Jul 12, 2021
In Episode 7 of Series 6 Todd is in conversation with Tom Parker, a prominent counterterrorism practitioner who has consulted for the EU, the UN, Amnesty International and MI5 on post-conflict justice, security sector reform, and counter-terrorism. He is author of a new book, Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism and in this episode he and Todd are reflecting on the complex interplay between counter-terrorism and human rights in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
NB By using the link above and the following codes, you can enjoy a substantial discount on Tom's book
Todd asks Tom about a view expressed in his book that there is no set profile of a terrorist. Tom says there have been many attempts to profile the type of individual who becomes a terrorist but that this does not work. Terrorists come from all backgrounds and walks of life, they are male/female and young/old. He mentions Mohamed Merah who shot and killed seven people in Toulouse and his brother who although from the same background and influences went on to marry a Jewish woman and get involved in inter-faith dialogue. Tom says there are a host of pressures from different sources that push people towards terrorism and that there are certain behaviours that can influence whether terrorism emerges in a particular society such as the marginalisation or abuse of people.
Todd asks Tom why he believes a human rights framework is so key to tackling terrorism. Tom explains that while researching his book he looked closely at materials in which terrorists over 150 years and across continents shared information about their ‘cause’ or activities. He outlines six core principles that emerge:
In the latter two, Tom believes a human rights framework is particularly key as it stops Governments falling into a trap of over-reaction. He mentions the activities of Baader Meinhoff in the late 60s through to the 1980s.
Todd asks Tom to say more about the idea that open societies are more vulnerable to terrorism and feel more pressure to create restrictive measures to prevent it. Tom says terrorism tends to happen in democracies rather than authoritarian societies. Terrorists are using violence often to open a political dialogue. Human rights law does not prevent states from taking action to protect themselves. Rather, Tom says, it is quite permissive with a range of options within a framework and he sees no reason to step outside that framework. He talks briefly about his own experiences in the 1990s as a security officer in the UK working within this framework. He sees no tension between effective counter-terrorism and human rights observance.
Todd presses Tom on the claim from some quarters that the perceived existential threat of terrorism leads states to curb freedoms and violate human rights. Tom references Mao Tse Tung’s analogy of the War of the Flea and explains that it’s the reaction to a perceived threat that is the actual threat. He talks about Al Qaeda and how in his view it never posed a real existential threat to the United States compared with other threats including COVID-19. He goes on to say that despite this, many of the laws passed as a result of 9/11 are still in force today. He says he is in favour of the system used in the UK during the Troubles in Northern Ireland when all anti-terrorism legislation was temporary and designed to restore the status quo and therefore reviewed, renewed where necessary and updated or changed regularly. This has been lost since 9/11 in the US, UK and Europe he adds. He also adds that this has been done in the context of new technical and highly intrusive advancements that did not exist 20 years ago and may be hard to dismantle.
The conversation moves to COVID-19 and whether it can be perceived as an existential threat and whether responses to it can be perceived as curbing human rights. Tom talks about ‘privilege’ and how the threat seems larger in the West compared with Nigeria where he is currently based and where there are other as if not more serious public health threats such as malaria. International human rights law anticipates the curbing of public freedoms to protect public health so he says there isn’t a threat per se to human rights from it as long as the curbs are lawful/ proportionate etc. Todd presses Tom on public concerns around the measures used to tackle COVID-19 and how long they will continue to be left in place. Tom references the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, a concept in political science that an established democracy and its supportive state institutions have a tendency to enlarge and enhance themselves. He says we don’t think enough about the length of time we may have to live with measures after a threat has passed. He mentions the shoe bomber Richard Reid and how we still take our shoes off at airports because one person tried unsuccessfully to smuggle a bomb onto a plane in his shoe. He points out that when something fails, terrorists tend to move onto different things. He points to the length of time it took for the so-called Ring of Steel around London established as a response to the threat posed by the IRA took many years to gradually dwindle because these things are hard to change back once they are in place. Tom talks briefly about the development of new technologies such as number plate and facial recognition and smart cities and the potential implications of that with free public space shrinking and the potential for these technologies to be exploited for nefarious purposes.
Todd wonders if our attention will return to terrorism post COVID and if there are any learnings from the experience to help in tackling terrorism. Tom says public focus may have left terrorism but it hasn’t gone away especially right-wing and Islamist extremism. He agrees that the pandemic has had a ‘slightly depressing’ effect on terrorism and that the threats are likely to emerge as significant as they were pre-pandemic. Todd brings Tom back to the focus of his book to reflect once again on the central premise of the book that a human rights based approach to tackling terrorism is key. Tom agrees that counter-terrorism and public health are hard and that there will always be contention and disagreement. A human rights approach helps resist the goals that terrorist organisations are seeking to achieve. It is a more measured and careful way of tackling the problem.
A reminder that by using the link above and the following codes, you can enjoy a substantial discount on Tom's book: