Europe’s Absurd Counterterrorism Tactics

This week, a man in London was hit with terrorism charges based on his alleged possession of materials written by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam linked to al Qaeda who was killed last year in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Paired with French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s stated intent to make the viewing of terrorist websites and forums illegal and punishable by a jail sentence, this seems to mark a dangerous turn in Europe’s fight against terrorism.

According to The Guardian:

Mohammed Shabir Ali, 24, of east London, is accused of possessing [Awlaki’s essay] 44 Ways to Support Jihad between 20 August 2008 and 21 June 2011.

The Metropolitan police said that the document was “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

Ali has also been charged with intending, during the same period, to assist another person to commit acts of terrorism.

Intending to assist another person to commit acts of terrorism is a serious offense. But the mere possession of materials advocating jihad should not be a crime. These steps (or intended steps, on Sarkozy’s part) mark a dangerous encroachment on civil liberties and free speech.

It also encroaches on the ability to effectively fight terrorism. Part of the way we combat terrorists and would-be terrorists is to analyze their publications and discussions. Terrorism analysts (both in academia and intelligence services) routinely examine jihadist online forums and are well-versed in the canon of jihadist literature – of which “44 Ways to Support Jihad” would certainly be a part.

The utility of this seems obvious – as Sun Tzu is often paraphrased, to defeat your enemy, you must know your enemy. Before and after 9/11, our government knew little about al Qaeda and its structure, intentions, and abilities—ignorance that led to mistakes we’re still paying for today.

Would England and France arrest terrorism analysts for possessing materials “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” or reading jihadist websites or online forums, even without any intent to commit acts terrorism? The answer, assuming the countries enforce these laws, is yes.

The actual charge against Ali reads, “…between 20 August 2008 and 21 June 2011 possessed a document of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, namely 44 Ways to Support Jihad by Anwar Al Awlaki.” And Sarkozy’s actual remarks read, “Anyone who regularly consults Internet sites which promote terror or hatred or violence will be sentenced to prison.”

Half of the analysts I follow on Twitter would go to jail if their laptops were examined with this as the criteria.

Making it illegal to view jihadist websites and online forums, or merely to possess jihadist literature, would cripple our ability to understand our enemies, and would undoubtedly lead to more mistakes in the fight against terrorism. The intent—stopping terrorist attacks—is a noble one, but in practice, such laws threaten both civil liberties and the struggle against terrorism.

UPDATE: A second man, Mohammed Shafiq Ali, has also been charged in the case with possession of Awlaki’s “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”

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Published on April 5, 2012

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