of information that we found out was by coincidence from our own investigations. We found out some of the secret evidence, which turned out to be a phone call that was made to the anti-terror hotline from an associate of my mother’s. Just before my High Court appearance, the lady got in touch with my mother again and said, "I am really sorry, I was drunk and I made a phone call to the anti-terror hotline and said that Cerie was probably a terrorist. He is 21, he is white. Why would he want to go to Syria? Someone must have brainwashed him. Why has he become a Muslim? He has grown a beard. Someone must have brainwashed him". She had made this call to the anti-terror hotline. We brought that up-
Q404 Chair: So it was anecdotal evidence made by a third party?
Cerie Bullivant: Who hadn’t spoken to me since I had been converted.
Q405 Chair: Is your feeling that the evidence was never properly tested?
Cerie Bullivant: I would say that there was no impetus on either the security services or the police to put due diligence into testing the evidence, because in their mind it was never going to be thoroughly checked, there was never going to be an adversarial court system to test that evidence anyway.
Q406 Mr Clappison: Forgive me for asking this, but it strikes me as the first question on this. Presumably when you first came into contact with the authorities over this you told them what you have told us now. What did they say to you?
Cerie Bullivant: From the moment I was first stopped, during the whole process, I was completely open with the police. When I was stopped at Heathrow Airport, like any other member of society I was just in the mind-set that if the police are talking to me the best thing to do is to be as open as possible and they are going to realise that I have not done anything wrong. That questioning took nine hours at Heathrow Airport. They asked me about everything, about primary schools that I went to, what music bands I liked. We even joked about the fact that I like 1980s folk pop. The detail that we went into was incredible, but none of that mattered and when I was put on the control order I was still given no reason as to why it was that I was put on it.
Q407 Mr Clappison: In the course of your interview, did they tell you anything about the evidence that they presumably had, or believed they had?
Cerie Bullivant: They didn’t tell me anything about the evidence and beyond simple and obvious questions such as, "Do you agree with 9/11 and 7/7?" They never asked me anything about terrorism or terrorism-related activities either. They didn’t ask me any questions about would I be interested in going to Iraq, was I interested in jihad, what were my thoughts on this or that. Literally I was asked the most basic of questions on the issue and that was it.
Q408 Mr Clappison: You are telling us that you did not have the opportunity to hear what it was they had against you or to comment on it?
Cerie Bullivant: No. Even up until the moment in the High Court and even to this day I still don’t know in detail what their evidence was and what their basis was for why they did that. To me, that is one of the huge problems of a system where you have secret courts and secret evidence because you are denying the person who is accused of a crime any chance to defend themselves legitimately.
Q409 Ian Austin: Why do you think the judge said that he was satisfied that the Secretary of State’s decision to make a control order was justified on the material available at the time?
Cerie Bullivant: To my recollection, the judge said that he thought that the Home Secretary at the time they put it on thought that what they were doing was the correct thing but that if he had seen it the day after it was put on he would have quashed it. He goes on to say that later on.
Q410 Ian Austin: No, he said that he was satisfied that reasonable grounds for suspicion do not now exist but at the time-
Cerie Bullivant: I think if you read the statement in full-I remember it quite clearly from the day-he did say that if he had seen it straight after it was put on and seen all of the evidence he would have quashed it then as well.
Q411 Ian Austin: Would you agree that there will be circumstances in which the intelligence services and the security services get information as a result of their operations and it is not possible to make that information public in a public court because to do so would put intelligence and security personnel at risk?
Cerie Bullivant: I would say that it is impossible to commit a crime in the UK, especially a terrorism-related crime, without leaving an evidence trail. If we want to establish a system that will keep Britain safe, what we need to do and the laws that we need to use are laws that will put people who are dangerous in prison, not under house arrest. We need to do that by open courts and by a jury. The gentleman giving evidence before me was saying that the jury is the cornerstone of British justice. If people have committed crimes then there needs to be evidence brought, a jury and a trial. The fact of the matter is that control orders are unfair and unsafe.
Q412 Ian Austin: Just one other question, when you absconded from the control order had you been subject to relocation or where were you living at that point? Had you been forced to move away from London?
Cerie Bullivant: No, I was never subject to forced relocation.
Q413 Ian Austin: Do you think it would have been more difficult for you to have absconded if you had been forced to relocate? If you had been sent away to a city where you knew nobody, hundreds of miles away, and you had no contacts and no friends would you have found it as easy to have absconded?
Cerie Bullivant: I don’t think that would have made a demonstrable difference in my absconding.
Q414 Michael Ellis: The system of control orders that you referred to has been repealed by this Government, but the previous Government brought those in for a purpose. Do you accept that the reason why those orders and subsequent similar orders have been brought into existence is to prevent terrorist atrocities in this country? They have a good purpose behind them. You would say, of course, would you not, Mr Bullivant, that they are unfair, but the purpose behind restricting the liberty of certain individuals, a very small number of individuals, is so that the security services can satisfy a public need to prevent terrorist attacks? Would you accept that?
Cerie Bullivant: I would accept that the intention behind bringing them in is to prevent terrorism from happening but I would disagree that they are in any way successful at achieving that. There was a documentary, "Living with a Terror Suspect", on Channel 4 around the time that control orders first came out. One of the terrorism suspects on a control order was allowed to go to five Underground stations. In my time on a control order, if I had been so inclined to be involved in terrorism I would have still been able to have gone and done those things. If somebody is a dangerous terrorist and we need to protect Britain from them, you don’t want them on house arrest, having to go and sign on at a police station once a day. This is not a correct way of dealing with them and protecting the British people.
Q415 Michael Ellis: Mr Bullivant, people on bail for ordinary offences are often required to turn up at police stations to report, they are often required to undertake curfews for routine non-terrorist offences. That is a system that has worked reasonably well. No system is faultless. You have described not knowing what was going on, that it has been secret courts and secret justice. Actually it is nothing of the sort, is it? What it is is that you don’t like the fact that you had this order imposed on you-and it is perfectly understandable from your perspective-but the authorities had what they believed to be good reasons to do so.
Cerie Bullivant: How would you describe a justice system where I was excluded from 90% of the hearings, where my solicitors were not allowed to go in and hear the evidence, where I was not allowed to put a defence forward, as not a secret court, not secret justice?
Q416 Michael Ellis: You were stopped at Heathrow Airport, were you not?
Cerie Bullivant: Yes.
Q417 Michael Ellis: Where were you intending to travel?
Cerie Bullivant: Syria.
Q418 Michael Ellis: Who were you travelling with, if anyone?
Cerie Bullivant: I was travelling with somebody called Ibrahim Adam.
Q419 Michael Ellis: Was that person the subject of any interest from the police or security authorities?
Cerie Bullivant: I had no way of knowing at the time.
Q420 Michael Ellis: Do you know now?
Cerie Bullivant: I know now that his brother was on remand for a crime.
Q421 Michael Ellis: When you learnt about that, that perhaps gave you some insight into why the police had stopped you from travelling to Syria.
Cerie Bullivant: At that time I was already on a control order.
Q422 Michael Ellis: As far as the general principle is concerned, although you say that the courts have erred in imposing this control order on you, isn’t the reality of the matter that the police and security services need some measure by which to restrict the movements of people against whom they have reasonably strong suspicions of serious terrorist intent?
Cerie Bullivant: If there are reasonable signs that someone is involved in serious terrorism intent then they are going to be committing a crime. Since 9/11 a whole raft of new legislation has been brought in criminalising a wide range of new areas of crime. You cannot get involved in dangerous terrorism-related activities without committing crimes. It is not possible. The police need to do a thorough job and if these people are dangerous they need to be in prison.
Michael Ellis: Would you not accept that there are people who are put on bail conditions all the time who are subsequently acquitted at court? It does not mean the fact that they were on bail pending their case was wrong in principle.
Chair: We need to move on, and I think we understand perfectly what you were saying, Mr Bullivant.
Q423 Dr Huppert: There are a number of things and we will come to some of them later. Apologies again for being late. There have been two particular issues that have been challenged over the current regime, things that people want to bring back from control orders, one of which was the internal exile, which you touched on earlier. The other was the fact that it used to be possible to have a control order for an indefinite period. Do you think that either of those would be effective compared to the effects they have on somebody subjected, perhaps wrongfully, to one of these orders?
