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Thursday, August 28, 2008 

All good hoaxes come to an end.

There was perhaps only two ways in which the "al-Qaida in Britain" story would end: either being completely forgotten after being dismissed as either irrelevant or low-level jihadist supporters messing around, or in those responsible being arrested.

Lancashire police have now brought charges against three men, one of whom has been charged with soliciting murder. It's being made quite apparent that the police or the security services have not foiled any genuine actual plot to kill either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, just that those behind the message have been caught. The soliciting murder charge is by no means unprecedented - at least one of the Danish embassy protesters was successfully convicted of it - but it still seems potentially over-the-top when seen in the context of online banter which often is extreme and by no means going to be followed through. Since no weapons, let alone explosives have been found in the searches carried out by the police, this further encourages the view that this was nothing more than a serious, but not that serious hoax.

Of course, it might well be that as two of the men were arrested whilst trying to board a plane travelling to Finland, they could well have been going there as a precursor to acquiring materials which might have been used in an attempt to carry out the threat of the original message. Alternatively, and this looks like, on all we know so far, the most obvious explanation, they may just have been three young men sympathetic to the jihadist cause who thought it was a rather spiffing idea to pretend that were members of al-Qaida on a well-known message-board, where, it has to be said, their antics were treated with rather short shrift.

This professing to be members of al-Qaida, when it hardly seems feasible that they actually were, has nonetheless earned Ishaq Kanmi with the additional charge of belonging or professing to belong to al-Qaida. Now, while al-Qaida is a proscribed organisation, it does seem rather extreme for someone only pretending to be a member of the group to be charged with it as an additional offence. Justin seems to think this is not a new addition to our burgeoning terror laws but rather a hangover from the 70s, when it may have been all the rage to suggest you were a member of the IRA. It does though invite comparisons with all the other little Billy Liars and fantasists that inhabit pubs and small towns, claiming to have been members of the SAS or similar while everyone around them just humours them. It is slightly different to claim to be an al-Qaida operative, but it still seems like something incredibly likely to be joked about. Similarly, the charge of inviting support for al-Qaida is probably down to the original message's appeal for other Muslims to join "al-Qaida in Britain" in the holy war, against, well, err, the credibility of other jihadist groups, quite frankly.

The other charges are those similarly vague ones which are recent introductions, the "possession of an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism" which is so widely drawn that it can apply to any number of everyday items which might still be useful were to terrorist to use them. One of the apparently damning pieces of evidence against Hammaad Munshi was that he and his group had "personal details of members of the royal family", or as they're otherwise known, their addresses. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the addresses of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are not state secrets.

I could of course be completely, additionally wrong about all of this. These men might well have been potentially dangerous - and indeed, we should take seriously all proponents of the jihadist cause, even the more dilettante ones among them - but it seems far more likely that these were rag-tag individuals at the lowest levels imaginable that probably downloaded videos from al-Ekhlass, perhaps contributed, and who thought it was a wizard wheeze to pretend to be the newest al-Qaida franchise, set-up right here in Britain. You can take this in two ways: either you can be glad that even the bottom-feeders amongst the online jihadist community are being watched, and if they step slightly out of line, they'll be picked up and dealt with; or you can be concerned that the ones we perhaps ought to be least worried about are the ones which the police and security services seem to be wasting their time with. After all, the monitoring of MSK and others was apparently curtailed because of more pressing concerns - and look where that led us. "al-Qaida in Britain" has been dissolved - but the real al-Qaida most certainly has not been.

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Where is their Head Office? Have they any branch offices? Do they charge a membership fee? Do they issue a membership card?

In short, how does one become 'a member of Al Qaida'?

Come to that, just what the hell IS 'Al Qaida' anyway? - other than a scary political/policing/security services code-word to justify the unjustifiable.

After a bit more sniffing around, I've found the 'professing' measure was in effect as far back as 1974 in Part I of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisons) Act 1974.

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