Stopped at Manchester airport: When terrorism ghosts won’t lie to rest

Stopped at Manchester airport: When terrorism ghosts won’t lie to rest
Do UK counter-terrorism officers really "randomly" pull people up at airports? Writer Tariq Mehmood, also one of the Bradford 12, shares a recent experience at Manchester airport that puts this question under the spotlight.
8 min read
25 Aug, 2023
I was now in my sixties and had undergone various police interrogations over the years, most of them for false charges. I understood something about the techniques they used, but this was a bit unusual, writes Tariq Mehmood.

On Sunday 13 August this year, I arrived at Manchester Airport earlier than I had intended, so I decided to make the best of it and read while waiting for my flight. Little did I know that on this day, I would pulled by the police and questioned.

I had already checked in, so I dropped off my bag and, unusually for Manchester (excuse the pun), flew through security.

As I was making my way towards the departure gates, I noticed three people facing me, all staring in my direction. Two tall men, one South Asian-looking and the other white, accompanied by a woman who was white as well. They all appeared to be in their late 30s to early 40s and were dressed in civilian clothes, though they had official ID badges hanging in front of them. I assumed they might be airport employees guiding travellers to different gates.

The woman smiled at me and asked, "Where are you travelling to?"

"Beirut," I replied.

She looked at me strangely, and I added, "Lebanon."

"Why are you going there?" she asked.

"To work?" I replied.

"Are you carrying cash?" she asked.

"Is it illegal to take cash to Lebanon?" I inquired.

"Are you carrying cash?" she repeated.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Security?" she replied.

"What kind?" I probed.


"Which division?" I asked.

"Counter-terrorism," she responded.

"What's your name?" I asked.

She gave me her badge number but not her name.


I quickly thought that if I lied about my past, where I had once been charged with terrorism, in the case known as the Bradford 12, and acquitted, and the police checked up then they might detain me, causing me to miss my flight. But, if I told the truth then they might still hold me to verify what I was saying, but at least this way, I might not miss the flight. The best I could do was to answer honestly and hope I wouldn't be detained for long.

"How much cash are you carrying?" she questioned.

"Three thousand US dollars," I replied and then asked, "Why?"

She brushed her hair with one hand, and I noticed she had touched her ear. For a moment, I thought there might be a hidden microphone, and she was communicating with someone, but I quickly dismissed the idea, reminding myself to stop watching so much Sci-Fi.

"Money laundering and funding terrorism," she declared.

"The most terrifying thing I'm going to face in Beirut is the cost of living. That's what the cash is for," I said, attempting to diffuse the tension.

It didn't work. She frowned at me.

"Where do you work in Lebanon?" she enquired.

"At the American University of Beirut," I replied.

"What do you do?" she pressed.

"I'm a teacher."

"What do you teach?"

"How to write stories," I replied.

"Do you teach English?" she asked.

"No, I teach in English," I responded. "I teach creative writing and storytelling."

"Have you ever been questioned by security forces before?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, "which ones are you referring to?"

"Counter-terrorism officers," she clarified.

"Yes, I have, but that was a very long time ago..."

"Were you arrested?" she interrupted.

"Yes," I replied.

"Were you charged?"

"Yes, but I was acquitted, and it was over 40 years ago."

"What were you charged with?" she inquired.

She was firing questions at me in quick succession, and I was trying to answer as fast as I could, but at the back of my head I kept thinking, should I tell her the full charge, namely, conspiracy to cause explosions and possession of explosive substances? But that sounded really bad, and I didn't want to be strip-searched and miss my flight.

So I opted for the simple answer, “the case was called the Bradford 12.”

“Your charges, I asked,” she demanded.


She asked for my passport, which I handed over. Then she requested my mobile number. I hesitated but didn't want any further trouble, so I gave it to her as well.

She glanced at her colleagues, then instructed me to wait by the window and disappeared into a room.

I grew impatient waiting and took a few deep breaths to prevent my blood pressure from rising. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, occasionally glancing at other officers. The white officer stopped a group of hijab-wearing women and began questioning them. The South Asian officer, who had been watching me, moved towards a group of white teenagers who appeared to be heading on holiday, dressed in hot-pants and short tops. They were clearly a bit tipsy, judging by their loud laughter.

