BY ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS
In my last blog, I wrote about the decision to ban an al-Qaeda supporter from a London local council. The government’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) have now released a statement about this move.
According to the statement:
Anwar al- Awlaki has been banned from speaking via video link to an event in Kensington after being accused of advocating violence.
A small number of blogs had suggested that the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) had in some way given its approval for al- Awlaki to deliver a video message.
Observer – Islamist preacher banned from addressing fundraiser
- The suggestion that OSCT or any other Government department gave approval for Al-Awlaki to speak at this event is completely untrue.
- The decision to ban individuals from a local event is always a matter for the local authority.
- In this case the local council decided that al-Awlaki’s message being broadcast would not be appropriate for this venue and asked for the message to be withdrawn.
- The Government strongly believes that freedom of thought and speech are rights which are fundamental to our society; however the Government will robustly challenge any views which may be within the law, but are equivocal in their rejection of terrorist violence, reject and undermine our shared values or jeopardise community cohesion.
RICU was set up by the government in order to disseminate the government’s message in the fight against extremism and terrorism and counter act jihadist propaganda.
Firstly, it is reassuring to know that the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) were not involved in approving Awlaki’s presence. This claim was made by the Counter Terrorism News blog, which also stated that the Metropolitan Police had given Awlaki the nod.
The second bullet point is the most interesting as it underscores the need for more central coordination on these matters. This type of decision should not be left to local councillors who, lovely as they may be, cannot be expected to (and in my experience do not) understand how and why men like Awlaki pose a serious threat to security and community cohesion. People within OSCT and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), on the other hand, do have a sufficient grasp on the subject of terrorism, Islamism and jihad. They know who Awlaki is and what he preaches, it’s their job. If, when the event was booked, there was a system in place which ensured that OSCT or DCLG were made aware of the speakers, this embarrassing mini-fiasco may well have been easily avoided.
It is true, as the third bullet point states, that the council did decide that a message from Awlaki would be inappropriate and for that they should be applauded. However, were it not for a number of concerned organisations and individuals who brought it to their attention, Awlaki would have easily slipped under the radar. Again, this highlights how important it is for central authorities to take more responsibility on these matters.
The claim that the government will ‘robustly challenge’ views which ‘reject and undermine our shared values or jeopardise community cohesion’ is very encouraging. In the past there would have been the usual talk of free speech without this crucial caveat. Let’s hope we see some follow through on this.
For an in depth analysis on the government’s approach to engaging with extremists, see Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton’s ground breaking report, ‘Choosing Our Friends Wisely’.