Motion to Approve
My Lords, it may be useful if I give the House some background to this order. The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre—JTAC—has raised the threat level for international terrorism from “Substantial” to “Severe”, as it assesses that a terrorist attack on the United Kingdom is highly likely. The House will be aware that earlier this week the Home Secretary stated that we believe that more than 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq and 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. However, it is not the only threat we face, and your Lordships will know that the groups before your Lordships today operate in Libya and Egypt as well as in Syria.
In Libya, violence and instability have provided an environment for groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia–Benghazi to operate. Syria and Iraq have become the crucible of terror and violence in which groups such as Jaysh al Khalifatu Islamiya, al-Nusra 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 that 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 named in the order are: first, Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi, or AAS-B, also known as Partisans of Islamic Law; secondly, Ajnad Misr, also known as Soldiers of Egypt; and, thirdly, Jaysh al Khalifatu Islamiya, or JKI, also known as Army of the Islamic Caliphate. We propose to add these groups to the list of international terrorist organisations, amending Schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the 16th proscription order under that Act. As noble Lords will appreciate, I am unable to comment on specific intelligence. However, I can provide a brief summary of each group’s activities in turn.
Ansar al-Sharia-Benghazi, or AAS-B, is a Sunni Islamist militia group that has an anti-Western stance and advocates the implementation of strict Sharia law. AAS-B is 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, members of AAS-B took part in the attack against the US special mission and annex 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 organisation Ansar al-Sharia-Tunisia and al-Qaeda. The US designated AAS-B as a terrorist organisation in January 2014 and the UN listed the group on 19 November.
Ajnad Misr is a jihadist group based in Egypt. The group is believed to be a splinter group of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or ABM, which was proscribed on 4 April. Ajnad Misr has stated that it seeks to protect Egyptian Muslims and avenge alleged abuse against them by the Egyptian security services. Ajnad Misr is believed to have been active since 20 November 2013, when it attacked an Egyptian checkpoint. The group announced its establishment on 23 January 2014 and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on the Egyptian security forces since 2013, including the attack in April at Cairo University that resulted in the death of a policeman and injured three others, and the bomb attack near the foreign ministry in Cairo that killed three police officers in September. The Egyptian authorities banned Ajnad Misr in May 2014.
Jaysh al Khalifatu Islamiya, or JKI, is an Islamist jihadist group active in Syria. The group consists predominately of Chechen fighters. JKI has assisted al-Nusra Front and ISIL in conducting attacks. In February 2014 Abdul Waheed Majeed, a British individual linked to the group, carried out a suicide attack on a prison in Aleppo, resulting in prisoner escapes.
Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000 provides a power for the Home Secretary to proscribe an organisation if she believes that it is currently concerned in terrorism. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary may exercise her discretion to proscribe the organisation. In considering whether to exercise this discretion, the Home Secretary takes a number of factors into account. These are: the nature and scale of an organisation’s activities; the specific threat that it poses to the United Kingdom and to British nationals overseas; the organisation’s presence in the United Kingdom; and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism.
Proscription, in effect, outlaws a listed organisation and makes it unable to operate in the UK. Belonging to, inviting support for or arranging a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation is a criminal offence, as is wearing clothing or carrying articles in public that arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Proscription can also support other disruptive activity, such as the use of immigration powers, including exclusion, prosecutions for other offences, messaging to deter fundraising and recruitment and EU asset freezes. Additionally, any assets of a proscribed group are liable to seizure as terrorist assets.
The Home Secretary exercises her power to proscribe only after a thorough review of the available relevant information and evidence on the organisation. This includes open source material, intelligence material and advice that reflects consultation across government, including with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The cross–Whitehall proscription review group supports the Home Secretary in her decision-making process. The Home Secretary’s decision to proscribe is taken only after great care and consideration of the particular case and it is appropriate that it must be approved by both Houses.
Having carefully considered all the evidence, the Home Secretary believes that AAS-B, Ajnad Misr and JKI are currently concerned in terrorism and that it is appropriate to exercise her discretion to proscribe them.
My Lords, I support this order. I have a couple of questions, on the basis that this at least was familiar terrain to me at an earlier stage. I thank the Minister for his detailed and helpful description of the purpose.
As the three organisations were being described, it was clear that there had been a considerable period in which there had been a review of their activities and a review against the standards that the Home Secretary applies in making the judgment and then seeking the view of the cross-Whitehall group. In one case—I think it was that of AAS-B—this discussion follows fairly closely on a decision that has been taken by the United Nations. In the case of the other groups, the issues seem to have been discussed in international fora relatively earlier.
My anxiety—it is no more than that—about which I am seeking clarification is whether it is not possible for the UK Government to move relatively faster when threats from these kinds of groups materialise. I recognise and respect the concept of thoroughness, and most certainly it should never be done in a way that does not take full account of all the facts. However, it may be that the reality is that a number of these groups have been operating in a hostile way for rather longer than we should tolerate, and in those circumstances there may be an argument for a methodology that gives more pace to what is required for the security of our country.
I ask that not because I want anyone to abandon thoroughness or the Home Secretary to take precipitate decisions that do not make sense—I would not advocate that—but I want to make sure that at the very earliest moment the calibration of threat shows that the people of this country, and those with whom we also have interests through our alliances and through other routes, are protected. Is there a view that the process could be faster? I hope that that is a simple point, which I make in support of the order being sought.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purpose of, and need for, this order, which we support. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for his letter to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, setting out the reasons for the order.