He questioned them and glanced at me during the process. I pursed my lips and shook my head disapprovingly, as if to say, "Seriously, do you think you've found terrorists?" The officer quickly averted his gaze, and the teenagers were allowed to continue on their way. The Muslim family was questioned a bit longer but eventually also went on their way.

I grew fed up with waiting and tried to use my mobile phone to send messages to friends, informing them that I was being held up at the airport. However, my phone became unresponsive. I still composed my messages, hoping they would send once my phone started working again.

I wasn't sure how long the female officer had been gone. It felt like an eternity. I took a seat near some windows.

I started to wonder what might be going through the mind of the officer who had questioned me. Maybe she thought she had caught a big fish and was expecting a rapid promotion, or perhaps she had checked my past on their computers and found something troubling, and she was seeking clarification on whether to detain me or not.

I tried to stop thinking about the situation and began reading a book I had with me. It was about the adventures of Gilgamesh, an ancient mythical Mesopotamian character. I chuckled, thinking that at least Gilgamesh didn't have to deal with unprofessional counter-terrorism officers at Manchester Airport. Then I laughed at the absurdity of it all. "What on earth are you thinking, Tariq?" I thought. "Gilgamesh was written about in a poem somewhere around 2150-1400 BCE."

I was still contemplating what Gilgamesh might make of the present when the counter-terrorism police officer returned. She had some A4 sheets of paper and my passport in her hand. She gave me a cold look, then walked over to her colleagues, whispered something to them, and approached me.

I remained seated.

"Where are you traveling to?" she asked me.

"I've already told you," I said.

"Answer my question," she insisted.


"What do you do there?"

"I teach," I replied.


"I've already told you."

"Do you teach English?" she asked.

"No, I teach in English..."

"What do you teach?"

"How to write stories, and I ensure my students remember not to forget anything if they are ever questioned by the Terror police," I replied. The words slipped out of my mouth, but I was growing angry. I could feel my blood pressure rising to off-the-scale levels.

"How much cash do you have on you?" she inquired.

I was now in my sixties and had undergone various police interrogations over the years, most of them for false charges. I understood something about the techniques they used, but this was a bit unusual. She wasn't stupid, and by now, she clearly understood that my answers were honest, and she was unlikely to find any inconsistencies. Then another thought crossed my mind. Perhaps she wasn't asking for herself, and someone else was listening to my answers.

No, this is all in my mind, I quickly resolved, no one else could be listening. But she was definitely adopting a more aggressive posture and tone.

When I didn't answer for a while, she asked again. I gave the same response as before and then added, "You either let me go or detain me. After two more questions, I will refuse to answer anything else from you."

She fell silent for a moment and looked at someone or something behind her.

"Why are you doing this to me?" I asked.

"Your answers were aggressive when I first stopped you," she said.

"But I didn't raise my voice."

"Just answer my questions," she replied.

"Either arrest me or return my passport. I won't answer any more questions, and you surely know enough about me to understand this."

She walked away, spoke to her colleagues, and then returned to me. Holding my passport in front of me, she said, "You can go for now, but if I need you, I will find you."

I grabbed my passport and left. She didn’t come for me and after a little while my mobile started working. Waiting for my flight I could not stop thinking about what had just happened and why. Was it just a random encounter? What should I do the next time? The police woman’s last words kept going round and round in my head, and I began to feel I was being watched. And then felt a chill run down my back, given all the facial recognition, and all the CCTV around, perhaps this wasn't just a stroke of bad luck.

Tariq Mehmood is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker. He was one of the leading defendants in the case of the Bradford 12 in 1981. He co-directed Injustice, the ground-breaking film into deaths in British Police Custody and writer of its follow-on, Ultraviolence. He is currently making a film on the Bradford 12. He wrote his first novel awaiting trial: Hand On The Sun, Penguin 1983. He has since written a number of novels, the latest being You’re Not here, Daraja 2018. He is an Associate Professor at the American University Of Beirut, Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @TariqMehmood000

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