Profiling Middle Eastern and North African terrorists in the 1980s

I am currently writing a paper on the profiling of Middle Eastern and North African nationals in the 1970s and 1980s by the UK border control system for counter-terrorist purposes. The paper looks at the widespread (almost mandatory) interviewing, with accompanying security checks, of people applying for visas to enter the UK, even for short-term visits, from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries. In 1973, all Iraqis were required to undergo a security check before being granted a visa to enter the UK and similar measures, including an interview by visa-issuing officers, were implemented for Libyans in 1980. One of the major sources of this paper is an assessment by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at the request of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw to Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, of whether the interview process should be extended to other nationals from the Middle East and North Africa, with Iranians being the national group that concerned the security services the most after Iraqis and Libyans (the catalyst for Whitelaw’s request was the Iranian Embassy Siege and the explosion at the Queen’s Garden Hotel in Bayswater, both occurring in May 1980 and involving Iranians). In the files that I have uncovered at the National Archives, I have found a document that outlines the ‘profile’ used by FCO staff at British Embassies to detect applicants who could be considered ‘potential terrorists’ and those who were to be more closely interrogated by visa-issuing officers. The profile is very broad and probably meant that many innocent people from these countries were scrutinised and subjected to strict questioning unnecessarily because they fit this generalised ‘profile’.

The profile of the potential Middle Eastern and North African terrorist, in its entirety, was outlined as follows:

Of either sex, between 18 and 35 (often looking older than the age claimed, if this is in the lower half of that age bracket). Travelling most frequently in pairs but occasionally singly or in a small group, sometimes using travel documents from the same batch. Fit appearance (even if applying for a visa for medical treatment), often giving an impression of mental toughness; not easily discomposed, even in circumstances which might make others irritated or impatient. Unlikely to be official visitors: more likely to apply as students or businessmen (or for medical treatment) but may (a) display vagueness over courses proposed, appointments with firms etc, and (b) appear to lack elementary knowledge of a professed speciality. Some terrorists have in the past sought to avoid interview eg by making visa applications through agents or by post – this tendency may grow. Posts should be cautious in presuming that particular categories can be exempt from interview and careful scrutiny of each application will in any case be needed to determine whether there are factors which suggest that an interview should nevertheless be insisted upon in any individual case. (‘Terrorist “Profile”’, FCO 50/686, NA)

Many in the FCO were sceptical that widespread interviews would detect terrorists attempting to travel to the UK and that these measures were unnecessary. A note circulated within the FCO acknowledged that the ‘chances of recognising efficient terrorists when they apply for a visa are evidently limited’, but still asked all visa-issuing officers to ‘study carefully’ the profile that had been created and use it in their interrogation of visa applicants (FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control: Anti-Terrorist Measures’, 29 December, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA). However, any scepticism about the effectiveness of the interview and visa process from a counter-terrorist perspective was disregarded, as the FCO was directed by the security services to maintain these checks. As an FCO report with instructions for Embassy staff in Tripoli stated, ‘Security authorities maintain that the interview is an essential and effective deterrent to terrorism’ (‘Background’, n.d., FCO 93/2356, NA).

It is obvious that there are certain parallels between the counter-terrorist/border security practices of the 1970s and those implemented nowadays in the ‘War on Terror’. What I hope my paper will eventually show is that the intersection between national and border security is not just a recent phenomenon and that the national-border security nexus has a well-established historical precedent. Similar to the situation in the contemporary era, the external terrorist threat was believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa (incidentally Irish terrorism was seen as a ‘domestic’ or ‘internal’ threat). I seek to argue that this anxiety over Middle Eastern/Arab terrorism informed border control practices that profiled certain national/ethnic groups and in the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system were based on broad and indiscriminate actions that were implemented arbitrarily on certain national groups. Most of the literature on UK counter-terrorism in the 1970s has focused on the arbitrary methods used to counter Irish terrorism (and the creation of a ‘suspect community’ amongst the Irish in Britain); my paper seeks to show that similar processes were undertaken by the authorities with regards to Middle Eastern and North African people travelling to and living in the UK in the name of the prevention of terrorism.

A draft of this paper should be ready in the next few weeks. Please get in touch if you would like to read a draft. Any feedback is welcome!


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