Cerie Bullivant: It is worth knowing that from my perspective at least, and from the perspective of groups like Liberty, when you analyse the differences between control orders and TPIMs, on the vast majority of issues they are exactly the same. It is largely a rebranding exercise between two measures. How your life is affected living under them is the exactly the same. The major thing that was removed was the relocation. I would like to quote what Lord Macdonald QC said in a report for the Government about relocation. He said, "This is a form of internal exile, which is utterly inimical to traditional British norms. In the absence of any intention to charge, still less to prosecute, no British citizen should be told by the Government where he may or may not live. The review is clearly right to recommend the abolition of this thoroughly offensive practice. It is disproportionate and there is no justification for its retention." If the best that we can do when we bring in a new piece of legislation is pat ourselves on the back that we got rid of a thoroughly offensive practice that has no justification for its retention then I think we have done quite poorly.
Q424 Dr Huppert: On the other issue about the longevity, there has been a lot of questions. There was an article in the Telegraph last week saying that limiting these to only two years was an incredible risk and sacrificing the safety of British people. As I think you know from my responding article, I don’t agree with that. What is your take on that? You have argued that people have not had strong evidence against them. How do you think of two years as a time period compared to an indefinite order?
Cerie Bullivant: Compared to an indefinite order, it is good that there is some sort of limit to it. It is sad that they can be extended on the basis of more secret evidence. As Michael Ellis was saying, it is sometimes the case that people who are accused of crimes have a certain loss of liberty until their case can be proven. The problem with TPIMs is that there is no case being made or no move towards gaining a prosecution or gaining a final solution. You are basically just putting a situation on ice for a period of time. Some may say two years is too long; it is definitely better than indefinite.
Q425 Mr Winnick: Before I ask you any questions, let me say that your comments about control orders are not lost on some of us; the point that you made that if there is any action to be taken against someone because of suspected criminal activity the law should take its course in the ordinary way. Your words certainly have been heard.
Cerie Bullivant: Thank you very much.
Mr Winnick: You are a convert to the Islamic religion. Do you accept, whatever weaknesses we may have in a democracy, that one of the fundamental rights of a country, based on the rule of law, is to be able to uphold one’s religion, to change one’s religion or, as in a case like mine, to have absolutely no religion whatsoever? Do you accept that should be the case insofar as is possible in every place?
Cerie Bullivant: Yes, I definitely agree. I think that the right to self-determination and the right to have freedom in how we choose to live our lives, as long as we are not causing harm or distress to other people, is one of the most important things that any society can hold on to. I hope that despite the rumblings about future legislation that we have been hearing, those rights for people to practise their religion freely, or no religion at all freely, are still maintained in this country, as they have been and as they were when I was growing up.
Q426 Mr Winnick: You were going to Syria obviously because you feel very strongly about the brutality of the Assad regime.
Cerie Bullivant: That was 2006. At that time, to be honest, I had very little awareness of the situation of, for example, the Assad regime and those sorts of things. The primary purpose of my travelling-I was 21, 22 at the time-was I had a bag full of toys and flat footballs and I wanted to go and work with orphans. The thing that shocked and that I was aware of was the disparity in wealth between the poorest people in those areas and the richest and I wanted to go and see another culture, see the history-I love history-and basically work with young children, and teach English to sustain myself during that time.
Q427 Mr Winnick: Given your earlier answer about the right to pursue one’s religion or change one’s religion, are you concerned that some of those who are fighting the Assad regime, which undoubtedly is a very brutal regime to say the least, are very intolerant and some of those forces have been exposed who obviously want to bring about a system where no one could change their religion and anyone who does not practise that religion would be punished accordingly?
Cerie Bullivant: I strongly oppose the Assad regime and the brutal crimes that he has committed against his own people. Equally, though, I am no fan of any sectarian activities and wars. I think that there is no good to be had from any situation where one group of people kill another group of people on the basis of their religion.
Q428 Mr Winnick: It is sometimes said, and it may well be totally wrong, that those who convert, not just to Islam but to Christianity or Judaism or what have you, tend to take a more fundamentalist line, particularly it is emphasised as those who have converted to Islam in the last few years. Do you think that there is any foundation for that argument?
Cerie Bullivant: I have seen no studies or statistical evidence to show that there is any more predilection among converts to get into any sort of fundamental version of Islam. Many converts I know follow the Sufi branch of Islam and are very apolitical and spiritual. I think that every man makes his own path. One of the fundamental aspects of Islam is the concept of ummah and caring for your fellow man in every country and every place. When some people take on that concept of caring for everyone in every place it becomes painful for them to then see people who they consider brothers and sisters being bombed and killed in other countries as well.
Q429 Paul Flynn: One of the sections of the judge’s words that my colleague failed to read out was that he said, "For the reasons I have given in this and in the closed judgment, I am not prepared to uphold the present order, nor would I have upheld the previous order". This completely exonerates you, doesn’t it?
Cerie Bullivant: Yes. I was very happy with the judgment of the judge and everything that he said. He repeated three times that there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion that I had ever been involved in terrorism-related activities.
Q430 Paul Flynn: It has been suggested by my colleague Michael Ellis that the control orders were essential and something that was universally approved of in this House. Do you recall at the time that they were bitterly opposed in this House as being illiberal, unnecessary, an overreaction and something that was designed to grab favourable headlines for the politicians involved as appearing to be tough on terrorism?
Chair: Order. Could Mr Flynn put his question, please?
Paul Flynn: I was in the House at the time. Mr Ellis was not.
Cerie Bullivant: I agree with you that both control orders and TPIMs are largely exercises in flexing the muscles and showing how strong people can be on terrorism, when in fact they are measures that do very little to protect us and alienate the Muslim community and make them feel like a second-rate suspect community. I feel that it is very important that we learn the lessons from the past. My family have Irish roots and I think no one would say now that internment was the most effective tool for dealing with the IRA. In fact the more you go down these draconian paths, the more you try to close things down, the more you are going to push people towards becoming more extreme against you. The better path I would propose would be to open up discussion of ideas and let the truth win out by the quality of its truth, if that makes any sense.
Q431 Paul Flynn: You knew a friend of a friend of someone about whom there might have been some questions, there was a drunken phone call from someone who had not been in touch with you since you became converted, and this was the basis of an attempt to deprive you of your liberty.
Cerie Bullivant: They were the only two things that I have been told about, yes.
Q432 Paul Flynn: Just the last question, was there ever any attempt to de-radicalise you at any time?
Cerie Bullivant: No. In my interactions with the security services, I have never been asked about involvement in terrorism. My interactions with the Home Office have been that even when the judge gave his initial ruling, before it became a written judgment and it became the law, he said at the end of the hearing in December that he would be quashing the order, he would not be opening any grounds for appeal and the order would be quashed. He said that when it came down as a written judgment then it would become the ruling and the law, but he told everyone before that that would be the case. Even then the Home Office refused to reduce the conditions of my control order or even acknowledge that they had been wrong to do it in the first place.
Q433 Paul Flynn: Do you accept that at the time because of fear and so on of what was going on the authorities did behave in an hysterical way that was understandable and the feeling was that everyone was assumed to be guilty unless they were proved to be a Christian?
Chair: If you could make your answer as brief as possible, please.
Cerie Bullivant: Yes. I think you are right that there was an immense amount of fear around at the time, but if we are going to look at best practice here then the case of Anders Breivik and the reaction of Norway is a much better place to look. If we act through fear then we are only going to create fear in other communities as well and a society of fear.
Q434 Chair: Do you come across people who want to go abroad to act as foreign fighters? Have you come across people like that?
Cerie Bullivant: I have, yes.
Chair: We accept that you are not one. Do you know why they do this?
Cerie Bullivant: Generally speaking, from the people that I have spoken to-and this is a very large issue within the Muslim community at the moment-as I said there is a concept of ummah within the religion of the universality of human brotherhood. Within that context, when people see that civilians are being killed with TNT, dynamite bombs, barrels of chemical weapons being dropped, phosphorous being used on playgrounds, as we saw on Panorama-
Chair: They want to go and defend them because of the concept of ummah.
