From Terror Suspect to Potential Safeguarding Operative
On The 5th of November 2015 the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command or SO15 arrested me. I spent months on bail under restrictions where my passport was withheld along with many of my personal goods such as my laptop and phone. The police even held my handwritten Tajwīd course notebooks.
Finally cleared in February 2016, I looked forward to life as a free woman, someone who was definitely not a terrorist, especially since the police had been through every aspect of my life and found nothing that constituted a crime. I was finally able to share my experience with friends who may have wondered why I was less sociable than usual for some time. I had made the decision not to put my friends in a position where they may have felt the need to disassociate themselves from me because of fear.
During my final discussion with the lawyer who represented me, the conversation turned to what to do were I approached by the Police or MI5 with a request to work with them. The notion has been put about that reverts are likely targets for recruitment, although my search on the topic showed that all kinds of Muslims are targeted. My lawyer advised me not to enter into any discussions with the Police when I would go to collect my personal items from them, as what may appear to be friendly chitchat is simply their way of gaining more information. He informed me that this had happened in the past and the police would take the opportunity to discuss helping them in future. Were this to happen, I was to reply “If we are to have such a discussion then I need my lawyer to be present”.
I also asked my caseworker at CAGE, the well-known independent advocacy group which supports communities impacted by the war on terror, if I could possibly be approached by government agencies regarding working with them. I was advised to follow the advice of my lawyer should this happen.
Listen to our Podcast on the recent CAGE report: Was the Government caught deceiving Muslims?
In the end the handover of my goods went smoothly with no discussion. There was just a lot of signing for what seemed to me to be pretty irrelevant items taken from me by the Police, including anything with handwriting on it, even till receipts with phone numbers or email addresses I had scribbled down during phone conversations.
I wrote about my experience with SO15 in the hope that more people would come forward and speak of their experiences in the hopes that the stigma of arrest be reduced or eliminated in our community. You can read the article on Islam21c.
Life got back to normal and I felt relieved that it was apparently all over. But it was not as ‘over’ as I had imagined.
Last Sunday I received a call from a Private Number, a male voice introduced himself as a police officer who had had contact with me a few months earlier. I asked what he meant and he explained he was one of the officers whom I had met when collecting my goods from the Police. The police officer seemed a bit hesitant but he informed me he was calling to see if I was interested in helping them. Despite being caught off guard and being thrown by the conversation I did manage to ask what he meant by this.
He asked if I would like to meet with him and discuss how I might help the Police as I would be an asset to their work with my life experience. Right away I said that I would only meet with them if my lawyer could be present. “No, no, no.” was the reply to that suggestion. I pointed out that I absolutely do not support the government’s Prevent strategy. The police officer was not to be put off so easily; he went on talking about “safeguarding”, which I believe is how the Prevent project is spun, and how I could possibly be very good at talking to teenagers. Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand that Prevent is a failed strategy as, in the House of Commons recently, he said the following:-
“We would welcome any proposals from the Government to reform the Prevent strategy and instead to emphasise the value of community-led work to prevent young people from being drawn into extremism in any form.”
My response was that I believed the Government was totally wrong to expect teachers to report school children for signs of potential extremism. A teacher’s job is to educate children and they do not possess the skills or training to decide what is and what is not a matter of concern with regards to what children say. The police officer retorted that “surely you must believe that teachers have a duty to report suspected child abuse for example,” which I, of course, do. However, I said too many cases of children being reported for ridiculous comments had come to light as had the impact this has had on children and their families’ lives. I, therefore, could not support this at all. He said that the stories were lies. But are Muslim children in school now not being made to feel different from their non-Muslim peers as Prevent enters their school?
In notes accompanying the Queen’s Speech earlier today, the Government said that it had stepped up efforts to safeguard individuals at risk of radicalisation in the past year, through a network of “Prevent professionals” who had worked with 2,790 different institutions, and engaged nearly 50,000 individuals in 2015.
It said it had supported 130 community-based projects aimed at “reducing vulnerabilities to extremist narratives” that had reached over 25,000 participants, with more than half of those taking place in schools.
He asked me what about youth who watch ISIS videos on the Internet. I said that I personally could not watch such videos because I am too squeamish and that youth nowadays are watching porn, even violent porn, which must have a huge impact on their minds, but that this is a parenting issue. Who knows what the effect of watching people being murdered has on anyone but I asked if he did actually have any proof that watching ISIS videos leads to engaging in violent extremism? No, he said. “Well, there you are”, was my reply.
The conversation continued with the police officer and I having a fairly strong disagreement on the whole Prevent strategy, which I pointed out is discredited by academics. I mentioned that there is no link between Muslims practicing their religion in an Orthodox manner and violent extremism but that the impact that Prevent has on people’s lives, however, and even their places of education is huge.
