Skip to main content

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 26 November 2014

I beg to move,

That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 24 November, be approved.

By way of context for tonight’s debate, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has raised the threat level for international terrorism from substantial to severe, as it assesses a terrorist attack on the United Kingdom to be highly likely. The House will be aware that the Home Secretary stated earlier this week that we believe that more than 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq, and that thousands from other European and western countries have joined them.

The threat from ISIL is clear—it is one of the most serious security challenges we face today—but it is not the only threat we face. The House will note that the groups listed in the order operate in Libya and Egypt, as well as in Syria. Currently, instability and violence in Libya has provided an environment for groups such as Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi to operate. Syria and Iraq have become a crucible of terror and violence in which groups such as Jaysh al-Khalifatu Islamiya, al-Nusrah Front and ISIL operate. Egypt has seen a significant increase in criminal activity and terrorist attacks on police and security forces by groups such as Ajnad Misr and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

We can never entirely eliminate the threat from terrorism, but we are determined to do all we can to minimise the threat from terrorism to the UK and our interests abroad. Additionally, it is important that we demonstrate our support for other members of the international community in their efforts to tackle terrorism wherever it occurs. Proscription is an important part of the Government’s strategy to tackle terrorist activities.

The three groups that we propose to add to the list of terrorist organisations, by amending schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000, are Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi, also known as the Partisans of Islamic Law; Ajnad Misr, also known as the Soldiers of Egypt; and Jaysh al-Khalifatu Islamiya, also known as the Army of the Islamic Caliphate.

How many months or years have those particular organisations been on the radar of the Government or the security services? We do not want to know the details of any private operations, but whether the organisations are new or have been around for a while.

It might help the right hon. Gentleman to know that I will go on to provide a brief summation of the three groups, which I think will answer his question.

Before I do so, I should explain that the effect of proscription is that a listed organisation is outlawed and is unable to operate in the UK. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, support or arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation, or to wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.

Given the wide-ranging impact of the power to proscribe, the Home Secretary exercises it only after thoroughly reviewing the available relevant information and evidence about an organisation. Having carefully considered all the evidence, she believes that the three groups listed in the order are all currently concerned in terrorism. Although I am unable to comment on specific intelligence, I can provide a brief summary of each group’s activities.

Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi is a Sunni Islamist militia group that takes an anti-western stance and advocates the implementation of strict sharia law. It has been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, frequent assassinations and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya. On 11 September 2012, its members took part in the attack against the US special mission and annexe in Benghazi, killing the US ambassador and three other Americans. AAS-B continues to pose a threat to Libya and western interests, and is alleged to have links to the proscribed organisations Ansar al-Sharia-Tunisia and al-Qaeda. The US designated AAS-B as a terrorist organisation in January 2014, and the UN listed it in November.

Ajnad Misr is a jihadi group based in Egypt. It is believed to be a splinter group of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which was proscribed by the House on 4 April. Ajnad Misr has stated that it seeks to protect Egyptian Muslims and avenge alleged abuse against them by Egyptian security services. It is believed to have been active since 20 November 2013, when it attacked an Egyptian checkpoint. The group announced its establishment on 23 January this year and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Egyptian security forces since 2013, including the attack in April at Cairo university, which resulted in the death of a policeman and injured three others, and the bomb attack near the Foreign Ministry in Cairo in September, which killed three police officers in September.

Jaysh al-Khalifatu Islamiya is an Islamist jihadist group that is active in Syria. JKI consists predominantly of Chechen fighters and is an opposition group. It has assisted the al-Nusra front and ISIL in conducting attacks. In February 2014, Abdul Waheed Majeed, a British individual who was linked to the group, carried out a suicide attack on a prison in Aleppo, resulting in prisoner escapes.

In conclusion, we believe that it is right that we add AAS-B, Ajnad Misr and JKI to the list of proscribed organisations in schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000.

I thank the Minister for that very clear account of the three organisations. He has provided the House with a great deal of information. Will he tell the House how many associates of the three organisations are operating in the United Kingdom?

I am afraid that I cannot comment on matters that may relate to intelligence. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we always seek to present as much information as we can about groups that we are seeking to proscribe. The Home Secretary weighs various pieces of intelligence and open-source material in determining whether a group is engaged in terrorism. All I can say to him is that we have considered the tests clearly and believe that they are met in terms of whether the groups threaten our interests overseas or our national security.

With that summation, I hope that the House will agree that the order should be approved. If it is, it will come into force on Friday 28 November.

I thank the Minister for his statement. There is a long tradition of cross-party co-operation on issues of national security and the Opposition will, of course, support the Government motion this evening.

Under section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a group can be proscribed if the Home Secretary is persuaded that it:

“(a) commits or participates in acts of terrorism,

(b) prepares for terrorism,

(c) promotes or encourages terrorism, or

(d) is otherwise concerned in terrorism.”

