The use of “grasses” and the deployment of undercover police are at the centre of Britain’s counter-terrorism policy. These practices foster a culture of suspicion and have a profoundly damaging impact on British Muslim communities.
The issue of “grassing” in British Muslim communities is significant and worrying. It contributes to a broader trend in the War on Terror of a perceived two tiered system of justice – one for Muslims, and one for everyone else. To date most of the focus on grasses in Muslim communities has been in the USA. In the past few years, prominent news sources ranging from The Village Voice to the Guardian, as well as several human rights organisations, have written about the use of informants and agent provocateurs in US terrorism prosecutions. Activists and community representatives from New York to Oakland have condemned the broad surveillance of American Muslim communities and the entrapment-like tactics of the NYPD and the FBI.
In comparison to the US, the issue of “grasses” in Muslim communities in the UK remains sorely under-researched. In this article, I begin by exploring the history of the use of informants in British Muslim communities, and discuss four distinct trends of “grassing” that CagePrisoners has identified in its work. Next, I address the impact of “grassing” on British Muslims and consider how this practice intersects with and facilitates Britain’s broader counter-terrorism strategy. I conclude by detailing how CagePrisoners has endeavoured to address this issue and encourage the development of broad alliances to combat state infiltration of our many communities and movements.
The Context: “home-grown terrorism” and 7/7
The story of “grassing” in British Muslim communities is inextricably linked to the events of 7 July 2007. There was a palpable sense of shock amongst the broader British public that the young men who committed the attacks had been born and raised in England. Consider the following excerpt from Roots of violent radicalisation, a report published by the Home Affairs Committee in 2012:
“On 7 July 2005, 52 people were killed and more than 770 others injured in attacks on the London transport network carried out by four men from West Yorkshire who had been radicalised by the ideology and rhetoric of Al Qa’ida. The nature of the current, deadly threat facing the UK from home-grown terrorism was fully exposed for the first time. This was only one of a number of terrorist plots which caused the British authorities to shift their attention over the past decade from external threats to national security to those lying within the UK borders.”
After 7/7, it was the internal threat of so-called “home-grown terrorism” that became an important concern of the British government, police and security services. “Grassing” was an obvious solution to the perceived radicalisation of the British Muslim community.
Grasses in British Muslim communities
“Grassing” encompasses a wide range of agents and behaviour – from information on individuals gathered through radicalisation prevention programmes, to “moles” recruited in secret, to undercover police placed in communities, to others who agree to inform in exchange for reduced sentences. CagePrisoners has identified four ways in which “grassing” operates in and affects British Muslim communities.
Overt grassing: the Prevent strategy
Prevent is one of the four strands of CONTEST, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy that was first published in 2006. In 2011, the Home Office concluded a review of Prevent, which I analyse here. CagePrisoners believes that the Prevent strategy constitutes the British government’s most overt and systematic effort to gain information on Muslims for the stated aim of preventing radicalisation.
The 2011 Home Office review of Prevent concluded that the strategy has three stated objectives:
• “challenging the ideology that supports terrorism and those who promote it” – for example, by funding charities to contest so-called extreme views and promote “mainstream” Islam, and encouraging public bodies to prohibit speaking events that feature extremists;
• “supporting vulnerable people” e.g. by training tens of thousands of front-line staff, including doctors, prison staff, youth workers and others, to observe and identify those deemed at-risk of radicalisation;
• “working with key sectors” – namely establishing working relationships between Prevent and a range of state and non-state actors, from educational and faith-based institutions to health clinics, the criminal justice system and charitable organisations.
Prevent engagement officers are police staff, so the vast majority of Prevent activity enables and in fact requires the sharing of individual or community data with the police. Prevent helps the police and security services keep their “eyes and ears on the ground” in Muslim communities, particularly because British Muslims may encounter Prevent-trained staff in nearly every institution they come across in their daily lives.
Challenging “extremism” and stopping “radicalisation” are the core components in the work of Prevent, so it is important to look at how these terms are defined. Extremism is defined in the glossary as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs…” But what are “British values? As ArunKundnani observes:
“The underlying assumption of the Prevent programme is that the government needs to combat extremism through a ‘battle of ideas’ which aims at isolating ‘mainstream Muslims’ from a global insurgency. A form of ideological campaigning for ‘British values’ and ‘moderate Islam’ has come to be seen as a matter of national security. Notions of multiculturalism are seen as a threat to this campaign. But such a campaign ends up constructing a false image of Britain’s Muslim citizens.”‘Radicalisation’ is defined by Prevent as “the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism”. According to the authors, “Support for violence is associated with a lack of trust in democratic government and with an aspiration to defend Muslims when they appear to be under attack or unjustly treated.” Yet many British Muslims believe that Muslim lands are unjustly under attack, that Muslims here face undue discrimination and that the democratic process does not respond to their concerns. These are legitimate political beliefs, not markers for a propensity to participate in criminal activity.