Cerie Bullivant: The primary thing that I have heard from people is that it is about defending other innocent people around the world.
Q435 Chair: Do you endorse what they are doing? Do you understand that as a legitimate way of taking Islam forward?
Cerie Bullivant: I think that what is happening in Syria especially at the moment is a hugely complicated issue. To go into it now-
Chair: We don’t want you to talk about Syria, but do you understand why people do this and do you endorse what they do?
Cerie Bullivant: I understand what their thinking is and where they are taking their thoughts from. I think that in all of these situations there is a multitude of different groups and aspects and ways of going around solving things and I can understand why someone would choose to do that.
Q436 Dr Huppert: Can I go to the criminal trial that you faced for breaching the control order? Apologies if this was covered before I got here. You had seven counts of breaching and the jury decided to find you not guilty. You said that you had breached the control order. What do you think it says that 12 people presumably felt that the process was so unfair that despite the fact you said you had breached it, they nonetheless insisted on finding you not guilty?
Cerie Bullivant: Those seven counts that I was actually tried for were test counts. There were over 45 breaches and for the vast majority of those I didn’t say that any of them didn’t happen. I accepted every single one of them, but the fact was that a jury of 12 ordinary decent people realised that the measures and the pressure that it put upon me, as I was saying before-I don’t know if you were here then-having those conditions above you is like a sword hanging over your neck. That pressure and high anxiety of living in that situation led to a situation where there was no alternative but for those breaches to happen. The jury, which as was said before is a cornerstone of British justice, saw that no crime had been committed in breaching that order, I believe rightly so.
Michael Ellis: Mr Bullivant, just to explain that Mr Vaz has had to go to another Committee so I am acting as Chair.
Q437 Nicola Blackwood: I wanted to follow up on some of the comments you made about meeting individuals who felt like they might go off to other countries and join fighting. We are conducting an inquiry into counter-terrorism and one of the issues that we are interested in is methods of radicalisation. In the work subsequent to the quashing of your control order have you come across some of these methods of radicalisation? Do you think it is more likely that individuals are coming across radicalising material online or in mosques or at university or by other methods? What is your assessment of this?
Cerie Bullivant: Strangely enough, the thing that radicalises people the most and straight off the bat is not in the mosques or online. It is on the BBC. Every day when people turn on their TVs and read their newspapers they see these things going on. We live in a global world and a connected world and it is impossible that it is not going to affect them somehow. The question then becomes how do they channel that, and ironically the talk of shutting speakers down and these sorts of things are going to force them into going into darker places to look for solutions and searching the internet where they are going to see things that are much worse than anything you will ever find being preached in any mosque. I think at the moment the larger sort of push for this, there is this idea that radicalisation is coming from a religious point of view, that there is a certain preacher or a certain group. Obviously there is a certain amount of that coming out from-
Q438 Nicola Blackwood: I think the thing is, Mr Bullivant, if I looked at the BBC and saw the images that we have all seen of the terrible suffering of the Syrian people and I felt like I wanted to do something I wouldn’t know where to start to go and join a Syrian militia. Somehow you have to find that out. The question I am asking is where are these young people finding the information that is enabling them to go and fight? It must be somewhere. It can’t just be from the ether.
Cerie Bullivant: In the case of Syria specifically, it is on the border of Turkey. I have heard of young lads who don’t know anyone or anything basically buying a plane ticket to Istanbul and heading off on their own. It is not like, for example, in Afghanistan where someone would need to hook into a network and know people X, Y and Z. It is why the position in Syria is so different to other theatres because it is just so easily accessible.
Q439 Nicola Blackwood: With Syria they get on a plane and they head for a border but with other theatres they have to find contacts. How would they find those contacts? Have you come across any individuals who have done that?
Cerie Bullivant: I wouldn’t know the specifics of how you organised something like that.
Nicola Blackwood: I was just wondering if in your work you had come across that.
Cerie Bullivant: When it comes to people arranging to go somewhere like Afghanistan to get involved with maybe a group like the Taliban, for example, there is no mosque in the country now that would preach that or support that. There is nowhere you could go openly and talk about these things. That situation does not exist in this country anywhere and anybody who tells you anything different is fibbing, to be honest. How people do it has to be through personal contacts and personal connections that they already have. I don’t know a great deal about that. That is not my area of expertise and I wouldn’t want to talk any more-
Q440 Nicola Blackwood: One of the issues that has been raised with us is that a common location for radicalisation is in prison. During the time that you were held in remand, were you in any way exposed? You said not to de-radicalisation, but did anybody approach you during that period to try to make the most of any grievance that you might feel, as it turns out justifiably?
Cerie Bullivant: When I was in prison, the reaction that I saw from the Muslim prisoners, the situation that I was in, was that they were generally speaking the most helpful of the prisoners, not just to other Muslims but to the non-Muslim prisoners as well. They would be the ones that would share their drink and food. I saw people giving dawah, I saw people calling to Islam, and I saw a lot of people converting while they were in prison. I did not see people calling for jihad in prison. I think that everybody in prison knows that that would be a very quick way to get your sentence extended. I was in a remand prison as well. No one would want to make their case any worse than it already was. I know of one other person who was on a control order case and the fact that he had spoken to some people about Islam and they had chosen to accept Islam was brought up as evidence against him in his control order hearing, that he had been allegedly radicalising people in prison.
If you want to go into the brand of Islam in prison, it is generally speaking quite orthodox, quite Salafi, if you want to coin a term, but there is certainly nobody there who has the gumption to start telling you, "As soon as you get out you need to head off to Afghanistan", because it would be a madness in prison.
Michael Ellis: Thank you very much, Mr Bullivant. If there are no other questions from my colleagues, thank you very much for taking the time to come in to see this Committee today and give evidence. It has been very helpful and interesting and the Committee appreciate it. Thank you for coming in.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Nigel Inkster, International Institute for Strategic Studies, former Director of Operations, Secret Intelligence Service MI6, gave evidence.
Q441 Michael Ellis: Mr Inkster, thank you very much indeed for coming in. I am going to start by asking you to identify a little bit about your background and why you believe you are before this Committee today.
Nigel Inkster: My current title is Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is a think-tank specialising in international security and issues of conflict.
Q442 Michael Ellis: Where were you before that?
Nigel Inkster: Prior to that I was in the British Secret Intelligence Service, retiring as the Assistant Chief at the end of 2006.
Q443 Michael Ellis: You were previously Assistant Chief of MI6 as it is sometimes called. Is that right?
Nigel Inkster: Yes.
Q444 Michael Ellis: I think you have been quoted, Mr Inkster, as having said with reference to the Snowden leaks that they were embarrassing, uncomfortable and unfortunate, but you said that it was likely that most targets of GCHQ were already well aware of their capabilities. Does this mean that you disagree with the suggestion that the Snowden revelations were detrimental to national security?
Nigel Inkster: No, I do not in the slightest. I believe they were clearly very detrimental to national security and I think the most important thing to say about that is that as the scope of Snowden’s leakages has become evident, the extent of that damage has become all the greater. It is much more serious than I think I at least was inclined to infer.
Q445 Michael Ellis: Can you expand on why you think they have been so damaging?
Nigel Inkster: I think from a number of different points of view. It is important to bear in mind that details about the capabilities that Snowden has been divulging, making public, have been developed in relatively recent times and reflect the rapid developments in the world of information and communication technologies with which the intelligence services-
Michael Ellis: I wonder if I can just stop you in mid-flow there, Mr Inkster. The Division bell is going. The Committee is suspended for a House of Commons division for 10 minutes. We will come back to you, Mr Inkster.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Q446 Michael Ellis: The Committee is now quorate. I am going to ask you, Mr Inkster, to carry on where you left off. You were expanding on why it is you believe that serious damage was done by the Snowden leaks.
Nigel Inkster: As I said, if you look at the pace of development in the information and communication and technology industry, this has been extremely rapid, and the number of communications options that are available to individuals and groups is expanding and changing all the time. Of course, all of this has happened not at the behest of or on behalf of the intelligence services of the Western world. They have had to try to keep pace with this explosive growth as best they can and it has been a real challenge for them, but that I think they have met remarkably well, using a combination of different techniques.
