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How the Met Got It Wrong on Terrorism

There is a comment piece in yesterday’s Times by Andy Hayman, formerly the most senior anti-terrorist officer in the Metropolitan Police. It amounts to a partial defence of the strategy of cultivating and assisting Muslim Brotherhood connected Islamists, pioneered by the (now retired) police officer, Bob Lambert.

This is his conclusion:

The problem is that the very people who are best placed to advise on how to reach those in the community who are most susceptible to extremism are those whose own backgrounds may present a security risk. This is where the dilemma sits. The most valuable advisers are those likely to fail the vetting process and be barred from Scotland Yard.

If the claims about the background of Mr Harrath are true, questions need to be asked about how the vetting process allowed him to be recruited by the Met. But equally it is no good having a vetting process that passes only those who are safe but are not really representative and have limited insights to offer.

Yeah, well.

First of all, I should say that I support the long standing police policy of recruiting narks, snitches and grasses from among what used to be called ‘the criminal classes’. This is a strategy that is not wholly without danger: particularly if the police have cultivated a “participating informant”, where there is always the risk that the police will end up sanctioning a criminal course of conduct.

That is the course of action that the and the security services police evidently took with jihadists in the 1990s. Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed reported having received frequent visits from the police. They’d remind the jihadist clerics that as long as they did nothing illegal, they’d be left alone to indoctrinate and recruit. And every so often, no doubt, they’d flash a picture of a particularly nasty terrorist in front of them and ask whether they’d seen any strange men hanging around the neighbourhood.

But that strategy didn’t work brilliantly did it? I suppose we’ll never know whether Abu Hamza and OBM actually helped the security services in a significant and important way. We do know what we got in return however: a generation of radicalised jihadists, some of whom went on to commit terrorist attacks. More worryingly, when Abu Hamza’s case came to trial, he was able to play the ingenue, tricked by the cunning police into believing that they had no problem with him soliciting murder, because they’d let him get away with it for so long.

A decade later, Bob Lambert’s Muslim Contact Unit pursued precisely the same strategy: with a twist. They weren’t simply getting information from those who supported and promoted jihadist and Islamist politics. They built partnerships with them.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a history of relationship-building with the states in which they operate. For example, Nasser swung backwards and forwards between cultivating the Muslim Brotherhood and persecuting and suppressing it. What makes the Muslim Brotherhood an attractive partner, is that it has cadre who are more or less obedient, which a compliant leadership might be persuaded to keep under control in return for a role in shaping and carrying out domestic policy. What makes the Muslim Brotherhood a dangerous friend, is that ultimately it wants to gain power, and create a Caliphate. If you’re not an Islamist – and Arab nationalists are not - you probably want to make sure that doesn’t happen. The problem is that if you suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, you find that its membership – brought up on a diet of jihad and longing for death in the service of God – resort readily to terrorism. This, after all, is the story of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and countless others.

Autocracies, like Nasser’s Egypt, only have two options when dealing with the Muslim Broterhood: co-opt, or repress. Democracies have a third: neutrality. If the Muslim Brotherhood engage in illegal activity, prosecute them. But leave it to democrats to oppose their jihadist message.

So why did Bob Lambert’s Muslim Contact Unit seek, not simply to cultivate Muslim Brotherhood connected figures as informants, but actively to partner with them? This is how Bob Lambert put it:

Islamists can be powerful allies in the fight against al-Qaida influence. Our experience shows they can be the levers that help get young people away from the most dangerous positions.

There is a theory, popular with the foreign policy establishment, that the best way to defeat violent extremism, is to find people who are ideologically close to violent extremism, and do a deal with them. You find the sonuvabitch who is “our friend” and pit him against the sonuvabitch who is “our enemy”. You install him in power. Big smiles for the press, handshakes all round. Then you walk away. When the whacking and chopping and mass murder starts, you shake your head in sorrow from behind your desk in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, relieved that it is now no longer “our problem”.

That model doesn’t work, as far as domestic politics are concerned. You can’t “walk away” from the problems you create here. Britain is our home.

