Extremism in Britain: An Old-New Phenomenon
The contemporary British security landscape is fraught with complexities and ambiguities. The country has received both praise for its multicultural ethos and criticism for nurturing a lax liberalism. While the multicultural ethos has allowed Britain to both ensure a labor supply and import skilled migrants from all over the world, a lax state liberalism has failed to instil a shared sense of belonging onto some of the progenies of post-WWII migrants. Intolerant individuals advancing an extremist Islamist agenda entered the British landscape long before the global rise of al-Qaeda and, later, the Islamic State. The 1980s and the 1990s registered the arrival to British shores of fundamentalist preachers in exile from repressive Muslim-majority countries, who started populating a number of mosques in London, such as Finsbury Park Mosque, London Central Mosque and East London Mosque. London quickly became a safe haven for jihadi recruitment and for the propagation of the global jihad. A ‘covenant of security’ was established between the security apparatus and fundamentalist preachers, such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qatada al-Filistini. This covenant functioned as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that allowed extremist views, including open support for violent jihad, to be tolerated so long as British streets were to be left free of blood. In light of the tragic terrorist attack on London’s transportation system in 2005, the failures of this soft security approach have given some credibility to the concerns that French, American and other non-British authorities had had that Britain was breeding its own terrorists.
The memoirs of Réda Hassaïne, an informer for the British, French and Algerian security services, recount the frustration of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) with the hands-off approach of the Brits in the 1990s. Hassaïne’s story unveils two outlandish plans by the then Head of the DGSE in London to deal with Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Egyptian imam of Finsbury Park Mosque and a supporter of both the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and al-Qaeda. Fearing that Abu-Hamza would rile up GIA members in the wake of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, the DGSE planned either to have Abu Hamza assassinated and later blame British far-right groups for his death or to kidnap and take him to France via the Eurotunnel so that he could face terror charges there. But these plans remained a fantasy and Abu Hamza continued to preach jihad for another six years, until his arrest in 2004. In 2012 he was extradited to the United States. He was later convicted of terrorism charges in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015.
Less than two months after the London attacks in 2005, eminent Professor Michael Clarke penned an opinion piece for The Guardian, arguing that “tolerating radicalism is in the national interest” of Britain. Clarke maintained that this approach promotes self-policing and helps law enforcement agencies to more easily monitor risky individuals. This approach sounds sensible in ideal terms and certainly must have produced some good results. Yet, it fails to recognize the spectrum of extremist views – openly preaching violent jihad differs from supporting non-violent fundamentalist ideas – and the unmanageable long-term risks inherent in allowing reactionary movements to grow completely unchallenged.
In recent times, a movement in opposition to the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy has shaped public debate on, and riled thousands of people against, security practices in Britain. Government and policymakers are partly to blame for the situation as they did all what they could to devise a politically unpalatable and shortsighted counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent has fueled real and perceived notions that whole Muslim communities, rather than people who directly engage or support terrorism, are the targets of State action. Controversially, Prevent has devolved some policing responsibilities to public authorities. University lecturers, doctors, teachers and others now have a legal requirement to employ a vague set of radicalization indicators to spot wannabe terrorists. Everyday security practices have also caused resentment. Most of the Scottish Muslims whom I interviewed for my research complained about being singled out for airport checks, in a context in which they otherwise reported good life experiences and positive integration in the country. These perceptions could be myth or reality. Security authorities could be targeting people’s ethnicity and religion or merely their travel roots and destinations. Nonetheless, the practical problems remain the same: communities who rightly or wrongly feel alienated will not trust State institutions and will not cooperate with anti-extremism and counter-terrorism strategies.
Government and law enforcement agencies should think very carefully about the importance of engineering feelings of inclusion and belonging within the Muslim community. They should also move toward a combined ‘total covert’ and ‘total overt’ model of delivering security, rather than implementing half-baked approaches that make communities rightly or wrongly perceive to be under constant surveillance. ‘Total covert’ approaches can strengthen the capabilities of intelligence agencies to penetrate terrorist and subversive groups at home and abroad, while ‘total overt’ approaches can foster bonds and bridges between the Muslim community and wider society via exercises of social cohesion delivered by credible community leaders, imams, local authorities, intellectuals and others.
The lessons from the Muslim Contact Unit within the Metropolitan Police Service, which managed to oust Abu Hamza from Finsbury Park Mosque, are clear. Very targeted, limited, short-term and last resort activities of engagement with non-violent fundamentalist groups can also be employed to steer violent fundamentalists away from terrorist action in very specific circumstances. This strategy can help deal with hard-to-reach communities where street credibility counts more than professional and educational qualifications.
Beyond reworking counter-terrorism strategies around more pragmatic and politically astute, rather than idealistic, principles, the key issue that British government and law enforcement agencies will have to address is the mounting popular resistance to the very involvement of the State in combating Islamist terrorism. Led by CAGE, an organization campaigning for the release of actual and alleged terrorists, and a conglomerate of groups gravitating around the Islamist, far-left and anarchist world, resistance to counter-terrorism policies and practices is on the rise in Britain. This movement of resistance has travelled through the country opposing State efforts to prevent terrorism. Combining their efforts with the National Union of Students, ultra-liberal sections of the media and several academics, they have also sought to destabilize anti-extremism policies at universities, where intolerant Islamists have taken the platform, unchallenged, at several events. The latest escalation in tensions between this movement of resistance and the British government is dated 10 February, when CAGE leaked training material from Prevent. It is unclear as to what hidden agendas lie behind some of these groups and it would not be surprising to discover that foreign interests lurk behind, with the intention of destabilizing a key European country.
Meanwhile, low level conflicts between this reactionary conglomerate and government are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. These groups have historically been movements of opposition rather than proposition, ideologically swinging between quasi-revolutionary, extremist or radical forms of politics. Given that these groups hardly ever consider mediation, compromise and convincing policy proposals, negotiation remains a very remote option. The support that this movement of resistance has received from several actors in civil society makes it unlikely that its ideological narrative will be seriously challenged without an equally concerted effort from various sectors of society, including moderate Muslims, intellectuals, the media, local authorities and centre-left and centre-right politicians.