The real value of the capabilities that have emerged over the last five or six years is that they appear to provide quite a wide range of coverage of the communications options and create in the minds of potential malefactors significant ambiguity and uncertainty about which channels of communication might be safe and which channels of communication are likely to be monitored. That ambiguity, that uncertainty, has been very significantly eroded and I think serious malefactors now have a much better idea of which communication techniques they should not be using.
Q447 Michael Ellis: In other words, it is your strong contention that the Snowden leaks have made it a lot easier for malefactors, as you call them, those intending to do harm, to go about their unlawful business and their criminal intent?
Nigel Inkster: I think we need to make a distinction between those at the kind of low end of the spectrum who, not to mince words, are stupid and are going to get caught anyway versus the ones we really need to worry about, who are not stupid and are extremely calculating, extremely aware of ICT capabilities. Those are the ones who are in a better position as a result of what has occurred.
Michael Ellis: They are sophisticated.
Nigel Inkster: They are more sophisticated actors, yes.
Q448 Michael Ellis: There are those that have suggested what GCHQ and NSA want is effectively something tantamount to a surveillance state and have referenced spying on everybody, the general public. What do you say to those who position themselves in that way?
Nigel Inkster: This is a completely unrealistic and misleading representation of what has been taking place. I think such comments betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of big data and the role that this plays in modern-
Q449 Michael Ellis: Do you mean we do not even have the ability to handle the amount of data that is produced? Is that-
Nigel Inkster: No, that is not my point at all. My point is that big data has a quality of its own. That quality is that it enables analytics of big data to identify patterns of correlation that are simply not obvious with lesser quantities of data. For example, why did the intelligence services of various European countries provide significant quantities of data from their own national telecommunications to NSA? Answer: because NSA, by aggregating this up with other data, can make much more sensible use of it than could be done by using the lesser quantities. The point about all of this is that the aim of the NSA and GCHQ programmes is not to be able to spy on everybody. What they are doing is putting through sophisticated computer programmes huge quantities of data, with the computer being tasked to look for very, very narrow issues on which it has been programmed to register. Once that has been done, if the agencies wish to dig down deeper and look at what is in those communications, they have to seek a separate warrant for that.
Q450 Michael Ellis: Finally from me, what do you say to Sir John Sawers, the current Head of MI6, when he said before another committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, that terrorists were rubbing their hands with glee about the Snowden leaks? Do you agree with that assessment?
Nigel Inkster: I think Sir John is probably better placed than I to make that judgment, but I certainly think that, as you put it, the more sophisticated end of the terrorism spectrum, there will be, at the very least, relief that there is greater certainty about where the risk lies for them.
Q451 Dr Huppert: Mr Inkster, can I turn on to the issues about oversight of the agencies and how they work? Even before any of this came up in 2010, you said to the Intelligence and Security Committee that there is evident dissatisfaction with the oversight arrangements, existing arrangements still do not command public confidence and highlighted that citizens have a very direct interest in intelligence and security and a legitimate desire to know more about what is being done in this arena. Do you still agree with those comments?
Nigel Inkster: Can you remind me where I said that?
Dr Huppert: Survival, 52.2, April 2010, page 199.
Nigel Inkster: All right, yes. I think that there is always going to be this tension with oversight arrangements in relation to intelligence. By definition, there are certain aspects of this activity that simply cannot be made public; to make them public would be to vitiate their effectiveness. People are always going to want more from the oversight arrangements of the intelligence community than those arrangements are likely to be able to give. We need to bear in mind that in the overall scheme of things, political oversight, democratic oversight of the intelligence services in this country is a relatively recent phenomenon; it did not get going until 1994. It is worth reminding ourselves it was the intelligence services themselves who asked for this. It was not imposed upon them. The nature of that oversight has evolved over time and I think has changed quite significantly. We now see the current committee having been given increased powers, increased resources and I expect this process to continue to evolve.
Q452 Dr Huppert: Do you think it now does command public confidence in the way that it did not three years ago?
Nigel Inkster: It depends what you mean by "public confidence". I think there will be-
Dr Huppert: But they are your words.
Nigel Inkster: -a vociferous element, the chattering classes, for want of a better word, who are likely never to find these arrangements satisfactory. I think we have seen a lot of evidence of that in the context of the Snowden revelations. As to the bulk of the British public, I suspect that they are in the main probably not that interested.
Q453 Dr Huppert: When you said a new compact needs to be worked out, what was the new compact you were thinking of, because while there have been small changes to the ISC, they are not hugely substantial. It does not sound to me like the sort of new compact that I read in that article you wrote.
Nigel Inkster: If I meant anything by a new compact, I meant an acceptance and an understanding that certain things could not be made public, but that would not be a comment on the quality of the oversight, simply that the public would need to accept that in exchange for an acceptable level of oversight and an acceptable arrangement, some things would have to remain secret.
Q454 Dr Huppert: I will have to try later to match your words now with that article, but can I turn to a specific example of oversight? You are presumably familiar with section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, "Directions in the interests of national security"?
Nigel Inkster: Not in detail, no.
Michael Ellis: Perhaps you could expand, Dr Huppert.
Dr Huppert: It is a section of the Act that says, "The Secretary of State can give people directions of a general character as appear to be necessary in the interests of national security or relations with a government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom". They have complete carte blanche to direct any telephone company, anybody covered by the Telecommunications Act, to do anything. There is a clause that says, "The Secretary of State has to lay before each House of Parliament a copy of every direction", unless they think that is against the interests of national security or relations with the government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom or the commercial interests of any person and money can be paid. It applies to Ofcom and all providers of public electronic communications networks. There is nothing mentioned here about oversight or scrutiny. This is quite a huge power, to do anything, particularly when it is, "Relations with a government of a country outside the United Kingdom". You must have come across this in your time at MI6.
Nigel Inkster: No. You would be surprised to learn that I did not. This was not something that featured in my preoccupations, and in any case, I think it would be very difficult for me to talk in that sort of specificity about what I was involved in while I was in the intelligence services.
Q455 Dr Huppert: But in general terms, would you expect for a power like that, which has no constraints, as written? There is to be consultation, but everything must be kept private, everything goes to Parliament, unless it is in the interests of another country not to do so, which basically means nothing ever comes to us. Are you surprised by that? Do you think there should be some sort of oversight mechanism, some sort of parliamentary accountability?
Nigel Inkster: It depends what for. If we are talking about the bulk collection of overseas communications data, then I think that is something, to my understanding, that the ISC is well aware of, in fact. I think Hazel Blears last year made the point in respect of GCHQ’s bulk collection programmes the committee was well aware of what programmes were being undertaken, what had been done to look at them and had been given extensive briefing about them, so if we are talking about what GCHQ is doing by way of bulk overseas collections, I think the understanding is there.
Dr Huppert: Different members of the ISC have said different things. I have further questions, but I will allow others.
Michael Ellis: Perhaps we will come back to you, Dr Huppert. Mr Winnick.
Q456 Mr Winnick: You have just now referred-or at least a few moments ago-and used the term "chattering classes". Would that be your description of those who have taken an extensive interest in Snowden’s revelations?
Nigel Inkster: Perhaps. There are different constituencies who have taken an interest in Snowden’s revelations, though I think speaking purely subjectively, I sense a degree of media wariness with some of this. I think that civil liberties groups are bound to take an active interest in this.
Q457 Mr Winnick: Any reason why they should not?
Nigel Inkster: None at all, none at all, but I think the difficulty is that sometimes the debates that we are seeing are still being characterised by misperceptions that have taken hold within the media. In fact, I have written an article about this for the forthcoming edition of the IISS in-house magazine, Survival, which highlights what I think some of these key misperceptions are. I would be happy to share a draft of that with yourself.
Michael Ellis: Please do send it in.
Nigel Inkster: I think of course it is entirely legitimate for people to want to understand whether the civil liberties of British people are being respected, of course it is, and I could hardly say otherwise.