In sum, Prevent works by using established institutions, organisations and public services within Muslim communities to gather information and identify Muslims who subscribe to the theological and political beliefs deemed “acceptable” by the state.
Case study: RizwaanSabir: In 2008, while studying for his Master’s degree at the University of Nottingham, RizwaanSabir downloaded an al-Qaida training manual from the US Department of Justice website in order to prepare for his research on Islamist terrorism. The manual was also available at the university library and could be purchased from WH Smith, Waterstones and Amazon. Sabir emailed the manual and two related academic journal articles to a friend, HichamYezza, who had agreed to help him with his PhD proposal. This “dangerous” material was reported to the registrar of the University of Nottingham who was instructed by the Deputy Head of Security to call the police. In May 2008, both Sabir and his friend were arrested on campus on suspicion of possessing extremist materialand held without charge for seven days in solitary confinement before being released.
Sabir later sued the police for false imprisonment and racial discrimination. In a 2011 op-ed for al-Jazeera, Sabir wrote:
“Only weeks before the trial was to begin, the police – desperate to prevent embarrassment and criticism – settled the case out of court. They paid me £20,000 ($31,000) in compensation, all of my legal expenses and removed all the incorrect (and unnecessary) information that they held on my intelligence file. Documentation that stated I was a “convicted” terrorist, that I wore a black hoody with the words “Free Palestine” written on it and had an ‘attitude’ toward the police…”
In 2012, it was also revealed that the police had fabricated evidence in order to justify Sabir’s arrest, namely by recording false statements from an interview with a professor at Sabir’s university about why he had downloaded the document. Sabir commented:
“I have known that the police lied and deceived in order to justify my arrest and treatment and this has now been proven.”
Sabir’s case highlights the way in which Prevent monitors Muslims for assumed political or theological beliefs, instead of for potential criminal behavior. The state should not place on university staff, doctors and youth workers the responsibility to monitor Muslims on its behalf, a job which compromises theirprofessional roles.
Covert grassing: secret recruitment of community members
We know that Prevent exists and can trace how its funding is used. Not all state efforts to listen in or gather information on Muslim communities operate with the same degree of transparency. Some British Muslims are secretly recruited by the police and security services to provide information about potentially dangerous or radicalised individuals.
It is difficult to establish the frequency with which this practice takes place. There are very few community members willing to admit on record that they have provided information to the authorities – but on occasion previous or current “grasses“ have spoken to journalists and community advocates attempting to address the issue of informants in Muslim communities. In order to get a sense of the extent of the problem, the author of this report interviewed two people who have worked on this subject, RoshanSalih of Press TV and MoazzamBegg of CagePrisoners. Salih and Begg said they have observed that the police and security services tend to target community leaders, especially youth workers. They both stressed that state agents are likely to use personal information about individuals that could jeopardise their standing in the community in order to pressure them into informing, for example by threatening to disclose an extra-marital affair. Both men also reported that non-British citizens often agree to inform after having their immigration status threatened.
Individuals may also be induced to inform through the promise of payments or lesser sentences for criminal offences. In the past, British police forces have paid more than £6 million a year to informants in exchange for information on criminal activity, although it is impossible to know what proportion of this sum has been paid to informants placed in Muslim communities.
Case study: Mahdi Hashi and the Kentish Town Community Organisation workers: In 2009, five Muslim community workers from North London publicly denounced Mi5 for attempting to blackmail them into working as informants. The men, who all worked with disadvantaged youth at the Kentish Town Community Organisation, reported that they were told they would be detained and harassed as terror suspects if they refused to provide information to security services. Three of the men were detained at foreign airports after leaving Britain, sent back to the UK and stopped by MI5 agents under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows an examining officer to stop, search, question and detain a person travelling through a port, airport or border area.
Two others claimed that after they returned from trips abroad, officers disguised as postmen approached them at their homes to ask them to spy on fellow Muslims. In a 2009 article published by The Independent, the men recounted their terrifying interactions with security service agents.