As the Opposition, we are obviously limited in the response we can make, since we do not have access to the intelligence that presumably has led the Home Secretary to go down the road that she wishes to take. The Explanatory Memorandum sets out some information about the three organisations that are covered by this order and will be proscribed under Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They are considered to be organisations that commit or participate in acts of terrorism, prepare for, promote or encourage terrorism, or are otherwise concerned in terrorism. The Terrorism Act 2006 also included in the grounds for proscription organisations that unlawfully glorify the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.
These organisations appear to have been involved in activities justifying proscription for a little while, the point made by my noble friend Lord Triesman. One was involved, as the Minister said, in an attack that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans in Libya more than two years ago. Why has the Home Secretary decided to lay the order now, rather than at an earlier date?
The report earlier this week from the Intelligence and Security Committee referred to difficulties expressed by the Metropolitan Police in prosecuting charges for membership of a proscribed organisation, and it appears that there have been very few such successful prosecutions. Why is this the case? Presumably, an order such as the one that we are discussing comes about because there is hard evidence of the terrorist-related activities and aims of these organisations, and evidence that there are people who are active in these organisations. Why is it, then, that once an organisation has been proscribed, the evidence that must surely have been accumulated to justify the proscription order in the first place is not then used as the basis for making the case to prosecute successfully at least some of those presumably involved in those organisations? It would be helpful if the Minister could say why successful prosecutions appear to be the case very infrequently. Can he also provide, now or subsequently, information on the number of people who have been, first, prosecuted and, secondly, successfully prosecuted under each of the 15 orders that have previously been laid under the terms of the Terrorism Act 2000 for supporting, belonging to, inviting support for or arranging a meeting to support a proscribed organisation? The point of these questions is simply to try to establish exactly what, and how much, these orders are achieving in reality.
There is also provision under the Terrorism Act 2000 for the Secretary of State to remove an organisation from the list of proscribed organisations. How often has this happened, and in respect of which organisations? If no one has been prosecuted for membership of a particular proscribed organisation, either at all or within the past few years, would that be regarded by the Government as a reason for considering the removal of that organisation from the list? Are the Government satisfied that the organisations already proscribed still represent a terrorist threat to this country, and do the Government regularly review the situation to satisfy themselves that the case still remains for organisations already there to continue to be on the proscribed list?
Do the three organisations that we are discussing today use social media to promulgate their unacceptable aims and objectives? If so, has action already been taken, or is it going to be taken, to seek to ensure that this no longer continues to be the case? In indicating again that we support the order, I nevertheless hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on the issues that I and my noble friend Lord Triesman have raised.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Rosser, for their support. I hope that I will be able to answer their questions in some measure at least.
We believe that the three organisations should be added to the list of proscribed organisations. I am glad of and acknowledge the support that we have received from all corners of the House, not only for this but for the previous 15 proscription orders. The noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Rosser, talked about the timing of proscription. The decisions on whether and when to proscribe a particular organisation are taken after extensive consideration and in the light of a full assessment of the available information, identifying whether a group is currently concerned with terrorism and meets the statutory process for proscription. There is then the discretionary element— the Home Secretary has to decide whether it is right in the light of our national interests, even if it meets the statutory definition of terrorism, to proscribe the organisation. Sometimes it may not be. It is important, for example, that it does not adversely impact on any ongoing investigations and supports other members of the international community. It is not appropriate for us to discuss the specific intelligence that leads to the decision to proscribe.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about the low number of prosecutions for proscription offences. In answer to his specific question on numbers, between 2001 and the end of March 2014, 33 people have been charged with proscription offences as primary offences in Great Britain and 16 have been convicted. 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, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service continue to examine these issues carefully.
We regard proscription as a valuable tool, as it supports other disruptive activity, including immigration disruption, prosecutions for other offences, messaging to deter funding and recruitment and asset freezes. The assets of a proscribed organisation are subject to seizure. Although we realise that issues are involved in the numbers of prosecutions, there have been some, and it is worth noting that, in its report yesterday, the Intelligence and Security Committee said that,
“given the deterrent effect and the value in drawing attention to individuals who hold extremist views, the Committee considers that there is benefit in continuing to proscribe organisations”.
In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about how many groups have been deproscribed, at the moment there is one: the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran. He also asked why evidence to justify the proscription of a group is not used to prosecute individuals such as its members. The test for proscribing a group is whether it is concerned with terrorism. The evidence that is relevant to that test is not relevant to an assessment of whether particular individuals are members or supporters of that group.
In terms of any progress on deproscription and whether it is reviewed continuously, we do not give a running commentary on proscribed organisations. On 10 December 2013, the Minister said that he would consider deproscription only on application. Anyone or any individual connected with the organisation at any time can apply for deproscription and the Home Secretary is required to determine that application within 90 days. In addition, it is important to note that Section 10 of the Terrorism Act provides that evidence of anything done in relation to a deproscription application is not admissible as evidence in proceedings against an individual for an offence under that Act. Therefore there is no disincentive there to apply for deproscription.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also mentioned action on social media. Some 65,000 sites have been taken down, 42,000 of those within the last year. Therefore there is a lot of activity in that area, which is obviously a very relevant one. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which was presented to Parliament yesterday in the House of Commons, will contain provisions on that, and this House will have plenty of time to talk about social media in the context of counterterrorism.
I hope that I have answered most of the questions. I will now summarise. Proscription is based on clear evidence that an organisation is concerned in terrorism. It is the Home Secretary’s firm opinion that on the basis of the available evidence, all three groups named in this order meet the statutory test for proscription, and it is appropriate in each case for the Home Secretary to exercise her discretion to proscribe these groups. Therefore, I commend this order to the House.
House adjourned at 6.31 pm.