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Would internment without trial really help tackle terrorism?

Anti-internment leaguers protest outside the House of Commons against the British Government's policy of imprisoning people in Northern Ireland without trial. - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

We asked an expert on its use in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Among the consequences of the recent terror attacks has been the calls for the use of internment without trial for those suspected of terrorist activity.

There is nothing new in this type of reaction to the threat that the UK faces especially from groups like ISIS. Indeed, every time that there is an upsurge in terrorist activity the prospect of stricter draconian measures arises. In 2007, for instance, Ken Jones, one of the UK’s top policemen, demanded terror suspects be locked up indefinitely. In fact, in 2004 several men, who were not UK citizens and who were suspected of terrorism, were detained without trial at Belmarsh prison, an action that was ultimately ruled by the UK’s highest court as breaking human rights laws.

Following the Manchester attack Paul Nuttall, UKIP leader, has suggested that internment might be needed for terror suspects. Colonel Richard Kemp, the former British Army commander in Afghanistan, has also proposed the internment of jihadis. Further such calls have also come from the former police chief Tarique Ghaffur. He was Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard when the 7/7 bombings took place and warns that there are too many extremists in the UK for the police and MI5 to monitor.

He proposes that up to 3,000 extremists should be detained without trial in special detention centres where they would be made to go through a de-radicalisation programme. Ghaffur does concede that when internment was used in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s it failed.

Of that, there is no doubt. Its use in Northern Ireland led to a large increase in support for the IRA from the nationalist/republican community, and consequently an escalation of the violence. However, Ghaffur contends that the idea would work today if the camps were approved by imams who he also believes should issue a ‘fatwa’ condemning atrocities. He seems to be suggesting that if internment was approved by members of the targeted community then, unlike in Northern Ireland, the measure would prove successful.

Like many before him he has not paid proper attention to the real lessons of what happened in Northern Ireland. Internment was introduced, mainly as an effort to deal with the violence of the IRA, in August 1971 and ended in December 1975. In fact, just prior to its introduction, when three Scottish soldiers were murdered by the IRA, elements of the nationalist community were openly admitting that internment might be necessary. So, the prior acceptance by a targeted community that the suspension of civil liberties may be required to deal with violent individuals does not guarantee success.

Moreover, there are many problems that a liberal democracy that introduces an overly draconian measure to deal with terrorism can face. The standard narrative regarding the use of internment in Northern Ireland is that it was an indiscriminate attack on the nationalist community that was based on poor intelligence. Those who might want to advocate the use of such a tactic today might suggest if these mistakes are avoided then the use of the measure could prove successful.

However, things are rarely as simple as they may seem in relation to the use of counter-terrorism measures such as detention without trial. The use of internment in Northern Ireland was actually based on a reasonable level of intelligence and was certainly not as indiscriminate as it has been portrayed in some circles – yet it still proved disastrous.

During the initial arrest operation, 342 men – all nationalists/republicans were detained. However, only around 100 individuals were held for longer than 48 hours who had no paramilitary connections. Additionally, the authorities had good intelligence on many prominent republicans; for example, in Derry many of the active paramilitaries in the city were detained. Moreover, by early 1972 even republicans admit that there was hardly anyone detained who was not a paramilitary.

But other factors need to be considered as to why internment in Northern Ireland was such a disaster – such as the timing of the operation, the operational instructions for the actual arrests phase, the geographical application of the measure (the dynamics of the violence did not become uniform across the whole country until after the introduction of internment) and the temptation to use the tactic partially as an intelligence gathering exercise as opposed to being led by intelligence.

All of these mistakes were made worse by the perception of many in the nationalist community that the authorities were conducting a totally indiscriminate arrest operation on their community, a perspective fed by effective propaganda and underpinned by the belief amongst many that the use of the measure was morally wrong. Can you imagine the propaganda opportunity that would be presented to terrorist groups if 3,000 Muslims were detained without charge, with the likelihood that some mistakes would be made? (The very fact that Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was not being actively pursued demonstrates how the authorities can get things wrong.) What effect would this have on Muslim communities both at home and abroad?

Then we come to what happens when you imprison men without trial together in one camp. Internees in Northern Ireland were held together in Long Kesh prison camp which became a ‘university’ for the development of militant republican ideology which helped sow the seeds of the long war strategy against the state. Those who spent time there read like a ‘who’s who’ of republican leadership and included Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison. The advocates of interning terrorist suspects together do not even have to look that far back to see how dangerous such a policy can be.

In 2003 the Americans opened Camp Bucca, a detention centre in Iraq were thousands of jihadists were to be detained. In fact, it was to become a centre for radicalisation and the birthplace of ISIS, nine of whose top leaders were imprisoned in the camp including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Prisoners could of course be kept in isolation but this would only prove to be another propaganda disaster. Then the reality must be faced that at some stage these men will have to be released and the question needs to be asked what happens when they are?

There is no doubt that a state has a duty to protect the lives of its citizens and that equally states which consider themselves to be liberal democracies are duty bound to protect the civil rights of all their citizens.

In the world which we live in this balance is not easily achieved. How do the authorities deal with known terrorists against which they have no case? As the Northern Ireland case demonstrates there are far too many complications with the use of internment, as a solution, which are exacerbated by the underlying fundamental moral judgment of most people that imprisonment without trial is an attack on a person’s civil liberties and therefore wrong.

There is little evidence to suggest that the benefits of transgressing of legal boundaries outweigh the propaganda costs that are incurred. And yet there is evidence that the actions of those who join groups like ISIS can at least partially be prompted by the repressive actions of western governments. We must be careful in how we deal with the problem of terrorism. Doing so with the use of internment without trial is, without doubt, a step too far.

Martin McCleery is the author of Operation Demetrius and its Aftermath: A New history of the Use of Internment Without trial in Northern Ireland, 1971-75

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