One of the men, Mahdi Hashi, told The Independent that upon arrival at Djibouti airport, he was held for 16 hours and then abruptly sent back to the UK. An officer allegedly told him that MI5 was responsible for his deportation and stressed that his “suspect” status would only be cleared if he agreed to co-operate with MI5. Hashi recalls, “I told him ‘This is blatant blackmail’; he said ‘No, it’s just proving your innocence. By co-operating with us we know you’re not guilty.’…I looked at him and said ‘I don’t ever want to see you or hear from you again.’” Hashi was 19 years old at the time. According to his family, Hashi decided to move back to Somalia after being harassed by MI5. Last year, over the course of only a few months, he was stripped of his citizenship, kidnapped and imprisoned by the Djibouti authorities, then secretly transferred to US custody and charged with material support for terrorism. Hashi’s family, CagePrisoners, and other civil liberties advocates, believe that Mahdi was punished for refusing to “grass” on his community. The accounts of the Kentish Town Community Organisation care workers indicate the lengths to which MI5 agents may be willing to go in order to pressure Muslim community members to inform.
Undercover police in Muslim communities
We know from the experiences of the left in Britain that undercover officers are used to infiltrate suspect communities. In 2011, the trial of six people accused of trying to shut down the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire collapsed when an undercover policeman came forward and offered to testify in their defence. One of the defendants explained the primary role played by the undercover officer: “We’re not talking about someone sitting at the back of the meeting taking notes – he was in the thick of it…Mark Stone was involved in organising this for months – they [the police] could have stopped it at the start.”
It has also been revealed that several male undercover officers placed in protest groups developed long-term intimate relationships with female activists they had met. Some of these relationships lasted years and in at least one case resulted in the birth of a child. We also know that the police sometimes used the names and identities of dead infants to create aliases for undercover officers.
Given what has been revealed about the actions of undercover officers in activist groups, it is not difficult to imagine that police officers may have similarly penetrated and established themselves in British Muslim communities. So far, there is only one known instance of undercover officers infiltrating Muslim communities.
Case study: MunirFarooqi: For about ten years, MunirFarooqi ran a da’wa (propagation) stall in Manchester that aimed to spread the message of Islam to non-believers. He provided information about Islam, sold CDs, DVDs and books, and encouraged individuals to take the shahadah (the Islamic testimony of faith).
In 2008, two undercover police officers approached the stall and expressed an interest in Islam. Munir’s son, Harris, explained to CagePrisoners how the two men gained the trust of the Farooqi family:
“Over the space of a year, they befriended me. I looked up to them because they were more practising than myself. They would encourage me to pray, they would encourage me to attend lectures and to do all sorts of good deeds. I felt embarrassed that these people who had come newly to Islam were teaching me…They took shahada, they would go the mosque and pray five times a day. They deceived the local community. They grew their beard, they would wear Islamic clothing, they would speak like the Muslims…”
The Farooqis invited the reverts into their home to eat and pray. According to the family’s account, which this author was not able to corroborate, the two men began to bring up political issues like Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Harris recalled: “I remember once he [the officer] cried in front of me because of the suffering of the Ummah (the Muslim community). I just told him to be patient.” Eventually, the undercover officers began asking MunirFarooqi and others if they knew how to go abroad to fight against British and American soldiers. Harris told CagePrisoners that his father repeatedly told the two reverts that he was unable to advise them, but they pleaded with him to look into it and he eventually agreed. Little did the family know that hundreds of hours of conversations between Munir and the two reverts had been recorded, including the conversations about jihad. In September 2011, MunirFarooqi was convictedof preparing terrorist acts, soliciting to murder and disseminating terrorist literature. He was sentenced to four life sentences and will serve a minimum of nine years before being considered for parole.
The Farooqi case is the first known case in the UK in which undercover police were placed in a Muslim community for the purpose of facilitating a conviction. We know from the experiences of the left in Britain that the police and security services are willing to go to extreme lengths to gain the trust of members of suspect communities. Yet as Harris Farooqi remarked: “the fact that undercover officers pretended to be Muslim, that’s an insult to the Muslims. If an undercover officer had pretended to be a Christian, that would be an insult to Christianity.”
It is CagePrisoners’ view that it is absolutely unacceptable for officers to abuse the trust of the public they are supposed to serve, whether it is through engaging in sexual relationships or taking the shahada in front of a mosque congregation.
Recruting “grasses” through plea bargaining
The final way in which “grassing” has affected British Muslim communities is through plea bargains in the US. Nearly all criminal defendants in the US – about 97% of those indicted in federal courts and 94% of those who face charges in statecourts – choose to plead guilty rather than face a jury trial. As Justice Kennedy has noted, plea bargaining “is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system”. Moreover, “longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.” Defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes have a particularly strong incentive to plead guilty since they are likely to face systemic due process improprieties during trial and a harsh sentencing regime.