Q458 Mr Winnick: In a society based on the rule of law, which presumably you are as keen and enthusiastic about as the rest of us-you did your stint for a long number of years and presumably doing your utmost to make sure that we remain a society based on the rule of law and against any attempt to terrorise the people in this country-don’t you think it is useful that papers like the Guardian and Liberty, the organisation, and the rest should be extremely concerned over the amount of intelligence-gathering that has been demonstrated by the Snowden revelations?
Nigel Inkster: Not necessarily. I think that we are looking at a situation here in which the capabilities that have been developed have been a response to a particular crisis, which at the time was perceived as a major crisis, the threat from a globally-enabled and globally-deployed terrorist movement capable of doing significant damage, and a movement whose emergence coincided with these technical capabilities that we are talking about and whose activities were significantly enabled by these technical capabilities. In the circumstances, it would be rather surprising if the intelligence services had not sought to try to get some kind of assurance of visibility where this mattered.
I think the issues that concern civil liberties groups in this country derive from the fact that these programmes have necessarily been secret. Although I think there is certainty in conviction within the intelligence community and within Government that the programmes were conducted lawfully, in accordance with the laws that exist, it is inevitably the case when intelligence services are concerned that they are seeking to apply the law in difficult circumstances, conditions that had never been envisaged by the law-makers, where there is no precedent, and where you are always going to be on the leading edge of jurisprudence and there is no safe centre. This is always going to be a contentious area.
Q459 Mr Winnick: In the United States, there has been a considerable amount of debate, including a criticism from those who previously offended to the hilt, the US intelligence gathering, and criticism has now been levelled at the amount of gathering that has been revealed. Don’t you think that is a healthy aspect and would never have come about without Snowden doing what he did do?
Nigel Inkster: I am not sure that we can say that with confidence. I think that at some point some of these issues would have had to come out. I am not sure that the way in that Snowden has gone about this is necessarily the right way to do it, and it is not obvious to me why Mr Snowden is better qualified than anyone else to judge what intelligence programmes the United States Government should be running.
Q460 Mr Winnick: Last question, if I may, Chair. Does the name Daniel Ellsberg mean anything to you?
Nigel Inkster: Yes.
Q461 Mr Winnick: You know of course that Mr Ellsberg revealed the Pentagon papers regarding the Vietnam War that caused a huge outcry at the time, the denunciation of him as a traitor and the rest of it, now considered in a somewhat different light. He has said that Snowden has followed his example and has praised Snowden. Do you gather anything from that?
Nigel Inkster: I think my views on Mr Snowden are of little consequence, as I think now is Mr Snowden himself. He is simply a vector through which these revelations have been made and at this point I do not think he has any further relevance. I would simply point out that Daniel Ellsberg did not seek asylum in Russia, he stayed to face the music.
Q462 Nicola Blackwood: I wanted to change direction of the discussion slightly to discuss links between terrorism and drugs trafficking. I know that this is a subject on which you have written. I understand that there are emerging significant links between terror groups and drugs trafficking in North-West Africa and that there have been reports of smugglers adopting religious or jihadist rhetoric in order to justify the fight against security services and also perhaps to recruit drugs mules. I wonder if you believe that the overseas capacity-building and the work that the UK has been doing in order to try to work on these issues is sufficient and effective?
Nigel Inkster: I think that what we are seeing in North Africa and the Sahel in particular is a manifestation of a wider phenomenon, which is a security situation in which intelligence, terrorism and criminal activity co-exist to varying degrees and different entities become involved in any and all of these activities, depending on the circumstances. That is certainly what we are seeing in the Sahel, and that is an area in particular where smuggling high-value goods has been a way of life for generations, in the absence of any credible alternatives.
It is not just a phenomenon that is restricted to Africa and the Sahel. We have seen it, for example, in parts of Latin America, where FARC, the main insurgent and terrorist movement, has also been a prime mover in the narcotics trade. That phenomenon undoubtedly does exist. The person who was responsible for last year’s In Amenas attack was primarily a kind of smuggler/jihadist-emphasis on smuggler-until he refocused his attention towards a more ideological approach. The phenomenon is very real and it does present a particular difficulty for both these parts of the world, which actively suffer the most damage from terrorism.
If you look at the statistics for the last couple of years, by far the majority of terrorist attacks and terrorist casualties have taken place in these remote and ungoverned areas like Nigeria, like the Sahel, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also poses a dilemma for developed Western states, who have much better capabilities and institutions to deal with the problem of terrorism as it affects them, but faced with the dilemma of what to do about the problems that we see in places like the Sahel, because there is always a risk that if you become involved directly in these security situations, you risk either making them worse or inviting blow-back on yourself, so making a judgment about where and how to intervene is very difficult.
Q463 Nicola Blackwood: Mr Inkster, I am aware that we have counter-terrorism and extremism liaison officers, we have a network of those in particular flashpoints.
Nigel Inkster: Yes, sure.
Nicola Blackwood: We also have SOCA liaison officers who are deployed to deal with specific areas of concern regarding drugs trafficking, and of course East Africa would qualify quite highly for that. We also have a justice and human rights partnership programme, which is put in place to try to raise the quality of justice and security practice in certain countries of concern and make sure that the emphasis is on building evidence-based cases against suspects. I suppose what I am looking for is an assessment of whether you think this network of overseas effort is effective or whether we should be trying to focus on alternative approaches.
Nigel Inkster: I think the general approach is the best approach that is on offer. It enables you to engage, hopefully with some effect, in the areas concerned without yourself having to put boots on the ground, to the point where you become a major actor and influence the situation. Yes, in principle I think it is a good idea. In practice, much depends on the specific circumstances and much depends upon the resources that have been deployed relative to the severity of the threat, and that is of course a judgment that has to be made. There is no reliable formula to tell you how to do that. Where the UK is concerned, my understanding is that in the main, the United Kingdom focus is to work with partners rather than alone. There are these arrangements that you cite. I think they are fine as far as they go. I have two possible concerns. One is that they may be under-resourced, given the scale of the problem. The number of SOCA officers that are deployed in this rather large and insecure region is pretty small. Secondly, I do wonder about the possible downside of a stovepipe approach, whereby SOCA only deals with organised crime, does not stray into terrorism and has no remit for insurgency and I wonder whether the approach that is being taken is a broad enough focus to encompass the totality of the security threat that presents in these areas.
Nicola Blackwood: Thank you very much.
Q464 Paul Flynn: In 2006, long after Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda left Afghanistan, when only two British soldiers had been killed in combat, the British Government decided to go into Helmand Province in the hope that not a shot would be fired, and their mission was to end the drugs trade. Did this have the support of the security services at the time and how successful was that?
Nigel Inkster: Of course when you say the support of the intelligence services, in terms of a recognition that this mission was going to go ahead and would need to be provided with intelligence support-
Q465 Paul Flynn: Did they support the view that not a shot would be fired-
Nigel Inkster: No, I do not think so.
Paul Flynn: -and that drugs would be eliminated?
Nigel Inkster: No, I do not think we did. As to the drugs problem, I think the drugs problem in Afghanistan was far more severe and intractable than anyone had imagined when the United Kingdom first took responsibility for this. There was a reluctance to recognise that the agendas of counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics run counter to each other, which I now firmly believe they do.
Q466 Paul Flynn: The Intelligence and Security Service Committee here, and all other committees involved in defence-and presumably the security services-were also cheerleaders for the view that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to Britain. Doesn’t this suggest that we need better knowledge and better information of the kind that came from Edward Snowden? I am putting to you that the last two disasters we have had, the Iraq War, fought on an entirely false basis, and the incursion into Helmand, which cost us 427 lives, in addition to uncounted Afghanistan lives, were errors. The security services, which are costing us £2 billion a year, were part of the belief, the set of ideas, that led us into those terrible mistakes.
Nigel Inkster: On the Iraq inquiry, I think we can do no better than await the outcome of Lord Chilcot’s report.
Q467 Paul Flynn: It is already three years late, as you know, for reasons-
Nigel Inkster: Indeed, yes. On the Afghan point, can I make the point that the British military did not go into Helmand Province on the recommendation of the intelligence services. They absolutely did not. That was a decision that they took on their own recognition.
Q468 Paul Flynn: Do you believe that Angela Merkel is a threat to the United States or that Turkey is a threat to the United Kingdom?
