Some observations on the stabber of Stephen Timms

Roshonara Choudhry, Islam, Iraq and terrorism.

Vikram Dodd, the Guardian's crime correspondent, has published extracts from the police interview with Roshonara Choudhry, the British Muslim student convicted this week of attempting to stab to death the former Labour minister Stephen Timms MP.

Conducted on 14 May 2010, about four hours after her arrest for stabbing Timms, in Forest Gate police station, the interview makes for a fascinating, if disturbing and depressing, read – and I've reprinted it below in full.

Some brief observations:

1) Choudhry is not the sharpest tool in the box. She comes across as a bit simple, a bit slow, unquestioning and someone who was easily brainwashable (is that even a word?). She is, for example, ignorant of the specific Quranic verses that she claims inspired her horrific and cowardly attack on Timms – "the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think," she says, pathetically. In fact, there are no verses in the Quran which justify such brutal, vigilante attacks on innocent civilians. Suicide bombings for example, are un-Islamic.

2) Those who claim that our mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists and extremists should note the two names Choudhry cites as her influencers: Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam. She discovered both on the internet (on YouTube!), not at her local Islamic centre. Both, I hasten to add, lack the credentials and qualifications of mainstream Islamic scholarship; al-Awlaki has a PhD in human resource development (!) from George Washington University. Why on earth did she think such a person had the "Islamic" or moral authority to instruct her to carry out a murder, one of the greatest sins in Islam? Interestingly, most Islamist ideologues have tended to be non-scholars – Sayyid Qutb was a teacher; Abul-A'la Maududi was a journalist. Osama Bin Laden himself, of course, is an engineer and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri is a medical doctor.

3) She was clearly brainwashed by radicals on the internet BUT I'm intrigued by those who continue to claim that Iraq, and other foreign-policy issues, are NOT drivers of radicalisation. Really? Read the transcript below. She is obsessed with Iraq, for example: "When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind and also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons." So, should we ignore this? Pretend it had nothing to do with her crime? And let me be clear, before the online trolls try to misrepresent me: I believe her actions did NOTHING to help the people of Iraq and were disgusting and reprehensible. They cannot be morally justified. But it is absurd to pretend that Islamist radicals would be able to brainwash young, impressionable Muslims – even simpletons like Choudhry! – without the help of real-world and undeniable grievances like Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, etc, which cause so much anger, resentment and disillusionment.

4) One of the police officers interviewing her is called "Syed Hussain", a Muslim name. See, we're not all crazy, anti-western terrorists. Some of us are coppers . . . !

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From the Guardian:

This interview was conducted four hours after Choudhry's arrest for stabbing Stephen Timms. Choudhry was interviewed by Simon Dobinson, a detective sergeant from Newham Police, with Detective Constable Syed Hussain. Choudhry says she was studying English and communications at King's College London, but dropped out on 27 April 2010, in her third year.

Simon Dobinson So what made you drop out of that?

Choudhry 'Cos . . . because King's College is involved in things where they work against Muslims.

Q OK. What sort of things?

A Last year, or the year before, they gave an award to Shimon Peres [Israeli politician] and they also have a department for tackling radicalisation . . . So I just didn't wanna go there any more . . . 'cos it would be against my religion.

Q OK, and when did you sort of make that decision?

A About a month ago.

Q OK. It seems quite a long time to be there and almost to the end of that course, you know, the end and just to let it go. Is there any . . . did you have any problems understanding the course?

A I was the top student.

Q Was you? OK and what did they say when you pulled out?

A They didn't want me to pull out.

Choudhry says after leaving her course, she worked at a tuition centre called KnowledgeBox teaching maths, English and science. She says she won't be working there any more.

Q Why's that then?

A Because of what I just did today.

Q Well, tell me about that then. Tell me what happened today.

A I stabbed Stephen Timms.

Q You stabbed Stephen Timms.

A Yep.

Choudhry gives details of the attack, as heard in her trial. She says she made an appointment to see him at his constituency surgery.

Q Why did you make that appointment?

A So I can do what I did.

Q So tell me what thought process you went through before you made that phone call?

A I thought that it's not right that he voted for the declaration of war in Iraq.

Q When did you start thinking about that?

A Over the last few months.

Q What's led you to start thinking about that?

A I've been learning more about Islam.

Q Where have you been learning that?

A Internet.

Q What websites you been looking at?

A I've been listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Anwar?

A Al-Awlaki.

Q Who's he?

A He's an Islamic scholar. He lives in Yemen.

Q And where have you been listening to these lectures?

A I downloaded it off of the internet . . . Explaining stories from the Quran and explaining about jihad.

Q And has that contributed to your decision to leave King's?

A Yes.

Q And where was the link there then?

A I thought that I should have loyalty to my Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine and so I should leave King's and that would show my loyalty to them.

