This year’s Remembrance Sunday will itself be remembered, alas, for what could have been a major terrorist massacre in Liverpool, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in a taxi outside a maternity hospital (above). Many aspects of this incident are still unclear and counterterrorism police are still investigating the terrorist’s movements and intentions. We don’t yet know whether this was a “lone wolf” case, as the murder of Sir David Amess MP last month appears to have been, or the work of a wider network of jihadists. Certainly the TATP explosive that appears to have detonated prematurely has been used by Isis in several attacks, including that on the Manchester Arena.
What we do know, however, is that the bomber was an asylum-seeker who arrived from the Middle East in 2014 during the exodus from the Syrian civil war. Emad al Swealmeen was sectioned after waving a knife and threatening to kill himself, but was later befriended by an elderly British couple. Devout Christians, Lt Colonel Malcolm Hitchcott and his wife Elizabeth encountered Al Swealmeen at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in 2015, where he told them that he wished to convert from Islam. Two years later, after taking the Alpha course, he was confirmed as a Christian. He lived with the Hitchcotts for a period, calling himself Enzo Almeni, and they looked after him kindly. Colonel Hitchcott described him as “well-mannered and quiet”, while Mrs Hitchcott said: “We loved him.”
But it appears more than likely that Al Swealmeen’s “conversion” was motivated by reasons other than Christian zeal. His “associates” say that he believed that the change of religion would assist his asylum claim, which had already been rejected once. If so, he was, of course, mistaken. But as a “Christian” he may have felt less conspicuous whenever he decided to prepare for a lethal attack on the country that had saved his life but denied him a permanent home. He would not be the first mentally unstable refugee to have turned against his hosts and to have evaded the attention of the police and intelligence agencies.
One line of inquiry is that he had intended to detonate his bomb at the Remembrance Sunday service in Liverpool Cathedral, which was attended by some 2,000 people. If that was indeed his plan, the explosion (which coincided with the two minutes’ silence) would have caused untold carnage. Did the Liverpool bomber “convert” as a cover for slaughtering the Christians who had made him welcome among them? The fact that Sir David Amess was a devout Catholic may well have been a factor in his assassination.
What preliminary lessons can be drawn from this ominous incident? The authorities did not have Al Swealmeen on their radar, except as a failed asylum-seeker. Given the objections to deporting such individuals on grounds of safety and human rights, how do we find a way of avoiding their radicalisation while living in a kind of limbo?
This is even more the case with the undocumented migrants who are arriving in boats from France on a daily basis. So far this year, nearly 25,000 have landed on the south coast. By definition they are here illegally, but they face no sanctions and are unlikely ever to leave. How do we protect society against the small minority of asylum-seekers who mean us harm?
Britain is not only the most tolerant country on earth, but the land where the idea of religious toleration first gained acceptance. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689 challenged the idea that the state had the right to enforce any particular religious observance. He made partial exceptions for atheists and Catholics: the former because their promises were not sacred, the latter on the grounds of their allegiance to the Pope, “a foreign prince”. But even these two groups might in practice be tolerated, he thought, if they could reassure the magistrate on these points. A decade after Locke was writing, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Nantes, which expelled the entire Protestant population of France. The influx of Huguenots that followed was England’s largest wave of immigration since early medieval times and set the pattern for the future evolution of the idea of asylum.
Today we need to re-examine the British tradition of tolerance and hospitality towards refugees to ensure that it is not abused. We must never abandon this proud part of our heritage, but cases such as Emad al Swealmeen are so disturbing that they undermine confidence in the system. Families such as the Hitchcotts who are motivated by generosity, like the many charitable organisations that look after refugees, are too easily duped by unscrupulous fanatics. They need help from the authorities so that the innocent are not tarred by association. A simple procedure for verifying the claims of those seeking asylum would enable those who wish to help them to protect themselves and others against harm.
In a free country such as Britain, the authorities will never be able to make cases such as the Liverpool bomber impossible. Given that we do not want to live in a surveillance society where Big Brother is constantly watching us, it is incumbent on ordinary citizens to report suspicious behaviour, rather than look the other way. It is no kindness to refugees to allow the terrorists among us to get away with murder.