Put simply, the project of modern British counter-terrorism has been to securitise and police the contradictions thrown up by successive governments’ domestic policy orientation and imperialist ambitions.
It does so by marshalling a complex of policing, surveillance and ideological apparatus that allow for a set of politics to be recast as ‘extreme’ or ‘terrorist’, for sections of the population to be rendered ‘threats’ – and for both to be subjected to an expanding array of disciplinary, coercive and punitive powers.
Through this process the many real fractures and contradictions generated by British politics are decoupled from the state and projected onto ideas, individuals and groups. In this way, the growth of counter-terrorism is inseparable from the contemporary regimes of capitalism and globalisation that it helps govern.
1990s: Post-Cold War security consensus emerges
During the 1990s, the leadership of the G7 and the newly-formed EU (from the earlier European Economic Community (EEC) established a political consensus on the key domestic ‘security threats’ they faced in a post-Soviet world. Chief among these were refugees and dissidents fleeing from states of the Global South which had been wracked by years of neoliberal ‘modernisation’, and the violent social and political dislocations these processes produced.
Britain – a key player in both groupings – used this security framework to reorganise its policing arrangements on two fronts. First, it provided the context against which it could fortify its borders against asylum seekers, principally flowing in from countries across Africa and Asia. An increasingly brazen assault on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers came to define British politics through the 1990s to the present. Hilal al-Jedda received his British citizenship in 2000, shortly before the Labour government pulled up the ladder on new asylum seekers from Iraq entirely – predominantly Iraqi Kurds seeking asylum from the very government which Britain would join the US coalition against as part of the GWOT.
Second, the British state deployed counter-terror policing against foreign dissidents at home in order to demonstrate political loyalty to its allies abroad: police batons held aloft with one hand, olive branches in the other. Algerian, Egyptian, Kurdish and Tamil migrant communities in particular were subject to this repression, which was later enhanced by a rash of counter-terror laws.16
Across Europe, these political realignments towards securitisation were expressed through an increasingly entangled relationship between migration control and countering ‘terrorism’ that would swallow the continent up in racial turmoil, and laid the groundwork for today’s mass securitisation.
9/11 and the Global War on Terror
From 2001, the GWOT ushered in global tolerance of permissiveness towards the exercise of state violence – directed most often, though by no means exclusively, at Muslim populations – as well as an international framework of securitisation in which countries worldwide were implicated. Britain and many other countries massively expanded their capacity for policing, surveillance and expulsion during this time.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) – al-Jedda’s initial destination after fleeing Iraq – became a key node in the US’ global complex of torture and detention in the run-up to and during the GWOT. Today, it is also home to projects like the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s Hedayah Center for countering violent extremism, as well as spearheading attempts to brand and ban its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, as ‘terrorists’ internationally.
Al-Jedda’s next stop, Pakistan, would serve as the launchpad for the GWOT’s first salvo: the assault on Afghanistan. It was also instrumental in facilitating the US’ broader imperialist strategies in Asia in subsequent years, readily sacrificing sovereignty in order to serve US interests.
Britain, Al-Jedda’s onetime home, played a leading role in the destruction of his homeland in 2003, before subjecting al-Jedda himself to its sweeping new powers to insulate itself from the backlash. It was while he was being interned by British and US occupying forces in Iraq that al-Jedda was first stripped of his citizenship.
In this way, al-Jedda was subjected to both fronts of Britain’s part in the GWOT: international and domestic. Wherever he travelled he would remain under the security umbrella cast by the GWOT, and potentially at its mercy.
Late 2000s: Politics of austerity and authoritarianism
The decade following the 2007/08 global financial crisis was marked by an acceleration of ultra-nationalist tendencies across Europe and beyond, often held together by politics of virulent Islamophobia, xenophobia and hardline monoculturalism.
That lingering nexus between Muslims, asylum seekers, migrants and a supposed existential threat to the nation that animated counter-terrorism policy in the 1990s coalesced into a tighter political programme.
Britain itself embraced this new political realignment with its change of leadership in 2010, after which a series of Conservative-led governments took the opportunity to further ratchet up the counter-terrorism complex to new heights. These post-2010 governments married the work of ‘counter-terrorism’ to more tightly managed nationalist frameworks of ‘British Values’ and ‘muscular liberalism’ – in contrast to the supposed leniency of state ‘multiculturalism’.
It was under the first of these governments that Home Secretary Theresa May (later Prime Minister) pushed through her flagship Immigration Act (2014), and the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, asylum seekers and, by extension, foreigners living in the UK. It was an amendment hastily appended to this law that legitimised the enhanced citizenship-deprivation powers that were used against al-Jedda. Indeed, his case was repeatedly invoked during parliamentary debates on the amendment.
2016 to the present
The years since 2016 have seen a further unravelling of the political consensus, with hard-right tendencies surging to state power worldwide, ongoing instability wherever the GWOT was waged and broader geopolitical polarisation.
In this context, British counter-terrorism has reached its logical conclusion, by overextending, and ideologically collapsing in on itself. The British state is increasingly justifying its counter-terrorism policy to target a far-right that it has itself helped conjure into being, and all manner of politics are being ritually denounced as ‘extremist’, from the direct-action environmental organisation Extinction Rebellion and BLM demonstrations20 to the proliferation of right-wing COVID-19 conspiracies.
In a telling indication of political priorities, in November 2020 a Europe still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic published a pan-EU joint approach to countering terrorism, at the behest of France and Austria. The approach included a commitment to strengthening deportation powers to tackle ‘extremists’, and restriction of public funding for groups deemed to have violated ‘the democratic order and values of EU Member States’ – a thinly veiled reference to Muslim organisations.
Counter-terrorism powers have proved no more successful in tackling acts of political violence23 than they have in their secondary aim of stemming domestic discontent – not that that will stop such powers from being deployed as a blunt tool to contain and police the situation.
National security and counter-terrorism are not only a means of amassing state power, but increasingly the language spoken by the state: with counter-terrorism being incorporated into social provision and political programmes, from funding streams for civil society to anti-domestic violence strategies. Programmes under the banner of ‘Countering Violent Extremism’, for example Britain’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, have conscripted vast swathes of the public into ‘counter-terror’ work by demanding they identify ‘extremists’. It is through this that national security policies have trickled down to domestic politics: what began as strategies ostensibly to police the ‘fringes’ of British society have poisoned the heart of political life.
In this way, national security has increasingly become the means through which politics are managed, filtered and controlled: acting as a buffer against democratic politics from below, and serving as justification for an expanding array of powers from above. Alongside this, it has allowed for the consolidation of shadowy ‘securocrats’ at the very centre of state power, with an array of thinktanks, lobbies and agencies clustered around the hallways of the powerful.