The dangers of counter-productive counter-terror strategy: a stark warning from Chilcot

Posted by Sara Ogilvie on 22 July 2016

It seems far longer than two weeks ago that Sir John Chilcot published his Iraq Inquiry report – but with a new Government settling in, ministers have a duty to implement its lessons.

One of the report’s starkest warnings is of the dangers of counter-productive counter-terror strategy.

The Iraq Inquiry report found that, over the course of 2002 and 2003, Tony Blair was repeatedly advised that an invasion of Iraq would increase the threat to the UK from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

In February 2003 the Joint Intelligence Committee warned that Al Qaeda activity would increase with any military action against Iraq, and that Iraqi regime collapse could see chemical and biological weapons fall into the hands of terrorists. It added that war could lead to increased anti-Western sentiment, including among communities in the West.

Baroness Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5, told the Inquiry that action in Iraq had “radicalised” a number of individuals, and that hard evidence could be produced to show that the invasion of Iraq increased the terrorist threat to the UK.

The finding that the Iraq invasion increased the risk to British life is a damning indictment of the ‘War on Terror’. It warns all policy-makers of the vital importance of listening to the cold, hard evidence – rather than bowing to populism, rhetoric or ideology.

Unfortunately, counter-terror strategy is too often an evidence-free zone that makes us less safe and less free.

From secret courts to statelessness, via mass surveillance, 42-day pre-charge detention and control orders, the years since 9/11 have produced a string of aggressive, divisive and deeply counter-productive attempts to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Sadly this wrong-headed approach did not end with the Blair Government. The Coalition extended the Prevent programme that forces teachers to monitor their students, trampling young people’s right to freedom of speech and reducing the opportunity for controversial ideas to be debated and challenged peacefully.

And the Snoopers’ Charter continues through Parliament, despite increasing evidence that mass surveillance makes us less rather than more safe.

In the wake of Chilcot’s damning report, the new Government must urgently take stock if they wish to avoid the mistakes of the past.

A good place to start would be to abandon the long-awaited Counter-Extremism Bill and to conduct an impartial review of the effectiveness of post 9/11 policy in protecting the UK from terrorism. The stakes for our society are too high to build counter-extremism efforts on guesswork.

But the Iraq Inquiry report’s lessons for the new Government don’t stop there:

  • The report shows that the decision to go to war was not premised on a robust and honest assessment of the available evidence, but on inaccurate political beliefs and limited and flawed intelligence reports. The intelligence agencies must take steps to ensure they are frank with the public about the inherent limitations of their work, and politicians must hold the agencies to account. As the Snoopers’ Charter enters its final stages of scrutiny, Parliament’s responsibility in determining the powers of the intelligence and security agencies is as crucial as ever.
  • The report made clear that circumstances in which it was decided there was a legal basis for going to war were “far from satisfactory” and uncovers a deeply disturbing and unconstitutional disregard for the Rule of Law across Government. Ministers must now reflect on the sustainability of a system that lets the Government cherry pick its legal advice, and make sure the UK leads by example by respecting its domestic and international legal obligations. Cabinet members must ensure they fulfil their democratic function, are fully involved in vital decisions and are equipped to challenge legal and intelligence information robustly.
  • The report revealed deadly Ministry of Defence failures to properly equip troops. As we speak, the families of some of those killed when their inadequate Snatch Land Rovers exploded are seeking to hold the the Government to account under the Human Rights Act. The new Government must now abandon its predecessor’s efforts to strip our armed forces of their human rights protections and to falsely claim that the UK’s human rights obligations do not apply to its actions abroad.
  • Our new Prime Minister has the power to finish what Chilcot started by finally fulfilling David Cameron’s 2010 promise of a judicial inquiry into the UK’s involvement in torture and rendition – an investigation vital to restoring Britain’s international reputation which fell outside of the Iraq Inquiry’s remit.