[Note (26 February 2022): I had originally taken this post down partly on the basis of poor advice. I have decided to republish it for archival purposes]:
Readers may have noticed a sudden halt in my public writings as of 9 December. The reason for this halt has been the seizure of my work laptop and mobile phone by the UK counter-terrorism (CT) police. As a media guy/researcher working on sensitive topics as regards security and terrorism (primarily Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State), I have been used to questioning by security services about my work and travel in various places. The treatment by the UK CT police, however, is by far the worst I have ever received.
The troubles began on 10 December at Gatwick airport as I intended to board a flight to Costa Rica. I was going to spend three days there before heading to Mexico on 13 December, spending time with a close friend of mine who lives in Mexico City and works there as a journalist. I planned then to return to the UK (where I am currently doing a PhD on the use of historical narratives in Islamic State propaganda, begun in September/October 2019) by 9/10 January 2020.
Part of the reason I wanted to travel first to Costa Rica was that I was aware of potential problems for those who had faced the revocation of their ESTAs (electronic travel authorisation to travel to the U.S. without a visa) trying to travel to places via flights crossing American airspace. My ESTA had been revoked in 2015, and I was not alone in facing this problem (it has also been experienced by other journalists and researchers). The important point though is that the U.S. requires airlines to submit details of passengers on flights crossing American airspace and can effectively compel airlines to deny boarding to passengers who are deemed a security threat of some kind. In effect, there are two possible outcomes:
(i) Those who are on an absolute U.S. 'no-fly' list will be denied boarding at the check-in counter for any flight crossing U.S. airspace.
(ii) Those not on the 'no-fly' list but are on some kind of U.S. security watch-list will not be denied boarding, but will face some 'additional screening' at the gate by request of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
As it turns out, the flight to Costa Rica from the UK does cross U.S. airspace. At the check-in desk, I was not denied boarding (ergo I am not on the absolute 'no-fly' list) but I was issued a boarding pass. I was told though I would face 'additional screening' at the gate.
And that was when the troubles started. As the boarding commenced, I was approached by two UK CT police officers, one of whom asked rather aggressively about my upcoming travel plans and whether I knew who they were and why they were present. I made clear my intentions to go to Costa Rica and Mexico as I wanted to do some travel in the North America region, but then one of them said- as though intending to trip me up: 'But you don't have a visa to North America'. Supposedly on account of my demeanour, he said he would be detaining me under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. In reality though, it is evident the detention was not because of my demeanour but because of the referral of DHS, and an attempt to prove to DHS that a thorough job is being done to screen terrorist suspects.
For those unfamiliar, Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 can allow officers working at airports and ports to detain an individual for up to six hours, without the need for prior suspicion or authority, in order for said 'examining' officers (i.e. those who question the individual) to determine if the individual is 'concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism'. This detention does not officially constitute a criminal investigation or an arrest on suspicion of having committed an offence.
Therefore, the individual has no right to remain silent and must answer all questions from the examining officers. Further, the individual must surrender to the examining officers any information on request, including passwords to electronic devices. If fingerprints and DNA samples are requested, then the individual can sign a form of 'consent', but even if the individual does not consent, they can still be taken at a police station with the authorisation of a superintendent.
My fingerprints, DNA samples and photos were taken. Further, I was required to surrender the passwords to my laptop and mobile phone. I was then held for the full six hours and questioned over three sessions, with break intervals during which times the examining officers would absorb what I had told them, while other officers would watch over me and engage in general chats (topics included Germanic languages- considering the Gothic and Old English books they found in my luggage- and the Nintendo 64).
Their questions primarily covered my travels and work, and I did not conceal information about my travels to areas of security interest (e.g. Syria and Iraq) and the purposes and precise dates of those travels. I also outlined my research interests and activities (e.g. the collections of internal Islamic State documents), and that I had interviewed online some Islamic State supporters/people who had been associated with the group. For example, see interviews I conducted with Jaysh al-Islam in Gaza (a group I kept a tab on and maintained a rapport with until recently, as I also did with its pro-al-Qa'ida rival Jaysh al-Ummah) and the differing 'moderate' and 'extremist' trends that emerged in the Islamic State and subsequently defected from it. I made clear though my objections to meeting Islamic State members face-to-face. Besides the fact Islamic State members would probably kill me on grounds of 'apostasy' and serving the interests of 'kufr' ('disbelief'), I generally object to interviewing alleged/actual Islamic State members held in local prisons in Iraq and Syria on the grounds that we cannot be certain as to whether they are speaking under duress, because torture and abuse are rampant. Others may disagree with my assessment, but it is my own and I have stuck to it.
By the end of the detention, it appeared to me that the examining officers were satisfied that I was in fact a researcher (they also had my student card as proof of my status at my university). During one of the questioning sessions, one of them had described me as a 'geek' whose life was focused around my research (not an inaccurate description) while the other thought of me as a very 'interesting' person who could potentially help out the security services and said after the end of the session as he took me to the British Airways counter that he would pass on my details. I myself felt reasonably content too. The turning point for the worse, when I became very dejected, was when they said that they would be retaining my laptop, mobile and an Islamic State book I was using for my research (even though I made clear to them the title and gave an accurate summary of the contents). The rest of my property was returned.
