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The rise of Al Capone: How UK counter-terrorism disrupts legitimate Muslim groups

The rise of Al Capone: How UK counter-terrorism disrupts legitimate Muslim groups

Categories: Latest News

Thursday January 24 2019


Disruption has become an increasingly important tactic within counter-terrorism programmes in recent years, used by authorities to intimidate a host of legal organisations, groups and individuals – often targeting Muslims. Such an approach involves using a range of methods to curb the ability of groups who have the legal right to operate freely, discouraging volunteers from participating, preventing public events from happening and targeting community leaders. One phrase being used across Europe by counter-terrorism officials, politicians and police as a means to tackle so-called “extremism” is disruption, specifically – “Al Capone-style disruption”.

Whilst Al Capone was a mafioso from a century ago, his name has come to be mentioned with the rise of government concern over so-called “extremist” organisations. The term “Al Capone-style tactics” has popped up throughout Europe in places such as Britain, Denmark and Germany, as governments seek the use of similar approaches to those that brought down Capone. The PREVENT programme has been publicly linked to such practices, with national media reporting that “extremists and terrorist suspects” now face so-called “Al Capone-style” disruption of their lives, whilst commentators have called for European governments to “break jihadist networks” in the same way the United States broke the mob.

Reports have been gathered that show that legally-operating groups are being targeted by counter-extremism authorities thanks to the wide scope of counter-terror legislation under “Al Capone” tactics. Such groups have faced blacklisting at venues, the late cancellation of events, threats that individuals may have their children taken away or implications from authorities that families may have trouble with their settled status – all of which are aimed to dissuade activists from participating in legal activity. MEND itself has experienced this kind of disruption, frequently through challenges to our ability to hold events.

There has also been the reported use of “Disruption Units” by the Metropolitan Police Force, which aims to target “extremist” networks and organisations through disrupting everyday freedoms. Tactics include arresting individuals on minor charges, such as parking fines or tax fraud, which enable the implementation of strict bail conditions. Bail conditions can be added to prevent them from attending certain mosques, going to events, or participating in dawah, for instance. These tactics affect the freedom of individuals and groups to engage in political activism, with “an abundant body of evidence” being found by researchers that PREVENT officers had disrupted or closed down events on issues around Islamophobia, Palestine or terrorism organised by academics and campaigners.

Such language and tactics of disruption, whilst increasingly mainstreamed into counter-terrorism approaches, lie at the heart of the “War on Terror”, with laws often being co-opted to suit a counter-terror agenda. In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks in the US, for instance, the then Attorney General John Ashcroft stated, “Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa – even by one day – we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America.” In turn, counter-terrorism laws have been used to disrupt political protests. The most recent example being the prosecution of the Stansted 15, a group of human rights protesters who have been gaoled under counter-terrorism legislation for preventing a deportation flight taking off. Such use of counter-terror law has been cited as an “unprecedented crackdown on right to protest” and a “crushing blow for human rights in the UK”.

Disruption, conceptualised as a mode of preventative behaviour management, has become an increasingly important component of UK counter-terrorism policy. It is particularly concerning because any number of legally operating, often Muslim organisations have faced targeting by disruption. It equates pre-criminalisation with “extremism”, ignoring the highly politicised and unstable nature of the term. It allows police and counter-terror authorities to determine who is and who isn’t extremist and to use pre-emptive actions before laws have been broken. Furthermore, it stifles the freedom for individuals to engage in legal and legitimate political activism and intimidates law-abiding citizens.

Al Capone and the world in which he operated has long since passed into history but it seems that the success in bringing him to justice for his crimes is now being used to target legal political activism. This should greatly concern all European citizens, that the tactics that brought down a mobster responsible for the deaths and misery of many should be considered appropriate for combatting the problematic and highly political issue of “extremism”. Such an approach deliberately conflates ideologies and opinions with criminal enterprise and gives law enforcers the power to disrupt political activism. Such “Al Capone” tactics of disruption greatly jeopardise our fragile and already-strained democratic freedoms.


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