Following the events over the weekend involving an explosive device igniting at Walsall’s Aisha mosque, there’s been some discussion on the internet as to how the incident ought to be classified.
At current time, it’s been looked at under the term ‘hate crime’.
Hatred is an aggravating factor, according to the definition that the CPS use it implies amongst other things that the offence involved ‘hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial or religious group’.
Rather than a stand alone offence, a suggestion that hatred was the motivation behind a crime makes that crime much more serious and means that tougher guidelines are followed by the CPS when they come to consider sentencing.
Due to the circumstances of the Rutter Street incident, officers from our Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) have also joined the investigation and will be lending their considerable expertise to help identify offenders.
As their name implies, CTU tend to focus on terrorism hence there is a suggestion that the incident could be considered against the definition of terrorism and classified accordingly.
This is where things get very tricky as when it comes to terrorism, how exactly do we define the term and what does it mean to most people?
I think that the idea many people hold of what ‘terrorism’ looks like is well summed up by the results thrown up by a Google image search on the term.
The images returned are of 9/11, George Bush, Osama Bin Laden, AK-47s and troubling chaps in balaclavas. Islam features heavily.
Now do these images really help define terrorism as it should be best understood or are they missing something? Where are the pictures of Anders Behring Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and others who don’t quite fit the mould suggested by the search results?
In terms of a generally accepted definition of the term ‘terrorism’, it’s a term that’s quite literally fought over. ‘Freedom fighter’ or ‘terrorist’ can be interchangeable, depending on whose side you’re on.
One academic study counted upwards of one hundred different definitions of the term ‘terrorism’ with the only common theme running through the definitions being the use or threat of violence.
Chamber’s Dictionary defines terrorism as ‘the systematic and organised use of violence and intimidation to force a government or community to act in a certain way or accept certain demands‘.
This is a general definition though and gives only a flavour of what ‘terrorism’ may imply. I think a more useful definition comes from law rather than literature.
Here again, each country’s legislation defines terrorism differently meaning that understanding who the enemy is of the ‘global war on terrorism’ is far from easy as variations in definitions imply variations in who ends up a ‘terrorist’.
As a piece of legislation, the Terrorism Act is wide-ranging covering a number of terrorism related offences including fund-raising and training.
The definition of ‘terrorism’ itself is similarly encompassing, allowing for an array of activities to be considered under the Act.
S. 1 identifies ‘terrorism’ as the ‘use or threat of action’ designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public with that use or threat made for the purpose of ‘advancing a political, religious, racial, or ideological cause’.
‘Action’ means serious violence against a person, serious damage to property, endangering a person’s life, creating a serious risk to public health or safety and/or interfering or disrupting an electronic system.
Aside stating that ‘action’ to have occurred outside the UK will still be classified as terrorism, S. 1 also adds that if the action involved the use of firearms or explosives then it will be classified as terrorism whether or not there was a desire to influence the government or to intimidate the public.
So this is what we mean by ‘terrorism’ in terms of UK law and as it’s this definition that’ll be applied by security services during investigations and by the courts prosecuting, it’s perhaps the most relevant.
As mentioned, it’s a broad definition likely to cover much more than the stereotypical collections of suicide bombers and extremists that ‘terrorism’ may bring to mind.
Recognising that terrorism is a broad topic is important as by focusing on more traditional images of what a terrorist is expected to look like, a risk is run that chances to confront other people and groups posing an equal risk will be missed.
As the British born bombers responsible for the 7/7 London bombings illustrated, terrorists won’t all be from the Middle East and with varying motivations behind attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995, Norway in 2011 and Boston this year, religion shouldn’t be seen as the prime motivation for acts of terrorism.
Being a broad subject does not imply though that there aren’t common themes running through our response to terrorism – themes that apply no matter which of the hundred or so definitions you’re applying.
The first and foremost would be that information on anything terrorism related is shared at the earliest opportunity.
More than any other area of policing, the work of CTU is intelligence-led and their ability to prevent terrorist plots is largely dependant on the quality of intelligence that they have to work on.
Supplying information, no matter how trivial, is one of the best ways you can contribute to the fight against terrorism and it’s easy to do so too – just pick up the phone and dial 0800 789 321 to speak to the Anti-Terrorist Hotline.
Hand in hand with this goes the necessity to approach issues surrounding terrorism in a mature, sensitive way and not get caught up in the rhetoric spat out by certain groups wanting to spin perception to their own ends.
Terrorism is by no means an exclusively Muslim issue and should someone from an Islamic background have been responsible for an act of terrorism then they are likely no more representative of Muslims in general than are the those responsible for killing abortion doctors in the States representative of Christians.
These points considered, no matter how the incident at the Aisha mosque is ultimately defined, the response from the public ought not be much different.
We’ll need strong community cohesion, trust-based relationships between public and the police and a mature appreciation of the issues surrounding both hate and terrorism.
From my own experience of working with the people living around the area of the Aisha mosque and the general impression of the communities across the West Midlands and further afield, I’ve every confidence the public response will be an assuring one.