Nigel Inkster: That is not a judgment for me to make and I think it is not for me to second-guess what the-
Paul Flynn: Can you conceive of any reason why we should be spying on them or why-
Michael Ellis: Mr Flynn, would you just allow Mr Inkster to answer the question that you put, if he wishes to go further?
Nigel Inkster: Sorry, which one?
Michael Ellis: Is Angela Merkel a threat to the United States?
Nigel Inkster: I think that is a judgment for the United States to make. There is no doubt that there are significant areas of policy difference between Germany and the United States. There are areas of German policy that the United States may have concerns about or may not feel well-sighted on. Whether listening to Mrs Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, if indeed this is what happened, is the best way to do it, that is not a matter for me to pronounce on.
Q469 Paul Flynn: Don’t you think the rest of we citizens of Europe are benefiting from the fact that Edward Snowden has revealed to us that America is so neurotic that they listen in to Angela Merkel ordering groceries, and isn’t it right that we have that information, and should we not applaud Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower?
Nigel Inkster: Sir, you may. I do not. I regard him as a traitor and-
Q470 Paul Flynn: Okay. What about the rest of the information about what happens to ordinary citizens? Do you think that this is something that we should be aware of, that every phone call we make, every visit we pay, that someone can find out where we are, what we are seeing, who our friends are? It is an outrageous intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens in Britain, of which we were kept in ignorance, and Edward Snowden has allowed us to know that.
Nigel Inkster: I think this point about the ubiquity of visibility that comes from modern ICT is more an issue for the people who have manufactured and developed these capabilities. After all, it was not the intelligence services who asked the people who manufacture this to put GPS into it, to put all these other capabilities in that enable somebody, if they care to do so, to know what I am doing and where I am at almost any time of day or night. It is simply the reality of the modern ICT world that we have moved towards, which has not been well-understood, not been well-appreciated, and I entirely accept that there is scope for a debate on the way in that these communications are developing, the implications for individuals, but I think that the intelligence component of this can only be one small element in that debate, not the primary element. The intelligence services-
Q471 Paul Flynn: A final question: do you think that the excessive overreaction to what were terrible events and the way that the Western Christian world seemed to have demonised the Eastern Islamic world is itself a cause of antagonism and creating a sense of injustice, because many of the terrorist atrocities in this country were home-grown, from people who were brought up and educated here? If we had had transparency in the past, rather than feeding on secrecy and living in the darkness of not knowing what was going on, that has in fact led to an increase in tension and some of the absurd injustices, such as the control orders.
Nigel Inkster: I think this is a rather large question for me to answer in the space of a couple of minutes.
Paul Flynn: You can say yes.
Nigel Inkster: I think the short answer is no, I am not convinced that that is.
Q472 Michael Ellis: Do you think, Mr Inkster, that the law enforcement framework has kept up with technology? You referred to the advances in technology and your mobile telephone and our mobile phone GPS connections. Do you think the law enforcement framework, in other words, the authority vested in police and law enforcement agencies to do surveillance on those persons they suspect reasonably to be terrorists or criminals, has kept up with the technology?
Nigel Inkster: Bulk intercept of civilian communications is not a new phenomenon, it has been around for some time, and I think the legislation that we have in this country, and to a large extent in the United States, has been framed to reflect that recognition, that bulk intercept is not a new phenomenon. There have been significant changes in the legislation here. The Intercept of Communications Act morphed into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, as it became evident that these additional capabilities were required. It is not impossible to imagine that further legislative changes may be required at some point in the future.
Q473 Mr Clappison: Can I just change the subject a little bit? We were hearing in our previous evidence session about people going from the United Kingdom to fight in Syria. What concerns do you have about that?
Nigel Inkster: It is very difficult to say with confidence what the effect of this in the United Kingdom is going to be. We have seen this phenomenon of terrorists moving from this country or people moving from this country to take part in military or jihadist-type conflicts in a number of different places and the impact of that I think has been different in each case. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we know perfectly well what the impact has been, that a number of people went there to, as they thought, fight in Afghanistan and were turned back and sent to undertake attacks in this country. In Iraq, this did not happen. Most people who went to take part in jihadi activities in Iraq either were discouraged and came back home or went on a one-way ticket, either volunteered or were volunteered to be suicide bombers, and so simply did not come back. In any case, I think the leadership of what became the Islamic state of Iraq was not particularly interested in orchestrating attacks against the United Kingdom, so there was no particular imperative to do so.
In the case of Syria, at the moment it is not that evident to me that the leadership of the various jihadist groups operating there has a particular animus against the UK or has a particular imperative to orchestrate attacks here, although the Metropolitan Police have recently made some comments to suggest that this may be happening. For me, the real worry about Syria is that it has the potential to become the crucible for a new generation of international jihadists, rather in the way as happened with those who took part in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, that they become a kind of band of brothers, united by shared experiences, shared outlooks, shared ideology, and that they then move on looking for new forms of jihad to undertake, one of which could well consist of attacks in countries such as the UK. I think that is an entirely understandable concern. There is not a huge amount I think that we can do about it, other than monitor closely the activities of such people and have the best understanding we can of who they are communicating with and what they are saying and what they are doing.
Q474 Dr Huppert: There are many things I could come back on, but just one, if I may, Mr Inkster. As you probably know, a number of the large tech companies now publish transparency reports-I think Google started to do this, Microsoft and others-saying how many requests they have had for data and how many people that relates to. They do not of course identify which individuals and I think we agree that is something that needs to stay private. They and many others have called for Government and government agencies to publish similar information, again not identifying who is being requested, just to give a sense of scale so that there is the possibility of scrutiny. Currently for communications data, this information is published en bloc. I think there were 570,000 data requests last year, but not who made them. Do you think the Government could do something like that?
Nigel Inkster: Conceivably they could. Whether it would be desirable to do so, I am honestly not sure. I do not know what the answer to this question is. That is a matter the Government is going to have to make a judgment about. Are there reasons why this should not be done in this particular case? I find it very difficult to answer that question.
Q475 Michael Ellis: Mr Inkster, Snowden is said to have been one of 850,000 American federal employees or contractors who had access to national security data. How could Washington in those circumstances have been expected to prevent a leak like this eventually occurring?
Nigel Inkster: I referred to myths and misconceptions and this is one of those myths and misconceptions. The number of people in the United States intelligence community with top-security clearances is 1.4 million, according to a 2012 report by the National Director of Intelligence. It is 1.4 million who have top-level clearances out of a total of 5 million Americans who have some sort of security clearances. But the number of people from that 1.4 million who would have had access to much of the Snowden material will have been much less. Having access to a particular level of security classification does not automatically mean having access to all the data, and having access to the data does not equate with knowing how that data was produced. I think that this is a very self-serving argument that does not stack up. I think within the American intelligence community there is an issue of the size that this community has risen to, and in particular the number of contractors within that system. I think 70% of the US intelligence budget currently goes to contractors of one sort or another.
Q476 Michael Ellis: So you think there is an acceptance that it has gone a bit too far?
Nigel Inkster: I think that there is an acceptance. There has always been a concern within the more thoughtful elements of the intelligence community about the reliance on contractors. There has always been a concern about the shift that has taken place post-9/11 from a need to know system to a rather over-enthusiastic need to share approach and the breakdown of traditions of compartmentalisation that needs to draw back.
Q477 Michael Ellis: Can you say briefly how many you think in this country have top-level clearance?
Nigel Inkster: I do not know, but it is certainly going to be a vastly smaller number. You have to understand that the American system is sui generis and the United States is a global intelligence power with no peer, so in that sense comparisons with the UK are perhaps invidious. But I think here the number is vastly less.
Michael Ellis: Mr Inkster, thank you very much indeed for coming in. The Committee is very grateful for your time and for the evidence that you have given. Thank you very much.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Shiraz Maher, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, gave evidence.
Q478 Michael Ellis: Thank you, Mr Maher, for coming, and I apologise that we are running a little bit later than scheduled. It is in part due to a Division in the House of Commons earlier.
Perhaps you could introduce yourself by saying a little bit about what you do and what you have done, very briefly.
