Times : A death that plays into terrorists' hands

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A death that plays into terrorists' hands

We cannot respect human rights at home and be complicit in the killing of suspects abroad

Patrick Mercer | November 26, 2008

Last Friday, a number of people with links to al-Qaeda were killed by a missile fired from a pilotless US drone on the Pakistan- Afghanistan border. It is thought that among the five dead was Rashid Rauf, a British citizen, who was suspected of being involved in a number of alleged terrorist plots and was being closely monitored by our intelligence services.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not yet confirmed whether Rauf was the target of the attack. But whether he was or not, this strike raises significant questions about this Government's counter-terrorism policy and I shall be calling for clarification from the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, about British counter-terrorism operations in these circumstances.

I base my own experience on many tours in Northern Ireland and the Balkans as a regular soldier when I was involved in operations that led to the death and capture of terrorists - in short, where British troops were expected to act as judge, jury and executioner. Counter-terrorist operations had to be wholly within the law; if our enemies saw an opportunity to doubt their legality, they were never slow to exploit it.

The world of intelligence is murky - necessarily so. There is a series of carefully enforced procedures governing the passing of British intelligence to other agencies when it might lead to the death or torture of suspects. But as Richard Beeston wrote in The Times yesterday of US operations inside Pakistan: “As long as terrorist suspects... are being killed or live in fear of being killed [London] is quite happy to see the policy continue.” It is certainly possible that British intelligence services were in some way complicit in Rauf's death. Our forces do informally share information with intelligence services, such as those of Pakistan and the US.

I will not recite at length the arguments about the need to operate within the law other than to cite the chaos that ensued when the world was made to believe that British Forces were pursing a “shoot to kill” policy in Northern Ireland. Clearly, martyrdom is an important tool for the terrorist and once security forces step outside the law, the advantage passes from us to them.

All of this suggests a contradiction between what the Government says and what happens in practice, between courtroom justice and battlefield justice. It is unrealistic to expect our intelligence services to do anything other than co-operate fully with allies who are doing their best to defend the British people, unless they are given firm guidance to the contrary. The Government must decide whether, when framing counter-terrorism laws, it wishes them to reflect what the security services actually do, or some higher legal principle. My experience is that if laws won't work they must be challenged, not simply accepted.

It has been disturbing to watch the Government twist and turn as it tries to design counter-terrorist legislation that will be truly effective. The UK does not use the death penalty or torture those whom we think might hold crucial information. Under the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights, judges in Strasbourg have prevented the deportation of terrorist suspects where there is a real risk of their being tortured abroad, regardless of the risk they pose to us and however undesirable they are considered to be.

Whether or not they have helped or hindered the fight against terrorism, these are our laws, agreed to and debated by Parliament.

If our Government is not allowed to deport an individual when there is a real risk of their being tortured abroad, surely our intelligence services should not be allowed to supply intelligence to other nations that don't hold such high standards?

What is the point of having strict human rights protections and lengthy debates in Parliament about counter-terrorism legislation if, in practice, they are ignored? What is the point of negotiating memorandums of understanding with countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Libya - in which those governments undertake not to torture terror suspects deported from Britain - which have not been used since 2005?

We are left with the mess of control orders and the sort of nonsense that surrounded the prosecution of Abu Hamza. Despite all the Government's new terror legislation, he was eventually prosecuted for soliciting murder under a law from 1861.

The Government must make up its mind. Either our laws are helping the fight against terrorism, in which case they must be honoured in practice, or they are hindering the fight and they must be changed - and we must have an honest public and parliamentary debate about them.

I have no sympathy with terrorists, but my experience taught me that they must be fought within the law.

Each extrajudicial killing will hand a propaganda victory to our enemies that could outweigh any military benefits achieved by destroying the target. At times this is hard and frustrating, but the battle against terrorism cannot be won by bombs and bullets alone.

Patrick Mercer is Conservative MP for Newark & Retford and a former Shadow Minister for Security