The Road to Terror Leads Home
Since images of the gruesome beheading of the American journalist James Foley by his British executioner ‘Jihadi John’ were circulated around the world, the term ‘home-grown jihadis’ has entered the popular nomenclature, symbolizing public shock at the thought that British citizens are perpetrating human rights abuse abroad and concern that returning jihadis may represent an existential threat to British society. Indeed, the actions of a British Muslim citizen decapitating a fellow Westerner at the behest of a regime fighting to establish a Muslim caliphate taps into a well of historic memory which casts democracy against theocracy; civilization against barbarism and the West against the Orient. However, whilst it is tempting for politicians and commentators to draw on such tropes for easy sound bites, such a simplified analysis though is fraught with danger. The leaders of Britain, France, Belgium and Germany which account for the largest number of European nationals recruited to the IS cause, should attempt to steer well clear of such easy rhetoric and the policy solutions they imply.
It is easy to respond to the mood of public hysteria for action – as Tony Blair did in 2005 in the aftermath of the 7/7 London bombings – by introducing bad legislation. The raft of draconian anti-extremism and terrorism legislation under the name of Prevent and CONTEST undermined our collective civil liberties and human rights but singularly failed to plug the supply chain of ‘home grown terrorists’ to the global jihadist cause. Critically it has also created a profound breach in the relationship between the British government and British Muslims – the very community the intelligence agencies rely on for information - as they resented being scooped up in the dragnet of mass surveillance and treated as suspect communities.
In workshop after workshop that I have attended with Muslims in Leeds, Kirklees and Bradford since the London bombings, both young and old have cited Western foreign policy, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, disproportionate policing of Muslims and ethnic minorities, unemployment, institutional racism and Islamaphobia as some of the factors that have contributed to their alienation from British society.
This narrative is not unique to Britain – it has similar echoes in the African bannelieus of Paris; the deprived communes that are home to Moroccans and Algerians in Brussels; and the Turkish diaspora communities in the industrial heartlands of Germany. Unfortunately the official government response across Europe has been to discount the structural and systemic failures that have failed to deliver a fair deal for their ethnic minority communities. Instead the entire drift of government rhetoric and policy has been to turn the finger of blame on the Muslim community for the rise in extremism and terrorism.
Yes mosques and madrassahs have been a recruiting ground for potential extremists, but the influence of hate preachers is rather over-stated. This is acknowledged by experts such as the former spy chief, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones who believes that the solution to radicalisation ultimately lies in developing a well-funded social media strategy to develop counter-messaging narratives to engage young people.
The cyberspace has become a contested arena in which different narratives compete for saliency – a fact that previous anti-extremism programmes such as Prevent administered through ‘community leaders’ and ageing mosque imams failed to understand. In reality the battle for Muslim hearts and minds occurs in virtual space where jihadis have effectively mobilised twitters, blog posts, instagrams and video messaging to entice recruits.
The truth is the involvement of Western jihadists in the IS (Islamic State) struggle to create a Muslim caliphate hasn’t just happened overnight. The recent beheadings may have brought the IS and its methods into the public eye, but the intelligence services have known for some time that European nationals have been travelling into Syria through Turkey’s porous borders to join the jihadist cause. They also know that 200 jihadists have returned home to the UK and contrary to the impression given in the slickly produced jihadi videos that there is mass support for their cause, the numbers fighting on the side of the IS are at best in the hundreds.
So why has the British government introduced the raft of measures – from taking away the passports of British citizens and dual nationals; giving police extra powers to stop its own citizens from re-entering Britain; and strengthening the TPims regime - to curb the threat from returning jihadis only now? The temptation to be seen to be in control since the news of British jihadists has emerged may be a plausible reason. However the government’s own independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, has called on the Coalition government not to play to the gallery of public opinion but to develop a response that has adequate safeguards.
So how should European leaders respond to the pull that ISIS exerts over young Muslims across Europe? Perhaps the most enlightened response to date has come from Richard Barrett, a former MI5 and MI6 counter-terrorism chief who understands that the response to returning jihadis has to be nuanced. His call to let repentant fighters ‘know that there is a place for them back home’ and to use them as intelligence assets and mobilise them ‘in dissuading potential jihadis from travelling to fight with Islamic State’ highlights a pragmatic and redemptive solution to a seemingly intractable problem.
Britain has scored significant successes using former gang leaders as mentors to turn young people away from drugs and crime in areas where gang warfare has turned neighbourhoods into warring turfs. Ultimately the government has to open up effective lines of communication with returning jihadis if it is going to contain the terrorist threat. This will require listening to them and taking responsibility for creating the conditions that have led to Muslim youth alienation. Bombing insurgents and putting jihadists behind bars may address the symptoms but it will certainly not address the causes that led to ‘John’ From the East End of London taking the road to jihad in a foreign land.
Director of JUST West Yorkshire, and Vice-chair of UKREN