To be clear, the retention of property for 'examination' by examining officers is allowed under paragraph 11 (2) of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This retention can be for up to seven days, after which the items should be returned unless the examining officers think the items need to be used for 'criminal proceedings' or in connection with a deportation order, under which circumstances they can be detained 'for as long as is necessary.' One of the officers, whose warrant number appears on the property receipt I was handed, justified the retention partly on the grounds that because they did not know Arabic, they would need someone e.g. to translate the book and independently corroborate what I had said about it. The property receipt also included a number to call so I could check for updates, and one of the officers assured me if they had any further questions on the items they would contact me, such as by visit or phone call.
Since that time, things have only become more depressing with a clear lack of transparency. I was told in a Thursday phone call by the same officer who justified the initial retention that part of the reason for retaining my items was that they could be criticized for not doing a thorough job. The same officer then emailed me the next day with the following explanation of the situation:
"It would appear that those currently dealing with your seized items (the mobile phone, laptop and booklet) will be in a position to make some kind of decision by then end of Monday (16/12/2019). This is likely to result in:
1) The items being returned to you via courier with no further action being considered; or
2) The items being retained for an extended period of time as part of an investigation.
Regrettably, I am unable to tell you more as I am not directly involved in the examination of your items nor am I aware of what items may be of interest or concern to investigators. Should the second scenario rear its head then it is likely that arrangements will need to be made for you to be spoken to again.
I will not be in next week as I have annual leave. My sergeant...will first be in on an early turn 0700-1600hrs on Wednesday (18/12/2019) – she would certainly be able to update you in my absence. Alternatively, feel free to call our office on the number you called yesterday quoting ref. DLRT 11548 and somebody should be able to update you or at least get back to you with the information you need.
Thank you for your ongoing understanding and my apologies for any inconvenience you are suffering."
This explanation though is odd. Firstly, as the Schedule 7 provisions make clear, the decision on retention and returning items is the decision of the examining officers (i.e. those who conduct the interviews). The retention of my property had also been justified on the grounds that the decision had come from superiors, but again this claim makes no sense.
In a call to the Gatwick office on Monday, I was told that I would be emailed with news of the decision by the 'end' of the day (no specific time was given). Monday passed and I heard nothing. I then called in on Tuesday, and was told by the office they had no information on my case. It is now nearing the end of Wednesday. The seven day period has passed and in phone calls today I was told that my items had been referred to a team involving a police inspector and I would be contacted by email by the end of the day. Then in a subsequent call I was told to stop contacting the Gatwick CT police office as the matter was now out of its hands, and thus the office had no update on whether my items would be returned.
I am extremely upset at this lack of transparency and proceedings of dubious legality. Events that have transpired have also made me view the initial detention in a different light. I was asked rather ludicrously, for example, whether I had been travelling in Bosnia as part some kind of 'religious deepening' (by which he obviously meant 'radicalization'). Further, the insistence on surrendering passwords for electronic devices (refusal of which can be prosecuted as an offence) constitutes a gross violation of privacy and is a grave danger to research, especially for journalists and researchers who maintain relations and rapports (highly sensitive issues indeed) with sources and contacts that may not be obvious in nature to the intrusive outsider.
If the police is going to intrude on everything on my laptop and mobile phone, then I need a frank and open explanation of what is of interest and what merits discussion. Is it the extensive collection of internal Islamic State documents and files stored on the laptop and mobile phone? Is it the existence of the wide variety of publications from the different armed groups and factions I have downloaded on the laptop in particular, the saving and retention of which for research and analysis has become all the more necessary in light of the tendency for rapid deletion on social media? Is it my contacts with people from all sides of the conflict in Syria? The subscription to jihadist 'Whatsapp' groups? The arrangements and recompense of some local contacts for coordinating some interviews and obtaining some exclusive media material and documents? Is it all of these?
If they desire further investigation, then I am open to being arrested right now or summoned for interview. Discussion of the issues is the best way to resolve it. The least they could do though is be open with me about concerns and procedures. Right now, having to wait around every day for news and being given inaccurate or false assurances about when I will be contacted (as well as not receiving responses to email inquiries) have been extremely distressing for me and my family. My personal and professional life has been disrupted, unable to conduct research or relevant academic study and at risk of being overdue on assignments I agreed to take on. The police has shown no empathy in this regard.
Unfortunately, UK CT policies in recent times have become far too heavy-handed and misguided in a number of ways, including:
(i) The unnecessary row the UK government stirred with the site Jihadology over its providing an open repository for researchers and the public to view primary jihadist materials.
(ii) Reluctance to take responsibility for its citizens who joined the Islamic State, instead preferring them to remain in camps maintained by an under-resourced Syrian Democratic Forces that also has other serious problems on its hands, such as its ongoing conflict with Turkey and the Syrian rebels. I see no reason why the Syrian Democratic Forces or other actors in Syria and Iraq should have to deal with the foreigners (unless they truly want to do so).
(iii) Linked to (ii), stripping UK citizens of foreign descent (even if they were born and raised in the UK and have no dual nationality or real connection to the country of origin of their parents) of their British citizenship, partly as a means to avoid taking responsibility for them. This policy has an element of racism to it, effectively privileging white British citizens.
(iv) The manner in which 'terrorism financing' judgements are applied.
Ideally I would like to help and advise the UK security services in its efforts (beginning with the need to keep a tab on journalists and researchers so they do not face unnecessary scrutiny), but this treatment to which I have been subjected makes any cooperation difficult.
-------------------------Note: As with other writings on my site and elsewhere, this post represents my thoughts alone and not those of any institution.