Wednesday, September 16, 2009 

Falling for Columbine.

When a jury manages to see through a court case that lasted for two weeks within 45 minutes, it's only natural to wonder whether it should have ever been brought. When it involves two teenagers who had previously never been in trouble with the police and their being kept on remand in a young offender's institution and Strangeways respectively for 6 months, it becomes a necessity.

Both Ross McKnight (the son of a police officer, no less) and Matthew Swift were found not guilty of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions, their plans for a supposed massacre at a school in Manchester as well as the bombing of a shopping centre on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine massacre ripped to shreds both by the defence, McKnight's father, who seemed to have sealed the verdict when he talked of his son's many "harebrained" schemes and finally by the jury. What really seems to have gone on here is nothing more than teenage angst and alienation being taken slightly too far up the scale. The rants the pair wrote in diaries are hardly out of the ordinary: the only real surprise might be that they didn't post them on a social networking site or somewhere else where they were even more easily accessible. The other slight indication that this went any further than just two friends messing around and engaging in fantasies was that they had "plans" of the school, although whether these were just simple sketches of outlines which they made themselves or genuine plans we don't seem to know.

It's easy to make presumptions, but you can't help but feel that if they hadn't mentioned Columbine or supposedly fetishised the two murderers who carried out that most notorious of school shootings, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or were meant to have planned to carry it out on the anniversary of their assault, that this "plot" wouldn't have got anywhere near the court system. There is indeed perhaps some cause for concern in this area: it's quite true that some teenagers, especially those who feel themselves outsiders or not accepted by their peers, not to mention those who are bullied, can engage in the kind of fantasies which these two boys were meant to have, and while such feelings of striking out at those that have harmed them are natural and are very rarely acted upon, they do need to be nipped in the bud. Some of those at the very extreme end of this type of thinking do indeed idolise the likes of Harris and Klebold; Seung-Hui Cho in his claim of responsibility for the Virigina Tech massacre referred to both as martyrs, and there is a strain of thinking surrounding such spree-killers that all such attacks are in fact copy-cat crimes, a view that I'm partial to. The vast majority though who dream or fantasise about doing violence to their tormentors never do; hell, I can even remember at one point during my early teenage years writing a list of those that I'd kill if I had the chance. As far as I'm aware I never carried through on my written promise.

Undoubtedly the female friend that reported McKnight's drunken referral to the supposed attack was right to let the authorities know of her concerns. That was though surely as far as it should have gone. Dave Osler compares the case to that of the "lyrical terrorist", Samina Malik, but if anything a far wider comparison to terrorism is equally applicable. Just as in cases like that involving Dhiren Barot, neither McKnight or Swift had the guns or explosives necessary to carry out their plans, nor the funds to get hold of them but they did have ideas or nous which suggested they could have done. As it happens, Barot's ideas were even more fantastical than the teenage pair's were, whether it involved destroying builders by filling limos with gas canisters, a plan thoroughly debunked by the Glasgow airport idiots, exploding a bomb on the Underground which would somehow penetrate the tunnel and cause the Thames to flood in, or constructing a dirty bomb out of smoke alarms by placing the americium he harvested from them in a coke can. He however was sentenced to 30 years in prison, more on the fact that he had been trained and probably had connections with al-Qaida, even if his ideas were even more harebrained that McKnight's. Interesting here is that Swift had a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook, a book which another teenager was previously prosecuted for possessing, despite it being freely available, as well as also a gun which could fire ball bearings. You can bet that if someone with links to extremist Islam had either that they would have also been indicted on similar charges.

The terrorist trials where the prosecution have tried and almost always convinced juries that that extremists were only days or weeks away from mass murder or horrific casualties are perhaps the significant precursor to both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service imagining that they could do much the same in this instance. It does though have to be asked, did they genuinely believe their own case, or rather did those unlucky enough to prosecute it believe it? It certainly doesn't seem, for instance, that the headmaster of the school believed it. There is of course a very fine line between caution and a potential tragedy, but in this instance what just seems to have been very normal teenage ennui could have been criminalised, and if they weren't bitter and depressed prior to their time on remand, McKnight and Swift very well may be now.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008 

The freedom not to be locked up for six days.

Excellent article over on CiF by Rizwaan Sabir, one of the two men arrested and held for six days for having in their possession an "al-Qaida training manual" which Sabir had downloaded from of all places, the US Department of Justice website. As this is of course CiF, a few posters then spend the rest of the comments trying to justify his detention; apparently if you have a Muslim name you shouldn't be doing research into jihadists, as that's just asking for trouble. Similarly, it seems that such documents are apparently comparable to child pornography, even though you can purchase said document from Amazon as a paperback. This is meaningless though, because there are plenty of illegal items that can be bought online, and after all, even "Spycatcher" was once banned in England.

