I’ve waited a week before writing this blog, because it’s never a good idea to react to events like the appalling attacks in Paris last Friday night in the heat of the moment. Now that the facts have begun to emerge about who was responsible, however, it’s time to decide how we should respond.
Our immediate reaction was, quite rightly, a sense of solidarity with the people of France. They are among our oldest allies. We grieve with them and want them to know they do not stand alone.
It is also natural to ask, “Could the same thing happen here?” The answer is, “Yes, it could”. The threat level, assessed by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, is ‘severe’, which means that an attack is highly likely. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that over the past year our police and security and intelligence services have foiled no fewer than seven terrorist plots here in Britain.
So what should we do to reduce the likelihood of further attacks here in the UK or elsewhere in the world?
Well first there are some things that we can all do. We clearly need to be vigilant as we go about our day-to-day lives, reporting anything suspicious to the authorities. And we need to be clear about who the enemy is. It is Daesh (to give so-called Islamic State the name they don’t like) and its perverted brand of Islam, not Islam as a whole - remember, most of Daesh's victims are Muslims.
When all we hear about Islam on the news is British Muslims blowing themselves up on the Tube or murdering a member of our armed forces on the streets of south London or beheading aid workers in Syria, it's easy to think otherwise. But the Muslims I know - the friends I made at school and university, the MPs I serve with, the Croydon councillors I work, the people who run South Norwood Islamic Community Centre in my constituency, the constituents I have met - have nothing in common with the extremists we hear about on the news. They are proud British citizens who want the same things in life as you and I. Yet in the last week a number of them have contacted me to say they have been sworn at and called terrorists by passers-by in the street. This isn’t just deeply unfair, it’s also counter-productive. We need to come together to defeat the extremists, not blame people who have nothing to do with them.
So we all need to be vigilant and to come together to confront this threat. But as an MP, I have to think not just about what I can do as an individual, but what the Government should do.
First, it needs to make sure the police and security and intelligence services have the resources and powers they need. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have announced that the Government will increase spending on our world-class security and intelligence agencies to recruit over 1,900 additional staff and increase our network of counter-terrorism experts in the Middle East, north Africa, south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It will also double spending on aviation security and protect the police counter-terrorism budget. And I’ve already blogged about its plans to modernise the law governing the powers the police and security and intelligence services have to monitor and intercept communications so that the increasing use of the internet rather than telephones to communicate doesn’t weaken our ability to detect and prevent terrorist plots.
Second, we need to improve border security throughout the EU. 26 European countries within what is known as the Schengen area have abolished controls at their internal borders. There is evidence that this has made it easier for both terrorists and weapons to move between these countries (a number of the Paris attackers appear to have travelled there from Belgium and the weapons they used would not be readily available in countries like the UK, which are not part of Schengen and have tight gun controls).
Five of the six attackers who have so far been identified were EU nationals, but one appears to have entered Greece on what seems to have been a false Syrian passport, presumably posing as a refugee. It is very important that we continue to provide sanctuary to genuine refugees, but we clearly need to make sure the people we are admitting are not a threat to our security. The Prime Minister’s decision not to accept, as other EU countries have done, refugees who have made their own way to Europe but instead to take people from the camps in and around Syria so that we can screen people before they come to this country - a decision that was much criticised at the time - was clearly the right one.
Approximately 750 UK citizens are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with Daesh. We need to make sure we detect them if they seek to re-enter the country. If they are dual citizens (citizens of both the UK and another country), we have changed the law so that we can strip them of their British citizenship and permanently deny them re-entry. If they are solely British citizens, we have changed the law so that in certain circumstances we can temporarily deny them re-entry.
Third, we need to tackle the ideology that fuels this terrorism. That means going after not just the terrorists, but also non-violent extremists who spread this ideology. We need to inspect educational institutions and shut down any that are teaching intolerance. And we need to work with mainstream Muslim scholars to take apart the extremists’ arguments.
Finally, we need to take on Daesh in both Iraq and Syria. 9/11 taught us the danger of leaving terrorists in control of all or part of a country. We are currently taking part in air strikes against Daesh in western Iraq but as the Prime Minister argued on Tuesday Daesh:
“ .. is not just present in Iraq. It also operates across the border in Syria, although that border is meaningless to it … It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that [it] has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated. Raqqa is, if you like, the head of the snake.
“Over Syria we are supporting our allies - the US, France, Jordan and the Gulf countries - with intelligence, surveillance and refuelling. But I believe, as I have said many times before, that we should be doing more. We face a direct and growing threat to our country and we need to deal with it not just in Iraq but in Syria too. I have always said that there is a strong case for our doing this: our allies are asking us to do it and the case for doing it has only grown stronger after the Paris attacks. We cannot and should not expect others to carry the burdens, and the risks, of protecting our country.
“I will set out our comprehensive strategy for dealing with [Daesh] and our vision for a more stable and peaceful Middle East ... I hope that, in setting out the arguments in this way, I can help to build support right across the House for the action that I believe it is necessary to take.”
We had a vote about taking military action in Syria just over two years ago. On that occasion, the Government was proposing taking action against the Assad regime which was using chemical weapons against its own citizens. There was clearly a moral case for preventing this crime, but MPs voted against doing so because they were worried that military action could make things worse, as in Libya, or that we could get sucked into a prolonged conflict as in Iraq.
This time, the case is much more simple. Daesh pose a direct threat to our security in a way that the Assad regime, unpleasant as it is, does not. As the Prime Minister says, it makes no sense to take action against them in western Iraq but not in eastern Syria.
Ideally, such action should be authorised by the United Nations, but we shouldn’t view this as an essential pre-condition. We cannot make our right to defend ourselves conditional on whether or not Russia vetoes a UN resolution.
Finally, we need to learn from the mistakes we made in Iraq. Air power is unlikely to be successful on its own. We need to work with forces on the ground and it would be better if these were forces from countries in the region rather than Western forces. And we need to a diplomatic plan to end the wider civil war in Syria. As well as defeating Daesh militarily, we need to plan for what is going to replace them in eastern Syria.
Only a broad-based strategy encompassing investment in our police and security and intelligence services, strong border control, tackling extremist ideology, diplomatic initiatives to end the brutal civil war in Syria and military action against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria can guarantee success. It is clear that Jeremy Corbyn won’t support elements of this strategy, but I hope that many Labour MPs will. When we take big decisions like this, it is best if we do so with the broadest possible consensus.