Bill Jamieson: Are we really united against terrorism?

France has already struck at the Islamic State bastion in Raqqa, Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty
France has already struck at the Islamic State bastion in Raqqa, Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty
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What’s it going to be – tougher border controls, more attacks on Syria, and/or increased surveillance, asks Bill Jamieson

Rousing calls for action, earnest declarations at political summits, pledges to combat Islamic terrorism: all this in the wake of the Paris terrorist slaughter … and yet we are little nearer to an agreed response, still less one likely to be effective.

Yesterday brought further gun battles in Paris, a seven hour armed siege, two deaths including a female suspect who blew herself up, and seven arrests. But is there confidence, in Paris or anywhere in Europe, that the threat of terror is now eradicated or contained?

The most pressing calls in the aftermath have been for heightened military action in Syria, the re-introduction of strict border controls, a more rigorous screening of refugee and asylum applications and greater electronic surveillance to help the authorities track the movement and activities of Islamic terrorist cells.

On each and every one there is now a gathering tide of questioning and resistance. However abhorrent the atrocities in Paris there is no strong conviction that any of these loudly urged responses will help. Instead, there is anguished concern that even the most modest and reasonable precautions will be discriminatory, invasive of privacy and liberties, offensive to moderate Muslim opinion and likely to boost the Far Right.

Nowhere is the policy confusion more evident than in Syria. In the immediate days after the Paris slaughter, there were insistent calls for more robust military action against Isis strongholds. France has already struck at the Islamic State bastion in Raqqa. Russian president Vladimir Putin has threatened a vehement response in the wake of evidence that the Russian airliner was brought down by explosives. US president Barack Obama has urged concerted military action.

But even at the heart of the US administration there is confusion. Will it supply air support to people fighting Isis? Will it help those seeking to bring president Bashar al-Assad down? If not, is it not risking handing Syria over to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah? There is a yawning gap between Obama’s rhetoric and the complex reality.

Here Prime Minister David Cameron is again seeking to secure Commons support for UK participation in Syrian air strikes. But even among his own backbenchers there is no conviction over this, and Downing Street spokespeople are now rowing back against suggestions that he is setting out a timetable for a Commons vote before Christmas.

Consensus? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has reservations about giving the police power to shoot to kill while the SNP’s Angus Robertson urges UN endorsement before any approval of UK military involvement in Syria. And here, as in America, there is no clarity on what the strategic objectives are – or the endgame. A united resolve on action in Syria? There is little sign of it.

What of stricter border controls – surely an obvious precaution against the movement of terrorists across Europe? The case looks all the more powerful given the unfettered journeys made by the Paris bombers to and from Syria and the discovery of a false Syrian passport close to the body of a Jihadist bomber at the Stade de France.

There is wide concern that Schengen, Europe’s open borders agreement, made it easier for the terrorists to smuggle their way into the EU. Tougher measures have been urged to control the flow of refugees and France is set to call for a suspension of Schengen. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, said that “we observe that Islamists are specifically approaching refugees in the reception centres. We already know of more than 100 cases”.

However, the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said there is no link between open borders and the terror attacks in Paris, and warned against giving in to what he called “base reactions” over the refugee crisis.

The likelihood is that we will see that all-too-familiar “solution” in matters EU: the rhetoric of Schengen stoutly upheld while governments re-introduce border controls, more rigorous checking of people and goods – and Schengen set aside.

Similar ambiguity marks policy on the continuing tide of refugees from Syria and North Africa. There is a marked step change in public anxiety – both over the security implications of further mass incursion and the ability of EU governments including Germany to cope.

Formidable resource and logistical problems are increasingly evident. Home Affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz has expressed concern “about our real level of preparedness and ability to increase capacity to manage such numbers at short notice”.

The scale of immigration risks creating the very unrest and alienation that policy now needs most to avoid. Yet calls for greater screening of refugees and a limitation on numbers are under fire on social media as discriminatory or racist and the links between the refugee crisis and infiltration by Jihadists challenged. All this, they say, plays into the hands of the far Right and feed support for Marine Le Pen in the forthcoming elections. Indeed, the advance of the Right is seen by many to be as grave a threat as that posed by the Paris terrorists. Yet it is far more likely that the absence of such measures rather than their adoption that will fuel support for the likes of Le Pen.

Finally, we come to an area where calls for action have arguably been loudest: the strengthening of electronic and surveillance measures to enable the police to track the movements of terrorist suspects. David Cameron has hinted the government may move to speed up the passing of its proposed new surveillance law – the Investigatory Powers Bill – in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. But Home secretary Theresa May looks to have ruled out any fast-tracking in a Commons statement.   

The bill has been dubbed a snooper’s charter by critics and was due to be debated by MPs next year. The Bill would give intelligence agencies powers they say would allow them to prevent terrorist attacks and undermine organised crime. But critics have called the legislation mass surveillance and “a breath-taking attack on internet security”… This snooper’s charter makes George Orwell look lacking in vision”.

So: don’t get involved in air strikes in Syria, don’t rush to tighten borders, don’t stigmatise refugees, don’t give the police more powers, don’t speed up the Investigatory Powers Bill, and above all don’t link Islam with terrorism or question multiculturalism. Who really believes we’re united against terrorism?