The border/national security nexus: Detecting Middle Eastern & North African ‘terrorists’ at the UK border in the 1970s-80s

In May 1980, two terrorist incidents involving Iran and Iranians led to a major overhaul of the UK’s border control system for counter-terrorism purposes, ordered by Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. The below post is how the UK border control system was increasingly used to identify and monitor potential ‘terrorists’ from the Middle East and North Africa from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. It is based on an article that is currently under review, so any comments are welcome (as usual). 

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The intersection between national security/counter-terrorism efforts and the agenda of the immigration/border control system is not just a recent phenomenon, with the national-border security nexus having a well-established historical precedent. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the threat of international terrorism was at its peak, the immigration/border control system was viewed as a frontline defence against terrorist activities occurring in the UK. The immigration control system was used to prevent ‘potential terrorists’ from entering the country, as well as detecting and monitoring people from certain national/ethnic groups who were thought to be ‘potential terrorists’. Similar to the situation in the contemporary era, the external terrorist threat was believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa. It is the purpose of this paper to show how this anxiety over Middle Eastern/Arab terrorism informed border control practices that profiled certain national/ethnic groups.

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

Visa restrictions on Iraqis and Libyans

For the control of non-European migration, the interview at the potential migrant’s place of origin was a fundamental part of the border control process and one of the most significant tasks under taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within the border control system. Not all visitors to the UK had to obtain visas or entry clearances before travelling and fewer of these visitors had to go through the process for a formal interview with FCO staff to obtain said visa or entry clearance, but the FCO and Home Office both felt that it was necessary to conduct widespread interviews with potential visitors from the Middle East and North Africa on the grounds that this was a necessary counter-terrorist measure.

The first time that security checks at the visa application stage were placed upon Middle Eastern or North African national groups for counter-terrorist purposes was in 1972 after the attempted assassination of the former Iraqi Prime Minister, General Abdul Razzaq Al-Naif. After this assassination attempt, a decision was agreed upon by the FCO that ‘all Iraqi visa applications accompanied by photographs should be referred to London for security checking’, with the purpose being ‘to identify and refuse visas to known members of the Iraqi intelligence service who have sought and still seek to enter the United Kingdom’.[1]

By the end of the 1970s, the number of national groups that were subjected to mandatory security checks and interviewing had grown. Similar to the action taken against Iraqi nationals after the attempted assassination of Al-Naif in 1972, in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohammed M. Ramadan, a Libyan Gadaffi oppositionist and BBC employee, in April 1980, the UK government implemented security checks, including substantial interviews, for all Libyan nationals applying to enter the UK. A report prepared by the British Embassy in Tripoli stated that the new process, implemented in July 1980, required ‘full documentation for, and thorough interviews of, almost all Libyan applicants for visas’, with the main exception being wives and children.[2]

The reasoning behind these strict instructions was summarised in an FCO telegram, which argued that ‘[f]urther serious incidents here [the United Kingdom] involving Libyans would be intolerable breaches of law and order, damage Anglo-Libyan relations and endanger both the British community in Libya and our commercial interests’, and therefore, ‘[t]ighter precautions against entry of potential terrorists’ were ‘essential’.[3] The FCO emphasised that tighter precautions could ‘only be achieved by personal interview in each case… by a UK-based officer to enable him to be satisfied beyond any doubt as to the genuineness and purpose of the visit.’[4] It was hoped that this process would ‘help to deter, or failing that, to identify and weed out… potential terrorists’ and ‘complicate Libya’s task if… she is determined to try to send terrorists to the UK’, as well as ‘help to reduce the total number of Libyan applicants for visas’.[5]

