Detecting Libyan terrorists at the UK border in the 1980s

One of my on-going projects is how the UK authorities pursued a counter-terrorist agenda through the border control system in the 1970s and 1980s, with a particular interest in how Middle Eastern and North African visitors to the UK were heavily scrutinised for being potential ‘terrorists’. In the latest round of government papers released by the National Archives, relating to the events of 1984, there are three sizeable documents that detail the UK government’s response after the shooting death of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London (PREM 19/1300, PREM 19/1301 and PREM 19/1302). These documents show that the UK government sought to sever diplomatic ties with Libya after this incident and expel all Libyan Embassy staff, as well as attempt to halt nearly all Libyan nationals entering the country.

My research has uncovered (from this National Archives file) that similar measures to restrict the number of Libyans coming to the UK were undertaken in 1980 in the wake of the murder of BBC employee and Libyan oppositionist to Gaddafi, Mohammed M. Ramadan in London. Subsequent immigration policy implemented by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office required nearly all Libyan nationals to undergo a security check, including substantial face-to-face interview in Tripoli, before travelling to the UK. Those who bypassed this procedure were wives and children (and some diplomatic staff). These security checks and interviews were to ‘weed out’ or ‘deter’ potential terrorists from trying to come to the UK and it was also thought as a useful tactic for reducing the total number of Libyans coming to the country (mostly students).

However the FCO staff in Tripoli were sceptical that these checks would detect or deter any terrorists from attempting to enter the UK and that mandatory checks only placed an extra administrative burden upon FCO staff. A report from the British Embassy in Tripoli from September 1980 stated:

We have no doubt that if Libya was determined to send a terrorist to the UK, through our new system, she could arrange, with relative ease, for him to be provided with convincing documentation and to be adequately briefed for our interview.

The same report suggested that border control checks would possibly mean that the Libyan regime would try to recruit potential terrorists from the Libyan community already living in the UK or turn to freelance terrorists (such as Carlos the Jackal). However the FCO replied that MI5/MI6 felt that border control checks were necessary and despite the reservations of the Tripoli embassy, these checks would remain in place. A reply by the FCO said, ‘Security authorities maintain that the interview is an essential and effective deterrent to terrorism’.

Police on the scene after the shooting outside Libyan Embassy (April 1984)

Police on the scene after the shooting outside Libyan Embassy (April 1984)

While the number of Libyan exiles killed in the UK during the early 1980s dropped, in 1984, a policewoman was shot out front of the Libyan Embassy. As part of the response by the Thatcher Government, even tighter restrictions were placed upon Libyan nationals. As Home Secretary Leon Brittan announced in the House of Commons on May 1, 1984:

I have also considered what additional immigration measures can be taken, quickly, and within the present rules, to bring home the fact that we are not prepared to tolerate nationals of other countries bringing on to the streets of Britain violence for their own political ends. The House will already be aware of the instructions that I have given to my immigration officials in dealing with Libyans following the break in diplomatic relations. I said then that I would not hesitate to use my powers of removal or personal certification if I were satisfied that there was evidence that the presence here of any individual was against the national interest. I can inform the House that I have today signed detention orders against a further six Libyan nationals whom it is intended to deport.

As far as Libyan nationals generally are concerned, a number of further restrictions will now be introduced for any who, under the rules, might be considered for visas. Visitors will receive permissions to stay of shorter duration, adapted to the circumstances of each case; measures will be taken to ensure that those admitted observe the conditions imposed. Libyan students who come to Britain must be bona fide students, and we expect them to pursue their studies, not indulge in violence. Yet there is reason to believe that some of them have been prone to do just that. I intend, therefore, to tighten up immigration control affecting them. Any Libyan student who qualifies for admission under the rules will not normally be given permission to stay for more than one term at a time; anyone failing to meet the requirements in any respect will be refused an extension; each application or reapplication will be accompanied by stringent checks. In particular, we shall have to be fully satisfied that a 198 student is in fact properly pursuing a full-time course of study. Similar restrictive measures will apply to other categories of applicant as the rules allow.

At present, foreign nationals are normally required to register with the police on arrival only if their period of stay is more than six months. In view of the announcements I have made, however, any Libyan national seeking entry under these new restrictions will be liable to register with the police. There must be no misunderstanding by those involved of the swift and serious consequences of future misbehaviour.

Libyan nationals required to register with the police will be asked to sign a declaration recognising the consequences of their indulging in violence for political reasons, and their intention not to do so. This document will be affixed to the police registration form. This should also be a warning to the nationals of other countries. I am ready to apply similar restrictions to others who demonstrably bring into Britain their own political violence.

In setting out these measures, which will be supported by appropriate instructions to visa-issuing posts abroad, I have been concerned not to undermine our tradition as a country of safe refuge and asylum. No one from a country to which such restrictions apply who wishes peacefully to express his views in public has anything to fear. But those who abuse our hospitality with violence will cease to receive it.

The recently opened National Archives files (p. 56 of 162 from PREM 19/1301) show that the Brittan was queried on whether these strict measures would hinder anti-Gaddafi forces from operating out of the UK. He replied:

I think they are here. I think that Colonel Gaddafi will not find he is very welcome. All I can say is that it is quite remarkable how many of the people who have had to leave London to go back to Libya as a result of what we are doing have found all sorts of reasons why they would have preferred to stay in London, reasons which have been found unacceptable… and therefore, I do not think myself that whatever may be said – and a lot is always said in Libya – that they will feel anything other than that as a result of the disgraceful act of outrageous barbarity. They have received the treatment which a civilised country should mete out in that circumstance.

In 1984, as in 1980, the government spent much time debating how diplomatic staff could subject to tighter restrictions and whether this contravened the Vienna Conventions. While these restrictions had a significant impact on the majority of Libyan nationals who wished to come to the UK, it did not stop acts of terrorism being carried out in the UK by Libyans from the Gadaffi regime, as the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988 demonstrates.

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