By Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, 11 June 2006
Politicians, human rights lawyers, Muslim organisations and teachers have expressed dismay at a Scottish Special Branch initiative that sends officers to schools to encourage teachers to inform on pupils who are suspected of flirting with Islamic extremism.
Special Branch (SB) in Tayside is also operating in youth groups at Dundee’s universities and using everything from Asian corner shops and supermarkets to mosques and restaurants to gather intelligence on potential terrorist threats.
Detective chief superintendent Colin McCashey of Tayside Police said his Special Branch Community Contact Unit was created to establish good relations between police and ethnic communities and to gather intelligence on possible terrorists within ethnic groups.
But critics fear it could damage relations with the Muslim community, which have been undermined by the bungled raid in Forest Gate in London last week during which a wrongly identified suspect was shot and 250 officers, some dressed in chemical warfare suits, surrounded homes in the east end. No chemical weapons were found and no charges were brought.
McCashey, head of crime at Tayside, insists that the SB unit does not engage in any “covert cloak and dagger activity or anything sophisticated like infiltration”. He told the Sunday Herald: “We are seeking to obtain a real understanding of what communities are thinking and to feed information from the police into those communities.”
SB officers are openly approaching prominent community leaders, organisations and professionals – such as tutors, teachers and youth leaders in ethnic communities – in order to “establish a point of contact”. From there, officers try to put the relationship on a formal footing, and the SB is now even sitting in on meetings of the Islamic Society at Dundee University.
The unit focuses only on “ethnic religious groupings” such as Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus. It does not focus on any Christian organisations, far-right groups, Irish cultural groups, republican groups or organisations espousing hardline Scottish nationalism.
When SB officers approach schools they do not speak to pupils about the risk of terrorism. Instead, says McCashey, teachers are asked to help them “identify any activities that could be considered to be extremist”.
“We ask teachers to be alert to suspicious activity in school. The school will inform us if they see any questionable behaviour,” he added.
McCashey believes the SB unit will prevent terrorism and ease feelings of police “oppression” in ethnic groups. “We want to get an understanding of what communities think of the police and of any tensions in those communities,” he said.
Tayside Police say that “although there is no specific terrorist threat to Dundee, we cannot be complacent. The public expect us to make them safe”. However, there are extremist Islamic organisations operating in the area.
Any information gathered during the SB officers’ contact with ethnic groups is shared with the rest of Special Branch and uploaded to the Scottish Intelligence Database, where it can be read by officers across the UK.
The impetus to create the SB Community Contact Unit came last year in the days following the July 7 tube and bus attacks in London by Muslim extremists. The bombers were ordinary young British-born men, and their attacks on their capital took police and intelligence services by surprise.
“The nature of terrorism has changed and we need to be seen to be moving to make sure we have an accurate intelligence picture,” said McCashey. He admitted some communities were “hard to reach” in policing terms, but believes SB officers talking openly to community leaders would improve relations.
Despite the British government’s insistence that Iraq had nothing to do with the growth of terrorism in the UK, McCashey was clear that the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces had increased tensions in the Muslim community.
In universities, SB officers are able to note which foreign national students are arriving in Dundee because they have to register with police. “We’ve also spoken to senior managers in universities,” McCashey added.
Police forces across Scotland and England are considering mimicking Tayside’s new “kinder, gentler” form of SB operation. They are impressed by the overt “soft intelligence gathering” style of the operation, coupled with its community policing approach to terror threats, and believe it will assist community relations and improve the flow of information between the police and ethnic groups.
Detective sergeant Mark Charnley, a frontline Tayside SB officer, said his team were presenting themselves to the ethnic communities as a “point of contact”. All opportunities are taken to meet with members of ethnic groups. Charnley said that if a racist incident occurred in which a Muslim shop-keeper was attacked by white youths, an SB officer would go along and establish a relationship.
Charnley says his goal is to “go deep into the community … to keep an eye on what all sides are doing”. He says he wants to “reassure the Muslim community, which feels under fire”.
In schools, Charnley says, SB officers have asked teachers to look for signs of extremism among pupils. One “sign” he mentioned would be “a kid who has gone back to their parents’ country of origin [for example, Pakistan] and returned with anti-Western feeling or stronger religious faith than they had shown before”.
Charnley added that contact with shop owners, restaurateurs and other ethnic business leaders “gave us a broader base of people to speak to”.
This low-intensity intelligence- gathering is an innovation in SB tactics. “It means that a lot of information we missed out on in the past is now becoming part of the larger intelligence picture,” Charnley added.
He dismissed any criticism of the unit as “ignorant”, saying: “We are there for the community, to build up trust.”
One female member of Dundee University’s Islamic Society, who asked to remain anonymous, said she had sat through a meeting with two SB officers in attendance. “Why were they there?” she asked. “We have nothing to hide. It is unfair of the police to home in on specific groups. If one group is going to be looked at then all should be looked at. This is ghettoising and stigmatising the Muslim faith . I feel very uncomfortable with this .”
Many members of the Islamic Society are from countries with poor human rights records. They worry that if Scottish SB reports in which they are noted to have criticised their home regimes, or attacked the UK government for its foreign policy, are shared with foreign intelligence services, they might be in danger when they return home.
Sohaib Saeed, Scottish chair of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, said: “I worry about who defines extremism. Is it extreme to question the legitimacy of the government? Or the actions of the government? This enforces the stereotype that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists.”
Saeed said membership of the Islamic Society was in decline because of Special Branch interest.
“This type of policing exhibits a type of paranoia that stereotypes communities,” he added. “It’s politicised policing at a time when confidence in the system is already shattered. The police are pandering to the type of mentality that has led to a rise in Islamophobia.”
Patrick Harvie, Green MSP and convener of the Scottish parliament’s cross-party group on human rights, lent limited support to the Special Branch operation saying he welcomed, in principle, innovations by the police to reach out to ethnic minority communities.
However, he highlighted a worry, shared by many teachers, that a teenager doodling “al-Qaeda” on a jotter could wrongly end up under surveillance for a common act of classroom rebellion. He did not welcome teachers “policing pupils” on behalf of Special Branch, saying it would be better if SB officers spoke to pupils themselves instead of asking school staff to monitor them.
Lawyer John Scott, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, said that in the wake of the Forest Gate police raid fiasco, the monitoring of schoolchildren by Special Branch was a “very dangerous path to go down”.
“We could demonise children,” Scott added. “There’s a very real danger that we could lose certain communities if it looks like they are being targeted. We could end up encouraging the behaviour we want to prevent. It is easier, if you want to recruit someone, to say ‘you are a suspect anyway, so what have you got to lose by getting involved’.”