It is a largely judicial role in that the Home Secretary has to assess whether the evidence before her meets the test. The Opposition do not have access to that evidence, of course, but on the basis of the statement that has been made by the Minister and the Home Secretary’s letter to my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, we will support the Government tonight.

I thank the Government for the letter to my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. May I say how pleased we were to receive that letter before the newspapers were briefed? I am sure that the Minister will recall that the last time we discussed a proscription order, he had to apologise to the House for the contents of the order being given to The Sun newspaper before they were given to the House. Is he able to report back on the investigation that he said would happen to find out how that had occurred?

Moving back to the order before us, we accept that proscription is an important tool to use against terrorism. It enables us to tackle and disrupt terror groups in co-operating around the world. Of course, that makes proscription a serious matter. Proscription makes it illegal to belong to or support in any way a listed organisation. It is a draconian measure, so we should use it only when we know that it is appropriate. The evidence that we heard tonight suggests that the measure is appropriate because all three groups have been involved in terrorism of the highest seriousness, including some directed at our citizens and allies.

The groups that we are discussing are active from Chechnya to Libya and include groups that operate in Syria, Egypt and Libya. They demonstrate the enormous challenge that is posed by the fallout from the Arab spring across the middle east and north Africa. I will start with Syria, where we know a number of organisations that pose security concerns are operating. We support the proscription of JKI, which is an Islamist jihadist group that consists predominantly of Chechen fighters who appear to be part of a web of interrelated organisations. The most prominent of those is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but there is also the al-Nusra front—both of those have been proscribed recently—and Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal Ansar.

To emphasise the challenge of separating out these groups, JKI was until recently known as the Majahideen of the Caucasus and the Levant or MCL. JKI has been linked to a number of attacks, including—as the Minister pointed out—a suicide attack in Aleppo by a British national, Abdul Waheed Majeed. In Egypt, we have the Soldiers of Egypt, another jihadi group and again a splinter group of a known terror group, in this case Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, one of the most high-profile terror groups in Egypt. Again, this is a group that was proscribed in the UK this year. This group is also linked to ISIL and shows dramatically the size of ISIL’s sphere of influence that we are trying to combat. Although Soldiers of Egypt is believed to be just a year old, it has already been linked with a series of attacks targeting Cairo airport, border operations, police stations and Cairo university.

Finally, in Libya another Sunni group, Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi or AAS-B—also known as Partisans of Islamic Law—seeks to use violence to achieve the aim of strict implementation of sharia law in post-Gaddafi Libya. The group is led by Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, and Ahmed Abu Khattalah is another senior leader. As the Minister explained, since the fall of Gaddafi the AAS-B has been linked with numerous terror attacks against civilian targets, and frequent assassinations and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya. Many of these have resulted in the loss of innocent lives, including the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in September 2012, which led to the death of the US ambassador and three of his colleagues.

While we support the Government’s motion tonight, I want to raise two other issues with the Minister that arise out of yesterday’s Intelligence and Security Committee report on the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. The first is about social media. This is an issue I have raised in debates on previous proscription orders. Yesterday, we learnt that messages had been shared on the internet by Michael Adebowale which, because of their content, were picked up and the accounts were closed by the internet companies. But no follow-up action was taken and no referrals made. That raises serious questions about social media companies and the Home Office’s counter terrorism internet referral unit, which clearly is not receiving all the referrals it should be. Will the Minister review the working of this unit in the light of yesterday’s report and see what more can be done? We know that all the groups we are discussing tonight have had a significant online presence, including on Facebook and Twitter. Those companies may operate across the world, but they generate significant revenue in the UK and we need to make it clear that we expect them to do more than they are doing at the moment.

My hon. Friend is a serial attender of these proscription order debates and she will know that we have raised on several occasions the position of Hizb ut-Tahrir. In 2009, the now Prime Minister said that he wanted that organisation banned. It has still not been banned. Does she share my concern that no progress has been made on that?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and he is right that I am—like him—a serial attender of these debates. The issue of Hizb ut-Tahrir has been raised at every proscription order debate in which I have been involved and we have asked the Minister what progress has been made on the promise by the then Leader of the Opposition that he would ban it when he became Prime Minister. It is now several years since the Prime Minister made that promise. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister if any progress has been made on that point.

May I take this opportunity to wish the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee a happy birthday? I understand that it is my right hon. Friend’s birthday today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Finally, I would like to turn to the issue of prosecutions of members, supporters and facilitators of proscribed organisations. The Intelligence and Security Committee report published yesterday highlighted the low number of prosecutions and the difficulties the police face in obtaining prosecutions in this area. What do the Government intend to do to address this problem? In particular, does the Minister think that the way of defining terror for the purpose of proscription is sufficient to allow a terror group to be clearly identified? All three of the groups we have discussed today have had a series of associate groups; in most cases, groups that have been proscribed this year or in previous years. Those groups are often difficult to separate out. Will the Minister comment on the degree to which the way in which we define groups gives sufficient clarity to enable us to link an individual with a specific proscribed group? What more does he think we can do to ensure more prosecutions, where appropriate, in these types of cases where organisations have been proscribed?