When individuals claim to have information about terrorist cells or networks, prosecutors in the US have an immense incentive to offer them an attractive plea bargain in order to ensure their compliance with ongoing investigations or testimony in upcoming trials. Such deals are as yet illegal in the UK but, as the case study below highlights, “grasses” recruited through the American plea bargaining system can still shape the outcome of prosecutions in the UK.
Case study: Muhammad Junaid Babar: In 2001, just nine days after 9/11, naturalised US citizen Junaid Babar left New York for Pakistan in anticipation of a US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Babar claims he was responsible for setting up a training camp in Pakistan in July 2003 to help prepare individuals who wanted to fight against American, British and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. Several British citizens attended the training camp, including the leader of the 7 July 2007 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, at which time he is purported to have learned how to make the bombs used in the London attacks. Babar also maintains that he supplied several British men with aluminium powder and attempted to purchase ammonium nitrate on their behalf, “with the knowledge that it was going to be used for a plot somewhere in the U.K.”
Several years after leaving New York for Pakistan, Babar returned home and was arrested by the FBI. He was induced to become a source and agreed to cooperate in exchange for a dramatically reduced sentence – five years instead of life. He pleaded guilty to several counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, as well as charges of providing material support.
Babar gained fame as a “supergrass” for his testimony in the prosecution of several British men for the fertiliser bomb plot, known as Operation Crevice. Five of the seven accused were convicted, but not without doubts about the veracity of Babar’s testimony. According to one BBC reporter, “under rigorous cross-examination cracks began to appear in his carefully prepared account.” Babar became uncertain about the details of a crucial meeting in Pakistan in which the group purportedly decided to attack targets on British soil. He also initially claimed that one of the defendants had given him a bag of detonators to take to the UK, but later seemed confused and unsure about how they were packaged.
Babar’s case provides an important insight into the potential benefits of recruiting “grasses” through plea bargaining in the USA, since they provide unparalleled access to the workings of terrorist cells.
The impact on British Muslims
“Grassing” has had a profoundly damaging impact on individual British citizens and their families
This paper outlines only a few instances of “grassing” in British Muslim communities but there may well be more. The reach and breadth of Prevent suggests that tens of thousands of Muslims have likely engaged in some kind of Prevent activity since its inception, sometimes unknowingly.What is clear is that “grassing” is profoundly damaging to the innocent individuals who are spied on or harassed by state officials. RizwaanSabir described how it felt when he was wrongfully imprisoned after being reported to the police by university staff:
“I was sitting in there, crying, thinking ‘Oh my God, am I ever going to get out of here?’ And the scariest thing was…I know they can keep you for 28 days, and a minute goes like an hour, and an hour goes like a day, and a day like a year, inside a [solitary] cell. It’s like if you put yourself in your bathroom, seal all the windows….and take in a blanket, and sleep there for 24 hours, then you’ll feel how it feels to be in a [solitary] cell…Day six was probably the hardest because not knowing how your life is going to pan out depending on a decision that somebody else takes when you know that you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong – it really is psychological torture.”
“Grassing” also causes immense stress and hardship for the families of those accused. The practice divides Muslim communities and breaks down relationships of trust. It also has a broader impact on Muslim communities: through Prevent and the use of covert informants the state gains the information it needs to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Muslims, largely on the basis of their political and theological beliefs.
Moreover, the pervasive belief amongst Muslims that “someone is watching” has generated a perpetual state of fear; this allows the police and security services to more easily co-opt sections of the Muslim community. Prevent would not be possible without the close assistance of Muslims. Similarly, the state’s reliance on covert/informal informants is necessarily dependent on cooperation from community and youth workers. CagePrisoners believes that this strategy of divide and conquer works first and foremost because people are afraid.
The use of informants and undercover police has also made many Muslims wary of embracing reverts/converts to the faith. Harris Farooqi described his struggle with this issue: “My own brother-in-law is a revert and I wondered if he was not an agent. Of course, I know that he is not, but the fact that it even came to my mind…They destroyed the trust within the Muslim community.” This is a particularly pernicious effect given Muslims’ religious duty to teach reverts about the faith, welcome them into their homes and assist them in establishing a new life in Islam.
“Grassing” makes British Muslims more fearful of openly practising their faith or expressing their political beliefs.
The way “grassing” operates within British Muslim communities arguably curtails the right of conscience and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 9) and the right of expression (Article 10). By marking particular religious beliefs as suspicious (e.g. definition and understanding of jihad), the state exerts pressure on Muslim communities to perform andexpress their religious duties and beliefs in particular ways.
