Police test counter-terrorism strategy in Hounslow

With its rows of tandoori takeaways and halal butcher shops, Hounslow, where nearly 30 per cent of the population is either Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, is the epitome of modern British multiculturalism.

But the town’s diversity has also bred destruction. The first ever British suicide bomber to commit an atrocity overseas was from the borough. Asif Hanif, 21, killed three people and injured 55 when he blew himself up in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2003. While Zeeshan Siddiqui, a British Muslim who was put on a control order because of his links to the 7/7 bombers but remains on the run, was brought up in Hounslow.

It is these latter traits which led the Metropolitan Police, when looking for pilot areas for a new counter-terrorism strategy, to alight on Hounslow.

The scheme is part of a Scotland Yard trial which began running in four London boroughs in June 2007, but is now being rolled out across the city. As well as Hounslow, the Prevent Engagement programme started in Waltham Forest, Newham and Tower Hamlets.

Hounslow, in particular, was chosen due to its previous links to terror and the fact, accepted by the police, that terrorist organisations have historically attempted to recruit in the area.

As well as its ethnic demographic, a constant reminder that Hounslow is vulnerable to terrorism is the never-ending stream of airplanes which frequently fly overhead, taking off and landing at Heathrow Airport – one of Britain's most tempting terrorist targets.

Chief Superintendent David Bilson, the Hounslow borough commander explains: “We know there are people here who would want to bring our young people into violent extremism. When we knew that Prevent was developing we were very keen to make sure that we became a part of it.”

In Hounslow’s Gurdwara Sikh temple, a crowd of women gather to speak to PC Karmi Rekhi. The scene is a textbook example of what the police term ‘community policing’ as the ladies bring complaints about anti-social behaviour and ask prosaic questions about home security.

But PC Rekhi’s visit carries an underlying motive. Her remit is not one of a community beat bobby, but rather of a counter-terrorism officer. Her ultimate aim is not to solve growing spates of shed-breaks, but to glean information from ethnic minority communities about potential radicalisers and extremists in their midst.

The scheme involves four officers whose sole remit is to develop and maintain links with the ethnic communities in their area through organisations such as faith centres, schools and youth clubs. The extent of the police attempts to engage with those communities can be seen on a white board in the Hounslow Prevent office where simple phrases have been translated into Arabic so the officers can use them in their encounters.

In the two years the scheme has been running the Metropolitan Police says they have already identified situations where they have been made aware of people showing extremist tendencies.

The force cites the example of a 15-year-old boy who converted to Islam and, according to a member of the public who informed Prevent officers, was ‘prepared to give his life for his religion’. And another case where a boy was referred by his school after he made comments about ‘wanting to go to Iraq and kill Americans’. There was also a primary-school aged girl who remarked that she wanted to join the Tamil Tigers.

The aim is to use the community to help alert police to potential terrorists. Perhaps the best example of such a collaboration can be found in the case of Andrew ‘Isa’ Ibrahim. The 19-year-old former public schoolboy from Bristol planned to blow up a shopping centre in his home city until a tip off from a prominent member of the Muslim community alerted police to his actions.

Back in the Gurdwara, PC Rekhi admits none of the women have come forward with any similar information about extremism. She adds: “The woman come to me with a mixture of problems and I always get the familiar problem of anti-social behaviour or other minor issues, but we do get people coming with information about what is going on in certain houses or people gathering in certain areas. It may not be directly related to counter-terrorism, but it is something for us to look at and be aware of.”

Standing a few yards away minus his shoes and wearing a head cover in observation of Sikh traditions, PC Rekhi’s boss, Inspector Alan Murphy, admits that the decision to hold such a surgery on a Tuesday afternoon – a day officially designated as women’s day at the Gurdwara – is a deliberate one.

He said: “Women know what is going on in communities and, if you think about the al Qa’ida threat, does any woman want to see her son blow himself up? The answer is no, no matter how strong their religions convictions are.”

But such focus on the Muslim communities and other ethnic minorities could be seen to criminalise those groups without due foundation. Chief Supt Bilson will not entertain such a notion. He said: “We are not asking the communities to inform on one another and we are certainly not barging into Mosques and saying ‘tell us where your terrorists are’ that would be crass and it would not work.

“It is not about picking on one community. But yes, we are starting with the Muslim community because they are the ones we know are being targeted for extremism and it is right that is where we target our efforts.”

Insp Murphy adds: “Identifying potential extremists is like completing a puzzle. It is all about little pieces of a jigsaw and the people who have got these pieces are in the communities. We need them to share that information with us.”

But the officers admit that there was some scepticism at the start of the project. Insp Murphy said: “Initially people would say that were were just spies for the Government. Our quandry was do we admit at the beginning that we were a Home Office funded counter terrorism team or do we tell them that later on down the line? We were up front all along. There is no point pretending we were something we were not at the beginning and then telling people later on what we were actually doing. We would have lost any rapport we had built up.”

PC Rekhi added: “There are obviously some concerns. It would not be natural if there were not some concerns with a community being labelled in a particular way, but the way to get over that barrier is by explaining to people what Prevent is about.”

Her explanations seem to have placated most of the religious groups she works with. Mohan Sing Nayyar, the general secretary of the Gurdwara, said: “We are all worried about the threat [of terrorism]. Living in London there is always the threat and living, like we do, next to Heathrow doubles that threat.

“We wish to work with the police to educate the children on how to avoid this. But there are other agencies, if you like, who are seeking to encourage the youngsters [to get involved in extremism] and it is a constant struggle.”

Prem Chand Sondhi, the chairman of the local Hindu temple agrees. With an unintentionally literal choice of words he said: “We are happy to keep in touch with the police and it is good to have that mutual contact because we can tell them about what is going on. If we have any problems developing we can work together to nip it before it explodes.”

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