Response to terrorist financing and serious crime opens our eyes to the changing relationship between Britain and some of its former colonies.
London: Few people in the United Kingdom or the Indian sub-continent have heard of Operation Vex. But its emergence in the British press this year throws light on the challenges posed by terrorist financing, international frauds and the difficulty for nation states in addressing crimes committed across borders, often by people with dual nationalities or access to significant resources on the other side of the world.
Put simply, Operation Vex is a series of investigations by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) into tax and benefit frauds in Britain dating back to the mid-1990s. If press claims are to be believed, sums in the region of £8 billion are involved, with a certain percentage (perhaps 1%) set aside for funding Al-Qaeda. It is believed terrorists as significant as Abu Hamza, the former Finsbury Park Mosque Imam now serving life in prison in the United States, and 7/7 suicide bomber Shezad Tanweer profited from these frauds. As did a Lancashire accountant, Afra Syab Ilas, who died fighting for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, back in 2001, having left his hometown of Burnley.
A full understanding of these frauds is not yet possible. Reporting restrictions appear to have been imposed on cases in order to ensure future fair trials, although given some of those sought by the authorities are reportedly hiding away in Pakistan or the Gulf, the prospect of their return is not imminent. Equally, why should those avoiding justice be allowed anonymity, and why should the public not know more about the frauds they are the victims of?
These developments overlap with an overlooked trend in post-colonial relations. Britain is becoming increasingly involved in the legal and political frameworks of certain former colonies. Sometimes this happens as part of government policy—the secondment of police and customs officers to the Caribbean for example. Another factor is personal ambition, as in the case of Mohammad Sarwar. A former Labour MP in Scotland, Sarwar is now Governor of the Punjab (Pakistan). Whilst still an MP, he played a role in ensuring three British-Pakistanis, wanted for the racist murder of Kriss Donald in Glasgow in 2004, were arrested in Pakistan and returned to the UK.
Although there is no formal extradition treaty between the two countries, Britain does not wish to see crimes committed in the UK, and the proceeds of those crimes then spent in Pakistan. It cannot reasonably abandon British women and girls lured into forced marriage in the Indian sub-continent, and public opinion will not accept tax and benefit frauds funding either terrorist groups, or the high life of organised criminals overseas.
Increasingly a quid pro quo exists between Britain and the Islamic Republic—a memorandum of understanding is reportedly being agreed with regards to Islamabad’s former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, one of those whose alleged criminality was exposed in the Panama Papers scandal. Dar is currently to be found in London, where his social media contributions style him as a Pakistani patriot, complaining about everything from Imran Khan’s lack of fortitude towards the international community, to moaning about the Abbottabad raid which killed Osama bin Laden. Should he be returned to his homeland in handcuffs to face trial, an important precedent will have been set.
As regards India and the UK, the picture is a cloudy one. The failure of Britain to extradite fugitives to India is a barrier to good relations between our countries. The case of terror suspect Tiger Hanif, wanted for a 1993 terrorist attack on Hindus in Surat, is particularly worrying. Britain’s new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has work to do to progress issues that have sat too long in her predecessors’ in-trays. India is also concerned that violence from Sikh separatists has a support base in the UK, although raids following the arrest of a British Sikh, Jagtar Singh Johal, accused of delivering cash to the Khalistan Liberation Force, are yet to lead to charges.
In leaving the European Union, it is easy to argue that the relations guaranteed by shared membership of the Commonwealth, may be invigorated anew by Britain and the countries of South Asia. The reality though, is that those relations have always continued, and it has often been the underside of globalisation—the problems of terrorism, crime and intolerance—that have drawn us back together. We must ensure those relationships, for example via functioning extradition treaties—work. It is in all our interests to do so.
Dr Paul Stott is a Research Fellow in the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society in London. @MrPaulStott