"Terror, security and the media"

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The following excellent "Observer Special Report" was put online this week. It describes how UK security and intelligence agencies brief journalists whose stories are then used against "suspected" terrorists - especially the nine people being held indefinitely in the high security Belmarsh prison under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Writing in the Observer on 21 July Nick Cohen wrote that sources cited as "Whitehall" and "security" sources were often the unofficial press officers of MI5 (internal security) and MI6 (overseas intelligence agency). He went on to say:

"The PRs have set up a wonderfully self-justifying system. They talk to journalists on condition of anonymity.... MI5 then uses the reports of its own briefings as independent corroboration of the need for internment"

Terror, security and the media by Martin Bright

The Observer's Home Affairs editor Martin Bright gave evidence last week to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission case of the nine men who have been detained without trail for over seven months. Asked to assess the media reports of the terrorist threat, on which the Secretary of State's case relies, his evidence casts light on the rarely discussed topic of how the security services seek to influence the media. Observer Liberty Watch campaign

Sunday July 21, 2002


I have taken a close interest in Islamist community in Britain for several years in my professional capacity as Home Affairs Editor of the Observer. I have also studied the rise of political Islam in north Africa as a graduate student at the School of Oriental Studies at London University. By Islamist, I mean individuals who believe that political action should be guided by the Muslim faith and who are often in opposition to the regimes of their home countries. Islamism is an extremely diverse movement in which I would include militant extremists such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation as well as groups and individuals who wish for peaceful, democratic reform and would condemn terrorism in all its forms. There are Islamist opposition groups in all parts of the Arab and Muslim world, many of which are persecuted by the ruling government. Many Islamists therefore flee to Western countries as refugees.

Precisely because of this diversity and a general ignorance about Islam in the West, it has been all too easy for the police and security services to lump together genuine political dissidents and, in some cases, merely ordinary Muslims with individuals most people would regard as terrorists. Since the events of September 11, this confusion has increased as Western security agencies have become more dependent on intelligence from countries within the Arab and wider Muslim world, who have used the occasion to target dissident members of their domestic Islamist movements who have found refuge in the West.

I would not claim any special expertise in Islamic theology or modern political movements in the Islamic world, although, as a student of Islamic history, I probably have a greater knowledge than most reporters who write on the subject. I have also interviewed most of the high-profile Islamists based in Britain. I conducted a lengthy interview with Saudi dissident Khalid al-Fawwaz shortly before he was arrested in 1998 in connection with the African embassy bombings, I was the first British journalist to interview Abu Qatada, the Palestinian/Jordanian scholar who has been linked to several terrorist suspects across Europe since September 11 and I was the first British journalist to interview Abu Hamza, the controversial imam at Finsbury Park mosque in north London.

I have also written several articles opposing the new terrorist legislation introduced by the Labour government. I believe that terrorism is a crime that should be punished severely by the courts, but I do not believe that people should be persecuted for their beliefs<

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