Cameron's fight against militantcy leads to battle over freedoms

British Prime Minister David Cameron led a nationwide minute's silence on Friday for victims of a gun massacre in Tunisia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron led a nationwide minute's silence on Friday for victims of a gun massacre in Tunisia.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (Reuters) - A decade after four Britons in London carried out the first suicide bombings by Islamist militants in Western Europe, Britain is planning new anti-terror laws that critics say are an assault on freedoms and will not work.

Prime Minister David Cameron's government wants to ramp up powers this year to ban "extremist" groups, close mosques where radicals thrive, stop extremist broadcasts, and give police and intelligence services broader powers to monitor communications.

Ministers say those powers are urgently needed to address threats posed by organisations such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and to prevent another attack on the scale of the July 7, 2005 bombings when four Muslims killed 52 people on three trains and a bus.

Last month's attack in Tunisia in which 30 Britons were killed emphasised the need for measures Cameron promised to bring forward after winning an election in May, ministers say.

But the proposals face widespread opposition. "Only by engaging with extremist views, opposing them and defeating them through debate can we hope to deal with the threat of extremism," said lawmaker David Davis, who Cameron defeated to become Conservative Party leader in 2005.

"The lesson of centuries of British history is that the best defence of freedom is freedom itself, and the last thing we should do in trying to defeat the enemies of Western civilisation is throw away our strongest weapon, free speech."

Britain is now on its second-highest alert level of "severe", meaning an attack in considered highly likely.

Cameron said last Monday that at least four plots had been thwarted in recent months, while police said terrorism-related arrests were up by a third.

ISIS militants pose the greatest threat, the government says, and some 700 Britons have travelled to join them, lured by what Cameron said was a poisonous ideology.

"We must give our police and security services the tools they need to root out this poison," he told parliament.

His plans involve tackling extremism, which he says some of Britain's 2.8 million Muslims quietly condone, and extending surveillance.

Security chiefs have said the latter is vital, but in the wake of disclosures by former US spy contractor Edward Snowden, many are sceptical and even the country's terrorism watchdog said the government had failed to make the case for the most controversial extra powers.

"My question to the government will be this: is what you are introducing going to help the fight against extremism, or is it going to alienate the very communities that we need in the front line?" said Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former minister under Cameron and the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet.

Other Muslims agree. "You can't label an entire faith community based on the actions of one or two and that's what seems to be happening here," said Bana Gora, from the Muslim Women's Council in Bradford, northern England, where a family of 12 including nine children recently left for Syria.

"I think as Muslims, we're getting to a point where we are really getting sick of it. This onslaught of counter-terrorism legislation that's coming through is not going to help matters."

Instead of trying to ban extremists, critics argue their arguments should be taken on and debunked. "If we cut ourselves off from talking to some people whose views we do not like but to whom millions of young people listen, that's a very difficult issue for us," Ian Blair, who was in charge of London police when the 7/7 bombings took place, told the BBC.

Rashad Ali, director of the counter-extremism consultancy Centri and a former member of global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which many in Cameron's party want banned, said trying to ban "illiberal ideas" while arguing for liberal values was a flawed approach. "This certainly isn't a way forward, it's a regressive step backwards," he told Reuters.