Shiraz Maher: My name is Shiraz Maher. I am a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. That is a research centre within the War Studies Department at King’s College London. I am currently leading a team of several researchers, both in this country and abroad, who are researching the Syrian conflict.
Q479 Michael Ellis: Thank you very much. In your position as a Senior Research Fellow at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, can you say whether you believe that foreign fighters, as they are described, pose a real threat to the United Kingdom?
Shiraz Maher: I believe the picture is still emerging at this moment in time, but I think we are seeing a critical mass of people from this country and more broadly from Europe who are going over to Syria and participating in the conflict there. I think as the conflict intensifies and endures, you will begin to see an increased level of threat in one form or another to both this country and the Continent.
Q480 Michael Ellis: This is very important, because I think you made an assessment in October that there were between 200 and 350 British-linked individuals who had fought in Syria since the war began. Has the number risen since then?
Shiraz Maher: We produced a comprehensive set of figures for what we believe to be the global level of foreign fighters going over to the conflict. That was on 17 December. We said the UK figure at the top end was 366, so it has not risen in any sort of meaningful way.
Q481 Michael Ellis: When you suggest that there is a potential danger from foreign fighters to the United Kingdom, in what way does that danger manifest itself or could it manifest itself, in your view?
Shiraz Maher: You need to consider a number of factors arising out of the foreign fighter experience of young individuals who go over to that country. One of the key things you are seeing-and I think it was touched upon in the previous session as well-is the repopulation, for want of a better phrase, of the international or global terrorist networks. I think much of that network has been broken down over the decade that followed 9/11 and the subsequent anti-terrorist campaigns, but you are seeing a rather permissive environment right now within Syria, which is allowing groups and organisations to essentially repopulate this network in an international fashion in newly ungoverned spaces, which would have been inconceivable just 24 months ago.
You are also going to more broadly then see a new generation of fighters emerge who have skills that one would rather they did not have, of course combat experience, the ability to put together crude and improvised explosive devices and just-
Q482 Michael Ellis: Do you mean that they might utilise those skills on returning to the United Kingdom?
Shiraz Maher: If you look at the pattern of terrorist activity in this country, again over much of the last decade, a number of plots that were otherwise put on to the streets failed for want of the fact that there was a lack of experience and ability within those cells to construct viable devices. Unfortunately, you will see people now gaining those skills in an environment that is, as I say, permissive to allow them to do so.
Q483 Michael Ellis: Your assessment is that there is more than 360 of those?
Shiraz Maher: We give both upper estimates and lower estimates based on of course our open source work on this, and so at the highest end we would say 366. I would say in all cases, we tend to counsel against that top-end figure. We believe it is a spread and I believe we gave a true figure of probably in the high 200s.
Q484 Mr Winnick: Do you accept that there are those who wish to go to Syria for the best of reasons, as they see it, because of the brutality of the Assad regime, but have not the slightest wish to inflict terror on their own country, namely Britain?
Shiraz Maher: You are seeing different categories of people going or different motivations that drive different individuals for wanting to go over there, but I think we also need to consider what happens once individuals are there. I do accept your point that a number of people have been motivated entirely and almost purely by humanitarian reasons. They have been appalled, repulsed by what they have seen as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in that country and they have gone over. That is not the case in every scenario. There are certainly young Britons who we talked to who have gone over from this country who are participating in that conflict who will say quite bluntly, for example, "We do not want to free Syria. We want to establish an Islamic state". That is a propaganda poster that has gone around recently and that is something we are hearing. I am not saying of course that this is applicable in every case, but I think you need to broaden out and examine more closely the various different intentions that might lead someone there.
I think then to assess what kind of risk or potential risk a returnee might pose to this country, there are two things to note. There has been an academic study in the past by Dr Thomas Hegghammer that looked at returning foreign fighters from previous conflicts. His estimate is that one in nine people return post-threat, so it certainly-
Mr Winnick: One in nine?
Shiraz Maher: One in nine. We need to maybe examine that figure now in the context of Syria, because that applies to historical previous conflicts, and I would think that, for example, if you looked at the people who went to fight against the Soviet Union, the narrative and the discourse was quite different to what it is today. I would posit at least that the global jihadist narrative is today one that is a lot more confrontational towards the West.
That leads me to the final point I would just like to make on this, which is people who may well go into Syria for all the right reasons, as you say, who are motivated by purely humanitarian intentions, are not just of course fighting 24 hours a day on the front lines. They spend a lot of time being indoctrinated and going to study groups and so on. What we find from the ones we are talking to is certainly that if they had not embraced what you might describe as a global jihadist ideology before arriving in the country, they are certainly beginning to embrace that while they are out there, so that encompasses a lot of ideas that I think do make them certainly more dangerous than they would have been.
Q485 Mr Winnick: The Syrian conflict is being seen increasingly as a sectarian one between the two main brands of Islam. Those who want to go out, would they be influenced by an anti-Shia point of view, that Shia Muslims are not true Muslims, just as so many centuries ago the endless debates, and indeed terror, arising from the reformation in this country? Would that be a factor, that those going out are not only concerned and indeed disgusted by the brutality of the Assad regime, but also influenced that his brand of Muslim is not genuine?
Shiraz Maher: You are right to touch upon the sectarian element as an element within the conflict that has grown in prominence. It is certainly very evident in the discourse of a lot of young men who go to the country to fight that they are motivated to some extent by an anti-Shia element. To what extent that serves as the primary motivation for wanting to go is very difficult to assess. It is part of the package certainly of what they believe. That is one of the things that might be worth certainly considering for Government, is that one of the core strands of the Prevent strategy, for example, had been to explain elements of British foreign policy so as to damp down some of the tensions that were perceived to be around that issue that had motivated people to go abroad to Afghanistan or Iraq. That narrative has changed somewhat now. It is now more of an intra-Muslim rather than a civilisation discourse. It is an intra-Muslim tension that is fuelling a lot of the debate and anger in communities, so one thing that Parliament, the Prevent strategy and so on, should be looking into is how we begin to damp down issues surrounding these intra-Muslim tensions with Muslim stakeholders and community groups now, rather than, as I say, the old narrative, which was the West versus Islam or something like that.
Q486 Paul Flynn: This estimate you have of 350, how are they divided between the groups that they affiliate with? How many of them would go to the al-Nusra Brigade, how many to the other insurgents and how many who would support the Government?
Shiraz Maher: From our analysis, by and large you could identify people joining most of the different fighting groups out there. I should stress that our work predominantly focuses on anti-government fighters, so I could not give an estimate on Shia fighters who may have gone to support the regime, or indeed even comment with any great authority on that.
But certainly looking at the anti-Government Sunni foreign fighters, they do tend to go over and I would say the single-largest grouping we have found is what might be called a kind of Islamist foreign legion. It is called Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. It operates just over the border, near the Turkish border, and it seems to be the single largest grouping where Westerners, a lot of men from Europe, a lot of men from this country, seem to go as a port of first call. But we have found people going to all of the organisations, and indeed some of those, as you say, are not quite linked with Jabhat al-Nusra, but ISIS, the Islamic State of Iran and al-Sham, which is another one of the more hard-line al-Qaeda affiliated groups there.
Q487 Paul Flynn: Is there some essential recruiting organisation in the United Kingdom?
Shiraz Maher: I do not think there is a clear recruiting organisation. What we have found, and I think what is becoming increasingly important, is the role of social media in a lot of this. About 12 months ago, you had outliers, people who made original trips out to the country who established themselves there, who made links with local groups and who established essentially rat-runs from Syria into Turkey and backwards and forwards, allowing people to move between the two countries. They then used social media to flag up to their friends, to comrades back in this country to say, "Look, get out to Turkey and then you can make connections there and we can make it very easy for you to come". I do not think recruiting necessarily takes place on the streets of the UK, but social media makes that a moot point.
Q488 Paul Flynn: Could you give us some snapshot of what you believe the motivation of these people are? Most see the Syrian conflict as one in which there are massacres, terrible injustices on both sides, a huge amount of casualties. Do people see this as an idealistic cause and how?
