Perhaps it is the rain. The gaggle of BNP protesters standing behind the crowd-control barrier on Tottenham High Road are very subdued. They are almost to a man – they are all men – overweight, shaven-headed and in their late thirties (think Private Eye’s Yobs). They stand rather meekly, as if trying hard to prove their reasonableness. One of them, the oldest, holds a soaking piece of paper in his left hand on which is written a speech, and in his right a megaphone to berate his audience of passers-by and journalists on the other side of the road. ‘This is a sovereign nation. These people are committing treason. Why are they not being arrested?’ The megaphone squeals with feedback. A man is talking about them on his mobile phone; he laughs openly. The small group of policemen posted outside the industrial estate where al-Muhajiroun are holding a press conference, laugh too. The rain begins to fall even harder; on the kebab shops, on the hairdressers, on the BNP. ‘Fucking Pakis,’ one of the Yobs says. It is 11 September 2003.

I cross the road and ask a policeman where to go for the press briefing. He points in the direction of a checkpoint set up by al-Muhajiroun.

Al-Muhajiroun are holding a conference to commemorate the 19 mujahideen who gave their lives for the cause of jihad. I am frisked thoroughly, quickly and professionally by a mountain of a man dressed in a jellaba. He tells me to hurry up the stairs – the briefing may already have started.

Upstairs is a large room with whitewashed walls and grey carpet tiles. On one of the walls a banner proclaims that there is no God but God. A panel of young, bearded men are sitting under the banner, facing a semi-circular swathe of TV cameras on tripods and photographers jostling for position. Behind the cameras are two rows of seats, some are occupied by journalists, others by members of al-Muhajiroun. From time to time the journalists take calls on their mobiles or ask whispered questions of the young men next to them who are nodding sagely at the words of their representatives.

‘It is easy for you to forget our history. Our history did not begin at 11 September. The USA ploughs money into Israel. In 1998 Sudan was bombed. Atrocities have been committed against Muslims in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Do you have a minute’s silence for them? No. You remember only non-Muslims.’ The spokesman’s voice is distorted by the cheap amplification system. The press do not know what to make of these outspoken, confident fanatics. They are articulate and intelligent. Should they be treated as spokesmen for al-Qaida or as the Islamic equivalent of Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea?

We are here for the official opening of a conference – not a celebration, they are keen to stress – to commemorate the glorious memory of the 19 men who killed themselves in flying four planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the ground.

‘The world is now split into two camps. It has become clear that there can never be peace with the USA.’

‘The Jews are a bunch of murderers and criminals.’

The hijackers were ‘brave men. They were mujahideen. You might call them cowards but none of you would be willing to sacrifice your lives.’

‘Jihad is spreading like wildfire. Constantinople has fallen, Rome is still to come.’

Amid the talk of the Great Satan and the Little Satan it emerges that the plan is to hold conferences soon afterwards in Leicester, Manchester and Birmingham.

One of the brothers stands prominently at the back of the hall holding a mobile phone. It rings very loudly and the speaker breaks off. The man with the phone walks up and down talking intently in Arabic. Then he shakes his head. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘so much for the great tradition of freedom of speech in this country. We have been refused access to these venues.’ There is an amount of eyeball rolling among the press. ‘But,’ the speaker counters, ‘I am pleased to say that there should be a very special guest coming shortly. You are very lucky.’ He is referring to Omar Bakri Muhammad, the founder of al-Muhajiroun. ‘You must take the message of the mujahideen seriously,’ the speaker continues. ‘Do not listen to the liars Bush and Blair who say that al-Qaida is finished. We are not spokespersons for al-Qaida but we pray in the same direction.’

I notice, at the back of the hall, two men in suits who are not journalists, though one of them holds a notebook. They listen attentively.

An American journalist makes her question heard despite the panel’s efforts not to acknowledge a woman, let alone an American. ‘Are your views born out of anti-semitism?’ she asks, and thrusts her microphone forward.

‘Jews are an occupying power. They destroy houses, they spoil crops. They should be killed.’

The American journalist doesn’t give up. ‘If I close my eyes,’ she says, ‘this could be Combat 18 or the BNP talking.’

‘Well don’t close your eyes then.’ All the brothers laugh and the press briefing is over. Our special guest, it transpires, has been detained ‘in consultation with his lawyer’. This gets a laugh from the press. The two men who weren’t journalists have disappeared. As the press swap notes and check details, I get talking to Ahmed, one of the members of the organisation. Small and bespectacled, he is wearing a knitted cap, denim jacket and jeans. He suggests that we take a seat to one side of the hall. He wants to talk about the Ummah, the worldwide community of believers. Eventually I manage to ask him what he makes of the pair at the back of the hall.

‘Police officers,’ he says. Does it worry him that they are under surveillance? ‘I am not paranoid. Whatever happens is in Allah’s hands.’

The two men sitting at the back of that hall are as visible as the secret war against Islamist terrorism gets. What they are doing is typical of the hundreds of intelligence-gathering operations taking place in this country today. This is the reality behind Tony Blair’s evangelical declaration that ‘we . . . here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.’

Shoulder to shoulder is not the physical position that springs to mind when one thinks of the current relation between the United Kingdom and the US. Even in some government circles our relationship to Uncle Sam is seen as that of rent boy rather than special friend. Unthinkingly muscular in intelligence and security matters, the Government fails to acknowledge any distinction in the source and intensity of potential threats, and increasingly identifies any disagreement with its worldview as evidence of the existence of the enemy. This has resulted in 529 people being arrested under the anti-terror legislation since 11 September 2001, only 81 of whom have gone on to be charged.

A black cloud of Islamist terror is said to be hanging over the Western world; and specific causes of violence and discontent have disappeared into it. Instead, we promote the idea that all acts of political violence involving Arabs or Muslims, if seen from the correct (that is to say US-inspired) angle, will fit together like a jigsaw to form an image of Osama bin Laden.

I meet Mr X in a pub in Whitehall. He works for a branch of government which plays a role in counter-terrorism. He has agreed to speak to me about the way the authorities see the new threat. ‘It’s been galling for us,’ he says, ‘that the Americans have discovered terrorism, when of course it’s been going on here for years. He sees al-Qaida as ‘an irrational force that must be combated, unlike a typical European terrorist organisation, the Baader Meinhof, for example, who always had one eye on their press coverage and popularity ratings’.

If this is a war, as the neocons and Blairite hawks would have us believe, it is being fought as much in the realm of ideology and words as in the realm of explosive shoes and ricin laboratories. It is a propaganda war of shadowy unprovables, in which the absence of an attack is claimed as a victory by the police and intelligence services. A war in the course of which the security services will gain and our civil liberties suffer. A war in which the dilemmas of counterterrorist policing have begun to express some of the most sensitive cultural irresolutions in British society.

The police and Government want us to believe that our law enforcement agencies are as embattled as the Spartans at Thermopylae, but as members of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch the two men at the al-Muhajiroun briefing are part of an immensely strong, long established and well-resourced structure. They have the use of the most draconian legislation in Europe and a wealth of experience in counter-insurgency policing. They and the five hundred or so others like them at work in London represent a formal tradition of secret political policing which is almost as old as the institution of organised policing itself in Britain.

Modern political policing began on Saint Patrick’s Day 1883, when four CID men and eight uniformed officers were picked to form the Special Irish Branch, in response to a Fenian bombing campaign on the mainland. In 1888, the word ‘Irish’ was dropped from the title, and the unit widened its net to include anarchists, left-wing revolutionaries and Indian nationalist sympathisers. During the First World War, Special Branch was closely involved in countering German espionage and formed a relationship with MI5 which remains crucial to the domestic intelligence network, with Special Branch frequently acting as the muscle on security service operations, as well as pursuing subversives in its own right.

In 1919, under the Bolshevik-hating Sir Basil Thomson, Special Branch adopted the practice of intimidatory attendance at left-wing gatherings. It comes as no surprise to learn that it was slower off the mark in monitoring right-wing groups. By the outbreak of World War Two, however, these to0 had come under its gaze. Before the war’s end, the focus had reverted to the Red threat, and from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War, the Branch spent a huge proportion of its resources and surveillance time monitoring such well-known left-wing subversives as Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, as well as CND and Vietnam War protesters.

More important, from a counter-terrorist perspective, it was deeply involved in the British state’s confrontation with modern Irish Republican terrorism. Until 1992, the Met Special Branch had sole responsibility for mainland intelligence on Irish terror (the RUC had its own infamous Special Branch to take care of activity in Northern Ireland), but as the Cold War came to an end, MI5 lobbied successfully to take over this function from the police.

By the 1990s, then, Special Branch found itself at a loss. The growth of Islamism, it seemed, was of no interest, despite the granting of asylum in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to several Islamist militants, which helped London acquire a reputation as a safe-haven for extremists and the nickname ‘Londonistan’. Instead, Special Branch lived up to the caricature of the British security establishment, demonstrating a committed hatred of Micks and Reds and an inability to take Rag Heads at all seriously. Everything changed after 11 September; in a remarkably short time, a new orthodoxy on intelligence and law enforcement would be established for an apparently new world.

