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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
UK terror laws 'making an impact'

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Twenty-two days after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, the UK government made its first firm move to introduce fresh legislation to tackle terrorism.

Its proposals eventually became law as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act in December 2001.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
Mr Blunkett's measures extend the time suspects can be questioned

This has been the most controversial instrument for fighting international terrorism in Britain, though the majority of arrests have taken place under legislation - such as the Terrorism Act, 2000 - which was in place well before the Twin Towers were brought down.

It is often the case with counter-terrorist activity that what secures the most headlines is not always judged to be the most effective tool.

By introducing legislation which enabled foreign-born terror suspects to be detained indefinitely without trial, the government sent out a robust message about its commitment to protecting the citizens of Britain while provoking a storm of civil liberties protests.

'Potent sanction'

But another section of the act has had a longer-term impact on the supporters of groups like al-Qaeda.

This strikes a blow at the financing of terrorism, permitting the assets of overseas individuals with funds in the UK to be frozen at the start of a police investigation.

It also obliges the financial sector to report its suspicions where there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the money is linked to terrorism.

Given the importance of London as a world banking hub, this has been a potent sanction.

Police poster appealing for vigilance on the London Underground
Police launched a poster campaign urging vigilance on the Tube

At least 45 accounts, holding 70 million, have been frozen, among them assets held in the name of the new Hamas leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

And in April 2003, two Algerians regarded as key pillars of al-Qaeda's funding network were jailed for 11 years at Leicester Crown Court for "entering into a funding arrangement for the purposes of terrorism".

Given the movement of al-Qaeda activists between different countries, the introduction of the European Arrest Warrant is expected to play an important role in disrupting terror cells.

And Britain has taken the lead in forcing through an EU directive which obliges member states to retain airline passenger data to help police and immigration inquiries.

Time window

Meanwhile, a little-noticed amendment to the 2003 Criminal Justice Act has been even more significant in its impact.

This doubled the time terrorist suspects can be held without charge, from seven to 14 days.

With the police required to analyse complex material, such as computer hard drives or potentially dangerous substances, and make inquiries across a number of countries, the extra time window has undoubtedly been of benefit.

The Home Secretary was noticeably keen to claim credit for this when eight men were charged with terrorist offences in August 2004.

Men in masks at Bank Tube Station
Emergency services have simulated a terror attack in London

All anti-terrorist legislation comes at a price.

A controversial clause of the 2001 Act which places a "positive duty to give information about crime" failed at the first hurdle when a woman whose husband took part in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv was acquitted in July 2004.

Her lawyer, Louise Christian, said the prosecution would "increase fears amongst Muslims of unfair treatment by the police and prosecuting authorities".

Muslim groups have made the same charge over the fact that, although most of the 600 people arrested in Britain since 2001 have been Muslim, most of those convicted have not.

Despite the plethora of powers available the Home Secretary has signalled his intention to introduce more.

He is working on a package of measures expected to include an offence of "acts preparatory to terrorism", and a law change to prevent the granting of bail to someone who has been certified as having terrorist links.

The combination of legal sanctions and intelligence which many say has prevented a terrorist outrage in the UK since 9/11 will not be relaxed.

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