I've been working on the below investigative story for more than a few years, gathering bits and pieces of evidence as I go along. A couple of months ago, a lot of things came together. It went up last week. It's an important and highly revealing piece - please do share widely.
Published by Le Monde diplomatique (9.12.13)
Government advisers, counter-extremism officials, and (current and former) civil servants confirm that the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy is failing to tackle the danger of violent extremism; rather, it is exacerbating the threat of domestic terrorism. These officials attribute the failure to a “fundamentally flawed” approach to counter-terrorism strategy inspired by a UK anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.
An adviser to Charles Farr, director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office, said that Farr was warned three years ago of the possibility of an attack in the UK, similar to the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, southeast London, that later took place on 22 May 2013.
The OSCT adviser, an independent counter-radicalisation expert who has worked with many government agencies, wrote on 31st May 2013 to General Sir David Richards — then chief of the defence staff and the most senior military adviser to the defence secretary and prime minister. In his letter he describes a meeting in Birmingham on 27th January 2010 he organised between Farr, other OSCT officials and five young Muslims who were “amongst those most at risk of radicalisation.” The letter describes how Farr asked the young men about their “feelings and aspirations”: “One of the young men responded by saying he was angered by the death of women and children in Afghanistan and if given half a chance he would go abroad to fight British soldiers in Afghanistan. Another member of the group intervened and said, why do you want to go abroad when you can kill them here.”
The letter criticised the government’s decision to cut funding to STREET (Strategy to Reach Empower & Educate Teenagers), a south London counter-radicalisation organisation engaging alienated young Muslims outside mainstream institutions, especially those involved in gang culture: “Some of the blame has to be levelled at the new [coalition] government, they revised the agenda and cut funding to STREET, a credible outreach project assisting and guiding black converts and Muslim gang members. Ostensibly one of the Woolwich perpetrators were known to them... I strongly believe had their programme been operational the Woolwich incident could have been averted.”
As early as January 2010, the same counter-radicalisation adviser warned Farr and other OSCT officials of the circulation of “jihadi and Taliban propaganda videos” among “younger members of the community” that “need looking into.” He said a senior OSCT official “was completely unaware of the circulation of such material. The security services need to improve the way they engage with the community and need to implement better practice.”
The adviser emphasised in the letter that government departments were not properly accounting for “the link between gang culture and jihadi culture. There has been a disproportionate focus on ideology which isn’t actually the main motivational force attracting young Muslim and non-Muslim males to a violent interpretation of Islam.”
Foreign policy grievances and social alienation are the real drivers, he said. “Islamist ideology is just the icing on the cake” that comes later.
Whitehall’s hand in Quilliam
Former Whitehall officials confirm that the failure to understand the role of gang culture and foreign policy grievances in radicalisation is linked to the government’s relationship with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank founded by former Muslim extremists Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz in 2008. The foundation is known for its focus on the problem of “non-violent extremism”, which it characterises as a necessary pre-condition for terrorism.
A leaked Quilliam briefing paper to Charles Farr in June 2010, reviewing the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (“Prevent”) policies, claimed: “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics.” The paper was “particularly critical of the view that government partnerships with non-violent yet otherwise extreme Islamists were the best way to fend off jihadism.” Among those Quilliam flagged up as sharing the ideology of terrorists were grassroots organisations like STREET, peaceful Muslim groups like the Islamic Society of Britain, politicians like Salma Yacoub, and even Scotland Yard’s Muslim Contact Unit.
According to a former senior research officer at the Home Office and ministry of justice, Ed Husain’s bestselling book, The Islamist, was “effectively ghostwritten in Whitehall.” Husain’s book recounts his recruitment into and transition from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group which calls for the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate.
The former Home Office official said that he was told in 2006 by a colleague “with close ties to two senior figures in the Labour Party, namely Jack Straw and Gordon Brown” that “the draft was written by Ed but then ‘peppered’ by government input — not explicitly, but implicitly.” The civil servant told him “he had seen ‘at least five drafts of the book, and the last one was dramatically different from the first.’ I asked, ‘How do you mean?’ He responded ‘It got peppered with names and aspects of their profiles as people seen as either a friend of or a thorn in the side of New Labour.’” The official explained that his colleague “was someone who had a reasonable sense of what was happening, but was way down the food chain, and merely enacting the will of senior policy makers driving the agenda. These were likely to be in No. 10, Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the intelligence services, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.”
In turn, civil servants were told by superiors to ensure they read Husain’s book. In 2008 BBC News reported that: “One government official e-mailed scores of colleagues inside Whitehall late last year, effectively instructing them to read it.” Husain could not be reached for comment.
Continuing influence under Cameron
Although the present coalition government no longer funds the Quilliam Foundation, sources said that its co-founder and incumbent director, Maajid Nawaz, continues to have inordinate influence on policymakers.
One former senior OSCT director responsible for Prevent said that in the run-up to prime minister David Cameron’s Munich speech in February 2011 criticising “state multiculturalism” as a cause of radicalisation, Whitehall advisers with relevant expertise were inexplicably sidelined in favour of input from Nawaz. “I and other counter-terrorism experts were telling the coalition cabinet that non-violent extremism is not a factor in the real threat, but they weren’t listening,” said the director. “I found myself and my staff being systematically frozen out, ignored in briefings, and sometimes not even invited to meetings that I was supposed to chair.”