All this handily ignores the very point that Sabir makes: the study of terrorists and terrorism is vital, not just to understand it but also in order to be able to fight it. Not just academic freedom but personal freedom to be able to read such sources and watch videos made by those sympathetic to the aims of al-Qaida without the fear of being arrested by police and locked up for the best part of a week ought to be an accepted right in any country worthy of being described as a democracy. It is not the views and opinions themselves that are dangerous, but the individuals that espouse them. Until we accept that, there'll continue to be such raids that only make a mockery of both the police and the laws which they have to enforce.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007 

From lyrical to physical.

The already infamous "lyrical terrorist" has quite sensibly been given a relatively light sentence of nine months suspended. Some might see that as lenient, but considering the ridiculous sentences given to some, such as Atif Siddique who received 8 years whilst Abu Hamza got 7, she appears to be lucky to have been tried in the court of a judge who justifiably described her as an "enigma".

On the face of it, especially if you consider some parts of the prosecution case, that Malik was arrested after it was found she had been in contact with Sohail Qureshi (not apparently the man of Canadian descent also linked to terrorism), a man who it seems was preparing to travel to Pakistan with nefarious intentions, that she had been a member of "Jihad Way" an online group dedicated to spreading the word about the glorious nature of holy war and that she had in her possession a number of manuals, one called the "The Mujaheddin (sic) Poisoner's Handbook", as well as the "Encyclopaedia Jihad", you'd come to the conclusion that the way she's been defended by some is, like she might well be, naive.

Some of the reporting certainly has been. Despite the Grauniad report, Malik was not convicted on the basis of her doggerel, although that was a major part of the prosecution case which attempted to show she was, in the prosecution's words, "a committed Islamic extremist", but on her possession of the above mentioned manuals. She was convicted under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, for possessing material "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

All well and good you might think. When though does simply possessing something which cannot in itself be used to commit an act of terrorism become a criminal offence? Does simply searching Google for the documents, as I just have, suggest that I'm looking for something that might be useful if I so wish to commit an act of terrorism? Does it matter if the documents themselves are laughable in the extreme, as these collated works often are? The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, for instance, to give it its proper name, takes its recipes from the Poisoner's Handbook, and as Dick Destiny describes, that particular book was published in the 80s and originates from the neo-Nazi right in America, where many of the other bomb and poison recipes now available in "jihad" manuals first came from. The Encyclopedia Jihad, presuming the one Malik had was the manual and not the scholary text, is in Arabic and has as far as I can see, not been translated into English, except in brief excerpts by writers on jihad by Evan Kohlmann and the SITE Institute. How she was supposed to use it when she couldn't understand it doesn't seem to have been questioned. As for two of the other manuals she had, such as how to win in hand to hand combat, there's been nothing to suggest that isn't just a bone-headed general document rather than one about taking part in holy war, although I did find this useful guide to how to kill zombies when your only weapons are your fists, while How to Make Bombs is a similarly general term and could be related to numerous laughable tomes. According to this one article, that phrase is one of the most popular search terms in New Zealand, not known for its Islamic zealots. Other things she may have had possession of were a manual on how to operate a rifle, which should be handy when you don't have one, and the text of the bin Laden "fatwa" declaring war on the Americans in Saudi Arabia, also freely available as well as for sale in a collection of his pronouncements.

What we're left with after all that is Malik's verse about the infidels, her declaration on a social networking site that she wanted to help the "mujahideen" in every way she could, and that she watched the taped executions carried out in Iraq. There doesn't seem to have been any actual videos found on her computer, otherwise they would have been mentioned, but to go by her verse on beheading it seems likely she probably has seen them. Then again, so have I, as have doubtless hundreds of thousands of others on the internet who have an interest in the gruesome or who are just inquisitive. Malik was found not guilty of possessing the material she had with the intention of personally carrying out a terrorist act, and she was never accused of inciting terrorism itself.

In my view she is, as the judge described her, an enigma. Was she genuinely involved and in contact with those were interested in jihad? It seems likely. Was she though despite this a Walter Mitty character, a fantasist who despite working at WHSmiths in Heathrow was just writing out her thoughts on the back of receipts while bored, influenced by a passing craze? The court heard that she had previously written poetry about American rappers, showing she had gone from one extreme to the other, the all encompassing celebration of materialism and wealth to the almost nihilistic hatred espoused by the knife-wielding beheaders of Iraq. Had she simply found somewhere she thought that she belonged, never likely to act out what some of those she may have had contact with were themselves considering? We simply don't know.

I do however think that the sentence given to her is the best of all worlds. A lengthy prison sentence for simply possessing documents, whatever happens to be written in them, is an insult to both liberalism and liberty. It's not far from there to the burning of books themselves. Malik has instead been caught, has shown apparent remorse, and will now likely be strictly monitored in what she does. The overwhelming impression of her is of an immature woman, easily influenced, who searched for something to help define herself. She chose extremist Islam, and has been rebuked for it. David T from Harry's Place has played the card that if she had been white and interested in neo-Nazism or child pornography we wouldn't be tying ourselves in knots defending her, but I'd like to think that most of those who have, excepting the Muslim Council of Britain, would have done. Holding extremist views and writing about them is not a crime, even if you have documents that just might be useful to terrorists. Acting on them is. Losing sight of that is the sign of a shift from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian one.

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