The Centre for the Study of Terrorism is housed in a whitewashed terraced house in St Andrews, a few doors down from the main university buildings. Magnus Ranstorp, a Swede, is the Centre’s director. He regularly briefs senior government and security officials overseas and in the UK – among them, Assistant Commissioner David Veness, head of Specialist Operations for the Metropolitan Police, the officer in overall operational charge of countering terror in the United Kingdom.

Dr Ranstorp is an expert on Hizbollah, and books such as Palestinian Hamas, Defiant Patriot, The Kidnap Business and the Hostage Rescue Manual cover three walls of his study. Resting on the mantelpiece above a gas fire is an enlarged, slightly blurred photograph of a group of Indian or maybe Sri Lankan soldiers, handguns to the ready, holding a leopard on a chain. It is a military-macho moment that looks entirely sinister. A photograph of a group of American soldiers is propped against a bookshelf. Dressed in riot gear and bunched together, they are hugging the wall of a mudbrick house ready to kick in the door. On the small coffee table next to my seat is a draft of an article entitled: ‘Should Hizbollah be next?’

With something of the air of the maître-penseur, Dr Ranstorp pulls on a cigarette. ‘Surveillance in the UK of Islamists was at best patchy,’ he tells me. ‘Pre 9/11, most requests for intelligence came from other governments who wanted to monitor their own subversives and, like many governments, the UK doesn’t give up its intelligence easily.’ France made specific requests about a number of Algerians in exile in London and was refused help by UK law enforcement agencies. Ranstorp finds this especially disturbing, since he believes that France and the UK, of all European countries, were and are at the highest risk of terrorist attack. ‘This reluctance to assist was combined with a disproportionate focus on problems relating to Northern Ireland and an almost absolute failure to recruit individuals to tap into the Islamists’ inner node.’

Dr Ranstorp provides an insight into the view of al-Qaida held by the police and the security services, and helps to make sense of Special Branch’s decision to arrest hundreds of Muslims around the country.

‘Al-Qaida is an organisation of some sort. The way recruitment generally works is that certain mosques are exploited by "talent spotters” who pick out potential recruits on the basis of two criteria: their perceived level of commitment to the Islamist cause and their skill sets and psychological make-up. To acclimatise the recruits they use propaganda material from the Algerian and Chechen struggles and invite veterans of various conflicts to speak about the necessity of jihad.’

Dr Ranstorp goes on to explain the four-stage process by which al-Qaida’s jihadists are formed. First, a recruit undergoes spiritual preparation; then he is provided with basic military and survival skills. Following this, it is his duty to place himself at the fault-lines between Islam and the West; the armed struggle comes last.

The security service seems to base its strategy on Dr Ranstorp’s analysis. As they see it, allegiance to al-Qaida is tested at a low but apparently effective level by having a recruit do something as straightforward as attend early morning prayers for a sustained period. A series of tests of increasing intensity – storing documents, providing accommodation, concealing or smuggling weaponry – forge psychological commitment. With a view of terror so closely bound up with the practice of Islam, it isn’t difficult to see the potential for misinterpretation. Not only is any Muslim who commits an ordinary crime inevitably a potential terrorist in the eyes of Special Branch, but any devout Muslim may also come under suspicion.

The authorities believe that there is an extremely close relationship between conventional crime and terrorism, which is thought to depend on identity theft, and credit card and bank fraud. Dr Ranstorp confirms this: ‘The arrest of al-Qaida suspects has led to the discovery of multiple identities which are extremely difficult to trace. A massive intelligence operation is involved in which ninety countries are co-operating.’ Dr Ranstorp and Mr X agree: there is a definite connection between Blunkett’s identity-card scheme and counter-terrorism.

Like the US neocons, Dr Ranstorp emphasises the Manichean nature of the struggle, a point of view that has many practical advantages, not least in giving Western law enforcement and military organisations a larger-than-life enemy at which to tilt. Al-Qaida is now seen as a strategic innovator of Clausewitzian skill. According to the security services, it is fighting fourth-generation warfare – i.e. attempting to destroy the state from within.

I ask Dr Ranstorp about the methods of attack that might be used. ‘The danger is weapons not so much of mass destruction as of mass disruption,’ he replies. In the Government’s eyes, the use of chemical weapons is ‘a case of when and not if’. The authorities, it appears, are not unduly worried about high numbers of casualties in the event of a suicide attack: what they fear is the ‘psychological ripple effect’. If a plane were to be brought down from outside, say, by a rocket-propelled grenade fired as the plane is taking off or landing, Dr Ranstorp believes ‘the psychological effects would be immense’ and, he adds, ‘an attack of this type may well occur in Europe.’ In contingency planning, therefore, addressing the nation immediately and effectively through television, radio and the Internet is no less important than ‘the mitigation of physical effects’.

Magnus Ranstorp and others like him are well known beyond the law enforcement community. I meet Azzam Tamimi at his office in Cricklewood. Dr Tamimi, a Palestinian, is the director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought, the author of several books on politics and Islam, and a commentator on Middle Eastern and Arabic affairs. ‘Something many Muslims believe,’ he tells me, ‘is that politicians always want to make out that there is something going on.’ (And not just Muslims: the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, has also spoken of ‘overselling’.) ‘The threat of terror is extremely exaggerated,’ Tamimi continues. ‘The police have been trying hard to build bridges with the various communities in the light of 11 September but the politicians make their job a lot more difficult. They put pressure on them because they want something and the police find something else in reality. Take Jack Straw and Tony Blair. They have been very interested in cracking down on Palestinian activism in this country. As far as the security services are concerned, there is nothing wrong with the Palestinians here. The Charity Commissioners came under enormous pressure to close down Interpal, a Palestinian charity, but after a full investigation, it was declared entirely above board.’

I ask Dr Tamimi about the idea of al-Qaida held by the law enforcement agencies. ‘Al-Qaida has become the emblem for something which is so undefined: who is al-Qaida? And what does al-Qaida consist of? There is an entire industry there.’ He is indignant. ‘Such and such an operation has "the hallmarks of al-Qaida". They talk of operations in Iraq, for instance. They know nothing about who is doing this, how it is conducted.’

Dr Tamimi’s view – that the US and Israel are manipulating politicians in this country – is shared by many of the Muslims I speak to. He differs from most of them in believing that the police are to a large extent the victims of a confidence trick, rather than being in on the whole thing from the start. ‘Politicians and writers, whether in academia or the media, contribute to the general state of confusion to which the police may be victim.’

Dr Tamimi is troubled, too, by the ‘sensationalism’ that accompanies anti-terror policing. Details are leaked to the media when individuals are detained but the same individuals are released without anybody knowing. His invitation to a Foreign Office conference has been withdrawn: Tamimi understands that this was because he has broadcast on al-Jazeera. ‘They hate it that the Arabs have a TV station that is free, where you can express yourself freely.’

After I met Azzam Tamimi, Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, made a speech in Parliament accusing him of anti-semitism, of links with Hamas and of being a supporter of terrorism in general. I got in touch with Tamimi to ask him what he made of her remarks. He accepted that he has informal links with Hamas while denying, predictably enough, the charge of anti-semitism, and saying that the actions of people such as Ellman are attempts to silence anyone sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

We are told that we face a complex, overwhelming threat, yet we are given the crudest means of deciphering our predicament: caricatures of Saddam, of bin Laden, of suicide bombers and evil imams. These are the cartoon ogres in whose shadows we are encouraged to unite. But the spirit of the Blitz engenders acquiescence in the machinations of a manipulative state as well as the courage to stand up to ogres.

Tim Newburn, the director of the Mannheim Centre for the study of criminology at the London School of Economics, wonders how different the new threats are from those we faced before. ‘I do think there is an issue about the extent to which we assume the world has changed. I’m not convinced by the arguments that we now face something that we might regard as super-terrorism with a reach and a power and a likelihood of inflicting damage that is completely different from the things we faced before 11 September. Neither do I agree with the even more dystopian picture of entire nation states now under threat from the new terrorist activities. One of the reasons I feel sceptical about those arguments, apart from the lack of evidence, is the relatively recent history of terrorism. What tends to happen is that we are presented with the idea that we face a new and terrible threat, which necessitates the introduction of emergency powers and the expenditure of vast amounts of money, and then in time we face a normalisation of those powers.’

This process of normalisation, which concentrates power in the hands of law enforcement agencies, has several distinct features. First, a law introduced as a temporary measure is transformed in due course into a permanent piece of legislation. Second, a symbiotic relationship develops between the ordinary criminal law and emerging legislation as elements of one are incorporated into the other – and the effect is a general tightening up of the statutory criminal law. Finally, emergency powers are used to deal with ordinary crime.

