John Sawers the Head of MI5 claimed at Westminster that, “our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee.” Unfortunately he did not spell out the reasons why this might be true, nor did the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) engage in any serious questioning of the assertion, nor of the behaviour of the three agencies. The reality is that it is the actions of the UK and US security services that are boosting violent extremists.
Al Qaeda and other groups did not learn about surveillance from Snowden.
Drone strikes linked to mobile phone calls have been a practical learning exercise for most terrorist groups. Osama Bin Laden spent years without a mobile phone or a computer in his hiding place, according to American accounts. The idea that Snowden or the Guardian have exposed the fact that the security services can monitor terrorist communications is absurd. What they exposed was mass surveillance of the public and illegal surveillance of friendly Governments and the UN. MI6 would have to be seriously deluded to think Al Qaeda have not been watching Zero Dark Thirty, or Homeland, or Spooks etc.
But, violent political extremists do gain from the UK & US Governments’ use of torture, rendition and illegal surveillance, so maybe they did rub their hands with glee.
When Western Governments that claim to be democratic and to respect human rights engage in such cynical and hypocritical behaviour it helps to fuel the recruiting of extremist groups. We should have learnt from Northern Ireland, where the killing of peaceful protesters and the use of torture were powerful recruiting agents for the IRA. Drone strikes that frequently kill civilians have a similar effect, but the dishonesty of the US and UK is probably also a significant factor in pushing some individuals away from any faith in liberal democracy or the possibilities of peaceful change.
It was clear during yesterday’s public session that the three UK security service heads have contempt for the public. They lied and dissembled about illegal surveillance as they have about torture and rendition. But it seems they have no understanding that public trust is essential to their effectiveness. It is their behaviour which makes it less likely members of the public in the UK or elsewhere will come forward with information on possible terrorists. Again there should have been lessons from Northern Ireland.
And the pathetic over-reaction to Snowden including illegally bringing down the Bolivian President’s plane has also alienated many governments that might otherwise have been supportive too.
The cynical behaviour of the security services and the hypocrisy of the UK and US Governments also damages those who should be our allies in the struggle against violent extremism. Those who work at the local and national level for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, often at great personal risk, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Somalia have their credibility and effectiveness seriously undermined. It is these people who make the biggest difference in trying to promote and develop societies where violent extremists are denied support. Apparently the UK Government does not understand how much their hypocrisy undermines the cause of human rights.
The widespread use of illegal surveillance has a broader negative consequence. It emboldens repressive Governments around the globe. When Russia or China bring in measures to restrict freedom of access to the internet and prosecute those who question their repression they can and do point to the UK and the US and mouth platitudes about security and terrorist threats. And of course the security services of the two countries are also directly involved in training and equipping the forces of repression in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Ethiopia.
There is no doubt that the UK security services have had some significant successes in preventing specific terrorist attacks, but there has also been a growth in violent political extremism hostile to the UK and to democratic values. And there has been a growth in UK citizens being recruited to such groups. Our supposed allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding and arming some of them.
Unsurprisingly the tame establishment figures on the ISC did not question the security service chiefs in any serious sense. They did not question the smears against Snowden or The Guardian. Robin Butler and Menzies Campbell did express some concern at legal oversight. Well that’s all right then.