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can think of no better way to celebrate my birthday than to discuss the proscription of three organisations in Libya, Syria and Egypt. I am therefore delighted that the Minister has brought this order before the House this evening. I promise not to detain the House for too long.

We of course accept it, as we have always done, when Ministers come to Parliament and say from the Dispatch Box that they have important and sensitive information concerning groups that are operating in this country and abroad, and want to use powers to proscribe them. The Minister for Security and Immigration put his case very eloquently as he always does. He is the classic safe pair of hands: when he stands at the Dispatch Box and tells us that he has information he believes is sufficient to allow the Home Secretary to sign off an order proscribing an organisation, I, for one, fully support what he and the Government are doing—as do those on the Opposition Front Bench. I want to raise a number of points, which I hope he will have the opportunity to address.

The first point relates, of course, to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group we have discussed every time a proscription order has been brought before the House. The Prime Minister made a very important statement on the group when he was Leader of the Opposition. I was in the House at the time and heard what he had to say. He was very firm that this was a terrorist organisation and that it ought to be banned. Five years later, Hizb ut-Tahrir still has not been banned. I think it has been involved in the same kinds of activities as a number of groups mentioned by the Minister in the House today and on previous occasions. It would therefore be good when he replies to hear an update on progress on whether that organisation, which the Prime Minister has rightly turned his face against, is any closer to being proscribed.

In previous debates I have always asked whether the Governments of the countries concerned have been consulted about the three groups the Minister has mentioned today, or whether they have any particular information. I appreciate that it is difficult to do this in the case of Syria, Libya and Egypt at the present time. I am not sure what our relations with Egypt are at the moment, but certainly in respect of the other two countries it may be difficult to get a particular view. However, if the Minister has one, it would be helpful to the House to hear it. If he has consulted those Governments, it would be helpful to hear what they had to say. My concern is that the attack in Benghazi, which he mentioned a few moments ago, occurred in 2012. The American embassy was ransacked, burned to the ground and the ambassador was killed. Will he tell the House whether the organisation responsible has already been proscribed in the United States of America, and whether it has been proscribed in any other European country? Once we pass the order, it would be helpful to know whether, as a result of what we have done—

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether any other state had taken action against Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi. It was designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States in January and by the UN this month.

That is extremely helpful. I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. When he winds up, will he remind us of the process regarding other EU countries? Once we have taken a decision, does he tell EU colleagues of it, will it automatically be extended to other countries or does it have to go through other Parliaments? I assume that the United States and the UN have also proscribed the other two organisations, in Syria and Egypt, and that we will be urging our European colleagues to do the same.

The final point I want to make concerns de-proscription. I am not suggesting for one moment that, having agreed to proscribe these organisations, we would want to de-proscribe any of them, but I have raised several times, as has the Home Affairs Committee, our concern about the de-proscription process. I have mentioned before the concerns of my constituents regarding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which no longer exists but is a proscribed organisation. Some of my Tamil constituents feel they are put at a disadvantage because the ban on the LTTE remains, even though it no longer exists. Has there been any progress on de-proscription, other than the only method we think exists to get an organisation de-proscribed, which is to take the Government to court? The People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran did that a few years ago, and the last Labour Government were obliged to de-proscribe it.

Aside from asking for those clarifications, I fully support what the Minister has said. He is doing absolutely the right thing, and I am glad he has come here with so much information to share with the House.

I will not detain the House for long.

I wish to add my support to the order and to the comments of my hon. Friends, but I have a few questions for the Minister. First, following on from the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) about the identification and definition of organisations, the Minister will be aware of my concern—we have discussed this matter before—that such organisations frequently rebrand themselves with similar names. Will he assure us of the process for keeping that under continual review? Some of these organisations are clearly trying to subvert the process of their proscription.

My second, related point concerns the issue of identifying supporters, particularly the wearing of clothing, the distribution of materials, the use of flags and so on. Several organisations are attempting to subvert proscription through slight alterations in those materials. How robust are the measures to ensure that people are not attempting to evade the system of proscription?

Thirdly, I have a specific concern relating to the Libyan organisation. The Minister might not be aware, but constituents of mine had to flee Benghazi earlier this year to escape the activities of the organisation mentioned and allied organisations. It is my understanding that, sadly, several British citizens remain trapped in Benghazi, for a number of reasons, and I would like his assurance that he will do everything in his power, working with colleagues in the Foreign Office, to make a clear assessment of any British citizens remaining in Benghazi and to help those attempting to escape the heinous and barbarous actions of the group being proscribed and its allied organisations, which are causing so much fear and destruction in eastern Libya.

