UK Law Should Recognize That Terrorists Aren't Just Criminals, They're Traitors

In recent weeks, we have heard once again about the danger of a terrorist attack on Britain. Britain's security service, MI5, believe that the threat is at its highest for at least a decade -- in other words higher now even than the aftermath of 9/11. This is partly because of dissident Irish Republican violence, and partly because of terrorist violence inspired by al Qaeda. It is clear that violent Islamic extremist plots have not gone away.

I have been a strong and consistent supporter of educational programs to teach young Muslim kids that violence is against the true teachings of Islam. In the long term, this is the only way to prevent young people from turning to terrorism.

But when we do have good evidence that someone has taken part in a terrorist plot, the state should come down on them with its full force. I believe that the traditional offenses which Britain charges potential terrorists with are not enough.

British subjects who plot to destroy the fabric of British life, destroy government buildings, transport or businesses, who sow fear into the seam of the daily life, who seek to rupture the day-to-day workings of the British economy or the business of State, or who act to spread disorder and fear, should be considered not just terrorists, but traitors. They should be charged with treason. This would not be so new - it used to be used against Irish insurgents.

Treason, after all, essentially means betraying one's nation. All British nationals owe allegiance to the Queen, wherever they are. If you have the privilege to have a British passport, you should not be plotting violence against her subjects.

The main counterargument would probably be that such terrorists have not committed treason. Arson, murder, terrorism or other violent crimes, perhaps; but treason - no.

But I would argue that although these latter offenses might speak to the specific physical characteristics of the crime, they don't address the mental one - those of the intention of the crime - at all.

A terrorist is not the same as someone trying to cause physical damage who does not know why. They are seeking very specifically to rupture British security as a nation, damage our institutions, and disrupt the quality of British daily life. And here's the point. They do not want to do these things to damage a building or cause injuries in a crowd. They want to do them because these things are British. That deserves its own form of recognition in law, and 'treason' is the offense which best captures it.

It is time we bought the offense of treason back. These terrorists are not just criminals - they are traitors. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.