International Papers

Britain’s 9/11?

British suburbia “woke up to terrorism” post-September-11-style on Tuesday evening, according to the Daily Telegraph, when an Algerian terror suspect stabbed a police officer to death during a raid in Manchester, England. Detective Constable Stephen Oake was one of 24 officers sent to the apartment to arrest an asylum-seeker. When two other Algerian men found in the flat were connected to a London-based group suspected of developing chemical weapons, including the poison ricin, the police attempted to get the men into “forensic suits.” At this point, one of the men, who had been “as quiet as a lamb,” suddenly “went berserk” and grabbed a kitchen knife, according to a Times report. In the ensuing struggle, D.C. Oake was fatally knifed, and four other police officers were injured. The Telegraph declared, “If anybody was in any doubt before about the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, the foul butchery of this brave officer will have reminded the public of a peril that must be addressed without delay.”

The Independent reported that “Britain’s 12,000-strong Algerian population is the focal point of one of the biggest terror alerts mounted in this country.” In 1990, there were only 25 asylum-seekers from the North African nation, but with the outbreak of civil war in 1992, that number grew rapidly. The Telegraph said that since 1992 there have been more than 9,000 asylum applications from Algerians. “But while only about 1,000 have been recognised as refugees, the remainder are thought to be still in Britain.” The Guardian noted that Britain’s anti-terrorist investigators have come to regard Algerian terrorists as the “greatest al-Qaida-related threat in Europe.” The paper explained, “The Algerian networks were born out of the Armed Islamic Group who in the 1990s directed their attacks at the Algerian government and France, which supported Algiers. Then in the late 1990s the Algerian militants were influenced by the ‘Bin Laden factor.’ They were offered training in Afghanistan which became a ‘breeding ground for their philosophy.’ ”

Several commentators fretted that the police were unprepared for the raid. The Independent summarized the outstanding issues that will be investigated in an internal inquiry: Why were plain-clothes officers like Oake not wearing armored vests, why didn’t the security services know there would be three men in the flat, and why weren’t the suspected terrorists handcuffed and moved to a police station. The Daily Mirror said it was “madness not to secure and restrain properly someone suspected of being a terrorist.”

The Sun and some other populist papers blamed the asylum system. Its editorial began, “If Britain wasn’t such a soft touch, Steve Oake would still be alive today.” The Sun announced a new campaign “to shop illegal immigrants. Even if they’re not terrorists, they have no right to be here.” (The effort resembles a ill-fated crusade to “name and shame” pedophiles that the Sun’s new editor, Rebekah Wade, pursued when she ran the News of the World; see the fourth paragraph of this July 2000 “International Papers” column for more on that campaign.) Accompanying the article was a crude cartoon showing swarthy knife- and ricin-wielding foreigners swarming through British immigration while an official meekly offers welfare benefit claim forms.

The Daily Mail said Britain’s defenses against terrorism are dangerously weakened because of the Labor Party’s “lack of grip” on asylum and immigration. Britain, the Mail suggested, “has not only lost control of its own borders but has virtually given up trying.” The Telegraph piled on the anti-asylum bandwagon when an opinion piece by editor Charles Moore declared, “The asylum system has become mass immigration by another name, and mass immigration without control or proper information.” He added, “[B]y an obscene inversion, a system designed to give freedom and safety to those who lack it in their own country becomes the chief instrument of destroying freedom and safety here in ours.”

The Independent worried that conservatives were making “political capital” from the Oake tragedy, especially the Conservative Party’s attempt to “divert the debate on to the largely irrelevant field of asylum policy.” The editorial said good intelligence and traditional detection techniques are the key to preventing terrorist attacks. “None of that requires the suspension of human rights protections contained in the current legislation. Human rights, it is worth restating, are easy to protect in times of peace; it is precisely in today’s conditions that they are most needed and most in peril, as the world has witnessed most graphically at Camp X-Ray, in Cuba.” The Guardian agreed:  “As we have long argued, the threat of terrorism is not just restricted to the physical violence that they pose. An equally serious menace is the readiness of rightwing politicians to use the threat of terrorism to erode the very civil liberties that distinguish democracies from totalitarian states.”