Image is a split screen. On the left hand side is a banner reading CTX tomorrow's repression today. Resist the Counter Terror Expo, alongside the logos for CAAT, London CAAT and Netpol. The right hand image is from inside the Counter Terror Expo. It shows a stand for Westminster Group PLC with the CTX logo and Security Technology Partner. An orange drone sits on top of the stand.

CAAT and Netpol go on a guided tour of the Counter Terror Expo

If we’re really serious about countering terrorism, then we need to accept the reality and the consequences of Britain’s colonialist past and present. We need to look at the terror Britain has caused and is creating across the world, and start making reparations for the damage we’ve done.

“Do you want a guided tour?”

This was not the response we expected when we turned up to protest against the Counter Terror Expo. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), London CAAT and the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) had gathered outside the ExCeL Centre on June 19th with a banner, street theatre and leaflets.

But that’s how CAAT’s Media Coordinator and Netpol’s Campaign Coordinator ended up being ushered through the ExCeL centre into the Counter Terror Expo.

The counter-terrorism narrative in the UK is used to repress, surveil and demonise minoritised communities, and increasingly protesters. The security agenda pushed by this narrative leads to a climate of fear, that entrenches our militarised borders, and leads to more arms sales.

‘I worked one DSEI. I wouldn’t do it again’

“We’re not like DSEI, event organiser David Townsend tells us as we walk through ExCeL’s main lobby, full mainly with people attending a travel show.

“I worked one DSEI. I wouldn’t do it again, “ he continues, “I couldn’t look my children in the eyes when I got home. I wouldn’t do it again.”

“We’re really nothing like DSEI”, he repeats.

Townsend is indeed very keen to show us another side to the expo. He highlights the fact that it’ll be attended by victims of terrorism attacks, he points out kit to protect venues from a repeat of the Manchester Arena attacks, and barriers that can be deployed instantly to prevent car attacks.

The expo itself is small, taking up just a few rows of stands alongside two areas with chairs for talks.

The PR spiel continues:

“I don’t really know why you’re here. I support your right to protest here – and I may not change your mind – but I don’t understand when Europe’s largest arms fair is taking place at the same time”.

“You mean Eurosatory?”, I ask, “Um…well that’s in Paris. We’re in London.”

Selling an ideology

The Counter Terror Expo used to be owned by Clarion, owners of DSEI, but was sold to Evendia. Townsend claims he isn’t supportive of Clarion’s general defence portfolio and stance, and jumped at the chance to own Counter Terror outright. He’s very keen to distance what he’s doing from the arms trade, and admits to making a mistake in using a militarised police officer in the event’s publicity. Townsend insists that the work he’s doing is intended to save lives.

But the reason we’re protesting isn’t just about what’s on display. As Kevin Blowe, Netpol’s Campaign Coordinator, highlights:

“The soft sell of exhibitors at the Counter Terror Expo cannot detract from the reality that this event is also selling ideas – and its invited speakers on the first day are revealing. Alongside senior police officers are alumni of the right-wing Henry Jackson Society and the now-dissolved Quilliam Foundation. These groups have a track record for promoting the idea that Muslims are a suspect community and arguing too much attention has been focused on far-right groups (plus one ex-cop who thinks antifascist groups are the real problem). They are typical of the neoconservative “counter-terrorism industry” that is deeply embedded within state bodies and demands governments identify and undermine “extremist ideologies” through surveillance programmes like Prevent”.

Alternative viewpoints are not, after all, particularly hard to find. But it’s obvious that it didn’t occur to the event organisers to even try.

“That’s why this choice of speakers in a talk on whether Israel’s war on Palestinians has ‘changed the narrative’ is a strong indication,”

Kevin adds,

“of what idea this event is selling: more surveillance on opponents of genocide, especially if they are Muslim.”

‘You’re famous’

Appearing genuinely relieved that we didn’t use the opportunity to shout at terrorism survivors, we’re escorted out. As we’re walking Towsend asks for my full name. When I tell him, he responds:

“Oh, you’re famous”.

I ask why.

“You were in our security briefing”.

“Oh really?” I ask, thinking well, given my job, my name is regularly in the media.

“What did they say?”

“You’re known for spitting at people”.

I’m genuinely shocked. I’ve never spat at anyone in my life. It’s not something I’d do,  and it’s not something I’ve ever been accused of.

I tell him you shouldn’t believe everything you hear in a briefing, and he agrees that I don’t seem the type.

I’m a middle aged white woman with all the privilege that confers. I may feel indignant and angry, and honestly somewhat shaken, that event organsiers are being briefed that I’m a violent protester. But that’s where the personal consequences end. This wouldn’t be the case if I was Muslim, as Netpol’s report into the policing of the Palestine protests clearly shows.

A climate of fear, rooted in racism

But this conversation encapsulates the heart of the issue with the Counter Terror Expo. It’s part of the climate of fear rooted in racism, generated and perpetuated by faulty intelligence, often from the police, based on secretive files that individuals may not even know are being held on them, let alone be able to access and challenge. This creates a manufactured threat with a never-ending feedback loop that’s exploited by the right for more racism, more repression and more surveillance.

I may have fallen for the PR spiel, but Townsend appears genuine. He really does want to show us that he isn’t one of the bad guys, and just wants to save lives. And no doubt some of the equipment on display can and will save lives, But this isn’t the point. The underlying ideology and narrative sold to participants won’t counter terrorism. It won’t save lives. It will only devastate the lives of people wrongly targeted under it. We won’t counter terrorism unless we start rethinking security, stop demonising minoritised communities, and abolish the racist Prevent agenda.

And if we’re really serious about countering terrorism, then we need to accept the reality and the consequences of Britain’s colonialist past and present. We need to look at the terror Britain has caused and is creating across the world, and start making reparations for the damage we’ve done.

Unsurprisingly, the Counter-Terror Expo won’t do this.

Unsurprisingly, we will carry on opposing it.

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