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The politics of counter terrorism

Can Muslims hold alternative views without being considered a potential danger to society? LSE Sociology doctoral candidate Tara Lai Quinlan looks at how politics has shaped the UK and US government’s counter terrorism policies since 9/11.

On the morning of Thursday 7 July 2005, a handful of Islamist extremists tore London apart, detonating four bombs across the city’s transport network, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700.

It was the UK’s worst terrorist attack since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, but there was a stark difference between the two. This time, the terrorists were ‘home-grown’.

That fact and the substantial increase in the UK’s Muslim population – which has more than doubled in a decade – has cemented a link between terrorism and Islam which is proving difficult to break, according to US attorney and LSE doctoral candidate Tara Lai Quinlan.

For the past three years the experienced lawyer has stepped aside from legal practice into academia, investigating how London and New York’s counter terrorism strategies have been shaped post 9/11, particularly in relation to Muslim communities.

Are there clear differences in their strategies?

“Whereas both the US and UK have robust traditions when it comes to freedom of speech, the British government is now far more willing to intervene legally and legislate against non-violent extremist speech or views not shared with the mainstream,” Ms Quinlan says.

Muslims with ‘extreme’ but non-violent views in the UK are increasingly targeted, which is not the case in the US, where the government forcefully protects speech, even views that are unpopular or offensive.

Varieties of factors contribute to differing UK and US approaches to counter terrorism, but may include the different Muslim demographics in the respective countries. While their total Muslim populations are very similar – roughly 2.7 million in both the UK and US – in the United States, Muslims represent about 1% of the population compared to nearly 5% in the United Kingdom.

The UK Muslim population is also primarily Asian, the majority from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the sub-continent, whereas in the US the population is much more mixed, with 41% of first generation Muslims having emigrated from Arab and North African countries, and 26% from South Asian countries.

Compared to their UK counterparts, US-based Muslims generally earn more and are better educated than the average American. The opposite is true of the UK, where Muslim populations tend to live in more deprived areas, are more likely to be unemployed and tend to be more segregated than the average Briton.

Studies show that for a number of Muslims in Britain, “there’s a significant sense of disconnectedness and alienation, which is in stark contrast to the United States, where Muslims do not feel marginalised to the same extent,” Ms Quinlan says.

These differences have led to each country adopting different approaches to counter terrorism, with the UK focusing heavily on tightening civil liberties, introducing expanded stop and search powers, and implementing national, preventative community policing efforts in the Prevent programme.

While the US has also implemented civil liberties restrictions and broader police powers including surveillance, much of US counter terrorism resources have focused on interventions abroad rather than domestically, Ms Quinlan says. Moreover, unlike the UK, the US did not implement national community engagement strategies with Muslim communities in the decade after 9/11, although recent developments in 2015 announced by the Obama administration indicate this is changing.

Another point of contrast in recent years is that while “both countries push the importance of other cultures integrating into their way of life, multiculturalism is [increasingly] seen as a failed experiment in the UK, unlike the US, where immigration is a central feature of its history” and continues to be heartily embraced.

But there is also a lot of common ground, as Quinlan found in her research.

Since 9/11, the boundaries have been blurred in both countries when it comes to what constitutes a ‘state of emergency,’ for example.

“The end game is that everything is an emergency now. Because terrorism has been framed as a multi-generational threat to be fought over many decades, it is extremely unlikely that the new powers and laws that came into being after 9/11 will ever be wound back.

“The expansion of police powers as a counter-terrorism measure means they are bleeding into day-to-day crime in both countries and that causes real problems because the bar for what is considered ‘normal’ has been lowered,” she said.

Police officers in both the UK and US are under increasing pressure to ‘quantify’ their success when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks – a tall order when so much of the work is difficult to precisely measure.

There’s also a tension between hard policing – aggressively pursuing potential terrorists through covert investigations, arrests and prosecutions – and soft policing, which involves working transparently with communities to develop partnerships, long-term trust, and addressing issues of social marginalisation, which often sow the seeds of terrorism.

“There is a real clash between the two and it is creating a lot of frustration within the respective police forces, who feel political pressure continues to favour hard approaches without also utilising soft approaches,” Ms Quinlan adds.

Overall, Quinlan’s research has found that although post-9/11 terrorism bears many similarities to terrorism perpetrated in previous decades, counter terrorism responses have treated it as a new phenomenon, requiring new laws, greater restrictions on civil liberties and expanded police powers to address the threat.  Whether these counter terrorism approaches in the UK and US will be effective in controlling the long-term domestic terrorism threat remains to be seen.

Additional notes

Tara Lai Quinlan has just completed her thesis and will take up a permanent position as a Lecturer in Law & Diversity in the School of Law at the University of Sheffield in September 2015.

‘Blurred Boundaries: How the erosion of traditional binaries has shaped policy development of post 9/11 counter terrorism policing in London and New York’ will be available online by October 2015.

Posted 8 September 2015