Shiraz Maher: As I say, you get all kinds of motivations. We have touched upon the humanitarian angle, people motivated by humanitarian concerns as to what is unfolding there. I would also make the point that there is predominantly as well among young people a sense of the ummah consciousness, the idea that all Muslims around the world are united through some kind of fraternity of the faithful and that Muslims from one part of the world owe duty, allegiance and loyalty to other Muslims, particularly in times of oppression or injustice. I think that is a message that resonates particularly loudly in the context of Syria and in a less ambiguous way than it would have done with the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Everyone seems to be on the same page about the brutality of the Syrian regime. There is not a counter-narrative that is well-established, so as I say, in the minds of young people I think that idea of the ummah consciousness on the one hand, coupled with a sense that this conflict is less morally ambiguous, less legally contentious seems to make it a quite attractive proposition.
Q489 Paul Flynn: How firm are your figures for 200 to 250? Is this a realistic calculation?
Shiraz Maher: I believe our figures are realistic. They have been out there for some time. We have seen that they are broadly in line with estimates coming out of intelligence agencies both in this country and across the Continent. We published figures back in April of last year as well that were adopted by the EU Commission on Counter-terrorism, so I would say the figures have a degree of stability.
Q490 Dr Huppert: There have been some fascinating successes with de-radicalisation recently, people like Tommy Robinson and others were quite a striking example. Has there been much work to try to de-radicalise foreign fighters once they have returned to the UK or is it essentially too late at that point?
Shiraz Maher: I do not think we have as yet seen enough foreign fighters return and started to have them back in the UK for a long enough period to begin to assess even what the implications of their experience in Syrian has meant, let alone to devise a de-radicalisation strategy. I do think that is something that Government will need to look at very closely, again through Prevent, through the Channel project in terms of recalibrating them to address some of the issues I mentioned, for example.
It is the intra-Muslim debate that is now taking place and seems to be adopting greater prominence in the minds of young people than, as I say, the old civilisational view that the West is somehow at war with Islam and they were locked in that. There is need for a de-radicalisation strategy that is recalibrated and tailored to the situation emerging from Syria. I think we do not know enough yet about it and so it is something that we need to look at.
Q491 Dr Huppert: In general, have de-radicalisation strategies been sufficiently successful? What more should be done, if anything?
Shiraz Maher: It is difficult to give an overview of de-radicalisation strategies as a whole across the world. There are a number of these schemes operating.
Dr Huppert: I meant particularly in the UK, sorry.
Shiraz Maher: I think in the UK there have been variable successes, and again it is very difficult to know quite where we are looking into this. It is community-based engagement strategies. I think you have seen a greater degree of capacity-building within the Muslim community; you have seen a greater degree of resilience from civil society, and as I say again within Muslim-specific context. With regards to prison de-radicalisation strategies, most people go in for a very long time, so we have not yet seen people emerge in a meaningful set of numbers where you could assess that. There is capacity within the community, but because of Syria evolving in a different direction, it is not as contentious in the minds of people as the war in Iraq was, for example, or Afghanistan.
Q492 Dr Huppert: Things like control orders, which we were talking about earlier, or schedule 7 stops at ports, which are disproportionately Muslims coming back into the country, do you think that collection of things has led to radicalisation? I certainly hear from people who feel separated from society as a result. Do you think that has been a strong effect?
Shiraz Maher: That is certainly part of the narrative that is out there, and you mentioned control orders, TPIMs are now the sort of order of the day and they certainly play a role within the narrative. Quite what practical effect they are having is not an assessment I am qualified to make.
Q493 Dr Huppert: Then just lastly from me, if I can, Chair, overall on the subject of foreign fighters, what more do you think the Government ought to be doing?
Shiraz Maher: What should the Government do? It needs to look into three issues. It needs to explore ways to recalibrate the Prevent and Channel projects in order to intervene earlier on, before people leave this country and go to Syria, but also to deal with them on their return. That is an aspect we have never traditionally looked at. We have looked at people on the end of the spectrum who are moving towards violent extremism and seeking points of intervention, which is of course correct, but we have never dealt with this critical mass of numbers of people going abroad to participate in the conflict who we are then expecting to return to this country, at least not in the post-9/11 climate. That is something that needs to be given urgent consideration.
The aspect of the intra-Muslim debate, as I say, it is very difficult for Government. Even within Prevent traditionally, Government was keen to go in and explain aspects of foreign policy, explain aspects of domestic intelligence and security policy, where it felt it could get in and seek to address some of the heat and tension around those issues. As I say, now because it is becoming more of an intra-Muslim debate, Government needs to explore ways to work with Muslim community partners on the ground again to build capacity and address those issues and pull out tensions.
The last issue is certainly something that in our interactions with people from the police and in Government who work directly on these issues is that there is a sense at the moment of there being a rather crude set of tools available to stop people who want to go abroad before they go abroad for jihadist activity. There is stripping of the passports with prerogative powers and stuff, so we would favour looking towards encouraging Parliament to move in with some legislative powers rather than prerogatives, which could then provide judicial oversight, a clear procedure and structure in cases where passports need to be revoked, but essentially to give more powers to those on our borders to prevent people in the first place before they go. I think that should be the emphasis, preventative measures, so we are nipping the problem before it starts.
Q494 Michael Ellis: Thank you. Mr Maher, you mentioned very briefly Dr Hegghammer. The Committee is hearing from Dr Hegghammer and he will no doubt say something about his report on 11 February, but I think you said he has assessed that perhaps one in nine of those persons who have gone to fight in foreign lands and who return pose a threat to UK national security. Am I right that is what he says?
Shiraz Maher: Not UK national security, but it was a general study on-
Michael Ellis: Just pose a threat?
Shiraz Maher: To their home countries.
Q495 Michael Ellis: If we assess that with your assessment about the lower estimate of 200 foreign fighters, can one fairly extrapolate from that there is a threat to the United Kingdom from at least 15 or 20 people? Would that be an accurate assessment or is that too wide an assessment?
Shiraz Maher: Certainly based on historical precedent-I would resist looking into a crystal ball-I think one could make the case that certainly these people will be active in one form or another. At least if they are not immediately going to come back and pose a direct and immediate threat to the United Kingdom, they will nonetheless, I think to some extent, be building networks, will become charismatic leaders and figureheads in their own right, and of course have the kudos or cachet of having participated in this conflict, so for another generation of young men they will be seen as role models in one light or another.
Michael Ellis: Thank you. You published two influential studies, which I notice have been on counter-terrorism strategy, that have been applauded by others, including Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, who called it "remarkable" and Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, called it "brilliant" so we are very grateful to you for coming in today and giving us your assessment.
Q496 Mr Winnick: How long do you feel that there will be this continued jihad offensive? Is it a matter of the next 10, 20, 30 years? It has happened previously. How do you assess the situation?
Michael Ellis: Briefly, please.
Shiraz Maher: I can only be pessimistic about the situation in Syria right now. I regard it as very grave. The only point I would make is that in the last sort of week or so, there has been a lot of infighting among the various rebel groups, particularly in the northern parts of the country, and part of that has been a turn by local Syrians against foreign fighters, the so-called muhajireen. There has been a lot of chatter among a lot of them as to what their future might be in Syria, but I would say they are a very dedicated group and they are not easily dissuaded from the veracity of what they are doing, so I think they are going to remain out there for some time.
Q497 Mr Winnick: Communism in Europe to a large extent ended with the ending of the Soviet regime, which lasted in itself some 74 years; communism obviously continues, but basically it is no longer a threat in Europe. Would you say this would be the same span of years for the jihad offensive, a desire to bring about a world Muslim state and so on and so forth?
Shiraz Maher: To give a very quick answer, what I would say is I believe the threat was in great decline with the death of Osama bin Laden and then Anwar al-Awlaki. I believe the crisis in Syria, as it has evolved, has probably extended the jihadist threat to the region, the Middle East, and indeed more broadly to the West probably by two generations.
Q498 Michael Ellis: So you are quite pessimistic?
Shiraz Maher: Yes.
Mr Winnick: Most people are.
Michael Ellis: Sadly, on this subject there is scope for a great deal of pessimism.
Thank you very much for contributing to this Committee’s report on counter-terrorism. Thank you very much for coming in, Mr Maher.