For a young British Muslim to go off to be a jihadist butcher, or a sex-slave/jihadist bride, two things need to have happened. First they need to be radicalised and brainwashed. Then they need to be recruited to go off to Syria and Iraq. In my view, radicalisation of young minds is primarily (if not exclusively) a matter of education. It is not something our security community takes any real interest in (it counts as ‘subversion’ and as MI5’s website makes plain, MI5 does not address it any longer, a point to which I shall return).
Radicalisation takes place in the open, in schools, colleges, universities, some Islamic centres and prisons. Recruitment to a terrorist organisation or network, however, is a secret act, probably involving person to person activity and certainly electronic communications between recruit and IS. It can only be dealt with by our security community (MI5, GCHQ, counter-terrorist police).
It is impossible to judge with any great precision how successful our intelligence-led security community has been in preventing young British Muslims from travelling to the so-called Islamic State. We know some 600 or more British men have done and we know, too, that many young girls, some of them under the age of sexual consent, have joined them. Those cases we do have details of, for example, that of Mohammed Emwazi (aka ‘Jihadi John’) and of the four school-girls from a single North London school, show not only that there is a surge of jihadi madness sweeping through some young Muslim minds in Britain and Europe but that, self-evidently, our intelligence-led security community (MI5, GCHQ and the counter-terror police) are unable to stop at many of those who, one might suppose, will be flashing amber on their radar.
But if these represent failures, there are undoubtedly successes. 222 people were arrested in 2013 on terrorism charges of whom 114 were charged. 165 of these were arrested in 2014 on IS related charged, a sixfold increase on the year before. Since 9/11 2586 people have been arrested for terrorism of whom 391 were convicted.
Of course we cannot know exactly how many people have been deterred from becoming terrorists in the first place. There is some evidence to suggest that it is about 2,500 since this would appear to be the number of young British Muslims dealt with under the ‘channel’ prevention of terrorism programme in 2013. The director general of the Security Service MI5 said last autumn that were ‘several thousands’ of jihadists the UK about whom his service had knowledge.
It would be fair to conclude, therefore, that Britain faces an on-going and increasing problem of radicalisation on the one hand, and a security community of about 13,000 officers that is finding it increasingly hard to master.
Currently intelligence-led activity is almost wholly focused on disrupting the recruiters either in real or virtual terms (where they operate on the internet) and, where they can, bringing about the arrest by police of terrorists before they have a chance to act. Here success is stymied by two factors. First, a technical one. The revelations of Edward Snowden alerted jihadists to the fact that electronically delivered messages, whether via the internet or mobile phones, could be intercepted with relative ease by GCHQ (and other intelligence agencies). Whilst this was in a sense not a secret (many people have heard of ‘Bletchley Park’ and its success in decoding Nazi wireless traffic and will have assumed something similar was being done today) it simply didn’t occur to the young that what they were doing on their mobiles was in fact a modern equivalent of transmitting wireless messages. Since Snowden, however, terrorists have become aware of the need to avoid their communications being intercepted.
The second problem facing MI5 and the police is that the evidence that can be gleaned from secret sources (interceptions and agent information) can only rarely be used in a court of law. It follows that there is very little that can be done to lawfully keep a jihadist in the UK. Control orders (which could keep individuals from networking in person or by other means with those who were like-minded) used to be one remedy. But when the Tory-LibDem government came to power in 2010 the orders were scrapped and replaced by much milder ‘TPIMs’ from which jihadists happily absconded. MI5 cannot even arrest people let alone intern them to stop them from going abroad. Whilst fighting for IS is a criminal offence it is not clear that the mere intention to do so is something for which a jury would convict. Nor is it obvious how Muslim girls could, over a period of time, be prevented from becoming ‘brides’ (better described as sex-slaves) even if the state owes a duty of care to them because they are under 18. We could not prevent sex-grooming in Britain let alone in IS. All in all, therefore, without new laws and more resources it seems fair to assume that our security community is, generally speaking, already doing all that can be done.