Q Who have you been watching these lectures with?

A I listen to them on my own.

Q So when did you decide: "From what I've learnt, I'm now gonna go and stab Stephen Timms?"

A A couple of weeks ago. It's three weeks ago, four weeks ago.

Q So it's quite recent?

A Yep.

Q Before you finished college? After?

A Before.

Q And that was 27 April, if I remember rightly, was it?

A Yep.

Dobinson How do you feel now about what you've done today?

Choudhry I feel like I did what I'd planned to do.

Q OK, do you want to tell me more? Tell me what you're thinking now? Tell me what your thoughts about what you've done today are.

A I feel like I've ruined the rest of my life. I feel like it's worth it because millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing while they suffer.

DC Hussain Sorry, just before we finish, I've just a couple of questions that I've got to ask you. When did this interest of yours for Islam develop?

A I've always been quite religious and I started to listen to Anwar al-Awlaki lectures last year and then I started to get really into it and I listened to everything that . . . like all of his recorded lectures that he made and that would have been like since November. I've been listening to him since November.

Hussain How did you get introduced to Anwar al-Awlaki?

A He's quite famous and I've started to listen to his stuff.

Hussain How did you come across him?

A On the internet.

Hussain Was that from your own research or did someone recommend him?

A From my own research, but everybody listens to him and likes him anyway.

Q Do you go to a regular mosque?

A No . . . I just pray at home.

Q Who do you discuss your Islam with?

A In general I just talk about it to my brothers and sisters but I don't mention everything to them.

Q If you've got a question that you want to ask or you want answered, who do you ask?

A I don't ask anyone, I just listen to his lectures. There's no one to ask.

Hussain I just want to go over a little bit how your thought has gone from getting to religion to all of a sudden wanting some form of vengeance.

A Because as Muslims we're all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other and we shouldn't sit back and do nothing while others suffer. We shouldn't allow the people who oppress us to get away with it and to think that they can do whatever they want to us and we're just gonna lie down and take it.

Q Where did you learn that from?

A From listening to his lectures.

Q And that's caused you to do what you've done today?

A Yeah.

Q OK. Just a couple of other things. You bought the knives, you say, two to three weeks ago . . . Where did you keep 'em?

A Underneath the bed in a shoebox.

Q How did you feel about what you was about to do?

A I was a bit nervous about what I was gonna do but I felt like it had to be done and it's the right thing to do.

Q Having done it, how do you feel now?

A I feel like I did my best to fulfil my duty to the other Muslims.

Dobinson . . . What did you think was gonna happen once you'd carried out your intentions?

Choudhry I thought that I would either get arrested or maybe I would like get killed or something.

Q How would you get killed?

A Like, if the police came and they had guns.

Q [Inaudible] take me through your thought process about that then?

A Oh no, I was just thinking about the possibilities and I thought it's either getting arrested or being killed. But either way I knew I wasn't coming back home again.

Q What, what did you think about getting killed then?

A I wanted to die.

Q Why?

A I wanted to be a martyr.

Q Why's that then?

A 'Cos, erm, that's the best way to die.

Q Who told you that?

A It's an Islamic teaching.

Q Where did you learn that?

A It's . . . it's in the Quran and I learnt it from listening to lectures as well.

Q OK, what lectures are that?

A By Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK, well, how did you find out about him?

A On the internet . . . if you go on YouTube there's a lot of his videos there and if you do a search they just come up . . . I wasn't searching for him, I just came across him . . . I used to watch videos that people used to put up about like how they became Muslim.

Q OK, why did you watch those videos?

A 'Cos I thought . . . their life stories were interesting . . . And as you watch videos that like a whole other list of related videos comes up and I was just looking through those and I came across it.

Q Anwar al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK. So who put you, who guided down this path to, to look for, you know, the videos of people and how they become Muslim?

A No one, I just found them really interesting . . . I became interested in Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures because he explains things really comprehensively and in an interesting way so I thought I could learn a lot from him and I was also surprised at how little I knew about my religion so that motivated me to learn more . . .

Q What happened in November then?

A I downloaded the full set of Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures.

Q Yeah, what do you reckon the full set of his lectures are?

A More than a hundred hours.

Q And have you watched all those lectures?

A Yeah.

Q When did you finish watching them?

A The first week of May.

Q How often were you going on to the internet . . .

A First I was listening to like two a day, but then for a while I stopped because I had coursework to do and then I started back up again because I thought I need to finish listening to these.

Q Yeah. Apart from the lectures, what else were you looking at online?

A I was looking at YouTube videos about the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q What other sites, remember any particular internet sites you looked at?

A When I was doing research about MPs, I looked at one called theyworkforyou.co.uk [theyworkforyou.com] and I think another one was called publicwhips [the publicwhip.org.uk].