Unlike Tamimi, Newburn believes that ‘the police services themselves fuel the process. They are a significant player in what we always see under these kinds of circumstance, which is the emergence of a campaign for new legislative powers and new resources. However, I would have to say that they are usually pushing at a fairly open door. What is worrying is the absence of any effective opposition to these forms of legislation, even, spectacularly, in the case of New Labour. There are any number of politicians who before 1997 would have been among the most vocal critics of emergency legislation had it been introduced by a Tory Government, but who saw no dangers in the terrorist legislation introduced post 11 September.’

The passage of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 marks a new low for repressive legislation. The bill was published on 12 November 2001 and the Act was made law with great haste on 14 December 2001, prompting a number of observers to wonder whether at least some of its provisions were not simply lifted pre-prepared from the shelf where they had been waiting for some time.

The notion of anti-terrorism legislation is founded on a distortion of the criminal law. It makes a distinction between motives – Peter Sutcliffe, the killer of at least 13 people, is not a terrorist; a member of the IRA who kills two is – when the motive for a crime normally should not make any difference to the way it’s dealt with. A murder is no less heinous if committed for sexual gratification than for political ends. Nevertheless, the state has for a long time sought to separate politically motivated crimes from ordinary offences, through the establishment of a body of anti-terror laws.

This Government has added a further dimension to the UK’s anti-terror legislation. Instead of using the criminal law as its basis, it has arrived at the solution of grafting anti-terrorist provisions onto immigration law. This means that there is no duty of disclosure, no legal aid available to the accused – and none of the safeguards provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act apply. The checks to the power of the state in the form of due process, available in the criminal justice system, weakened though they might be in the case of terrorist legislation, do not exist at all under immigration law.

The Immigration Act of 1971 allowed for the deportation of foreign nationals if they were suspected of endangering national security or committing serious criminal offences. During the 1980s, judges became less deferential to the executive thanks to the new process of Judicial Review which allowed challenges to a Secretary of State’s decisions. This applied to immigration cases as to other areas of public law. The exceptions were cases which involved issues of national security. If these dreaded words were cited as a reason for deportation, the courts invariably deferred to the wishes of the Home Secretary.

In response to criticism that there was no check on executive power in the majority of immigration cases, tribunals were set up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In national security cases, however, an immigrant could still be deported solely on the basis of a Home Secretary’s certificate. There was no right of appeal: the single check to the Home Secretary’s actions were the deliberations of the ‘three wise men’, a panel who merely examined the papers in a particular case without hearing any testimony from witnesses.

Then in 1996 came the Chahal case, a particularly worrying one for immigrants who had resided in the UK for a long period of time without having citizenship. Karamjit Singh Chahal was a Sikh separatist suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Rhajiv Gandhi during an official visit to the UK and threatened with deportation. His application to remain in this country failed at every stage because of judicial deference to the will of the executive. Chahal was detained for about a year as his case worked its way through the Judicial Review procedures. Eventually, it was heard in the European Court of Human Rights, where the argument was made on his behalf that there was a real risk of his suffering inhumane and degrading treatment were he to return to India. In these circumstances, deportation by the UK would have been in contravention of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was also argued that the British Government was in breach of Article 5 regarding his continued detention. The Court found in favour of Chahal.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission Act (1997) was introduced in response. Initiated under the Tories but enacted under New Labour, it purported to strike a balance between national security and natural justice in cases such as Chahal’s, and a procedural compromise was reached which involved the setting up of special commissions that sat partly in secret and partly in open session. The in camera sessions were intended as an opportunity for the intelligence services and Special Branch to put their case. Not only are the subject of the case and his lawyers not allowed access to the information held about him, they aren’t allowed to test the evidence or match its claims against his own experience. Instead, ‘special advocates’ are appointed by the Attorney General. A special advocate can test the secret evidence to a limited extent but he cannot cross-examine intelligence officers in any meaningful way and he has no instructions from a client or any communication with him. But then the procedure has only one goal: deportation.

When the system was being designed, it was considered important that liberal lawyers be included as special advocates. This has led to two problems. First, the lawyers have been seduced by the glamour of the intelligence world, and then, more important, because they have been privy to the closed workings of that world, they are no longer allowed to act for clients. So, in a double whammy, the best barristers have cosied up to the establishment and are not available to represent the individual against the state.

‘It is a matter of perennial embarrassment to the Foreign Office that people from Arab countries can’t be booted out,’ Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, says. ‘This is because of Article 3. These countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia – lobby the Foreign Office for the return of their nationals. Instead of protesting about the countries’ human rights records, the Foreign Office has responded with weasel words because these are countries they are trying to do business with – often arms business. If these foreign nationals were sent back to their country they would face torture and death. This conundrum for the Home Office and Foreign Office came to be known as the Chahal problem.’

Then came 11 September and the Government’s immediate legislative response. There were scare stories about Britain withdrawing from its commitments under the Human Rights Act. This didn’t happen. Instead, 11 September acted as a convenient catalyst for a different course of action, and the Government passed the innovative Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. The Home Office could finally tackle the Chahal problem.

Part IV of the new Act allows the Home Secretary to detain international terrorists indefinitely and without trial. Who qualifies as an international terrorist is, for the purposes of the Act, determined by the Home Secretary’s suspicions. A person may also be detained if he is suspected of having ‘links’ (not defined in the Act) to a terrorist group. So it is possible to be detained merely for being suspected of having links with suspicious people.

The subjects of this provision are those foreign nationals, like Chahal, who cannot be removed from the UK because they face the real possibility of torture or death in their home countries – the terms of Article 3 of the European Convention are not negotiable. A state is allowed to derogate from Article 5, however, the right to freedom from arbitrary detention, ‘in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation . . . to the extent required by the exigencies of the situation’. The Government maintains that, since 11 September, this country has been in such a life-threatening situation, although it neglects to mention that the UK is the only country in the European Union that has seen the need to derogate in this manner. The Government has refused to call this process by its real name: internment. Its claim – that, unlike those in Guantanamo Bay, the detainees are perfectly free to leave the country – is a measure of its cynicism.

Of the Government’s derogation from Article 5, Shami Chakrabarti continues: ‘Liberty maintains that it is not a public emergency of the kind the Convention envisages and is completely counterproductive. The flaw in the legislation is that it only applies to foreign nationals. UK nationals cannot be detained under it. What has happened is the same as has happened at Guantanamo Bay – a "Brit Cit” cannot be detained but a foreigner can be interned.’

Approximately 16 people have been detained since 14 December 2001, the date the Act received Royal Assent. Before it had even been published there were dawn raids by the police and the Immigration Service. The detainees were immediately taken to Belmarsh high security prison, where they have been denied certain rights: initially, there was no mechanism available to contact a solicitor (it wouldn’t have done them much good, there being no publicly available copy of the legislation at the time of their arrests), and on occasion they have not been allowed to use the phone or to pray. One internee was so distressed by the whole process that he chose to return to Algeria, where he will inevitably suffer torture or worse. The Act is described in government circles as forming a ‘three-walled prison’ because it has this one, awful get-out route.

‘Are we going to make the UK safe by locking up 16 people?’ Chakrabarti asks. ‘People in certain cultures are brought up – wrongly or rightly – to believe that Western liberal democratic values are corrupt and hypocritical. Should we really counter these arguments by locking them up? There’s been lots of fuss about Guantanamo Bay but what about this, the moral equivalent of Guantanamo? My largest concern is not the 16 who have been detained: it is the suspension of the rule of law.’

A cross-party committee of Privy Counsellors has produced a report which heavily criticises this part of the Act. Bizarrely, the measures they suggest as alternatives would strengthen the repressive power of the state. In place of indefinite detention, the report agrees with the need for a separate body of counter-terrorist legislation – which would inevitably lead to the creation of specialist terror tribunals and the development of a second strand of quasi-criminal law, again without the protections afforded to the ordinary criminal defendant.

The committee has also recommended that the ban on the use of intercepted communications as evidence in court be lifted, to make it possible to prosecute more terrorists, and called on the Government to examine whether there is scope for more intensive surveillance to prevent and disrupt terrorism. What the Government would gain from having access to yet more intrusive powers is far from clear – apart of course from the chance of exercising them over the whole population, suspected terrorists or not.

The Government’s response to the committee’s criticism has merely been to repeat that the internment of foreign nationals is still the best available solution to our predicament, that we are indeed in a state of emergency and that Parliament will debate the renewal of the powers in March. Revealingly, one of the Government’s private motives for wishing to retain the power of detention is that it doesn’t want to be seen by the Americans as going soft on terror by releasing Islamists back into the community.

Mr X is sanguine about the Privy Counsellors’ disapproval. ‘You probably think,’ he tells me, ‘that this is all a great conspiracy to imprison all the Government’s enemies, but you are wrong. This Government couldn’t be more sensitive about how it is perceived. It is very conscious that it can’t allow terror to change our way of life too much.’ He isn’t very convincing. A senior security adviser to the Government sums up the situation more plausibly: ‘These suspects are disappearing into a black hole with no way of proving their innocence.’

