Interview with British Home Secretary 'No Day This Year without a Terror Trial'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith discusses her country's experience in taking in former inmates from the Guantanamo prison camp and how her country is seeking to reach out to young Muslims before they radicalize.


SPIEGEL: In Germany, a national debate is simmering over whether the country should take in prisoners from Guantanamo. What experience has Great Britain had in accepting detainees from the American prison camp?

Smith: We have taken back 13 detainees, nine of them were British nationals, another four have been residents. All are free citizens now. So we never had to regret our decisions, but of course I do also understand the reluctance of my German colleague Wolfgang Schäuble in this matter.

SPIEGEL: How did those citizens and communities react to the fact that their new neighbours came from Camp Delta? Were there protests?

Smith: I think they understood how much grievance Guantanamo caused for the Muslim world. And even worse, that it undermines our values, our democracy and human rights and that, finally, it makes it particularly difficult for us to maintain our fundamental argument in countering terror.

SPIEGEL: Have those who came home been brought to trial in Great Britain?

Smith: No, there were no trials but we took certain security measures.

SPIEGEL: Are they under observation?

Smith: Let's put it like this: We would immediately know if they were to re-engage in extremist activities, but I cannot discuss our measures in detail.

SPIEGEL: Will Britain help the Obama administration by accepting more detainees?

Smith: There are two more British residents in Guantanamo and we have asked for their return to Britain. But already now we have taken in more inmates than any other country. So our priority now is to support others by sharing our experience.

SPIEGEL: In the case of the British resident Binyam Mohamed, who is still incarcerated at Guantanamo, there are strong allegations about the complicity of the British government in his rendition and even his mistreatment.

Smith: To be clear, the British government is absolutely opposed to torture and nothing has been proven yet in this case. I personally referred the investigation immediatly to the attorney general to answer the question of potential complicity.

SPIEGEL: The British government refuses up to this day to make public certain documents that might provide proof that the prisoner was the subject of mistreatment.

Smith: The evidence has been made available to Binyam Mohamed's legal team to assure the best possible and fair defense. But it must be the case that when one government provides intelligence to another both have to decide whether this information is made public or not. That is nothing less but the basis for sharing intelligence between countries, which is aimed at keeping people safe.

SPIEGEL: But if there is apparently evidence for mistreatment in these documents -- and that is, at least, what the two High Court judges who had to deal with the case of Binyam Mohamed declared last week in London -- then shouldn't the British people and even the Americans know about it?

Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed is pictured in London in 2000. Britain hopes will be cleared for release soon. Terrorism charges against Mohamed were dropped last year. He has been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest his detention.
AP

Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed is pictured in London in 2000. Britain hopes will be cleared for release soon. Terrorism charges against Mohamed were dropped last year. He has been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest his detention.

Smith: Let's be clear. It is necessary that the defense team has this material, that is the case. The next thing is that we have to be able to maintain the security of our people by sharing intelligence information. Sometimes security is best served by that not being made public. And the Obama administration just made clear that the terms on which the intelligence relationship operates -- which is aimed, let's remember, at keeping people safe, not in keeping information secret -- must be respected in order that we can achieve our objectives.

SPIEGEL: You just sent a delegation to Guantanamo to prepare for Binyam Mohamed's return. When do you expect him to arrive back in Britain?

Smith: There is no set date, but we are working on it.

SPIEGEL: Recently, Germany has been threatened with terrorist attacks in several video messages. How would you evaluate the general situation?

Smith: Severe. We believe that an attack is highly likely and could happen at any time and without warning. On the other hand we see some success. In 2008, we had 50 people convicted in terror-related trials and this year there will not be a single day in the United Kingdom without a terrorist trial on the timetable.

SPIEGEL: British government members stopped using the terms "war on terror" or "Islamic terrorists."You tend to speak of "anti-Islamic activists." Why?

Smith: Part of the reason why people turn to extremism is the appeal that is made to them by those who are promoting an ideology that seeks to create hatred. It is an approach that uses a certain language and certain messages. For example, they claim that there is an incompatibility between the British or the Germans and European Muslims, that it is impossible to be a Muslim within a democratic system. Part of the way to respond to that is in the way of communication. We work hard to get the message out that this is plainly wrong and that secondly we are talking about criminal acts that have nothing to do with the principles of Islam.

SPIEGEL: Do you really think that this will stop the radicalization of young Muslims?

Smith: I would not call it an image campaign, but the communication of what the daily life of a Muslim in Western democracies is really like. And I think we have to ask ourselves what it is that turns people to violent extremism. We think that the way and manner with which extremists address themselves to others is playing an important role, and we founded a special working unit to deal with exactly those questions. They are identifying the sources of the propaganda and are making proposals about how and where to address counter-messages to young Muslims. We cannot allow a minority ideology to become the only voice in the Internet, for example.

SPIEGEL: Does the new US president, Barack Obama, present a new opportunity to recalibrate the global debate on terrorism?

Smith: Yes. I think we can now deal with terrorism by bringing in new and fresh ideas. Sure, we need to maintain the hard ability to pursue, to arrest suspects and to bring them to trial. But you have to think more imaginatively about how to deal with the deeper reasons of violent extremism. We just started a campaign in Pakistan: Successful Pakistanis living in Great Britain are reporting about their life in the Western society. I think there is every opportunity for us now with the new US administration to bring forward these kinds of ideas.

And just look at the conference on fighting Islamic extremism that took place in Berlin last week, where we exchanged our experiences in countering terrorism between the German, Dutch and the British home secretary. I don't think that would have been possible even a year ago.

Interview conducted by Britta Sandberg and Marcel Rosenbach.

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