Q Yeah, anything else?

A There's a website called revolutionmuslim.

Q OK. Forgive me, I find it, I just find it a little bit strange that you're doing all this on your own and not speaking to anyone else about or . . .

A Because nobody would understand. And anyway I didn't wanna tell anyone because I know that if anybody else knew, they'd get in trouble 'cos then they would be like implicated in whatever I do, so I kept it a secret.

Q OK. When did the Iraq war start?

A 2003.

Q So how old would you have been then, 14? . . . Did you have any strong view feelings at that time when the war started?

A No, I was just against in general like everyone else, but not strong feelings.

Q And what changed . . . what made you get those strong feelings that you've obviously got now?

A When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind. And also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons.

Q OK, can you pinpoint the time when that changed or was it a gradual . . . was there one particular incident?

A Like, erm, after like listening to the lectures, I realised by obligation but I didn't wanna like fight myself and just thought other people should fight, like men, but then I found out that even women are supposed to fight as well so I thought I should join in.

Q Where did you find that out from?

A A YouTube video by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.

Q And what was he saying?

A He was saying that when a Muslim land is attacked it becomes obligatory on every man, woman and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land and the Muslims and if they can't handle like the forces they are facing, then it becomes obligatory on the people who live in . . . closest to that country and if those people refuse to fulfil their duty then it, then it becomes to the next closest people and the next closest until it goes all the way round the whole world and it's obligatory on everyone to defend that land.

Q OK, and when did you watch that YouTube video?

A That probably would have been a couple of weeks ago, like some point in April.

Q Was that before you bought the knives or after you bought the knives?

A That would have been before, I think . . .

Q . . . how soon after watching that video did you decide to put things into action? Or to make plans?

A It would probably would have been like a few days or something.

Choudhry says she was planning to leave the UK and live in Bangladesh. But she changed her mind.

Q Why didn't you go?

A 'Cos I thought if this is more important then I shouldn't just be running away.

Q You say "this is more important". What is more important?

A Fighting.

Q You at some stage since then decided that "I'm gonna kill Stephen Timms, the local MP"?

A Yeah.

Q OK, so explain to me again why, why him? Lots of people voted for the war in Iraq, lots of MPs.

A Yeah, erm, it's because . . . well, even the doctor asked me that: so like are you . . . were you gonna kill everyone? And I told him that I'm just one person and I did what I could.

Q I was asking you why Stephen Timms was picked on . . . Why did you pick an MP to carry out this attack?

A Because he was directly involved with the declaration of war, so he'd directly committed a crime.

Q How did you know that?

A Because years ago back, maybe 2007 or 2006, I went on a school trip to Westminster and to meet him and we sat . . . there was a group of us, like maybe about ten, and we sat with him for . . . like an hour maybe and spoke to him and one of my friends there she . . . we, we were all just asking general questions about what's it like to be an MP and what kind of work do you do and what are you doing at the moment, just general things like that. But there was this one girl there and almost the whole time we were there, she was having a go at him for . . . because he voted for the war in Iraq. She was questioning him about that.

Q OK, and what did you think about that at the time?

A At the time I was thinking that she should be quiet and that she's embarrassing herself and I didn't say anything to support her, I just sat there feeling embarrassed.

Q Embarrassed, what, for her or yourself or what, anyone else?

A I guess I respected her for having the guts to just say all these things to his face but like I wasn't brave enough to say anything, I just sat quietly.

Q Did you want to say something to him then?

A Not really.

Q So, have you carried out any research to . . . about Stephen Timms.

A Yeah, on . . . I looked up, I found, I googled him, I found out he had a website, I found a page about him on theyworkforyou.com . . . if you follow that link it shows information about how he voted on different things related to the Iraq war and the build-up towards it. I found out that . . . he very strongly agreed with the invasion of Iraq and they said very strongly because they worked out all his votes for everything related to that and it came up to something like 99.9 per cent support or something like that.

Q How does that make you feel?

A That made me feel angry because the whole Iraq war is just based on lies and he just voted strongly for everything as though he had no mercy. As though he felt no doubts that what he was doing was right, even though it was such an arrogant thing to do and I just felt like if he could treat the Iraqi people so mercilessly, then why should I show him any mercy?

Q What, what makes you think that it's your place to go and stab him?

A Because I'm a Muslim and all Muslims are brothers and sisters. So if he attacked them, then he's likely to attack me too.

Q So where in the Quran does it say that you should go and kill someone?

A Erm, the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think.

Q What does that say, can you remember?

A Erm, it says to . . . it says to fight until there is no more oppression in the land. Because it's better to fight than to be persecuted.

Q What do you think about what you've done to Stephen Timms and all that?

A I think I've fulfilled my obligation, my Islamic duty to stand up for the people of lraq and to punish someone who wanted to make war with them.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?