The first duty of a government is to defend its people. If a government cannot do this, its legitimacy becomes suspect and it can be replaced with another more suited to the task. Therefore, it must do all it can to that end. These assumptions have long underpinned much of our public discourse regarding terrorism. To a certain extent, they are sensible. Terrorists seek to undermine the legitimacy of governments by proving that they cannot protect their stakeholders. If the government cannot guarantee the safety of a concert or the streets of the capital, this undermines their ability to defend their citizens. Therefore, a preventative counterterrorism strategy that embraces multiple angles of attack against terrorists seems in the best interests of both the threatened populace and the government. One gains security, the other gains legitimacy.
Yet there is a downside to this. As well as having a right to be protected by the state, citizens have a right to be protected from the state, as per Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, contingent on national security and public safety. Yet the ‘angles of attack’ that counterterrorism practitioners often employ include use of mass internet surveillance to collect what was known under the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) of 2016 as Bulk Personal Datasets (BPDs). BPDs include substantial amounts of personal data from a wide swathe of sources, including from those not considered a threat or criminal suspects. The defence for this offered by the intelligence services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) to the review by David Anderson QC, was that a greater amount of data made identifying threats easier. This works in much the same way that Google collects more data to improve the usefulness of their search results. However, government agencies conducting surveillance on innocent citizens could be seen as problematic for their right to privacy. Furthermore, the issue of warrants for BPDs is sealed by the classified nature of intelligence operations, offering no opportunity for public scrutiny or awareness of who is being watched and what information is collected.
There is no doubting the stakes are high for governments. Yet sweeping powers and policies have problems. Perceptions of authoritarianism may provide propaganda material for extremism. In the case of Shamima Begum, the teenage Daesh recruit, the government stripped her of her citizenship in February of this year. Yet counterterrorism experts, such as Dr Chris Fuller of the University of Southampton, have claimed that this is, in fact, goes ‘too far‘. Such an action, he claims, ‘feeds into far-right narratives of belonging‘ and is a short-sighted policy. This is not a far-fetched argument. The UK counterterrorism chief, Neil Basu, reported in September that the far right is the fastest-growing extremist threat the country faces. Concerns have been raised about the potential radicalisation of others by returning extremist fighters. Sajid Javid defended the decision with a statement that he ‘would not shy away from using [this power]to protect this country‘. But Bangladesh, the other nation for which Begum might have had citizenship, denied any responsibility. This makes her stateless, which is illegal under international law, and places her at real risk of abuse or further criminality. Furthermore, her status as a radicalised minor makes her a victim of child abuse, as per NSPCC guidelines, while the crimes she may have committed could have been tried in British courts subject to the ECHR. Furthermore, stripping terrorists of their citizenship sets a precedent that could be used for other crimes.
Terrorism is a complex and evolving problem of real political gravity. Yet human rights were always envisioned as constants, and a world in which they are disregarded in the name of security could be a dark one.