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Why the UK shouldn’t harbor troublemakers

But what happens when terrorists who threaten the interests of other countries do so while being based in the US or in Britain?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

When countries harbor terrorists, we usually have recourse against them – legal or otherwise. When the Taliban government in Afghanistan harbored Osama bin Laden and refused to hand him over, we invaded the country, with broad international support. When terrorists threaten the US and the UK and hide in countries such as Yemen, we simply assassinate them by drone – with or without the acquiescence of the government.

But what happens when terrorists who threaten the interests of other countries do so while being based in the US or in Britain?
What happens is not a lot. From our point of view, our legal system stands above the security concerns of other countries. And so long as the suspected individuals are not accused of any crime under our legal system, the normal legal protection we offer to our citizens and foreign residents against arbitrary detention continues to apply.

Case in point

Altaf Hussain, a leading Pakistani politician who actively encourages his 4 million supporters in his native country to undermine Pakistan’s state apparatus by violent means, is residing in the UK. What is more, the UK government is fully aware of his presence and his activities regarding Pakistan, but seems to have done little about it.

Mr Hussain frequently calls on his followers to shut down Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and the riots that ensue often result in deaths, not least of law enforcement officers. The most recent such incident happened just last month.

But surely it cannot be in the interests of the UK that countries like Pakistan can be destabilized by individuals like Mr Hussain, while they live comfortably on British soil

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

We would not have much trouble dealing with such an individual – except perhaps if they were given refuge by the US, Russia or China. But Pakistan has been reduced to bringing terrorism charges against Mr Hussain in London. But so far, to no avail.

This has led to huge frustrations in Pakistan, not only for the political and military leaders of the country, but for many ordinary Pakistanis. Not least those who keep suffering in Karachi, every time the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Mr Hussain’s organization in Pakistan, flexes its muscles at the behest of their leader headquartered in London.

Breeding hostility

The hostility this breeds in Pakistan against the British government is no less real, and raw. I never subscribe to conspiracy theories, especially those originating in Pakistan where they are a convenient way of deflecting responsibility for many of their own problems.

But on recent trips I took to the country almost everyone from the leading politicians to the taxi driver will tell you that that Mr Hassan is being protected by the MI6 and that the MQM are doing the bidding of the British government for some geopolitical reason or another.

When I try to explain that Mr Hussain is not protected by the British government or the intelligence services, and the UK legal system does not take kindly to political interference, they look at me as if I am just a naïve foreigner. I am not entirely sure I can blame them. We all know that if British or American interests were on the line, we would not be all that sympathetic to the finer points of the legal system of Pakistan, or a similar country.

Of course, the counterpoint still stands. The UK is said to have provided safe haven to many legitimate political dissidents who would have been strung up by kangaroo courts in repressive countries, and it is right to have done so.

We also have more than enough reason to doubt the judicial process in Pakistan, a country where corruption is rampant, and Western-looking state institutions are merely a front for factional, sectarian and ethnic power struggles.

But surely it cannot be in the interests of the UK that countries like Pakistan can be destabilized by individuals like Mr Hussain, while they live comfortably on British soil. Surely we can amend the terrorism laws to allow for the prosecution of those who are responsible for organized rioting and the death of so many civilians and police officers in countries which are, technically, still our allies in the war on terror.
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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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