The British government has unveiled sweeping new counter-terrorism measures which—if approved by Parliament—would give the United Kingdom some of the "toughest powers in the world" to fight Islamic terrorism.
The government argues that the new powers—intended to prevent British jihadists from fighting abroad and to stop them from returning if they do—are necessary to keep Britain safe.
Civil liberties groups counter that the measures are "draconian" in scope and represent a dramatic expansion of government surveillance powers, ones that are ripe for misuse if they are not matched by strong safeguards.
The Counter Terrorism and Security Bill was introduced to the House of Commons (the lower house of Parliament) by Home Secretary Theresa May on November 26. The bill is being fast-tracked through Parliament and could become law as early as the beginning of 2015.
A key provision of the new law would authorize the government to seize the passports of terror suspects traveling to Iraq, Syria and other jihadist battlegrounds.
Under the current system, the Home Secretary must personally authorize each passport seizure by means of Royal Prerogative (special powers that enable decisions to be taken without the backing of, or consultation with, Parliament). Of the more than 500 British jihadists who are known to have traveled to Iraq and Syria, only 24 have had their passports confiscated.
The new law would grant police and border officials the power to seize the passports of suspected terrorists on the spot for a period of up to 30 days. Moreover, police would have the power to confiscate the passports of individuals travelling within the UK for the first time. This would ensure that those barred from leaving the country do not slip through the unpoliced border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The new legislation would also introduce so-called Temporary Exclusion Orders, which would grant the Home Secretary the power to prevent suspected jihadists from returning to Britain for a period of up to two years.
After that, these individuals would only be permitted to return to Britain under "controlled" circumstances, meaning that they would be required to be interviewed by police and to notify the authorities of their current address and of their movements and contacts with other extremists. Anyone attempting to return to Britain in secret would be subject to a five-year prison term.
The new legislation would strengthen so-called Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM), which are used to restrict the activities of suspected terrorists who have not been convicted.
Under the current system, TPIM suspects are effectively placed under house arrest and denied access to the Internet and telephones. The new law would grant the government the power to relocate such individuals to other towns in the country, and limit the distance they can travel, in order to prevent them from meeting with other extremists.
The law proposed by UK Home Secretary Theresa May (left) would target terror suspects by measures such as confiscating passports, denying use of the internet and telephones, restricting domestic travel, and forcible relocation. (Image source: UK Home Office)
In addition, insurance companies would be banned from reimbursing the costs of terrorist ransom payments. Over the past year, the Islamic State (IS) is believed to have earned at least 28 million pounds (€36 million; $45 million) from ransom payments, including from European governments.
The new law would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile telephone operators to store information about which individuals have used a particular Internet Protocol (IP) address (a numerical label assigned to each device connected to the Internet) and hand that data over to the authorities upon request. This would enable police to match specific IP addresses to individual computers, and track an individuals' use of the Internet for up to 12 months.
Finally, public institutions, including schools, colleges and prisons, would face a statutory duty to prevent individuals from becoming radicalized. Schools and colleges would be required to draft policies on extremists lecturing on campuses, and prisons would need to draw up directives for dealing with radicals. The Home Office would be authorized to issue court orders requiring such institutions to ban extremists from speaking at their facilities.
Speaking ahead of the publication of the bill, May said:
"We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a deadly terrorist ideology. These powers are essential to keep up with the very serious and rapidly changing threats we face.
"In an open and free society, we can never entirely eliminate the threat from terrorism. But we must do everything possible in line with our shared values to reduce the risks posed by our enemies.
"This bill includes a considered, targeted set of proposals that will help to keep us safe at a time of very significant danger by ensuring we have the powers we need to defend ourselves."
But the official independent reviewer of British terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, criticized the government for not "fully thinking through" many of the proposals in the new bill. He said he was especially concerned about the lack of any judicial check on the use of Temporary Exclusion Orders that can last up to two years.
Addressing the Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights on November 26, Anderson said:
"The concern I have about this power and the central concern about it is: where are the courts in all of this?
"One will want to look very carefully to see if this is a power that requires the intervention of the court at any stage, or whether it's simply envisaged as something the home secretary imposes."
Anderson also raised concerns about the need for compulsory de-radicalization programs and added that the proposal for the government to force universities to ban extremist speakers would infringe upon academic freedom.
Indeed, in a so-called Impact Assessment, the government admitted that "parts of the policy may be perceived to restrict the freedom of speech."
The human rights group Liberty also said the government's proposal posed a threat to civil liberties. In a statement, the group warned:
"When the Coalition first came to power it bound itself together with the language of civil liberties. With this Bill the Government abrogates its fledgling commitment to ensure we do not abandon our values in the fight against terror.
"In confronting an ugly ideology that promotes arbitrary violence, the subjugation of women and tyranny, we would expect political leaders to robustly and actively promote democratic values such as the rule of law, human rights and equal treatment. Instead, the Bill plays into the hands of terrorists by allowing them to shape our laws in a way that undermines our principles.
"Exclusion orders, flight bans and passport seizures will do nothing to neutralize an organised terror threat which does not respect international borders. Ad-hoc police powers and ever more restrictive systems of civil orders will only deflect attention from arrests and prosecutions. Embroiling our teachers in terror-policing will alienate and marginalize, whilst more powers to monitor the nation's online communication turn us into a nation of suspects.
"The Agencies by their nature will always ask for more powers, concerned as they are with a short term preventative agenda, not well-suited to the vital longer term goal of preventing radicalization and prosecuting and convicting terrorists. It is the job of Government and Parliamentarians, charged with the long-term protection of national security, to interrogate their approach and tightly circumscribe the powers available."
Amnesty International called the powers "draconian" and warned of the dangers of "rushing through this grab-bag of measures without proper scrutiny or challenge." In a statement, the group said:
"While the government needs to ensure that anyone suspected of criminal activity is investigated, measures like invalidating passports and excluding British nationals from their home country push the boundaries of international law.
"The internal exile of forced relocation to the already unfair TPIMs regime is another measure which causes significant concern for basic freedoms. We simply don't have the fair and proper processes in place for such drastic decisions.
"Meanwhile, the surveillance measures pre-empt the findings of not one but three official reviews which are due to make recommendations. Careful, detailed analysis is needed—not fast-tracking and grandstanding."
May remains undeterred by the criticism, and has repeated that in addition to the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, the government also needs a new Communications Data Bill to bring in more wide-ranging Internet monitoring powers.
Boosting the government's case, a British tribunal ruled on December 5 that intelligence gathering practices used by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency that works closely with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), are "lawful and human rights compliant."
The five judges of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal rejected arguments brought by privacy advocates, who were reacting to U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden's disclosures about widespread data collection by British and American spy agencies.
In its ruling, the court said:
"The 'Snowden revelations' in particular have led to the impression voiced in some quarters that the law in some way permits the Intelligence Services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case."
The court added that the methods used must be seen in the context of protecting national security at a time when the terrorist threat to Britain has been raised to "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely.
Privacy advocates, including Liberty, Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union and others, maintain GCHQ practices breach the European Convention on Human Rights. They say they will appeal the ruling to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.