The former OSCT official said of the Cameron’s Munich speech: “It was a complete shock to us. Members of my team were already working with his speechwriter on his Munich presentation weeks in advance. We had a very clear idea of what the focus of the speech should be, and we had nothing in there about non-violent extremism. So when we were all tuning in to listen to the prime minister’s speech weeks later, I was gobsmacked. The things he’d said about multiculturalism being a problem, about the need to focus on non-violent extremists, were totally new. We hadn’t agreed on these things before, and hadn’t even heard about them. The speech had been modified in certain small but important ways that completely transformed the overall message. I was told by colleagues that the prime minister was bringing in his own advisers to work on his security policy. It makes sense, because there were times when I and others were just pushed aside.”
According to a senior Foreign Office official, Maajid Nawaz was among the outside advisers brought in to brief Cameron in advance of the drafting of his Munich speech. That is confirmed by Nawaz himself in his memoirs, Radical. The official, however, downplayed the extent of Nawaz’s influence on the text of the speech: “No single person had overwhelming influence on the Munich speech, which went through many drafts. Yes, other civil servants may have been sidelined in the process, but Nawaz is exaggerating the extent of his impact.”
Nawaz was also invited to brief Cameron’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism before the release of its report last week. The report calls for new anti-terror powers against extremist preachers, filters to block extremist websites, and more support for the Home Office’s Channel Project, among other measures.
Government overlooks extremists
The Channel Project is an early intervention programme coordinated by the police to identify vulnerable people at risk of radicalisation, and provide preventive support services in partnership with local authorities and community service providers. The new Task Force report urges Channel to be made a legal requirement across England and Wales.
But the Channel Project is “fundamentally flawed” according to insiders familiar with the government programme. A senior Prevent practitioner, who worked as a regional manager with multiple London authorities for several years until 2012, criticised the Channel Project for using “vague assessment criteria” of vulnerability to violent radicalisation focusing on “issues that don’t necessarily pose a potential security threat, such as a person’s views about democracy or foreign policy, for instance.”
The biggest problem with Channel, said the former Prevent manager, was that it fails to target those most at risk of radicalisation: “To deliver an intervention, you need the consent of the person referred. But people who are genuinely radicalised, highly socially excluded, and engaged in activity making them vulnerable to violent extremism or condoning of terrorism, would never give their consent to a Channel intervention, due precisely to their distrust of government. Whereas people who don’t really pose a danger and are offered the intervention are more likely to be open to receiving an intervention. So the overwhelming majority of people who receive an intervention under the Channel project are not actually likely to become involved in terrorism.”
According to a Channel Project “Statement of Organisational Values” which prospective service providers are supposed to fill out and sign, individuals who might be eligible to receive an intervention could include someone “who supports armed resistance” in Muslim countries and “believes there is a religious justification for this”, or someone “who believes that national governments should be replaced by a Caliphate and Sharia law, without advocating violent revolt.”
Such vague criteria might unjustifiably demonise and alienate already marginalised young Muslims who are sceptical of British democratic institutions and foreign policy. Dr. Anthony Richards, a British terrorism expert at the University of East London, points to empirical research by the think tank Demos on “non-violent” extremists, finding much evidence of widespread support among young Muslims for Iraqi and Afghan people “defending themselves” from “invaders”, but little or no support for terrorism inside Britain or the West.
A study of the views of British Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali individuals by OSCT’s own Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), found that “whilst they might reject the means adopted by terrorists, they sympathised with the causes [injustice and oppression faced by Muslims around the world] allegedly espoused by terrorists and felt they had legitimate grievances.”
Those most at risk of violent radicalisation are being pushed further underground beyond the reach of counter-radicalisation efforts. According to the former Prevent official: “My concern is that the Channel Project system is simply not working. It’s not dealing with the real hotbeds of extremism that could pose a potential danger to Britain, and instead is structured to do the opposite. Huge amounts of taxpayers’ money are wasted on delivering interventions which are hardly countering terrorism at all.”
Covert spy operation
The official also contradicted the assertion that the Channel Project is not a surveillance programme, and does not hold the names of any referrals on a database. The Guardian reported in 2009 that the Channel Project is an intelligence gathering programme primarily targeting Muslim communities; since then, Home Office spokespeople have strenuously denied the existence of any storage mechanism for Channel referrals. “The official line is that the Channel Project does not hold the names of referrals on any database to guarantee against allegations that the project is about spying,” said the former Prevent manager. “However, during my tenure, I was told by a senior SO15 officer that this isn’t true. He confirmed that there is in fact a logging system of some kind which does store the names of all referrals.”
The allegations raise serious questions about the effectiveness of UK counter-terrorism strategy, including the new measures being recommended by the government’s latest extremism task force report. The emphasis on wholesale surveillance-oriented approaches and non-violent Islamism could serve to stigmatise and alienate already excluded Muslim communities, while undermining efforts to identify those most at risk of radicalisation.