Special Branch to track Muslims across UK
London Guardian | July 20, 2005
By Vikram Dodd
Special intelligence units are being planned across Britain to monitor Muslims so the authorities can collect "community by community" knowledge of where extremism is building up.
The Guardian has learned that the special squads, to be known as Muslim Contact Units and staffed by Special Branch officers, will be established in areas including Yorkshire, north-west England and parts of the Midlands.
After the London bombings police admit their intelligence of what goes on in Muslim communities is "low", and urgently needs to be boosted.
The police and Home Office say that a Muslim Contact Unit operating in London has already helped thwart extremist attempts to recruit young British Muslims to violent jihad, by working with Islamic communities.
The establishment of the special units is one of the first concrete counter-terrorist measure to emerge after the London bombings.
Yesterday Tony Blair met moderate British Muslim leaders and agreed on a taskforce to produce measures to tackle extremism.
The Special Branch units will have language skills and seek detailed knowledge of the dynamic of Islamic communities in their areas. They will fulfil two roles, helping protect Muslim communities from Islamophobic abuse and attacks, while also gathering intelligence on extremist activity.
Any leads on extremists can be passed to the security services or acted upon by police.
A senior police officer with knowledge of the scheme told the Guardian: "Deep knowledge of Muslim communities is rare in the service. If you are going to understand who is extreme and who is dangerous, which are different [concepts], you have to understand the community.
"Unless you know the subject well and what they are saying, often in Arabic or Urdu, and what the context is, you are not going to get a feel for it." The source stressed that the squads would be open about their work. "It is not about spying."
The paucity of knowledge the intelligence community has about the precise extremist threat is shown by the fact that the four men behind the London bombings have been described as "cleanskins" - people not identified as posing a severe danger.
Plans to expand the Muslim Contact Units are expected to get final approval and funding soon from ministers. The scheme applies principles of community policing, learned by forces since the 1980s, to the field of counter terrorism.
The senior police source said: "It's about policing, it's not just about being nice to communities. You protect them against Islamophobia, and work with Muslims to protect them against extremists.
"Ultimately all communities want positive relations with the police. Around many Muslim communities the cultural gulf with the police has been wide. You need dedicated staff."
A Home Office memorandum, lodged with the House of Commons home affairs select committee, explained more about the dedicated Special Branch squad operating in London, which was set up after the September 11 attacks on the United States. "The unit works in partnership with the managers of mosques that are under threat from extremism," it says.
"By supporting the valuable work that these mosque leaders are already undertaking, and by providing a confidential avenue for the disclosure of information about individuals of concern, the unit has been influential in protecting young Muslims from recruitment attempts."
Far from fearing the units, one Muslim critic of the police welcomed their expansion.
Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, has campaigned against alleged police harassment and brutality against Muslims. But Mr Shadjareh praised the way the London unit had worked so far.
"Out of all the Metropolitan police, this is the only one that deals with the issue of Muslims on facts rather than on Islamophobic perceptions," he said. "There's always a fear they could be collecting intelligence, that any section of the police could have a dual purpose."
Azad Ali, chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum, where Islamic representatives and senior officers discuss policing issues, said: "They've done a lot of good work in reassuring communities."
In another effort to boost intelligence gathering capabilities about Islamic communities in Britain, police are to intensify their attempts to recruit more Muslim officers.
Britain's top police officer, Sir Ian Blair, will meet Muslim leaders to discuss the issue next Monday. The Metropolitan police has just 300 officers from a Muslim background.
Peter Fahey, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on diversity, said: "We need officers who can go out and make contact with communities and build trust, so that as a result people give us information. Intelligence is the life blood of policing."