With this Act, the Civil Contingencies Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill, the Home Office has, in a very short space of time, produced a compendium of legislation to keep the whole population well and truly in order.

The new Civil Contingencies Bill, which would give a government authority to act in the face of terrorist threat or action, replaces powers contained in the Emergency Powers Act 1920, the 1948 Civil Defence Act and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986. It defines an emergency as ‘an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the UK or a part or region’. The state of emergency is to be announced, without initial reference to Parliament, by the Queen making an Order in Council or by declaration of a senior minister.

The regulations set down by the Bill contain an awesomely wide range of activities which it would be in the state’s power to control. By Clause 21, a government may ‘provide for or enable’ the requisition or destruction of property (with or without compensation); the prohibition or requirement of movement to or from a specified place; the prohibition of assemblies of specified kinds at specified places or at specified times; the prohibition of travel at specified times; and last but not least, the prohibition of ‘other specified activities’.

In other words, under these regulations a government can, at a stroke, isolate whole cities, control media outlets, close down telecommunications and email and prevent travel. It could ban protest demonstrations and add at will to the list of activities to be prohibited. Failure to comply with any of the provisions or with a direction or order given under the regulations will be a criminal offence. These powers, which may be used if a government judges there is sufficient threat not only to the nation as a whole but to a part of the nation alone, would be a powerful weapon in any totalitarian state’s armoury. Here is the key to the absolute control of the nation that Blunkett, in his lighter moments, must dream of.

The first emergency powers for Northern Ireland were passed in 1922, and these and a host of subsequent powers were subsumed in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974. In 2000, all the anti-terror legislation was consolidated in the Terrorism Act to form the most stringent corpus of law in Western Europe, though the effect of the laws and the policing strategies that grew up to implement them was chiefly to harden the Nationalist population against the British Government and the security forces.

It would have been reasonable to expect some replication of the tactics used in Northern Ireland in response to the new threat, given the view of the former commissioner of the Met, Sir Kenneth Newman, that Northern Ireland made an ideal laboratory for policing methods to be tested out, before being applied to the mainland.

In The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in Northern Ireland (2002), Fionnula Ní Aoláin has identified three phases in the cycle of policing – militarisation, normalisation and, finally, counter-insurgency. In 1972 the Government’s immediate reaction to the Troubles was to bring in the Army and to give it the lion’s share of law enforcement, with the RUC acting alongside it in a subsidiary role. The use of the military is a far more sensitive issue on the mainland, but the appearance of soldiers at Heathrow and the freeing up of armed MOD policemen (not to mention British Transport policemen) to act outside their bases show that militarisation is an available option. Whether MOD policemen have already seen action, say, on the streets of London, we don’t of course know.

By 1976, the Government had recognised that there could be no purely military solution in Ireland, the policy was reversed and the job of policing in Ulster fell primarily to the RUC. The Constabulary equipped themselves with heavy weaponry, and established specialist cadres, including the notorious Divisional Mobile Support Units (DMSU), effectively a paramilitary wing.

In 1982, a number of DMSU shootings led to several investigations into an alleged shoot to kill policy, the most notable headed by John Stalker, then deputy chief constable of Manchester. Stalker’s inquiry was continually obstructed by elements within the RUC and he was eventually, and very controversially, dismissed from the police. The findings of his inquiry were never published. ‘I have never experienced, nor had any of my team, such an influence over an entire police force by one small section,’ he said of the RUC Special Branch.

Every British Government since the late 1960s has insisted that policing in Northern Ireland was more or less the same as anywhere else – with certain adjustments. Among the adjustments were internment without trial, the abolition of trial by jury, the progressive elimination of common law safeguards, the use of brutal methods of interrogation, and the abuse of powers of arrest, and of stop and search.

Behind the attempt to reposition the police in Northern Ireland in the post conflict market (the RUC having been given a George Cross before being dragged kicking and screaming to the Orange Lodge retirement home) lies a British law enforcement agency’s atrocious record of human rights abuses, subversion of the law and even murder.

Arani & Co, Solicitors occupies three or four rooms on the first floor above some shops on South Road in Southall, a main street lined with Indian restaurants, travel shops, supermarkets and the first pub in England to accept rupees in payment for beer. Muddassar Arani, a woman in her thirties, is the sole proprietor. Her clients include a number of people who have been detained or arrested under the new Terrorism Acts. We sit either side of a huge wooden desk covered in files and Dictaphone tapes. The office is dingy and lit by fluorescent strips. Behind the desk hangs Arani’s practising certificate from the Law Society. Further along the wall hangs an inscription from the Koran. From outside comes the noise of cars splashing through puddles. Arani talks quickly, anxious not to miss details, concerned to get her points across.

Mr A, arrested under the Terrorism Act, asked to speak to Arani, in order to instruct her as his solicitor. She didn’t hear from him but news that he had been arrested got out and someone else contacted Arani asking her to represent him. Arani phoned the police station repeatedly and was told Mr A did not want her to represent him. At the end she was told that he had instructed another lawyer. When Mr A was released without charge, he told her that he had not only given her card to the Special Branch officer interviewing him but had insisted that he wanted her to represent him. Special Branch ordered him to select one of the duty solicitors.

Mr B was in a car which was pulled over by the police. He had committed a traffic offence and arrangements had to be made for his car to be collected while he was taken to the police station. A group of young Muslim men, friends and relatives of his, came to drive it away. During the short journey, they were stopped by armed police officers who held guns to their heads. ‘Fucking Pakis, if you look at me, I’ll blow your heads off,’ one of the officers said. The group were taken to the police station, detained for 36 hours, then released without charge. None of them was interviewed. The following day a member of the group was taking his child to the shops in the car. Once again, he was surrounded by armed police officers and once again subjected to racial abuse. It turned out there’d been a mistake. The police had forgotten to remove the vehicle registration from a database of suspect cars.

Mr C was one of four men making their way to the mosque for Friday prayers. They were surrounded by armed police and ordered not to move. Police dogs brought the men to the floor. Mr C was bitten on the leg. Eventually the dogs were ordered off and the men were taken to the police station. No immediate medical attention was given to Mr C and he had to ask for an antiseptic to clean his own wound. Later a police doctor examined him and he was taken to hospital, where his wound was stitched. Then he was taken back to the station, detained in police custody with the others for 36 hours and released without charge.

Mr D, who is involved in charity work with orphaned children, was arrested and accused of assisting in the financing of terrorism. After six days in custody, he was released without charge. Police officers then called round to his home on the pretext of returning his passport. They told him they knew he was innocent and asked him to become an informant.

Arani herself has been accused of passing on to terrorists material disclosed to her in the course of her work. On one occasion, Special Branch officers requested a meeting to obtain information from her on her clients. Arani refused to discuss their cases: ‘Nothing came of the meeting. It seemed more as if it was an assessment of me.’ She is aware that Special Branch has been asking questions about her. ‘I think the fact that MI5 officers have actually gone into the community and asked about me indicates they have opened a file, which means – God knows why – they regard me as a threat. If my phones are bugged and I’m being watched, they’re going to have a very sad time.’

Her most depressing recollection is of her client Sulayman Zain-ul-Abidin, a Muslim convert. Formerly involved in radical black politics, he became a committed follower of Islam and a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. He had been working as a chef for many years but by the 1990s he had also set up a security firm, with a website offering the chance to go on the ‘ultimate jihad challenge’, a self-defence training course in America. The offer was only ever taken up by one person, a security guard from Sainsbury’s. Sulayman attracted the attention of Special Branch and MI5, who made several attempts to recruit him as an agent. After 11 September the Evening Standard ran a story about the website claiming that Sulayman was sending Muslims to train in Afghanistan. The Labour MP for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, raised the matter in Parliament. Ten days after the newspaper article was published, Sulayman became the first Muslim to be arrested and detained under the Terrorism Act 2000. He was charged with inviting another to receive weapons training and possessing a firearm without a firearm certificate. On 9 August 2002, after a five-week trial at the Old Bailey, Sulayman was acquitted. Arani found that in the early stages of the proceedings, the media had more details about the case than she had.

The story has a bleak postscript. Sulayman lost the council house where he’d been living with his wife for 15 years and ended up in bed and breakfast accommodation, the publicity surrounding his trial ensuring that he couldn’t find a job. In November, he was admitted to hospital for treatment to an ulcer on the knee. In hospital he caught an infection, and on 22 December 2002 he died.

‘When Sulayman was acquitted,’ Arani says, ‘I asked him whether he wanted to make a statement, but he blamed the press for putting him inside and wouldn’t speak to them. ‘I’d like a curry,’ he said. ‘Treat me to a curry.’

From what Arani tells me it seems that many people are approached by Special Branch and MI5 to work as agents and informers in the Muslim community. In one case, a man had to resort to the threat of an injunction to thwart an intelligence officer’s zealous attempts to woo him.

