There is no such thing as a terrorist 'look', just a terrorist outlook

A demonstrator with 'Bring back the rope!' sign during a Britain First Rotherham demonstration in 2015: Rex Features

It’s welcome, though hardly reassuring, to have a better idea of who wants to bomb Britain or otherwise incite violence and conflict, and, in a departure from their past obsessive secrecy, the Home Office and the security services are gradually becoming more transparent about terrorism and the real nature of the threat to peace in Britain.

We’ve learned about the alleged plots to assassinate Theresa May and incite the murder of Prince George, for example, which the public has a right to know about, and these should heighten their sense of vigilance, especially as Christmas with its many shared communal events approaches. The recent panic in Oxford Street may not have shown social media in the best light, but it did at least demonstrate that the public is more conscious of the threat than at any time since the IRA campaigns petered out by the end of the 1990s.

The most striking trend in the latest round of statistics is the marked increase in the number of “white” (the term is applied loosely) terror suspects who have been arrested in the past year or so. These represent the largest rise in any of the given categories, and the number of arrests is up by 77 per cent on the previous year to 143, representing some 36 per cent of the total. There was also a greater-than-average rise in the number of females detained. Some of these trends may also be inked to a modest revival in militant Irish republicanism and its loyalist counterparts, but perhaps not the bulk of it.

That in itself should finally quash any consideration of so-called ethnic profiling as an effective method of dealing with terrorism, whatever its origins. Indeed, such crude and offensive techniques could be quickly exploited by terrorists to evade checks and slip through security cordons simply because they did not conform to some caricature or stereotype of a jihadi.

The figures also suggest – though there is little firm evidence on the figures released – that extremists on the far right are turning to terror, and we know that fringe groups such as the now banned National Action have been more or less overtly violent in their rhetoric and approach. The authorities have shown that they are serious about dealing with these dangerous individuals or cells as they discover them, their efforts greatly assisted by the small scale of the far right in Britain, its tendency to splinter at the first opportunity, and the general amateurishness of its followers.

Even so, the assassination of the MP Jo Cox and attacks on places of worship, especially mosques and Islamic centres, leave no room for complacency. As we have seen so frequently in recent years, these days a dedicated terrorist of whatever persuasion needs nothing more sophisticated than a car, a lorry or a kitchen knife to destroy lives and assault our shared values of tolerance and decency, equality under the law and the right to a fair trial.

Which raises the question of what our rookie Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was thinking when he seemed to advocate the liquidation of British jihadis returning from Syria and Iraq, on the reported grounds that dead terrorists can’t harm us. As the Guantanamo Bay affair showed, even if those detained without trial or legal authority really are murdering terrorists, the fact that they have been locked up without due process lends them a form of martyr status. More than that, it undermines the argument that the West is fighting against the sort of arbitrary punishments that are meted out by dictators such as Bashar al-Assad and groups such as Isis in the benighted lands they occupy.

Britain, in other words, should not be in the business of summarily executing prisoners whether or not they are members of Isis or any other terror group. We should not be committing their kind of murders outside the field of combat, no matter how much some might wish to and how heinous their crimes might be. We should follow whatever passes for the rules of war these days and the Geneva Conventions, no matter whether our “war” is with Isis or a sovereign state of the traditional type.

Mr Williamson may have intended to secure supportive press support in what might be some long-range tilt at the Tory leadership, and he certainly succeeded, but he has damaged the country’s reputation and the fight against the very terrorism that, in effect, he is advocating crown forces now engage in. It was, in other words, a very foolish view of how to beat terror, here or abroad.

Ever since militant Islamist terror groups started their murderous campaigns they have had one overriding aim, apart from personal aggrandisement, enrichment and power for their cynical leaders – a racial or religious conflict with the West. Almost everything has been subsumed to that broad ambition, including the lives of those they brainwash into doing their fighting and their suicide bombing for them.

The more the West (and here that includes the likes of Russia and the Saudi and Iranian governments) play into their hands by employing torture, bombing civilians, using poison gas and killing prisoners of war, then the more we become dupes, engaged in the very clash of civilisations the Islamists seek to provoke. Assuming that all terrorists look and sound like Osama bin Laden, Abu Hamza or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is just one of many blunders the public and the authorities can make in fighting the war on terror.

The threat to peace can come from those who look and sound perfectly “white”. There is no such thing as a terrorist “look”, just a terrorist outlook, and that isn’t obvious from mere physical characteristics.