Where greater success could certainly be achieved is with the prevention of radicalisation, the first necessary stage in the path to terror. Not every radical becomes an extremist and not every extremist turns into a jihadi, but every jihadi was once just a radical. If you can call a halt to extremism, you stop jihadism. As I have argued this is first and foremost an issue of education, of teaching young people what Islamist extremism does and why it will never produce political change and so leading inexorably to violence and bloodshed. If education fails in this task, I have no doubt but that extremism was become an endemic part of British Muslim political culture, with untold consequences and far harder, perhaps impossible to counter.
It seems certain that it is at the level of higher and further education that most work needs to be done. But it is equally plain that it is unlikely to happen. 18-26 year olds are 11 per cent of the population but commit more than 30 per cent of terror offences. Of those convicted of terrorist offences, at least 45 per cent are students (these are government figures) and, of course, not offence ends up with a conviction so that a figure of 55 per cent for student involvement seems reasonable. Although some 41 per cent of young people go to college or university, the fact that students are over-represented is serious cause for concern and points to two matters: first, that whatever it is that students are being taught, it is insufficient in the case of young British Muslims when it comes to convincing them of the benefits of peaceful democratic activity; and, secondly, that universities have allowed themselves to become safe spaces for extremism to be propagated.
Indeed, leading government figures like the LibDems Vince Cable and Ed Davey have insisted that extremist viewpoints should expressly be permitted on campus. An attempt by the government to get universities to monitor their students for extremism and to notify the police of extremist indoctrination attempts was thwarted by a massive campaign led by over twenty vice chancellors and supported by two former ‘gamekeepers’ turned ‘poachers’, Eliza Manningham-Buller the former head of MI5, now chief of Imperial College, and Ken MacDonald the former DPP, now an Oxford college head.
We should not be content that Islamist extremist ideologues should be allowed onto campus, partly because they may well recruit labile individuals but partly because their politics of extremism will feed into our wider political culture. The higher and further education platform is a key resource for extremists not least because it allows their appalling ‘norms’ (say, the stoning of women adulterers, gay sexual liaisons, ‘Zionist attitudes’) to easily become norms outside of higher education and inculcate themselves into our wider political culture.
If someone like Emwazi was not actually recruited at Westminster University, and if he was not directly radicalised as a result of attending its well-known extremist Islamic society, then this makes the position of higher education more critical, not less critical. It means the seepage into the political culture of young British Muslims has already been successfully achieved. The extremists and those who refuse to stop them claim that ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of speech’ would be undermined if they were banned. But not only is there no absolute freedom of speech in the UK (nor should there be, given its multi-ethnicity) but academic freedom has nothing to do with Islamism, indeed Islamism is its mortal enemy. We have already seen how happily liberals will defend some of the most illiberal practices (e.g. gender segregation) If they now yield to those who wish to destroy our free way of life, the price we will all pay in social peace and liberal justice will be massive. In my view, if our academics and our teachers will not rise to the challenge, MI5 will have to be reminded of its statutory duty to work against those seek to undermine our parliamentary liberal democracy and get more actively involved in the subversive strategies of Islamism within our political culture.
Anthony Glees MA MPhil DPhil (Oxford) is professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and directs its Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS). With a full programme of research and teaching (some thirty students are currently taking its MA, MPhil and PhD programmes) BUCSIS is one of the largest such centres in Europe. He has a specialist concern with Security and Intelligence issues and has written and lectured on aspects of the history of British intelligence, on the Stasi, on Islamism, on terrorism and counter-terrorism, on subversion in western democracies both today and in the past. He is the author of 6 books and his work has received detailed and repeated attention from BBC TV and Radio (numerous outlets), ITN, Sky TV, CNN, Korean TV, Al-Jazeera and numerous radio networks in the USA, Canada, Germany and from Reuters, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, The Guardian and many other newspapers throughout the world.