Informants are the life-blood of secret police work. The unique selling point of the Branch is its knowledge of local communities and its ability to infiltrate them in a way that MI5 can’t, using its closeness to conventional policing as cover. But identifying potential recruits is one thing: they still have to be persuaded to take on the role, and in the Muslim community the old ways have backfired.

Anas Altikriti, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, has witnessed the effects of Special Branch’s clumsy approaches. ‘By the end of the 1990s our Islamic centres and mosques had matured enough to come out of their ghetto-like neighbourhoods. But then, all of a sudden, the community was targeted by sections of the security services and now again there is a feeling that you have to stick together. If you tell on a member of the community, you are joining forces with the intelligence services, with the BNP even. Since 11 September Special Branch have been quite open about wanting people to talk to them – there have even been concerted attempts to recruit people who are leaders of prayers. But they disregarded a very important cultural notion. To spy is to commit a serious breach of the fundamentals of Islam. Spying is condemned by the Koran and there is no room for interpretation.’

When it was discovered that Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was a British Muslim, more than a hundred mosques and Islamic centres were visited by the police. ‘Do you have any relations with the Taliban?’ was one opening gambit used to win over law-abiding Muslims to the cause of the secret state. Another was to assert that the interviewee’s name had been found in the caves of Tora Bora. ‘This drive for information,’ Altikriti continues, ‘has been confined to Muslims, adding to the feeling that we mustn’t co-operate. To a large extent the police were left none the wiser because very few people if any came forward with information. Maybe in the meantime we have destroyed something essential to our security, and that is confidence between the police and the community. Unless the Government is brave and says this is silly, these people have been living among us for donkey’s years, they are well behaved, they look after themselves, they live in strong family units’ – he breaks off. ‘Something that happened in America ought not to change that perception. Unless the Government does something, I can see the potential for a clash of some sort and that frightens me because it will not be in anyone’s best interests.’

It’s hard to imagine white citizens of the UK mainland being treated in this way. One sometimes gets the sense that the police are experiencing a liberation. For the first time in a long while, they are spearheading a cause behind which their core constituency of conservative whites can unite without shame and which requires the robust policing methods that rank and file coppers long to employ. ‘We’ve got the powers,’ a WPC tells me. ‘Maybe we will be allowed to use them this time.’ Another constable echoes her remarks: ‘I’ve been trained to use a shield. I’ve been trained to enter houses. We should be using our powers.’

The danger is not only that resentment will be created where none existed before but that intelligence will cease to flow even when there is a genuine threat. Mr X agrees. ‘The real difficulty in all of this,’ he says, ‘is a lack of bright coppers. Those we have got are stretched far too thinly. Special Branch and MI5 have realised that they have no chance of successfully inserting agents into the close-knit Muslim community and instead have concentrated on attempting to turn some of its members.

‘Of course we’re also employing electronic signals and visual intelligence. It’s just that at the present time, we don’t have the software to cope with the amount of hits we’re receiving from intercepted cellphone calls. We’re having to resort to cruder methods.’ Mr X says that colleagues of his ‘in the field’ have been surprised at how quickly suspected members of al-Qaida have talked, once separated from their comrades. Mr X does not say what the ‘cruder methods’ are.

Past the Arsenal stadium, which seems to rise from out of the gardens of the terraced houses that surround it, past the Christian bookshop, past the Jewish charity headquarters and the shop selling magic African charms. On into Little Algiers, that section of the Blackstock Road around which the first generation of Algerian immigrants in London have congregated. It is late afternoon in November 2003, during Ramadan, and the salons de thé and patisseries are beginning to lift their shutters and pull out their awnings, ready for their customers to come when it is time to break fast.

The police are scared of the Algerians, and since 11 September they have been more heedful of French warnings. Given the size of the community – under ten thousand – a disproportionate number have been questioned or arrested in relation to terrorist offences. And it isn’t only the police: other Muslim groups I have talked to speak of them as ‘hot-headed’ or ‘radicalised’ in their Islamic belief.

I’m to meet M. in one of the cafés along the main street. Its interior is painted in the fiery reds and sun-burst oranges of Oran and the Algiers they have left behind. The man behind the counter points M. out, one in a long row of well-groomed young men with short, dark hair slicked back and a penchant for leather jackets and duffle coats. Raï plays from a tape recorder. We take a walk along the Blackstock Road, which, as the day darkens, increasingly takes on the atmosphere of the kasbah.

‘Our community,’ M. says, ‘is very grateful to the British. British men shake hands with us. Not like the French. We are a first-generation community and we have not had time to learn the ways like the Pakistanis and Indians have. But in time we will lay down our own roots here.’ M. talks of his children attending London schools and the efforts of the Algerians to participate in the life of the wider community. We are greeted by some of the men standing in the doorways as we pass. I ask M. about the impact on the Algerian community of 11 September.

‘Of course we are visited by Special Branch, many of us. They come along with long lists of names, asking who we know, to identify people.’ A young boy comes roaring past and bursts into song:

Je vais, je vais, je vais à la guerre

Je vais, je vais, je vais à la guerre

Où vas-tu, Nicole, avec le grand chien?

There is a ripple of applause and laughter as he ducks into one of the shops.

‘Things are not so good,’ M. continues, ‘when the police raid the tea-shops and the cafés. They perform searches. Sometimes they are armed. It’s not necessary to do this. We want to be here.’ And then M. shows me a curious sight.

In a residential side-street, dark except for the pools of light cast by street lamps, clusters of men loiter on the pavement and in the driveways of the houses. Some wander up and down with their arms linked, turning silver as they pass under a street light, others smoke. These are Algerians who do not want to be monitored by the CCTV cameras that have been installed on the main road.

‘They have been told by the police that it is for their protection. It’s not like in Algeria where the police are different. I and others have tried to explain this.’ M. believes in British fair play, but his compatriots, promenading much to the annoyance of several of the street’s residents, may have a point. In securing the conviction of seven men for plots to bomb electricity sub-stations in London in 1997, the police had 20,000 hours of CCTV footage to provide as evidence – tens of thousands of surveillance hours had also been logged.

‘There are some of course who cause trouble,’ M. says, and he gesticulates down the street. ‘They are to be found. But if you listen to the Turkish shopkeepers, as the media do, then we are responsible for everything.’ We have walked to the outer limits of Little Algiers, and we part in front of a tiny fish and chip shop whose fluorescent light projects a dirty yellow stain onto the pavement at our feet. Two men watch us idly through the window of the shop, elbows propped on the counter, nighthawks of Finsbury Park.

Lack of co-ordination between the French and the British, highlighted by the British refusal to provide information about Algerians in the 1990s, has persuaded the police that one of the main difficulties they have in their dealings with Islamist-inspired ‘super-terror’ is that, as never before, international issues are to be played out on the beat of British bobbies rather than in far-flung corners of the globe. Think of the difficulties constabularies have in talking to one another across county boundaries on relatively minor matters, goes the argument. What hope have they of successfully linking up with Interpol or the FBI?

Special Branch has the matter in hand, as befits an organisation that has just appointed its first woman chief and has a higher proportion of graduates and foreign-language speakers than any other section of the police. A review of the organisation carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) gives a rare insight into the Branch’s workings and structure, recognises certain failings in the present regime and provides a solution, one with which Special Branch concurs: to make our secret police more autonomous and more powerful than ever before.

The report, entitled A Need to Know, begins by stressing the ‘vital importance of extending the reach of the national security agencies by further utilising the close links between the local police and the communities in which they work . . . This two-way linkage, or "golden thread", is notably absent from the national security structures of some countries,’ the report’s writer adds, unable to resist a measure of jingoism – what self-respecting copper could? The rosy glow doesn’t bode well. ‘It was therefore pleasing,’ the report continues, ‘to find that much of the mystique surrounding the work of Special Branch is already dissipating in a climate of greater openness generated by the intelligence and security agencies themselves.’ On the contrary, I’d say: the Branch’s stonewalling of my inquiries was surpassed only by that of Gareth Peirce, the defence solicitor for several terrorist suspects.

The report’s underlying message is that, to a large extent, Special Branch is already a national police force. ‘The Metropolitan Police has the largest Special Branch under the direction of a commander . . . The size of the Branch permits a high degree of autonomy and specialisation and a full range of dedicated operational resources; it also reflects MPSB’s major commitment to full-time VIP protection.’ In other words, the Met Special Branch has the capacity to function independently and, some would say, has many of the characteristics of a self-governing institution. ‘In addition to the more traditional territorially based roles of Special Branch,’ the report continues, ‘the MPSB also carries a unique range of national responsibilities’ – which includes the training, alongside its sister organisation MI5, of all the other Special Branches.

These are the first clear indications of the report’s ultimate aim. HMIC, we are told, ‘identified a pressing need to rationalise Special Branch resources on a basis that provides greater evenness within each region and perhaps also nationally’. To reinforce the message, a number of criticisms are made of the way things are currently organised: provincial Special Branches lack a clear sense of their role, have excessively complex structures and receive arbitrary levels of funding. Some Special Branches have inadequate resources to carry out their national duties and Special Branch as a whole lacks a nationwide, co-ordinated IT system.

