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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 15:43 GMT
Fighting terror: Ask our experts
Frank Gardner (left) and John Sweeney
Guests: Frank Gardner (left) and John Sweeney
[News Host] Hello and welcome to 4x4 Reports Interactive. We will begin a live webchat very soon with BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and investigative journalist John Sweeney. Send them your questions on the issues raised in tonight's BBC One programme about the new terrorist threat, Target UK: 4x4 Reports.

[Question] Jane Woods: Question for Frank: Do you think we have a right to know about potential terrorist strikes at shopping centres, etc?

[Frank-Gardner] Yes, we certainly do. The reason that the government gives us for putting out all these warnings is that they are receiving so much intelligence about al-Qaeda's activities and conversations that they feel they have to warn the public to be vigilant. The problem is they don't know for certain where the next attack will be. But the government tells us that if they know of a particular site, e.g. a shopping mall, being targeted, then they will alert us.

[Question] Redflax: What makes you think the government would tell us about a genuine terrorist attack beforehand?

[Frank-Gardner] The UK Government has assured journalists and the public that if they know of a specific terrorist attack they will try to deal with it and inform the public at once if they cannot prevent it. That promise may well be tested in the coming months.

[Question] Brendan: Do you think it is irresponsible of the Fire Brigade to strike at such a sensitive time? Question for John.

[John Sweeney] My personal view is that within a free country, any sort of workers have a right to strike if they wish to do so. That's what differentiates us from dictatorships, so I would defend the right of the firemen if that's what they want to do.

[Question] Qasim: Do you think it is right for America to go to war with Iraq? Question for Mr Sweeney.

[John Sweeney] That's above my pay grade, but Iraq is the cruellest regime I have ever reported from.

[Question] Tim: Do you not believe the media are being careless? Many times recently I have seen various media sources show the weak points of Britain, and what attacks would be most effective.

[Frank-Gardner] I definitely believe that there are elements of the British media that are exaggerating and over-dramatising rumours of plots and attacks in order to sell more newspapers. There is the danger here of a cry wolf situation, that where do we get a real threat about a real attack people may not take it seriously enough because they think, 'Oh, we've heard it all before.'

[Question] Nav: As a Muslim, I constantly see the media giving a one-sided story.

[Frank-Gardner] There are many instances of the media giving a one-sided story on terrorism and I believe that the chief culprits here are both the US and the Arab media. There is no question that much of the US media leans towards a pro-Israeli viewpoint and that inevitably colours the way it covers the war on terrorism. On the other hand, I see very little attempt in the Arab press to portray the Palestine-Israeli conflict objectively. When it comes to al-Qaeda, there has been a lot of ignorance printed about Islam by people who do not understand this wonderful religion. But it is also an uncomfortable fact that all the 9/11 plotters were Arabs and Muslims, and every attack carried out by al-Qaeda is done by people who say they are killing in the name of Islam.

[Question] Mary: Do you think we are very complacent in thinking terrorists will never strike in Britain? Question for John.

[John-Sweeney] Of course we must not be complacent but we must not lose our cool either. In 1939, we faced a far greater threat from Nazi Germany than we do from al-Qaeda today. Let's not forget that our historic liberties were set down in 1215 with the Magna Carta, that you should have a right to a fair trial. Let's not throw that away.

[Andy] Sorry, John, I have to disagree. Yes, the threat was large from Nazi Germany but at least you could see them coming.

[Question] Kiran: Do the British authorities have the capabilities to cope with chemical weapons such as the so-called "dirty bombs"?

[Frank-Gardner] A dirty bomb is not a chemical weapon. It is a radiological bomb, i.e. one that uses a combination of high explosive and low-grade radioactive waste to disperse hazardous material over a wide area. The UK government has taken some precautions but this is a relatively new threat and not one they have ever had any experience of dealing with before.

[Question] Qasim: What are your views on Israel and Palestine?

[Frank-Gardner] The Palestinians have a right to live in their own independent country as set out in UN resolutions, numbers 242 & 338. Israelis also have a right to live in peace within their UN-recognised borders. The ongoing illegal occupation by Israel of large amounts of Palestinian land is one of the biggest root causes of Muslim anger and vastly complicates the war on terror.

[Question] Marcus: Frank, why do people say if you take precautions that cost money or reduce economic activity you are doing the terrorists' work for them?

[Frank-Gardner] They don't say that. No-one is saying you shouldn't take precautions. What political commentators do say, however, is that if we allow ourselves to be so frightened by the threat of terrorism that normal daily life becomes impossible then the terrorists have won.

[Question] Mark: Are those people that are held in detention treated as prisoners of war (according to the Geneva convention) or are they simply treated as criminals?

[John-Sweeney] They're not treated as prisoners of war. They're treated as criminals. The difference is an ordinary criminal - a man accused of rape or murder - is charged and then given a fair trial. These men have not been charged, nor have they been tried.

[Question] Karen: Why shouldn't we be able to expel British nationals who we believe are either harbouring terrorists or have extremist views?

[John-Sweeney] People should not get locked up unless they have a right to know what they have been accused of - to be charged - and a right to defend themselves - a fair trial. That's been the law in England since 1215 AD and I don't see why it should be changed.

[Question] Mathias: We pride ourselves on freedom of speech and freedom of ideological beliefs, but is it perhaps not time to become less tolerant of intolerant factions and groups within our society?

