So we are headed for the Thursday 11:25pm ferry at Dover going to Calais (France) - me and my three partners in, err, crime? We give our passports first to the French passport control guy. No problem. We proceed to the next - British - passport control box. We are signalled by one of the officers to pull over. (No need to see our passports... they have seen enough!)
Cars whizz past to our left as we wait - one every five to ten seconds - on their way headed for a pleasant weekend break. It seems we have been "randomly selected" for a special check. Fair enough, that is understandable - we are four young brown British Muslims (the beards give it away). We wait a few minutes and then one of us walks back to the box to ask the reason for our delay. We are told to wait: an officer will be with us shortly. A few minutes more, and after a number of officers walking back and forth between the box and a building to our right we are told to drive towards the building, through a raised shutter into an empty room. A few minutes more and then a couple of officers approach us to take our mobile phones (in case we set something off perhaps?). The whole time we have waited we (naively) do not make any calls - it should be over within an hour and we will be given our phones back, right?
Twenty minutes or so pass and a number of officers (6+) appear to give us a pat down and a thorough check of the car and its contents. Our wallets are taken including debit/credit cards, ids and receipts for further inspection. This takes another half hour at least. We are spoken to sweetly the whole time. The officers apologise for the inconvenience caused and promise us hot drink and food inside as soon as it is over, very shortly we are told. It is just a routine (random) check we are reassured: No need to worry...
It is cold out here by the sea so we are walked inside "for a chat" into separate rooms each fitted with two CCTV cameras spanning the entire room as well video and audio recording equipment. The rooms are locked. The feeling of detention dawns...
Half an hour or so passes and one of the officers comes by for me to sign a paper outlining my rights (rights?) and declaring that I have been held under the anti-terrorism bill or something like that. I am asked whether I would like anything to drink or eat - they have halal food (lamb curry). (They must get a lot of Muslims visit them. They even have a prayer mat with a compass!) I am reminded that I do not have the right to remain silent: if I refuse to answer any questions I could be arrested. The last guy who did so got three months I am told. I am reminded also that I can notify one person of my being held as well as a solicitor, though it is 2am and the questioning will begin whether the solicitor is present or not the officer drops in. Here follows three rounds of questioning with two officers (good cop bad cop!) over the next three hours. The two officers pass between the four of us in each round matching and trying to find inconsistencies in our stories, as well as generally extracting our religious and political views. The first two rounds last 10 to 15 minutes and the third round around 5 minutes, as follows:
Round 1: This is more a feel out round. I guess they are trying to gauge my speed of talking, my eyes, how I answer simple questions as well as hard questions, and so on. I am asked where I live, names of family, where I study and other trivial questions. The officer tries to wow me with facts about my university, where it is located and so on. This must be their way of freaking people out: Google some facts about where I live or study and drop them like they know everything about me. He adds: "Assume we know everything about you. If you answer our questions honestly we will get along famously." Smart.
Round 2: Now we get down to business. The officer begins justifying the length of our detention: we have given them sufficient grounds for suspicion. It is not enough that we are smart educated people we are told: Some of the attempted bombers of recent past were also educated to a high degree - doctors for example; The 7/7 bombers liked hill walking; We are young practising Muslims of Pakistani origin; We have an Islamic talk ('The Hereafter') in the car by a certain Imam Anwar Al Awlaki (it does not matter that it is non-political, widely accepted and openly available, and recorded over ten years ago when the Imam was living and working in America). In the questions that follow I am told unequivocally that this is about profiling me. I am asked how often I go camping/trekking; when was the last time I went; who I go with and have been with (I really don't feel comfortable saying names and don't(!) even though people I go with are 'normal' non-radical types); the name of my local Masjid; whether the people in charge of my local Masjid are of North African origin and, if not, what their background is; what student societies I am part of at university; whether I am part of my Islamic Society; whether I encounter members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir during my Islamic work and whether they muscle in on my ground; why I listen to Islamic talks, is the Qur'an and Hadith not enough; how much I know of the situation in Pakistan, and whether the presence of British and American troops in Afghanistan is to blame; what I was doing in some of the countries I have visited (Pakistan and America notably); whether I have been to the tribal areas of Pakistan/Afghanistan; and so on.
Round 3: It is a long wait and I am quite tired. I have fallen asleep since the last round. The officers barge in and ask me abruptly what my understanding of Jihad is, hoping to catch me in my sleep I suppose. I think I ramble on a bit but the officers seem to have had enough of us and our non-extreme tendencies and say they will let us go even though it has only been six hours and they are entitled to keep us for up to nine hours before they *have to* make a decision whether to arrest us or let us go. He says it like he is doing us a favour. (Most likely their shift is over and they would rather go home!) He says they will keep all our electronic devices (phones, cameras, satellite navigation system) for further inspection but do not want to keep us unnecessarily while they do so, which can take up to ten hours... when the tech people are around, but they are away at the moment we are told. The goods will be in the post within seven days... starting from Tuesday because it is a bank holiday weekend he says! We just want to get out of there so forget to ask for receipts for the goods they have seized. Lessons for those reading: get a copy of anything you sign, get receipts for things taken from you, get the officers' numbers (they can't give names).
The officer suggests we get a map on the other side to navigate our way around France since we do not have our satellite navigation system: we are smart people and French roads are easy to work out he says. Funny guy. We are told the people at the ferry company will understand why we are 6+ hours late if we show them the counter-terrorism leaflet given to us. The officers tell us they will call the ferry company for good measure, to notify them that we have been held up by the police. The ferry company receives no such call.
(To be fair to the counter-terrorism officers they could have been a whole lot nastier. The new laws of recent past give them that power.)