HMIC explicitly considered the creation of a national secret police. Operationally, this was thought to be the optimum solution, but the report doesn’t recommend it on the grounds that the country, and the rest of the police, would not yet find it acceptable. Instead, HMIC essentially recommends the creation of a national organisation by stealth. Regional Special Branches would be set up under regional directors with command being taken away from individual constabularies. This reorganisation would be combined with the formal establishment of a post of national co-ordinator of Special Branch at deputy chief constable level.

Last year, in a special feature in the Guardian, Nick Davies, writing on the UK’s response to terror, drew attention to the faults listed in the report and proposed the creation of an overarching national security agency. The article seemed to accept at face value all the complaints the police make about the uselessness of other agencies – Customs, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad – involved in fighting terror and entertained without demur the officers’ continual pleas for more power, more money. Davies doesn’t consider the possibility that more centralised powers in the hands of a monolithic, national secret police force might be a bad thing. The questions he asks are those that Special Branch wants asked. ‘Why do we divide the investigation of serious crime from counter-terrorism; how can we create powerful national agencies . . . who is going to devise a central strategy; and who will enforce it?’ We might have expected a measure of scepticism: instead, we find meek acceptance. To create a vast secret organisation combining the functions of Special Branch and MI5 at the very least makes hostages to fortune of our civil liberties.

In reality, Special Branch is well on the way to becoming a national police force even without the implementation of the report’s recommendations. The events of 11 September have spawned a number of committees whose exact remit, lines of command and influence are impossible to discern from the outside: how many people have heard of the National Counter-Terrorism and Security Office (NaCTSO) or the even more obscure PICTU (Police International Counter-Terrorist Unit), which contains members of the security services, and which operates through Special Branch and its allied anti-terrorist branch? These organisations, with a distinct deficit in accountability, are in charge of the country’s law enforcement response to the perceived terrorist threat.

So, Special Branch has never been in such healthy shape. It has staged a remarkable recovery from its immediate post Cold War days. Statewatch, the European human rights organisation, has compiled its own report, which shows that over the UK as a whole, the Branch is twice the size it was in the early 1990s. In an atmosphere of unquantifiable threat Special Branch prospers.

The long-term project of creating an overarching security framework advances quietly, despite the fact that in the one crucial task they have recently been given – the penetration of the Muslim community – Special Branch and the intelligence services have failed adequately to deliver. This has led to the opening of a second front: an invitation to moderate Muslims to enlist in the multicultural cause – a favourite New Labour theme. To some Muslims, this tactic – carrot to the stick of armed raids and internment – is infinitely more dangerous than the more obvious threat of Heckler and Koch-toting policemen.

Superficially concerned with persuading the Muslim community that no one system of thought has primacy in the UK, this is a deliberate attempt to promote the values of the Western liberal state. But at this level of law enforcement as social policy, the UK is at a disadvantage. In France, where the separation of religion and the state is a constitutional principle, a ban against the wearing of the hijab in schools is being enforced with vigour. In the UK, a monarch who is head of both church and state and Anglican bishops sitting in the House of Lords stand in the way of an appeal to secularism.

These conceptual confusions are echoed in the implementation of the policy. The chief bearers of the good news of multicultural relativism to Muslim communities are, incredibly, the police. They have been given the task of treading softly in this highly sensitive area, while at the same time kicking in doors and searching for ricin.

As I stand in the reception area of New Scotland Yard, waiting to be collected by a press officer, I look round the foyer. It is full of visitors reading the Met’s in-house magazine and studying the Roll of Honour, a list of police officers who have died in the course of duty. Wandering round, I notice among the various plaques and memorabilia a framed NYPD badge, given to the Met as an expression of solidarity after 11 September by the widow of the policeman who wore it.

Superintendent David Tucker is head of the Met’s Diversity Directorate, the public face of the alternative strategy for countering terror. I am led along a grey Civil Service corridor to his office on one of the building’s higher floors. Superintendent Tucker is used to dealing with press and he adopts a practised tone of informality: ‘We put in a huge amount of effort because we recognise that the Muslim community is such a significant minority community in Britain. We have established within London the Muslim Safety Forum, a national group chaired by the assistant commissioner. The idea is that he should be in charge to indicate very clearly how important we think community contacts are.’

That the Forum is seen by some as a useful route to intelligence-gathering when other, traditional methods of recruitment have failed is something Superintendent Tucker would no doubt reject, but he doesn’t deny that there are close links between more direct anti-terrorist policing and the Diversity Directorate. ‘All officers dealing with terrorism receive training around the need for cultural sensitivity and every officer has a guide to policing diversity. One of the officers from Special Branch was promoted into the role from here so we do get a crossover of skills. Not only that but the diversity unit goes to major meetings about security.’

Might a lack of cultural understanding on the part of the police be hampering the detection of terrorism?

‘This goes beyond terrorism. What you have here is a broadly secular society trying to cope with Islam. Secular society finds it difficult to cope with that level of devotion to a faith because even those people who would call themselves Christians probably don’t follow Christianity in the way and to the extent the Muslim community do.’ The superintendent is conscious of the need to show that he has attended to the technicalities of political correctness, but that does not stop him betraying an anxiety about Muslim sensitivities which doesn’t seem to extend to other faiths. ‘I think it is a question of understanding that we shouldn’t assume other people’s values are the same as our own. And faith is very important to the Muslim community in this country. You have to be really careful about using words, so one of the things we have now is a press protocol that says you do not use words from faiths unless you really have to.’

Yet for all that, he delivers the uncompromising message of the liberal-authoritarian New Labour Government with zeal: ‘Our job is to ensure that we give people the opportunity to engage in the democratic process. I think we are doing that much better with Muslim communities than we have done in the past. And that the more they are able to get their views across through the ordinary democratic processes, the more they believe that is the right way and that it is effective, the less likely you are to have extremists. I think we’ve been very successful. We’ve just got to keep moving on that and keep working and explaining to people that this is really why we are doing things, striking a balance and saying: ‘well if you are in the process then you can affect us, if you’re not then you can’t.’

There are, however, Muslims who believe that the police are using Superintendent Tucker’s policy of rapprochement to strike at their religion. Dr Abdullah Robin is one of these. He is a spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation that calls for the re-establishment of the caliphate and wants to bring this about through argument and intellectual engagement.

The night before we meet, Dr Robin attended an emergency meeting in a South London mosque after a terrorist suspect had allegedly been forced to kneel in an attitude of submission in front of several officers. ‘Where is your God now?’ one of them asked. The suspect was then punched and kicked, and ended up in hospital with internal bleeding, a black eye and severe bruising. The incident has united the Muslim community, who have formed an organisation called Stop Police Terror. Dr Robin sees the strategic ‘softly softly’ approach of the Diversity Directorate and the direct, colonial style of anti-terror policing as aspects of the same policy.

‘Supporters of Western liberal values may talk a good game about tolerance, free speech and the rule of law,’ Dr Robin says, ‘but the introduction of draconian anti-terror legislation, mass surveillance, bugging and monitoring campaigns and the waves of arrests reveal the true nature of Western values.’ Dr Robin believes that Western liberal societies are as militant and fundamentalist as any projected Islamist state of the sort that Bush and Blair warn against. ‘This problem should be put in perspective. The main issue in the grand scheme of things is not the activities of a few young men in Gloucester and Dudley but the tens of thousands of young men in Western armies.’

Dr Robin and others like him are adamant that Western societies have failed to integrate Muslims through appeals to multicultural values and now seek to do so by force. Connected to this is Blunkett’s recent announcement of the need for Britain to train its own imams, a crude proposition, even by Blunkett’s standards, another try at creating a caste of informants. Beyond this the proposal demonstrates to Muslims that, for the Home Secretary, terrorism is intimately connected to their religion.

‘The challenge for us all is to ensure that the latest attempts at cultural imperialism do not succeed. We must ensure that the imams are able to relate to youth but not at the expense of producing a Western-diluted Islam, the type of Islam which would prevent support for the Palestinians against Israel, the type of Islam which allows Iraq to be occupied, the type of Islam which condemns jihad but supports Western colonialism, the type of Islam that believes women are oppressed if they wear Islamic clothing but liberated if they wear bikinis. The type of Islam that involves the passing on, in contravention of the basic tenets of our belief, of clandestine information about people who regularly visit the mosque, promote Islam and who may give their zakat to people in Palestine and Iraq.’

For others, like Abdul Ullah, the world of Muslim Safety Forums and borough liaison officers is a comfortable environment. The fields of ecumenism and integration are his natural habitat. Ullah is an aspiring politician, a sharp-suited member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the watchdog for the police in London. For him, there is no obvious difficulty in reconciling the demands of the secular state with those of his religion. He meets me, halfway through the month of Ramadan, after a busy morning showing a German TV crew and a delegation from the Foreign Office around the East London Mosque. Ullah begins by showing me the £10 million London Muslim Centre which is being built next to the mosque and across the road from a synagogue. ‘This project is being built in partnership with the community,’ he says. ‘When it’s completed, as a gesture of goodwill to the synagogue their walls will be face-lifted also. But this type of news never gets reported.’