Nor is it difficult to understand why the “grassing” regime might impinge on Muslims’ right to freely express their political beliefs. The Prevent policy explicitly states that aspiring to defend Muslim lands that are under attack is a potential marker of susceptibility to violence; it follows then that mosques, community groups and youth programmes are under pressure to curtail and shut down political discussions about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere. Moreover, the widespread belief that there are undercover agents within the community (whether police or community members who are acting as informants) means that many Muslims feel unsafe discussing their political beliefs unless with trusted family or friends. Some people suspect that the true purpose of the use of informants is to shut down political discourse in Muslim communities since they would otherwise serve as the primary pool of resistance against Britain’s foreign policy.
Grassing and Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy
CagePrisoners does not believe the police and security services current reliance on “grasses” to be beneficial to the fight against terrorism in the long run. If the state allows the police and security services to go to extreme lengths to infiltrate and spy on Muslim communities, for example by blackmailing youth workers or allowing undercover police to utter the holiest words in Islam, it cannot reasonably expect Muslims to continue to place trust in these institutions. Prevent similarly positions various state and non-state actors – such as doctors, university administrators and youth workers – as extensions of the security apparatus, and thus as individuals whom Muslims, especially young male Muslims, should fear.
Furthermore, policies like Prevent narrow the space that previously existed within Muslim communities to freely discuss and debate questions of Islamic law and practice that might better tackle radicalisation and terrorism. The individuals who committed 9/11 and 7/7 were motivated by their commitment to their faith. They believed that what they were doing was Islamically permissible and only a counter-argument rooted in Islam would have convinced them otherwise. The people who are purportedly at risk of becoming terrorists should be encouraged to engage with the thousands of years of Islamic scholarship that addresses the question of jihad and the killing of civilians. These conversations can only happen if the state respects the right of Muslim communities to autonomously contest the meanings of Islamic texts and scholarship, without fearing that particular interpretations will lead to referrals to the police, security services or Prevent authorities. As it now stands, the state is propping up particular theological positions as the “correct” ones, and the religious scholarship promoted by the state (e.g. individuals or institutions funded by Prevent) are not taken seriously. Britain’s counter-terrorism policy is simply encouraging the isolation and alienation of vulnerable Muslim community members by closing down the space for political and theological debate.
“Grassing” is not an isolated issue; rather the phenomenon goes to the core of British counter-terrorism policy.
Finally, we cannot fully understand the purpose or impact of “grassing” in isolation from Britain’s broader counter-terrorism strategy. As the case of Mahdi Hashi demonstrates, the pressure to inform is closely linked to many other facets of counter-terrorism policy, from Schedule 7, to citizenship deprivation, to rendition.
Moreover, the belief that guides “grassing” in its various forms – from Prevent, to the covert recruitment of informants and the use of undercover police – is that Muslims should be treated first and foremost as “Others” worthy of the distrust of the broader British community. As CagePrisoners stated in its response to the 2011 review, “Prevent is the first British strategy that targets the entire Muslim community. It is perceived by Muslims to be a form of collective targeting for the acts of a few, and most resent being made to pay for someone else’s crimes.” British Muslims should be treated as equal members of British society, not with immediate suspicion on the basis of their faith.
CagePrisoners has challenged the many problems that arise from government counter-terrorism policy. The organisation has produced submissions for government consultations, including a 2012 report on Schedule 7, and reviewed the effectiveness of current policy, most notably our 2011 response to the revised Prevent strategy. The organisation also produces timely reports in relation to the issue of “grassing”, often with unique first-hand accounts, including The Horn of Africa Inquisition: the latest profile in the War on Terror.
CagePrisoners has also hosted several events to address the issue of “grassing”, including a 2012 film and speaking tour entitled “The enemy within: state surveillance and infiltration in our communities”. More recently, CagePrisoners participated in “Harassment of the Muslim Community: Spying and Entrapment”.
CagePrisoners has also launched a new project entitled Schedule 7 Stories: Travelling While Muslims. In the future, the organisation hopes to provide “know your rights” lessons to Muslim communities about their rights under Schedule 7, as well as their right to resist state pressure to “grass” on fellow Muslims.
The UK needs broad-based opposition to the use of “grasses” and existing counter-terrorism policies from Muslim communities, communities of colour, and activist groups. “Grassing” violates our civil liberties. It breaks down the trust that long existed within our communities, friends and families. The very practice of “grassing” makes it harder for us to resist the government policies we oppose, from violent policing, to MI5 harassment, to climate Informants, spies and subversion change, to wars fought abroad. In short, “grassing” is far from merely a Muslim issue, although it undoubtedly has a grave effect on Muslim communities. Only by uniting across racial, religious and political lines will we be able to challenge the impact of “grassing” on the civil liberties and freedoms cherished by us all. This article was written in May 2013.
This article was also published in Statewatch journal vol 23 no 2
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)