What made the Muslim Contact Unit’s decision to partner with Islamists respectable, was the thesis that there is a “good Muslim Brotherhood” and a “bad Muslim Brotherhood”. Robert Leiken of the Nixon Centre puts the theory well here:

It became clear that there were two main currents within the Muslim Brotherhood. Some members were reactionary and dogmatic, were probably anti-Semitic and certainly anti-Zionist, wanted Israel to vanish and made that a principle of their politics and world view. The Supreme Guide expresses such views. But we found those views to be a severe embarrassment to other leading Brothers. We talked to powerful Brotherhood leaders who took public positions extolling Jews. This trend seems to be on the ascent.

Leiken expounded his theory that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “safety valve for moderate Islam” at length in his article, The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

I think that Leiken is off his rocker, frankly.

Certainly, there are differences of opinion within the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it is a mistake to see the “good Muslim Brotherhood” is winning the day. The trade union suppressing, missile-launching regime that controls Gaza most certainly is not the “good Muslim Brotherhood”. The recently issued “Blueprint” – the Muslim Brotherhood plan for an Islamic state in Egypt - promises Iranian style theocracy. Even more recently, the Shura Council that runs the Muslim Brotherhood purged its “reformers” and installed “hardliners”.  So, Leiken is just wrong, if he thinks that the “good Muslim Brotherhood” is on the rise. It isn’t.

But I would like to question the notion that there is a “good Muslim Brotherhood”. There is a single Muslim Brotherhood that wishes to create a theocracy, but is prepared to use democratic means in order to achieve that aim. However, jihadism is absolutely central to the Muslim Brotherhood’s philosophy. The “moderates” embrace it, just as readily as the “old guard”. This is, after all, an organisation whose mission statement is:

Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.

Let’s face it. You’re going to have a bumpy ride if you join forces with a group like that. Yet that is precisely what the Muslim Contact Unit did.

We know what the Metropolitan Police hoped to gain from their partnership with Islamists: but what did the Islamists hope to get in return.

I’d suggest that Islamists have three main aims in engaging with the British state.

The first is validation. Those involved in Islamist politics are narcissistic fantasists. They imagine themselves – like the Blues Brothers – to be on a “mission from God”. Somebody like Azad Ali is, in reality, a middle aged civil servant. However it flatters him when senior civil servants and police officers treat him as somebody who matters, who is doing something meaningful and significant, and who should therefore be treated seriously, rather than laughed at as a crank.

Islamist groups also leverage validation by one organisation, to persuade others to treat them seriously. If the Metropolitian Police think you’re a serious person, then an MP will speak at your conference. If an MP speaks at your conference, you’re more likely to get an op ed in a mainstream newspaper. If you get your op ed, a senior judge is more likely to support you. That is the strategy. And, if somebody then points out that you’ve been calling for jihad, or support banned terrorist groups, the fact that you’ve got the backing of the Metropolitant Police, a mainstream newspaper, an MP, and a senior judge makes it easy for you to attack your opponent as a racist and Islamophobe who is trying to “smear” you.

The second aim is influence. There are prizes to be had for playing the game. As a reward for working with the Metropolitan Police, Bob Lambert’s team installed the Muslim Brotherhood – in place of Abu Hamza – in the Finsbury Park Mosque. One of the trustees they put in place, Mohammed Sawalha, had been named by the BBC as a fugitive Hamas commander. Muslim Brotherhood front groups have been working hard to get their hands on a share of the Preventing Violent Extremism pot. In Tower Hamlets, they succeeded. They promptly used the money to stage a ‘debate’ between the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Muhajiroun and Hizb ut Tahrir.

But the rewards on offer are not simply monetary. What the Muslim Brotherhood dearly would love, is to be treated by the state as the rightful intermediary for British Muslims. They would like input into policy formation. They would like to be able to bargain with the Government, in the name of all British Muslims. In particular, they want to appear on television, deploring terrorism, but explaining that because the Government hasn’t followed its sensible advice, there’s nothing it can do to stop the young hotheads from blowing themselves up.