[John-Sweeney] No. There's a story told by both Grahame Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge about a German anti-Nazi who had emigrated to Britain. In London, he was pilloried by a tabloid journalist for simply being German. He sued, and a London jury, in the middle of the Blitz, found for the German. The threat from al-Qaeda is real but it's nowhere near as big or frightening as that from Nazi Germany.

[Question] Omar: To Frank in Washington: Why is America allowed to make up its own rules? The people in Camp X-Ray do not seem to have their human rights respected. Why isn't anyone stopping this happening?

[Frank-Gardner] I visited Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay this summer and put exactly that question to the US military who run the prison camp there. They told me that the 600 inmates are being held as "enemy combatants" and were being investigated as a potential danger to US security. The Red Cross do inspect them regularly and I am told that all the inmates have put on weight and improved their medical conditions. But of course that's no compensation for their not being allowed access to a lawyer or relatives.

[Question] Colin: We are not dealing with ordinary criminals. These people are self-destructive. They do not care who they take with them? Wouldn't you agree?

[John-Sweeney] You may well be right, but we are so much better than they are, and the idea that we should diminish our liberties, our hard-fought-for freedoms, strikes me as being wrong. It's a personal view.

[Question] Steve: The UK has been living with domestic terrorism for over 30 years and business has gone on as usual. How then do the political commentators see the balance between an increase in precautions and the suppression of paranoia regarding the current threat? Question for Frank.

[Frank-Gardner] The current threat terrorist threat is totally different and far greater than any thing Britain experienced from the IRA. Al-Qaeda gives no advanced warning, it uses suicide bombers, it has no clearly answerable political agenda, its members are mostly unknown and unseen, and when it attacks it aims to kill the maximum number of people.

[Question] Tony: If the government are concerned about terrorism, why are they allowing over 1,000 refugees into England when the French holding centre closes?

[Frank-Gardner] That is a very valid question. There have been worries for some time about the possibility of terrorists sneaking into Britain disguised as asylum seekers. We can only hope that those who do come to Britain are being screened in a way which does not violate their human rights.

[Question] Paul Davies: Frank, I believe America is the only country taking the relevant action. If there was ever a time for positive action and tough decisions, it is now.

[Frank-Gardner] I have to say I disagree with you on every count. More than 90 countries have signed up to the war on terror. Britain and many other countries are working flat out to help America track down terrorists and prevent future attacks. At the same time, America's tactics are being seen, rightly or wrongly, in much of the world, as being heavy handed and anti-Muslim. The war for the hearts and minds of Muslims is being lost.

[Mark] I would disagree with Paul Davies. America seems to be acting rash and somewhat arrogantly.

[Question] John: To John Sweeney: We obviously need to avoid the potential for corruption, but if there is sufficient intelligence to keep these people imprisoned, shouldn't we go along with it this once, given the immediate threat to our safety?

[John-Sweeney] Our liberties go back to 1215 and I think if the law has been right for almost 800 years after all that we've been through down the years, then why change it now? Very recently, I was in Saudi Arabia, asking the Saudi Foreign Minister why the authorities there had locked up Britons without a fair trial. How can I ask that question in Saudi Arabia, if my own government is locking people up in Britain without a fair trial?

[Question]Brian: Has there been any national guidance issued regarding CBRN emergency preparedness?

[Frank-Gardner] CBRN stands for Chemical Biological, Radiological and Nuclear weapons. These are the ultimate nightmare in the hands of a terrorist. The Home Office has issued a statement warning of a possible attack using these weapons but no specific threat to Britain has yet been identified. Advice to the public is due to be given out early in the New Year.

[Question] Stuart: Are we in danger of not fighting for freedom and democracy, but fighting for religious purpose?

[Frank-Gardner] Well it all depends on who you mean by 'we'. Al-Qaeda carries out its actions in the name of all Muslims. Many Muslims dispute that. I don't perceive the western response to Al-Qaeda to be a religious one.

[Question] Hang 10: Do you think the recent Bin Laden audio message was genuine, and that he is alive and well?

[John-Sweeney] Yes and yes. If he was dead, then it would come out.

[Question] Marcus: Who are Osama Bin Laden's most likely successors if he was killed tomorrow?

[John-Sweeney] I don't know, but there will be someone.

[Question] Becky: What do you think are al-Qaeda's ultimate aims and objectives?

[Frank-Gardner] Their aims are broadly to unite all Muslims against America and its allies, to carry out devastating attacks against the United States, and to drive Israel and western powers off all Muslim land.

[Question] Brendan: What do you think would be a categoric end to the war against terrorism? Can there be an end?

Sadly, there can never be a total end to terrorism. It's embedded in human nature that some people will always be tempted to change things by force. The best one can hope for is to dramatically reduce the terrorists' will and ability to strike. That means better intelligence, better vigilance, but above all, in the case of al-Qaeda, a determined effort to address some of the root causes of Muslim anger. I don¿t believe that this is "giving in to terrorist demands". On the contrary, if genuine grievances such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are addressed effectively - and UN resolutions applied - then al-Qaeda would lose much of their popular support amongst Arabs and Muslims.

[News Host] This webchat has come to an end. Thanks to everyone who sent in their questions and comments. Thanks also to our guests, Frank Gardner and John Sweeney. Goodbye.

Target UK: 4x4 Reports



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