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Azeem Ibrahim: The law should recognise that terrorists are not just criminals, they are traitors

Azeem Ibrahim Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

In recent weeks, we have heard once again about the danger of a terrorist attack on Britain. Britain’s security service, MI5, believe that the threat is at its highest for at least a decade – in other words higher now even than the aftermath of 9/11. This is partly because of dissident Irish Republican violence, and partly because of terrorist violence inspired by al Qaeda. It is clear that violent Islamic extremist plots have not gone away.

I have been a strong and consistent supporter of educational programmes to teach young Muslim kids that violence is against the true teachings of Islam. In the long term, this is the only way to prevent young people turning to terrorism.

But when we do have good evidence that someone has taken part in a terrorist plot, the state should come down on them with its full force. I believe that the traditional offences which Britain charges potential terrorists with are not enough.

British subjects who plot to destroy the fabric of British life, destroy government buildings, transport or businesses, who sow fear into the seam of the daily life, who seek to rupture the day-to-day workings of the British economy or the business of State, or who act to spread disorder and fear, should be considered not just terrorists, but traitors. They should be charged with treason. This would not be so new – it used to be used against Irish insurgents.

Treason, after all, essentially means betraying one's nation. All British nationals owe allegiance to the Queen, wherever they are. If you have the privilege to have a British passport, you should not be plotting violence against her subjects.

The main counterargument would probably be that such terrorists have not committed treason. Arson, murder, terrorism or other violent crimes, perhaps; but treason - no.

But I would argue that although these latter offences might speak to the specific physical characteristics of the crime, they don't address the mental one - those of the intention of the crime – at all.

A terrorist is not the same as someone trying to cause physical damage who does not know why. They are seeking very specifically to rupture British security as a nation, damage our institutions, and disrupt the quality of British daily life. And here's the point. They do not want to do these things to damage a building or cause injuries in a crowd. They want to do them because these things are British. That deserves its own form of recognition in law, and 'treason' is the offence which best captures it.

The offence of treason would also bring with it other benefits, first and foremost automatic heavy punishments. Britain has abolished the death penalty, and so the old institutional punishment for treason is not available. But it seems logical that this modern form of treason be automatically punishable by the nearest equivalent – a life sentence. This should not be the kind of life sentence which, after time off for good behaviour, means a few years. It should mean life, without parole, or the possibility of parole.

This would be the start of making a link which should be fundamental to our national life. If you are British, you do not plot against Britain. If you want the protections, security, services, and yes, freedoms which this country has fought to be able to give its citizens over centuries, then you do not respond with violence.

In short, it is high time we brought the offence of treason back. These terrorists are not just criminals - they are traitors. The legal system should acknowledge it. I would wager it would make us all safer as well.


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