There’s a telling phrase in Andy Hayman’s op ed piece, and it is this. He argues that there is no point is building bridges with Muslims who are “safe but … not really representative”. I very much hope that what Andy Hayman means is that Islamists are ‘representative’ of those who are involved in, or supportive of, violent jihad: and not “representative” of British Muslims generally. The former interpretation is spot on: the latter is simply untrue. The danger we face, however, is that by treating Islamists as the legitimate representatives of British Muslims, we will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will have made them kings of their communities. What do you think they will do with that influence?

The final reason that Islamists engage with the state is to legitimate their politics. Let’s face it, Islamists have a PR problem. People hear the chanting, observe the extremism, listen to the demands: and are horrified. Making Islamist politics seem fluffy and friendly is a difficult brief. However, groups like “Conflicts Forum” – whose slogan is “Recognising Resistance” – have been working hard to create a palatable narrative that allows democrats and liberals to support Islamists. “These guys may seem to be yabbering about blowing themselves up for the glory of God in order to create a theocratic state in which minorities and women are second class citizens, religious dissenters and critics of the government are executed as apostates, and clerics are given the right to rule” – so the argument goes – “but really, they’re just resisting imperialism‘. Remember that, and forget the rest of it”.

Islamists have their own perspective on what they want to legitimate. Azad Ali’s post entitled “Defeating extremism by promoting balance” is a good example of how Islamists think about these issues. In the post, he argues that the only way to ‘deradicalise’ Muslims is to promote the thinking of an Al Qaeda related theoretician: Abdullah Azzam.

Azzam’s slogan was “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues”. However, Islamists urge us to accept him as a good role model for British Muslims: because in later life he argued that global jihad should not be carried out against civilians in their own countries.

You might think this is crazy. Who would give such a man the time of day?

But Azad Ali is a founder member of the Muslim Safety Forum – where apparently he “leads on the Counter Terrorism work-team for the Forum-  working with the Home Office, ACPO and Security Services”. He is a National Council member of Liberty, President of the Civil Service Islamic Society. He sits on the Strategic Stop & Search Committee and Police Use of Firearms Group with the Metropolitan Police, and is a member of the IPCC’s Community Advisory Group and the Home Office’s Trust and Confidence Community Panel.

These are the sort of people who Andy Hayman thinks we ought to be using, as our secret weapon against jihadism. But many of the people with whom the Metropolitan Police were partnering in the Muslim Contact Unit are very close indeed, ideologically speaking, to the jihadists.  What is the rationale? Bob Lambert appears to have believed that the only way to get through to would be British Muslim suicide bombers is for the police to say:

“Yes, we recognise that blowing yourself up for God, and taking as many other people as possible with you, is a truely glorous and noble ambition. You’re right to want to do so. But don’t do it on the No. 30 bus in London, please”

It is hugely irresponsible to promote people who support terrorism in other people’s countries. But, even if they don’t care about the dead in Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv, shouldn’t we be worried that promoting jihadism will simply create more jihadists? What if some of those newly-recruited jihadist end up agreeing with the first part of the message – the bit about blowing yourself up for God – but decided that, on balance, there was no good theological reason not to do it on public transport in London, after all? Remember, this was precisely the “covenant of security” that Omar Bakri Mohammed claimed to have offered to the British state. But covenants, like pie crusts, are easily broken.

If the police want to find Muslims to help them “deradicalise” potential jihadists, they should partner with those who have been jihadists, but have turned their back on that politics altogether: not individuals and groups which support terrorism in any country but ours. There are plenty of schemes that use reformed ex-cons to persuade young hoodlums not to enter a life of crime. I don’t think the police would use active criminals for such schemes, on the basis that they agree not to burgle any houses in Britain.

What Andy Hayman would argue, I think, is that they’ve received valuable information that has helped prevent terrorism, by scratching the backs of some of the nastiest and most extreme Islamists in London. That’s fair enough. But at what cost?

I have another suggestion. From what I’ve heard from my contacts, at least some of the Islamists who Bob Lambert has had dealings are venal, corrupt and self serving. Why not treat them as you’d treat any other snout. Offer them money.

I do not know whether the policy of partnering with Islamists continues at the Met. Andy Hayman was given his marching orders. Bob Lambert is now working for the convicted terrorist, Mohammed Ali Harrath. So it would be nice to think that this little experiment has run its course.

But I bet it hasn’t.