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Airline Bomb Plot: Due process is better than quick fixes in the war on terror

Commentary, 9 September 2008
Terrorism
The failure of a jury to convict eight men who were accused of a plot to blow up transatlantic planes should not diminish Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy. The eight were accused of conspiracy to murder and it demonstrates that due legal process is essential to maintaining the moral high ground in the ‘war on terror’.

The failure of a jury to convict eight men who were accused of a plot to blow up transatlantic planes should not diminish Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy. The eight were instead accused of conspiracy to murder and it demonstrates that due legal process is essential to maintaining the moral high ground in the War on Terror.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

The verdicts in the so-called airline plot and the dismay of the British Security Services that an apparently open and shut case has not been accepted by the jury raises some important issues in Allied co-operation between London and Washington.  It is an open secret that the United States went behind the back of British officials to have Rashid Rauf arrested in Pakistan and that this risked alerting the UK plotters and blowing apart a year of surveillance and the biggest counter-terrorist operation the UK had ever undertaken up until then.

This could be put down to poor Allied communications, or to a jittery White House not trusting the British to keep observing a plot that was not yet fully mature, but which looked extremely dangerous.  But in truth it was a more fundamental difference between beliefs in America and Britain about the business of counter-terrorism.  For the US, a ‘war of terror’ means that enemy soldiers, warriors, terrorists should be attacked and confronted wherever they gather or plot, or even chat.  For the British, a criminal justice issue – which is what the terrorists’ challenge represents – revolves around potentially dangerous criminals being apprehended along with admissible evidence so that they will eventually appear in court.  The criminal evidence is never better than the eve of the crime itself and British Security Services believe in managing the risks as close to the eve as they can get.  The British and American Security Services evidently disagreed somehow along these lines in handling the maturation of what they were convinced was a highly sophisticated airline plot that would be on the scale of a 9/11 attack.

There is another more subtle element to this.  If the West is to beat the terrorists, it has to occupy the moral high ground.  That is largely what the criminal justice approach is about.  If the British thought that targeted assassinations, torture or extraordinary renditions were effective, they would probably use them in their counter-terrorist strategy.  But they don’t.  Such techniques increase the fight and support of the terrorists and decrease our own.  Unlike the United States, the British do not generally go for quick fixes or decisive technological superiority, and though British political leaders can display any amount of short-term hysteria when they are rattled, the Security Services are made of sterner – and more civil libertarian – stuff. The moral high ground is as much a tactic as a principle and it has served Britain well in counter-terrorism and counter-espionage from the days of the First World War to the present.

In the alleged airline plot tried at Woolwich Crown Court, the prosecution may or may not get a re-trial for seven of the eight original defendants.  Counsel will have to make an application by the end of this month.  But the basic principle still stands.  If the Jury at Woolwich made honest and sincere judgements on the basis of the evidence that was presented to them, the Security Services may be privately dismayed and exasperated, but they know that the conclusion of a court case and the exercise of due legal process is essential to maintain the moral high ground in the face of the challenges which presently confront the country.  As any General worth his salt will attest, failure to occupy the right ground is one of the major causes of a defeat. In the campaign against international terrorism there is little physical ground worth occupying but a great deal of moral ground. And all of it is pretty high up.

See also:

A Trial of Popular Perception?
By Anthony McGee

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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