Broadening the process

In mid-1980, Lord Carrington requested, upon the urging of the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, that the FCO explore measures using the border control system to prevent Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK and the possibility of expanding the widespread interviewing and security checks to a greater number of countries known to be involved in terrorist activities. The catalyst for this request was the siege at the Iranian Embassy by dissident Iranians (who entered the UK on false Iraqi passports) and explosion at the Queens Garden Hotel in Bayswater (near the Iranian Embassy) which killed one Iranian, both occurring in May 1980. The request by the Foreign Secretary asked the following questions:

in what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation?[6]

Although some reservations about effectiveness were raised by FCO staff, it was impressed upon those working in the British Embassies that the visa application process was the frontline in the fight against Middle Eastern and North African terrorism. In a draft document, it stated that this process was ‘one line in the defence against undesirables [with an emphasis on Middle Eastern terrorists] entering the UK and pseudo-visitors whose real intention is to settle in Britain’ and while it was recognised that it was not ‘an entirely water-tight system’, it was ‘nevertheless… a deterrent’.[7]

The FCO believed that the interviews at the embassies acted as a deterrent and ‘make it more difficult for terrorists to switch identities’ and maintained that ‘[w]ithout an interview system posts cannot… make the best use of the intelligence available nor can they provide feedback and early warning of doubtful cases the security services need.’[8] Another advantage of the visa system and the interview process, a secret report expressed, was that it allowed time for checks to be made, ‘for refusal to be made in doubtful cases with less aggravation and protests than when the visitor has already travelled’ and ‘for detailed interviews to be conducted wherever appropriate without the pressure of time which arises at a port where the choice is admission or detention.’[9]

In order for this interview process to be effective, the FCO required embassy staff to be hyper-vigilant in their efforts to detect and ‘weed out’ potential terrorists and as with detecting ‘bogus’ migrants, visa-issuing officers were to be sceptical of all applicants and required a significant level of proof to be consider an applicant to be ‘genuine’. A background paper highlighted the fact that ‘[t]errorist organisations make use of false travel documentation, either forged passports or genuine passports in false names and nationality’ and noted that it was ‘only occasionally that operational terrorists travel in their own name.’[10] The FCO argued that the interviews were a necessity, stating that the interviews were:

an essential part of the process of establishing an applicant’s bona fides and of attempting to identify members or supporters of terrorists organisations by questions concerning the applicant’s reasons for visiting the UK and about their background.[11]

Although nearly all applicants of certain Middle Eastern and North African nationalities were to be interviewed by visa officers, with corresponding security checks, some applicants were to be more closely interrogated. Those to be more closely interrogated were to be selected on the basis of whether they fit the ‘terrorist profile’ drawn up by the security services. Like other ‘offender’ profiles circulated by the immigration control system, this profile of the potential terrorist was broadly defined and was likely to cause many innocent people to be scrutinised and interrogated on the grounds that they fit this very generalised profile. A note circulated within the FCO stated the ‘chances of recognising efficient terrorists when they apply for a visa are evidently limited’, but asked all visa officers to ‘study carefully’ the profile that had been created and use it in their interrogation of visa applicants.[12] 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.[13]

Detecting terrorists at the ports of entry

The other point in the border control system where Immigration Officers were able to ‘detect’ and prevent the entry of potential terrorist were at the ports of entry into the UK. In the 1970s, the major ports of entry into the UK were Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, as well as the ferry ports on the South and Western coasts where boats from mainland Europe and Ireland respectively docked. Immigration Officers (as well as Special Branch officers) were expected to use the terrorist profile created by the security services to detect potential terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa and scrutinise their reasons for entry from the UK. Interviews at the port of entry were seen as another line of defence after the visa interviews at embassies, but at these entry ports, Immigration Officers were under much more pressure to quickly assess whether a visitor was ‘genuine’ and thus more likely to rely on stereotypes and racial profiling than embassy visa officers. The FCO encouraged that decisions regarding interrogating and refusing entry to potential terrorists ‘be taken at the visa stage’, but did recognised that ‘nationals from sensitive countries are questioned at port and on occasions refused admission.’[14]

