It has been reported that Britain’s domestic intelligence agency is paying “thousands” of pounds to ex-Islamists and Muslims with extremist links to keep a watch on mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim neighbourhoods for any suspicious radical activities. The Observer, which broke the story, described it as “a network of human resources across the country engaged to effectively spy on specific targets”. The operation, it said, was being “coordinated” under the government’s official post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, known as Pursue, to prevent terrorist attacks by detecting and investigating threats at the earliest possible stage. This is the latest example of how supposedly “reformed” extremists have become central to the British government’s counter-terror strategy.
Those of us who grew up in the Cold War era will recall how, in the 1970s, communist defectors were regarded as prized assets in the West in its fight against communism. Ex-commies were all the rage back then. Fast forward, and the new big thing is the ex-Islamist.
As the threat from Muslim radicalisation grows and nervous governments scramble to find ways to fix it, help is at hand from those who say they know how to do it having been to hell and back themselves. Ex-Islamists are the new ex-commies, dining out on their insider knowledge and spawning a thriving counter-terror cottage industry in Britain and America. Flush with funding from government and private sources, they have politicians, security agencies and the media eating out of their hands. Some, like Ed Husain, the British-Bangladeshi former Islamist whose confessional book, The Islamist, is regarded as a must-read for counter-terror experts and politicians, have become bestselling authors.
Then there’s Maajid Nawaz, a British-Pakistani former foot-soldier of radical Islamist group Hizb-ur-Tehrir which, like the Islamic State, seeks to establish a global caliphate and sharia rule, though through non-violent means. Before al-Qaeda appeared on the scene, HuT was the principal radicalising force on British campuses and in local communities. With his salt-and-pepper hair and a Lenin-ish goatee, Nawaz could easily be mistaken for an Oxbridge don, except that he dresses too nattily. But he is more famous than many of them — a familiar figure on British television and much in demand on the lecture circuit.
Nawaz was part of a group of Islamists, including Husain, who renounced their past in the wake of the 2005 London bombings to start a new life with a call for a “secular Islam”. Portraying themselves as victims of brainwashing and indoctrination, Nawaz and his friends said they wanted to protect other young and vulnerable Muslims by offering a counter-narrative to Islamism. So, they set up the Quilliam Foundation (named after a 19th century Christian convert to Islam who established England’s first mosque and Islamic centre) with the avowed aim of “challenging the Islamist narrative”.
To date, the foundation has reportedly received nearly £1 million in British government funding but has little to show for it except for holding seminars and publishing glossy reports on the threat from Muslim militancy. Its latest report, South Asian Militant Groups and Global Jihad in 2015, is a cut-and-paste job: A bland recall of familiar developments with no new insight or facts. And where it attempts analysis, it is fundamentally flawed — like when it attributes the pull of militancy solely to a lack of education and high levels of unemployment among Muslim youth. This flies in the face of the fact that highly educated and well-heeled Muslims from economically well-off and often socially liberal families are embracing Islamism.
Several of the government’s widely publicised counter-terror initiatives with which Quilliam was associated have spectacularly bombed, prompting criticism that it is wasting taxpayers’ money. None of this, however, has diminished its fortunes. Nawaz, its director, and his team remain the go-to people for sexy soundbites on terrorism. Husain, meanwhile, is now with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, whose close links with US foreign policy hawks and big business have spawned conspiracy theories.
In the absence of hard evidence, one would hesitate to describe Quilliam as “typical” of ex-Islamist-run counter-terror outfits. But there’s enough anecdotal evidence to show that Quilliam is not an exception. On the other hand, efforts led by professionally trained social workers engaged with local Muslim communities have proven to be more effective.
On the face of it, it makes sense, as the old saw goes, to set a thief to catch a thief. The argument is that having been there and done that, ex-Islamists know the terrain, and that their personal stories would deter potential jihadis from taking the plunge. But, in practice, the exact opposite has happened. And for good reason.
The fundamental problem is that most of these reformed jihadis are not the real thing, having been low-level functionaries who exaggerated their role (Husain, for instance, didn’t even run a local cell independently) to buy credibility. They were not ideologues: they flirted with Islamism, spent a few years running small errands, got disillusioned and quit. Unlike the communist defectors of the Cold War-era, they had no secrets to reveal, and no insights that intelligence agencies didn’t already possess.
Sadly, the British government doesn’t appear to have learned any lessons and is set to repeat the same mistake amid moves to co-opt disillusioned jihadis returning from Syria. The counter-terror cottage industry is just about to get bigger.
The writer is a London-based commentator
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