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Many commentators say that Samina Malik was convicted of a 'thought crime'. In fact, the self-styled 'lyrical terrorist' was guilty of crossing a line that is defined in law and is being punished for doing so.
On 6 December 2007, Samina Malik, a 23-year-old British-born Muslim from Southall, West London became the first woman to be sentenced under the 2000 Terrorism Act. She avoided jail, but was given a nine-month suspended sentence and will be kept under supervision for eighteen months.
Malik was convicted under Section 58 of the Act, which states that ‘… a person commits an offence…if he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. She was acquitted of a more serious charge, made under Section 57, of possessing an item for a purpose connected with terrorism.
Styling herself ‘the lyrical terrorist’, Malik wrote poems praising Osama bin Laden and the idea of martyrdom. She also wrote about raising children to be holy fighters. The media focus on this side of her activities (cf Matthew Parris in The Times, 17 November 2007) has led to criticism from some commentators that the sentence is too harsh; that Malik is simply a harmless fantasist playing with extremist imagery because she thought it was ‘cool’. Muhammed Abdul Bari, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain said, ‘Samina’s so-called poetry was certainly offensive, but I don’t think this should have been a criminal matter’. Channel Four journalist Samira Ahmed suggested that perhaps Malik was ‘more stupid than anything else’.
It is extremely important to remember that writing offensive poetry is not Malik’s crime. Many commentators – including Matthew Parris – have completely missed this point. She was found guilty at the Old Bailey of owning what police described as a library of terrorist pamphlets, including the Al-Qa’ida Manual and The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which were deemed likely to be useful to someone planning to commit acts of terrorism. The court was told she was a member of an extremist organization called 'Jihad Way', which was set up to support Al-Qa’ida and disseminates terrorist propaganda and after the case, Deputy Assistant Commisioner Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command said she had also tried to donate money to a terrorist group. This is why the prosecution took her case so seriously and why Jonathan Sharp, prosecuting, said, ‘She is a committed Islamic extremist who supports terrorism and terrorists’.
In her analysis of the case on the Channel Four website, Ahmed drew analogies between Malik’s case and the internet world of child pornography, as did Parris (in his case, in particular, with the Chris Langham case). It is an apt comparison. It has long been clear in UK law that looking at such material and downloading images depicting children is illegal, regardless of whether the people doing the downloading have any intention to abuse children themselves. The law mandates that even looking at child pornography constitutes a criminal act. The material being downloaded, read and looked at by Samina Malik would not be allowed to be held in a library.
The 2000 Terrorism Act afforded the same legal status to terrorist manuals as to images depicting child pornography and so this is not a freedom of speech issue – Malik was looking at, and downloading, material in a way which is illegal in the UK. It is the same law that schoolboy Mohammed Irfan Raja and the four students he contacted over the internet, then ran away to meet, fell foul of earlier this year. In neither case was a specific act planned, nor was there real indication that those involved were intellectually capable of planning one, but in both cases those involved had crossed a line that is defined in law and were punished for doing so.
This distinction is an important point for future ‘fantasists’ to consider. Samina Malik’s case has once again made the legal position clear: no matter whether your intentions are serious or not, Al-Qa’ida and jihadist websites are simply no-go areas. Whether this will deter extremists, would-be terrorists or even those who are ‘just curious’ in the future remains to be seen, but no-one can complain that the law is not clear.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.