Terrorism, Politics and Media Controversy

Today’s global media is the most effective weapon around for both governments and terrorists — despite the presence of WMDs. Even after 9/11, the maxim still holds that ‘war is ultimately coercive [while] terrorism is impressive’; in other words, terrorism compensates for its relative lack of coercive force by relying on ‘collective alarmism’ to create the forceful reaction of the state it needs to rally people to its cause. [1] Similarly governments seek to reassure publics by talking and being tough — which is more often than not the initial response before any attempt to win hearts and minds becomes more serious. Even five years on after the World Trade Center attacks, we seem caught in a media battle through which the apparently wavering hearts of British Muslms are to be won over. The intensity of this media battle is in and of itself highly divisive and counter-productive.

Recently there was an interview with a prominent radical on British radio’s most prestigious interview slot, 8.10am on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. On the eve of Ramadan, Today’s chief interviewer, the normally insistent John Humphreys, found himself fazed when facing the aggressive scattergun approach favoured by Abu Izzadeen and other protégés of the exiled founder and leader of al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Mohammed (b. 1958). The interview itself, the full transcript of which is available here, was a classic instance of a liberal and a jihadi talking past each other, speaking two entirely different languages.

But first some background. Al-Muhajiroun is a splinter group that broke away from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a transnational organisation that works to re-establish the caliphate in the Muslim world. Its splinter is a small, high profile group that courts controversy with the media in order to use notoriety as a recruitment tactic. A reliable estimate from academic research done in 2002, put its numbers back then at 160 members, 700 attendees of weekly study circles and 7,000 contacts or potential participants. [2] It was founded in Saudi Arabia in 1983 but after a crackdown Bakri left for London in 1986, and rejoined HT where he succeeded through his high profile, controversial style in attracting a considerable membership for the movement as well as international notoriety. Bakri’s outlandish positions were too extreme even for HT’s leadership (e.g. wishing to establish the caliphate in Britain), and he was stripped of his leadership of the UK section in November 1995 by the worldwide leader, Abdul Qadeem Zalloum. He later resigned from HT and relaunched al-Muhajiroun in January 1996.

Omar Bakri endorsed al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the American embassies in a samizdat legal verdict. But after 9/11, he was more equivocal, condemning attacks on civilian targets but claiming still that this was an act of mistaken but still rewardable ijtihad on al-Qaeda’s part. Only in July 2003 did the Metropolitan police really crack down on the group after the bombing of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv by two British Muslims who were some way linked, at least indirectly, to the movement. In 2004, al-Muhajiroun was disbanded and in August 2005, Bakri left for the Lebanon and was subsequently banned from returning to Britain. Al-Muhajiroun’s successor groups al-Gurabaa and the Saved Sect were banned by the British government in July 2006, after some internal disagreement and equivocation from the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and from the intelligence services. [3] These groups could only be legally banned after extending the grounds for proscription of terrorist groups in the Terrorism Act 2000 by passing an additional clause banning the glorification of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2006.

Section 21 of the Terrorism Act 2006 proscribes groups that promote or encourage ‘the unlawful glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally) of acts of terrorism’. Glorification is understood as encouraging the ‘emulation of terrorism’.

On splitting from HT in 1996, al-Muhajiroun defined itself on three points of difference:

(i) While they both believe in the reestablishment of worldwide caliphate, HT believes such work is confined to the Muslim world, whereas al-Muhajiroun considers it an obligation to establish God’s command in Britain.
(ii) Al-Muhajiroun adopts a more public style of moral correction, of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, in contrast to HT’s more private method of training and inculcation.
(iii) Finally, unlike HT, al-Muhajiroun openly supports the cause of jihad by hand, heart or tongue in the British context. Their spokesmen have in the past refused to condemn the bombers of 9/11 or 7/7, but have argued that foreign Muslims ought to make a strike on British soil for this country’s military support for the American-led ‘war on terror’.

The full transcript of the interview, available here, reiterates all these three distinctive features – and leads to the conclusion that Abu Izzadeen succeeded in using this influential slot to get across his core message. With Humphreys’s assertion that those who support the Sharia ought to leave the UK to live in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, Abu Izzadeen recognises the worldwide applicability of the Sharia, the duty to establish it here, and the non-validity of the concept of national sovereignty:

I believe Allah is al-Khaliq, He’s the One who created the whole universe, He created the UK. It doesn’t belong to you, it doesn’t belong to the Queen, it doesn’t belong to the Anglo-Saxons. … It belongs to Allah the Creator, and He has put us on the planet Earth, to live wherever we want and implement the Sharia rules. If I live in the UK I will call for Islam.

