On Tuesday, Salih Khater, a British national of Sudanese origin, drove a car at high speed into pedestrians and cyclists before crashing outside Parliament. This seems to be the latest in a series of terror attacks involving vehicles. It may confirm the Sentencing Council’s observation earlier in the year of the alarming ease with which attacks are now planned and carried out, often with knives or vehicles rather than firearms or explosives, and the speed with which offending escalates.
It remains to be seen why Khater acted and whether he acted alone. It is clear however that the UK faces a severe threat from international terrorism – further attacks are highly likely. Almost certainly, many of these attacks will be carried out, or planned or facilitated, by British citizens or others living in the UK. When a British citizen, or any other person who lives in the UK and enjoys the protection of the Crown, helps an organisation like ISIS or Al Qaeda, which has carried out attacks on the UK and is planning to carry out more such attacks or which is engaged in combat with UK forces abroad, he or she betrays our country. The proper charge is treason and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the proper sentence is life imprisonment. Existing law makes this impossible, which is why Policy Exchange has recommended that Parliament restate the law of treason in a form fit to be enforced.
The need for a revised law of treason is confirmed by the case of Lewis Ludlow, a British citizen and convert to Islam, who pleaded guilty on Friday last week to a number of terrorism offences. Ludlow, who also goes by the name of Ali Hussain, first came to police attention in 2010, attending an al-Muhajiroun demonstration led by Anjem Choudary, the notorious hate preacher who was sentenced in 2016 to five and a half years’ imprisonment for inviting support for ISIS. (He will be free in October this year, having served half his sentence: he should be imprisoned for life for treason.) Ludlow was observed at other al-Muhajiroun demonstrations with or near Choudary and Michael Adebowale, radicalised by Choudary and murderer of Lee Rigby. Ludlow was arrested in 2015 and while ISIS propaganda was found in his possession no further action was taken. He is also known to have had contact with Junaid Hussain, the British ISIS fighter (and hacker) killed by drone strike in 2016.
In January this year, Ludlow was stopped from flying to the Philippines and his passport was seized. He had earlier been in contact with Abu Yaqeen, a terrorist suspect in the Philippines, and Ludlow went on to set up a Facebook account as a front to send funds to support ISIS fighters in the Philippines. When undercover officers engaged Yaqeen online, he recommended Ludlow as someone in the UK willing to carry out attacks. Ludlow pleaded guilty to funding terrorism, the maximum sentence for which is 14 years’ imprisonment. He denied that he had intended to travel to the Philippines to serve as an ISIS fighter. On 16 March this year, Ludlow undertook reconnaissance of Oxford Street to scope out a possible terror attack, taking various pictures which he then shared with an ISIS group online. Police later found his torn up handwritten notes of a plan to carry out an attack and to kill 100 people by driving a van into shoppers on Oxford Street. His mobile phone also contained a video of him swearing allegiance to ISIS. He pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts, which is the main offence used against those who plan terror attacks.
It is likely that Ludlow will be sentenced, on 2 November, to a lengthy term of imprisonment. The severity of the sentence will turn on how advanced the sentencing judge concludes Ludlow’s preparations were for a specific attack. If they were near to being carried out, a life sentence is likely; if they were more distant or speculative or contingent, then a life sentence may not be imposed. But recall the extent of this history of engagement with ISIS and al-Muhajiroun. Ludlow was clearly and closely associated with two groups that plan to and have carried out attacks on the UK. In particular he set out to aid ISIS, to fund its activities abroad and to facilitate its attacks on the UK itself. He swore allegiance to ISIS and thus stood ready to carry out attacks on its behalf. Each of these choices to aid ISIS constituted a serious betrayal of the UK and should be recognised as treason. The video of him swearing allegiance to ISIS is itself sufficient evidence to warrant life imprisonment for treason.
Ludlow planned to murder as many as 100 people. The prosecution noted that he could not drive and so would have needed the help of others to carry out the attack. But even if his plan is thought to have been at an early stage and even if it needed the help of others to carry it out, his decision to help ISIS prepare for and if need be to carry out an attack on the UK should be branded as treason. In funding ISIS’s operations abroad he also committed treason – in providing support for ISIS, whether in Syria, Iraq or the Philippines, he aided the military operations of an organisation that UK forces are fighting and which intends to attack the UK. That is, he chose, with open eyes, to aid the enemy.
Existing terrorism laws fail to recognise or denounce the specific wrong of betrayal. They sometimes fail to punish traitors properly, especially when offending would seem relatively minor if one overlooks or ignores the fact that it involves the choice to aid the enemy. Our law should not overlook treason. It should be crystal clear that to help ISIS or Al Qaeda, or other groups that intend to attack the UK or UK forces, is to commit the crime of treason and will in most cases result in life imprisonment. Parliament should change the law to make Ludlow – and Choudary, who lies behind him, as with so many other traitors – liable to conviction for treason.