A reception for the new police borough liaison officer was held at the mosque by the East London Muslim community. Ullah mentions, too, that a local Roman Catholic church has lent the mosque its hall for night prayer. ‘After 11 September, there were police officers outside the mosque. I was asked why they were there, because, you know, people see me as the link between the Met and the public. I said: "They are here to protect you while you perform your prayers.” It was a fairly elderly bloke who asked. He had been in this country for 40 years and he was amazed that the police were doing that sort of thing. So that was a positive sign of the police trying to serve the community.’

‘Would you like to stay for prayers?’ Ullah asks. He directs me to a gallery above the foyer of the mosque from which I can see into the prayer hall. The building is now filling with hundreds of males of all ages. They throw their shoes down by the entrance and soon pyramids spring up where trainers and slip-ons and boots have been discarded. The latecomers have to get upstairs to the gallery in order to find some space. ‘Are you praying?’ several ask me politely, and I say that I’m not, taking a step backwards each time as row upon row is formed with guardsman-like precision until I am pressed up against the back wall of the gallery, with several ranks of the faithful in front.

The prayers begin, carried to us by loudspeaker, and the Muslims prostrate themselves. There is no self-consciousness, no embarrassed laughter. For those few minutes, the congregation of the East London Mosque show a unity of purpose and concentration, at least in their outward submission to Allah. The precise actions of the body in prayer, down to the positioning of the left foot, heel slightly off the floor, toes turned inwards, seem to speak of a profound discipline. It is a demonstration of popular devotion of a type not seen in Christian churches for decades, and its intensity is incomprehensible to the secular Western mind. It frightens us and it contributes to the creation of an image of the Muslim as a fanatic with ambiguous loyalties which leads Superintendent Tucker, for all his efforts to be diverse, value-free and culturally sensitive, to speak of the Muslim community as if it were a hornets’ nest which, fingers crossed, will not be stirred up.

After prayers, there are handshakes and smiles all round and it takes me several minutes to push my way against the good-humoured tide to rejoin my host. As I leave the mosque, I am introduced to the imam. He cannot speak English but Ullah translates his words of welcome and I wonder whether even here, in this model of moderate Islam, Blunkett’s words penetrate, and with what effect.

Just up the road from the London Muslim Centre, in the no man’s land where Whitechapel becomes the Square Mile and where City wide boys and their mini-skirted peroxide girlfriends pass burka-clad women pushing prams, there is a piece of graffiti on a shop wall: ‘Bin Laden lives in E1.’ It is impossible to know whether this is a bigot’s attempt to label the entire Muslim population of Whitechapel or an expression of solidarity. Either way, it is clear that one side of the partnership is not yet on message.

An illustration of the confusion of policing methods in the war against terror, and of the type of imam the Government wants rid of, is provided by Abu Hamza al-Masri, imam of Finsbury Park Mosque. The mullah the tabloids love to hate, Hamza is known for his bombastic sentiments and fierce Algerian following, but he is a draw for radicalised young men of all nationalities. In January 2003 the Finsbury Park Mosque was raided by police in a military-style operation involving helicopters and abseiling through skylights. Now the Met closes off the road in front of the mosque so that Hamza can preach and his followers can pray outside the building which they have prevented him from using.

It is the time for Friday prayers, and I am waiting for Hamza to arrive, and for prayers to begin. A Danish film crew are trying to interview the few Muslims who have turned up early to say their prayers in this side-street just off the Blackstock Road. An Englishman dressed in salwar kameez, with a ginger curling beard and wild frizzing hair which give him an agricultural aspect, like a tenant farmer in a Hardy novel, has set up a trestle table to sell books just behind the police van blocking entry to the street from the main road. At the far end of the road, another police van performs the same function. On sale are various leaflets: reprints of articles by John Pilger and Robert Fisk, discourses on the evils of Christianity and what to do if arrested by the security services. A well-thumbed copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is going for a tenner.

Further down the street, past the steel crowd-control barriers which line the pavement on both sides outside the mosque, I spot two young men. One is wrapping a kaffiyeh around his head so that only his eyes can be seen. This is one of Abu Hamza’s bodyguards. I approach him and he begins to back away: ‘No comment no comment no comment no comment,’ he chants, at the same time panicking that his disguise is going to become untied. He retreats into the entrance hall of a block of flats. The other bodyguard, already in full disguise, stands his ground and stares at me, silently.

Back up the road, a few more of the brothers have gathered by the bookstall. They greet each other, thumping a right hand to their chest before offering it to be grasped in a clasp of welcome. The Danish TV crew swoop on a young man who stands smiling, inviting approach. He has turned up here today for the first time, an Abu Hamza groupie.

A man in his twenties, with a long, bearded face and aquiline nose, wearing a white turban and long white robe, comes over to speak to me. He is a Syrian, in London to learn English. He has been worshipping at Finsbury Park Mosque for two years. I ask him about the presence of the police. ‘It makes me feel safe,’ he says. ‘It is good to have these cameras here’ – he points to the CCTV camera mounted on a tall pole outside the mosque which pans around the gathering, recording all the time – ‘and the policemen so we can pray in peace.’ By now, the TV crew are interviewing a man who is well over six feet tall, barrel-chested and with a full beard. He has a commanding presence. The Syrian points to him.

‘He is a Cypriot, I think. He likes to compare the Koran and the Bible to show the truth, that Jesus is no more than a prophet.’ The big Cypriot is holding court to a growing number of Muslims, all male of course, all in their late teens and twenties. A pale, unshaven blond-haired man in a filthy leather jacket and faded jeans hobbles up to the group, walking painfully. At first I think he is a tramp who is hoping to beg from the brothers, but he is greeted with much heart-thumping and handshaking. The man is from Chechnya. Though he speaks very little English, he is willing to be interviewed by the film crew who have zeroed in on him, as long as they don’t film his face. An Arab has begun to berate the Chechnyan.

‘Brother, don’t speak to them. Only tell the Kufr that you are happy to worship here. Your English is not good enough.’

An argument breaks out between the Arab and a black man. ‘He can do what he wants. Let him speak. It’s his right.’

‘Don’t be angry with me, brother,’ the Arab says.

‘I’m a Jamaican, this is how we speak,’ the Jamaican responds, angrily.

The Cypriot turns to the Danish cameraman. ‘Don’t film this.’ Immediately, the cameraman retreats. I get the sense that on this side-street, at this moment, another type of law prevails.

A middle-aged police sergeant approaches the Cypriot deferentially and speaks quietly to him. In the road in front of the mosque, people are laying down large squares of blue plastic sheeting, which are then weighed down by bricks and stones. The number of Muslims has increased to about forty. Combat chic is all the rage, with some of the young men wearing camouflage body-warmers, some military-style trousers. A man goes up to the Syrian. He is squat and strong, his long hair falling past his shoulders. He, too, is dressed in a combat jacket and jeans. The two greet each other, and the squat man, another Syrian, begins to organise the laying out of the tarpaulins. The atmosphere is like that of a boxing gym. The men seem to enjoy being able to demonstrate affection and respect without impugning their masculinity. The handful of older men – the Cypriot, the Syrian, a couple of others – direct them through their tasks. The police sergeant stands to one side with the other officers – a woman and a man – who will patrol the service.

Suddenly, Abu Hamza appears at the far end of the tarpaulin near an armchair which has been placed in the middle of the road. A surprisingly ethereal figure against the bright winter sunlight, he stands on his own, his white robe billowing in the wind, as one of the henchmen sets up a rickety PA system. A microphone is clipped onto the sheikh, as they call him, and a Dictaphone is placed round his neck.

The Muslims take off their shoes and form rows on the tarpaulin. There are now more than a hundred of them. Just as the show is about to get going, a woman comes out of one of the houses in the street and gets in her car: a helper is deputed to move the piles of shoes which have formed a drift around the vehicle. This is the first act of defiance I have witnessed, but it is matched by several more, as residents make a show of carrying on their normal business, bumping the brothers out of the way with their shopping and baby buggies. These intrusions agitate the policeman. He positions himself next to me, halfway up the prayer area, behind the crowd-control barriers. The WPC stands nearest to the sheikh and a PC sits on the bonnet of a car a little way behind his colleague.

After introductory prayers, led by the Arab involved in the argument with the Jamaican, Abu Hamza preaches for around an hour about the political situation in Saudi Arabia. He speaks in Arabic and then in English. The Cypriot does not pray. He stands apart from those who do, surveying them and the crowd, taking notes. The other lieutenants do not join in the prayers either, but patrol the area, watching, checking the crowd. The Cypriot approaches the policeman and they speak in low voices, their heads together. It is clear who is running the operation. The policeman thanks the Cypriot ‘for letting him know’ and immediately walks around the tarpaulin, behind Abu Hamza, to the WPC. She begins to smile, as if reacting to a joke, but realising that whatever it is has been said in all seriousness, shakes her head incredulously. Her smile vanishes. She retreats to a distance deemed suitable by the Cypriot. The sergeant returns to his place next to me.