I impressed on him that even for me, an older woman, the impact of being arrested and on bail for months was huge and that I was concerned that for young people with less experience of life the intrusion into their life may have a devastating effect. I said that had I been younger I would have been much more angry and frustrated by the experience and much less able to deal with it. Eventually, I again said that I was happy to discuss this further but only if my lawyer was present and he told me that it was a bit disappointing that I was not keen to get involved. Afterwards, I reflected on the fact that I was, until recently, a terror suspect but was now considered a potential asset to their safeguarding project. If the police are not confused, I certainly am.
Again, I write this in the hope that, in being open and public about my experience, I may encourage others to come forward and share their experiences. As a community we need to lose the fear of being shunned for having had a police intrusion into our lives. It is, after all, something that happens to so many of us nowadays. Organisations like HHUGSs can give support to people impacted by the arrest of a family member. Above all, every one of these incidents need to be documented so that organisations such as CAGE can gauge the impact on our lives, thus enabling us to push back against a government agenda which appears to regard Muslims as suspects. We need to know more about the consequences of arrests and harassment on innocent young Muslims and what the potential outcomes are. Can excessive intrusion actually propel people onto the path of violent extremism?
Back in February 2012, I wrote an article about an Algerian Muslim man who had agreed to spy for MI5, Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and for the Algerian Security Services. Reda Hassaine is, by trade, a journalist who was recruited for his ability to speak both Arabic and English. Hassaine fed information back to the Algerian Security Services about “Algerian extremists” he encountered in Finsbury Park Mosque whilst spying on the targets that MI5 and Special Branch had recruited him to spy on, namely Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza.
Reda Hassaine was instructed to make nightly reports of who went to the Mosque and what was discussed; for this he received £380 per month. After two years of spying, Mr Hassaine was recognised by some and was beaten up badly for being a spy. Not only did MI5 drop Mr Hassaine like a hot potato, they went so far as to say that if he went to hospital it could cause problems for them and compromise their investigation. Mr Hassaine lost many teeth during the beating and MI5 did not even want to pay for his dental repair work. It was reported that Mr Hassaine would take MI5 to court for their lack of care towards him and there was talk from his legal representatives about the possibility of his receiving up to one million pounds in damages. I was unable to find further evidence of the success or failure of his case. Reda Hassaine said that he was very satisfied to be sitting in the courtroom when Abu Hamza was convicted. However, he also complains that his spying cost him a marriage and a good relationship with his children. In fact, his son was convicted of stabbing two men with a knife and was given an eight-year prison sentence. The impact of any family break up can be devastating for the children and this young man had previous convictions from his early teenage years. Mr Hassaine also has to live in fear of being discovered by people who may want to take further revenge on him for his spying activities. Reda Hassaine himself apparently read my article in 2012 and left the following comments:
“Dear non-sister, I am Reda Hassaine. I just want to let you know that Abu Qatada is responsible for the killing of thousands of my people in Algeria. All of them were Muslim. Converting to Islam don’t gives you the right to “insult” us, born muslim. It is none of your business.I believe that you have to re read and understand The Quran, before taking “short cuts” to prove a point. We know you very well. The same way as we know Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, who are begging the “unbelievers” to not send them back to their “muslim countries” to face Justice…. The way you are behaving will only take you…to HELL. An oeil for a oeil, a teeth for a teeth…says the Bible as well as the Quran. I would be much more happier to take Abu Qatada to Court than taking….the money, as I am waiting My rewards only from GOD. I am doing the Jihad against people like you who thinks they are much more muslim than we are…”La illaha illa allah, wa mohamed rassoul allah”.
It is not my intention to make any judgement on what Abu Qatada or Abu Hamza said or did. My intention is purely to highlight the realities of getting into an arrangement with the security services. It is quite possible that a person might agree to a suggestion that sounds reasonable enough to begin with but, once in that position, it may be possible that pressure can be applied to make a person go further than they even intended. Mr Hassaine claims to be living alone and in fear, although he claims to feel very satisfied that Abu Hamza is serving a life sentence.
“I go home now to an empty room. Just to four walls. I am alone. But I am free, and Abu Hamza will be a prisoner for the rest of his life.”
The most recent article I could find on Mr Hassaine was about how he was due to be evicted from his home. After learning about this particular case, I can say with certainty that no amount of coercion would induce me into any situation where I might be supporting Prevent, no matter how benign it might appear.
Above all, the best advice is that of the lawyers: Don’t engage with the Police or security services without a lawyer present because you don’t know which tidbit of information they might regard as relevant or even incriminating. Something I find incredibly hard to do, especially when taken completely by surprise, is control the urge to explain why I feel the Prevent strategy is a failure.
Anyone who is targeted by the Police needs the support of everyone around them and that should start with family and friends. If you know of anyone impacted by arrest, I make a humble and fervent request not to fear being associated with them. We really need to support each other and stand up to the draconian policies that mean none of us are beyond suspicion. Our community is so much stronger if we all pull together.
For more information about the impact of Prevent on the community, visit and support preventwatch.org