One of the ideas that the FCO, Home Office and the security services considered in trying to identify ‘bogus’ visitors from the Middle East and North Africa (possibly including potential terrorists) was to require that nationals visiting from these regions to hand over a specially designated landing card with additional photograph, which could be compared with the information and photograph provided when the visitor applied for the visa originally. This idea of a landing card with additional photo to be kept by the Immigration Officer on arrival into the UK was referred to in several FCO documents with several people being enthusiastic or supportive of a photograph being kept for reference by the authorities. A report from late 1980 outlined that there were three main benefits of this. Firstly, it was argued that this would ‘make it more difficult for passports to be used by someone other than the applicant’. Secondly, it was proposed that it would be beneficial for the security service and the police to have a photograph of the person ‘who actually entered the UK’ and that ‘a failure to match would in itself be grounds for investigating the individual’. Thirdly, it was noted that the photograph could be used by the authorities to ‘identify and investigate an individual, for instance, after a terrorist incident.’[15] In the end, it was decided that an additional form and photograph were to be required from certain applicants. A FCO circulated note from December 1980 explained:

This will make it marginally more difficult for a visa’ed passport to be used by someone other than the applicant to enter the UK. But the main purpose is to give those concerned here a photograph of the person who actually enters the UK (the form and photo will be collected at the port of entry). This can subsequently be checked against the photograph attached to the normal visa application and would be used to help trace an individual in the UK after a terrorist incident.[16]

The same circular outlined that this was an additional requirement for visa applicants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan (except holders of Diplomatic Passports), Lebanon, Libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Yemeni Arab Republic, Syria and ‘Palestinians travelling on a stateless person’s document issued by any third country.’[17] The circular also warned embassy staff that they ‘should not be drawn by enquiries as to the purpose of the new form’ and ‘say simply it is a requirement imposed by the British immigration authorities.’[18]

Conclusion

Many scholars have recognised that Muslims entering the UK, as well as the Muslim communities inside country, have been regarded as a ‘suspect community’ over the last decade. This has a much longer history, particularly through the screening and interrogation of Muslim visitors to the UK from the Middle East and North Africa. After small-scale terrorist incidents in the UK (such as assassinations) occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the UK government, advised by the security service and implemented by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, chose to place restrictions on all visitors from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries. Although there was little evidence of this process having an effect on catching suspected terrorists trying to enter the UK, blanket restrictions that placed all visitors from places such as Iraq, Iran and Libya under suspicion were utilised as a frontline defence against Middle Eastern terrorism occurring in Britain. These compulsory and wide-ranging security checks were first implemented against Iraqis in 1972, then against Libyans and Iranians in 1980, and as the perceived threat of ‘international terrorism’ grew in the early 1980s, were extended to nationals of most countries in the Middle East and North Africa. By the mid-1980s, the intersection between national and border security seemed almost complete, with many of these border security measures still in place in some way today.

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

[1] J.H. Mallett, ‘Visas for Iraqi Business Visitors’, 3 July, 1974, FCO 8/3245, NA.

[2] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 1, 29 September, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[3] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[4] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980.

[5] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 2.

[6] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, 4 July, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[7] ‘Entry Clearance Policy: Requirements and Resources for the Issue of Visas and Entry Certificates – Comments to First Draft’, n.d., p. 1, FCO 50/685, NA.

[8] Letter from A. E. Stoddart to Sir J. Graham, 12 August, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[9] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventive Action’, n.d., p. 3, FCO 50/685, NA.

[10] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[11] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[12]FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control: Anti-Terrorist Measures’, 29 December, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA.

[13] ‘Terrorist “Profile”’, FCO 50/686, NA.

[14] Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain [final version]’, p. 5.

[15] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[16] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[17] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[18] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

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2 comments

  1. Do you know how/if this intersected with ‘List B’ of communists? That was in operation in the 1950s, and they tried to police it through the straight landing-card system.

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