‘Thanks, boss,’ the Cypriot says to him, and walks off.

Later, a photographer tries to get past us to take a photograph.

‘Oh no, you can’t go further than that with the camera,’ the sergeant says – and once again, the look of disbelief.

‘Why not?’

‘Well, it would upset them. They would n0t like it. They’ll tell you when they want photos taken.’ The photographer shakes her head and retreats. The sergeant makes a note in his pocketbook. Later still, when he has moved to a different position, a bystander gets out a small digital camera and is about to take some pictures when one of Hamza’s lieutenants intervenes, putting his hand across the man’s arm to make sure he gets the message.

After Abu Hamza has finished preaching and the concluding prayers have been sung, his chair is moved onto the pavement outside a block of flats. He sits, an emir flanked by his two bodyguards. A couple of teenagers bring out copies of Intifadah magazine to sell and the TV crew eagerly seizes on the image. I approach the Syrian in the combat jacket and ask whether he would be prepared to speak to me about his experience of the police.

‘No.’ He stares the intimidatory stare I had seen earlier.

Would anyone?

‘No,’ and he stands up close, bouncer-style, to let me know that I’m not welcome.

Does he have any comments at all?

‘No.’ He doesn’t move and I have to step round him in order to walk towards the spot where the sheikh is holding his audience.

‘Terrorism – drugs and crime, that’s true terrorism,’ someone says. A group of boys debate, as boys do, the merits of the rocket-propelled grenade as a method of taking out Chinook helicopters. By the time I reach the huddle around the sheikh, news has travelled and I am not welcome. A teenager making a documentary is pushed forward to say his piece. He sets up his video camera.

‘Salaam aleikum.’

‘Aleikum as-salaam,’ the whole of the huddle responds as one.

‘Sheikh, what do you think of the bias of the media against you?’ There are approving nods from the huddle.

‘I expect it of the Kufr media,’ he replies. And then, as its sole representative to hand, I am unceremoniously shoved out by the mass of believers.

From a distance, I watch the sergeant kicking his heels as Abu Hamza greets the last of his followers on this bright, cold November day. After a while he walks over to them.

‘I’m sorry, I think you’re going to have to move now,’ he says. For an instant, I wonder whether he’s decided that now is the time to reassert his authority. ‘It’s just that the road’s open and I wouldn’t want you to get knocked over.’ Mustafa Kemal, the one-eyed former nightclub bouncer, now known as Abu Hamza, looks at him with a smile on his face. I look above the sheikh, to the flats opposite the mosque, up to the name-plate above the entrance: Vaudeville Court.


‘Our view is that most Muslims couldn’t give a fuck about al-Qaida. Like Christians, they just want to get on with their lives.’ As Ramadan draws to a close, I meet Mr X in a pub in Whitehall for the last time. We are here to talk about the Government’s explicit fears of attack.

The Government is extremely concerned about the use of chemical or biological weapons. Two incidents are uppermost in its mind ‘because they are low tech and highly effective’. One is the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway, in which the cult used sarin gas – 12 people died, five thousand were injured. Fatalities would have been far higher had a more effective method of dispersal been used. The other occurred in Oregon in 1984, when followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in ten restaurants in an attempt to take control of a county at local election time, giving 751 people salmonella poisoning in the process.

‘The threat of weapons of mass destruction is a lot smaller than you would think, because Islamists are lacking in technical expertise.’ Mr X says it is a possibility that a rogue scientist in Eastern Europe would be prepared to do some kind of deal with them, but he is confident that attempts to construct a complex weapon will come to the attention of the intelligence services. ‘The problem for the intelligence services arises when there is a state sponsor. Then we can’t tell when or what an organisation is doing. This,’ he says, ‘is one of the reasons Afghanistan was bombed so quickly after 11 September.’

Mr X warms to his subject. ‘September 11 is regarded as a brilliant attack because of its simplicity. The difficulty with weapons of mass destruction is that it becomes obvious to intelligence services what people are up to. From a WMD standpoint, 11 September was interesting too because traces of 70 chemicals that could be classified in this way, a product of aircraft fuel and building debris, were found at Ground Zero.’ In fact, Mr X says, around 10 per cent of the New York Fire Department have had to take early retirement because of the effects of those chemicals.

Mr X knows that public hysteria will be one of the main obstacles to be overcome. Like Magnus Ranstorp, he knows minimal terrorist action can cause maximum disruption. The discovery of only two envelopes containing traces of anthrax spores brought the entire US postal system to a halt. ‘That’s truly a weapon of mass disruption.’

Mr X explains that law enforcement agencies take the opportunity to train whenever there is a tanker spillage or a chemical leak at a plant. ‘But the reality is that, for the first 48 hours after an attack, the targeted location must fend for itself because the Government will have to allow for the possibility of other incidents elsewhere. Do we move all our experts up to, say, Newcastle and then face another attack in Leeds or Birmingham or Cardiff or Edinburgh?’ He leaves me to finish my drink and consider this map of destruction.

The uncomfortable fact remains that since 11 September no reliable evidence of the reality of al-Qaida super-terror has been presented to us. What has become clear is that a drive to create an overpowering body of law enforcement agencies and techniques is well underway. With ATCSA 2001, Britain mirrored the US response to the events of 11 September – the Patriot Act and the setting up of the Department for Homeland Security – but with much less cause and in its own diminutive fashion. In its more subtle, British way, the state has strengthened its powers of surveillance and constraint.

The provisions concerning the indefinite detention of foreign nationals in ATCSA 2001 make it plain that the notion of terror has become synonymous in the Government mind with that of asylum. It is hard not to believe that at least some of David Blunkett’s anti-terror strategy is as much concerned with controlling the immigrant population as it is with the war against al-Qaida. Immigrant equals Muslim equals terrorist: a formula which finds its justification and sustenance in the US response to terror. The United Kingdom’s refusal to acknowledge that, as a mid-sized post-industrial nation, it cannot match the grand imperial gesture of a superpower, and the Government’s fetishising of military prowess as an indication of Blair’s virility on the world stage (never mind the heart, feel the missiles), have led us into an array of morally dubious projects.

The Government’s authoritarian instinct clashes with Blairite multicultural tenets. In normal circumstances, these values are irreconcilable. But at moments of great social and cultural pressure, they are forced into direct opposition, breaching the deeper workings of state co-ordination and the foundations of legitimacy. In such crises, coherent institutions with a strong sense of mission prosper. Police forces may not only act as instruments of state policy but also, given the right circumstances, begin to influence and sometimes formulate it. In any event, it is astonishing that we have reached a pass where a government, on the basis of secret intelligence, will countenance indefinitely imprisoning individuals without trial. There is a real danger that the claim of the secret state that it is losing the never-ending, unprovable war with extremism and terror will result in its winning a far greater prize.

It is early evening, the end of December. New Year is coming and the stakes are being raised. The City of London has extended its checkpoints westwards, the Commissioner of the Met has warned of more unspecified yet imminent attacks, and flights to Washington and Riyadh are being cancelled. As I walk around Regent’s Park, past the American Ambassador’s residence, I notice, slightly further ahead, on the other side of the Outer Circle, the London Central Mosque, its chandelier glistening in the gloom. An armed policeman idly crosses to my side of the pavement.

‘Good evening,’ he says, and smiling, slows to my pace, his finger looped through the trigger guard of his submachine-gun. A disembodied voice from his police radio spits out facts, location reports, questions. The radio crackles with bursts of information, lapses into silence, then flares up again.

‘All quiet?’ a voice inquires across the waves of static.

‘All quiet, boss,’ the radio says. The policeman continues around the curve of the railings, disappearing into the blue-grey dusk.

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Vol. 26 No. 3 · 5 February 2004

John Upton draws attention to the ‘atrocious record of human rights abuses’ by British law enforcement agencies during the Irish conflict, and mentions the Stalker inquiry in that context (LRB, 22 January). He might also have drawn attention to the Cory and Stevens Reports, currently sitting in Tony Blair’s in-tray, which document the systematic collusion between British government agencies and Loyalist terrorists over many years (as does the Barron Report into the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 recently submitted to the Irish Government).

The problem with many of the British Government’s statements concerning ‘terrorism’ (Islamic or otherwise) is one of credibility. The existence of the three reports suggests that there is a willingness to confront the unpleasant reality of state terrorism. The lack of any concrete action on any of them is less encouraging. Similarly, the current threat from Islamic terrorists should be seen in the context of the links between such groups and Western intelligence agencies and special forces during the 1980s. Is it too much to ask that the securocrats who organised, armed and trained these groups might be held to account?

Martin Summers

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