Secondly he adopts the hallmark style of public moral correction both in the interview and in the headline-grapping heckling of John Reid, the current Home Secretary, in an East London mosque. He partly quotes the famous hadith on the levels of iman and necessity of correction in the interview. He also reiterates his core message to millions of listeners, which centres around the condemnation of temporal political authority:

If you’re going to talk about terrorism, I think you can look to Tony Blair, coz at the moment the biggest terrorist on the planet is George Bush and his sidekick. … How many people died in 9/11? 3000? Let’s give a nice round figure of 5000 people. Since 9/11, the British Crusader forces and the American Crusader forces, George Bush has it’s a crusade, so I’m not going to argue with the President of the United States, he said it’s a crusade, Tony Blair sided with him as a crusader. They have killed…the bombing campaign alone, some say 70,000 inside Iraq, some said 100,000.

He is quick to tap into the main contention in the Muslim world, that Muslim deaths are more numerous and are accounted to matter less in the Western world. He also connects his message with a feeling of discontent not only with military intervention abroad, but with policing at home:

We’ve had enough of the police raids, we’ve had enough of the shootings in Forest Gate, we’ve had enough of the arrests inside Walthamstow, inside restaurants, under the guise of your “war against terror”, which everybody knows – Muslims and non-Muslims – is a war against Islam. And I’m telling you something, if they don’t stop this, then there’s going to be a very strong reaction from the community, maybe not from me on an individual level, but people have had enough. … Well I think that the British government should really open their eyes and smell the coffee. You can only push people to a certain level before they explode, I’m not talking about a self-suicide operation, but there’s a tension within the community because they are being targeted.

Finally, Abu Izzadeen is able to continue to provide tacit support for suicide terrorism in the UK despite the strictures of the new legislation against the glorification of terrorism by recounting the opinions of others rather than his own view. He achieves this despite an attempt by Humphreys to get him to make an open statement of support:

JH: I tell you what you do about Tony Blair, you vote against him. It’s your right as a British citizen, vote him out of office if you disapprove of what he’s doing, but are you telling me that 9/11 and the subsequent attacks, including the attack on this country were justified because of the things you’re talking about?

AI: Who’s talking about justification?

JH: I’m asking you whether you whether, you know perfectly well what…

AI: …I haven’t mentioned anything about justification. I’m talking about the reality of Muslims being attacked after 9/11… the numbers of casualties are much greater on the Muslim side. So no-one’s taking about justification apart from yourself.

JH: I’m asking you whether they were justified?

AI: Well why don’t you go and ask the terrorists?

JH: No, no, I’m asking you.

AI: No you ask the terrorists. Those who took out the operations, we should go to them and ask them why did you do so? And I believe that there was a video release by Mohammed Siddique Khan, after the operation he did on 7/7, he explained clearly why he did those, it’s not for me to justify or for me to condemn because it doesn’t make any difference. People are dead. Rather you should go to those who did the operation and ask them why they did it, and they said clearly ‘if you bomb us, we’ll bomb you back.’ That’s not about justification, it’s about what they said.

JH: Let me tell you…what the Channel 4 poll on British Muslims said that one in four British Muslims believe that the attacks on London last July were justified, and that’s the word, because of British support for the American-led war on Iraq.

AI: So what are you asking me for? You’ve got a clear poll, and you’re asking me about my opinion?

This particular exchange demonstrates that while legislation is passed outlawing ideas as well as criminal acts, it is at the same time quite easily circumvented and is therefore ineffective as well as sapping the state of moral legitimacy.

The great lesson was that this interview, a golden opportunity for Abu Izzadeen to spread his message, was effectively granted by the Home Secretary himself, who seems anxious to appear tough on the ‘war on terror’ (in the run up to the election of a new Labour Party leader and thus PM) at the expense of ratcheting up inter-community tensions, which can then be exploited by the likes of Mr Izzadeen through a mass media ever hungry to report controversy.

Previously in an article for the Sun, Mr Reid has made this appeal:

I appeal to you (the Muslim community) to look for changes in your teenage sons — odd hours, dropping out of school or college, strange new friends. … And if you are worried, talk to them before their hatred grows.

No doubt this might seem at first sight to be the right thing to do on the part of any parent faced with such an agonising eventuality, and yet this suggestion was met with some consternation by community leaders. Why should a generalised request be made to an entire community to police itself? It is stigmatizing to generalise, as this problem affects very few families. A contact within the police service told me that radicalisation takes place in a context where communication has already broken down, and parents genuinely do not know much about the details of their sons’ lives in these cases. The surprise of parents upon the arrest of sons on terrorist charges has been genuine. In the one case where family members were suspected of prior knowledge of an attack, that of Omar Sherif who carried out a failed suicide bombing mission in 2003, they were acquitted of all charges in 2005. In another case, a teenage boy was reported to the police by his parents and was subsequently given a two year jail sentence without any recourse to deradicalising interventions that did not require recourse to a prison sentence. This would hardly encourage parents to come forward if matters are not going to be dealt with sensibly. It is better to leave such matters to the professionals and allow serious cases to be dealt with quietly and effectively without creating a cause celebre for short term political gain.

A heavy handed approach from government allows the likes of Mr Izzadeen to press his case further.

Notes

[1] Charles Townshend, Terrorism (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 15.
[2] Quintan Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 10.
[3] New Statesman, 30 January 2005, based on information from a confidential memo leaked to the journalist Martin Bright.

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