I thank those who have contributed to this debate for supporting the Government’s proscription of the three organisations listed in the order. We take our responsibilities seriously when considering each group and coming to the House to seek an order in this way. I am grateful for the comments that have been made and add my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), whom I hope will celebrate his birthday after the debate has concluded. I am sure we all wish him well on this special occasion.

A number of questions were asked. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked whether we could review the definition of terrorism. As part of the review of counter-terrorism powers that we carried out at the start of this Government in 2010, we looked at that but concluded that it would be disproportionate to broaden the definition. Ultimately, pursuing a prosecution comes down to evidence and is not necessarily based on redefining terrorism. The issue has been examined. We are considering the issue of extremism more generally and what further action might be taken against organisations that might not cross the threshold for proscription. We will return with further proposals on extremism, and the Home Secretary has highlighted her intention to lead on such a strategy, drawing across government, that could include taking action against groups—and on extremism in our society more generally—that fall below the threshold of terrorism.

The hon. Lady highlighted the work of the counter terrorism internet referral unit, which I believe has been extremely effective since commencing its work back in 2010. Since that time, some 65,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist-related content have been removed as a consequence of its actions. There is more to be done, however, and the role and responsibilities of social media companies are key here, as the Prime Minister said in his response to the Woolwich report yesterday. We absolutely encourage the public and civil society organisations to refer terrorist and extremist content at scale to social media companies and internet service providers—in some ways amplifying the work of the CTIRU. It has good relations with a number of these companies, some of which have been responsive in dealing with a number of its requests. It comes down to actions taken, knowledge possessed and responsibilities better to share information with the agencies charged with protecting our national security. We want appropriate action taken to interdict, to intercede and to ensure that terrorist attacks do not occur.

I note that the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, who has responsibility for the creative industries, is in his place on the Front Bench. He is rightly held in high regard by those in the creative industries, including by some of the companies that have been mentioned. The issue is this: are we moving from a voluntary arrangement with internet companies and companies such as Facebook to a more compulsory approach? The voluntary arrangement has not worked, so does the Minister think we should be doing more by way of compulsion to make sure that such companies act in this way?

I do not necessarily want to expand this proscription debate into a broader debate about terrorism. However, there is legislation in place, and when we debate the security measures in the Bill published today, we will find that it deals with the resolution of internet protocol addresses issue, and with the question of the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act 2000. David Anderson, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, is carrying out an ongoing examination, in the round, of a number of these matters.

There is more that the industry can do in the short term, such as looking at its terms and conditions of service and ensuring that they are properly upheld. Yes, there are legal issues that will continue to challenge, and more needs to be done in that sphere, as the Home Secretary said. Equally, there is work on which the industry itself can continue to focus.

Both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady raised the issue of Hizb ut-Tahrir. It is not a proscribed organisation—as the House will know, proscription can be considered only when the Home Secretary believes an organisation to be concerned in terrorism, as defined by the Terrorism Act 2000—but it is one about which we have significant concerns, and we will continue to monitor its activities very closely.

That brings me back to the broader issue of extremism, and why it is right that we continue to challenge ourselves in respect of what more can be done about it more generally. We must continue to take on board the points that have been made about social media. The extremism taskforce, which involves Ministers throughout the Government, is working to ensure that we seek to confront extremism in all its forms.

As for enforceability, I have already referred to the need for evidence and investigation, as did the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Between 2001 and 2014, 33 people were charged with proscription-related offences. The Terrorism Act covers a broad range of offences, and different offences may well be adopted on the basis of the evidence that is presented. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service continue to examine these issues carefully.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Leicester East raised the issue of name changes, which we keep under close review. When aliases are used for the same organisation, we can impose name change orders, and have done so on a number of occasions. The procedure involves a negative rather than affirmative resolution, which means that we can potentially act more quickly. If there is evidence that the name used by an organisation is a sham or a front, and the original organisation is extant and still operating, the police and the CPS will continue to be able to pursue the matter.

The change that we make tonight will have an impact on other EU member states and on international bodies. We do consult member states that have a direct interest in the relevant groups. We will inform them if parliamentary agreement is secured in this House and in the other place, and we will consider whether to pursue EU listings of the groups concerned. Obviously, those are separate processes. I take the point made by the right hon. Gentleman: we must consider the evidence properly, rather than automatically taking on board what other states may say. We will consult when that is appropriate, but I think it right for us to make our decisions in the House of Commons.

Our advice, and the clear advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is that British nationals should leave Libya by whatever commercial means are available. Our ability to provide direct support is limited because of the closure of the British embassy in Tripoli, but I know that my colleagues in the Foreign Office are very conscious of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and that they keep them under close review.

I hope that the House will be minded to support the order.

Question put and agreed to.