Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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Burning the earth: Isis and the threat to Britain

Nearly 14 years on from the start of the so-called war on terror, the global jihad movement is deepening and expanding.

It was never supposed to be like this. For a period, in late 2011, it seemed as if the so-called war on terror was won. The United States had killed two of al-Qaeda’s most important figureheads: Osama Bin Laden and the American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Peaceful uprisings across North Africa suggested that a new, more democratic era was emerging in the region. Respectable commentators, who do not ordinarily lean towards hyperbole, regarded the decade-long struggle against that most ambiguous of abstract nouns – “terrorism” – as being over. “Al-Qaeda played no role in the Arab spring,” wrote Peter Bergen, a contributing editor of the New Republic, “and hasn’t been able to exploit in any meaningful way the most significant development in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman empire.”

The Syrian jihad has changed all that. The threat now emerging from Islamic State in the new Middle East is unprecedented for two reasons. The first relates to the sheer scale of mobilisation in Syria and Iraq. What IS has achieved is remarkable. Not only has it carved out a proxy state but it has mobilised the largest volunteer army of Sunni foreign fighters in recent history. Consequently, the threat facing Britain and the West is not just that much broader than previous iterations, but it has also been extended by at least a generation.

The second reason is the creation of newly ungoverned spaces in which individuals can learn bomb-making skills and also acquire combat experience. This is significant when analysing the number of failed plots in and against Britain over the past 14 years. Just two weeks after the London bombings of 7 July 2005, another series of bombs was placed on transport networks but failed to explode. Nearly two years later, on 29 June 2007, bombs were placed outside a nightclub in the Leicester Square area of central London; the next day, an explosive-laden Jeep was driven into Glasgow Airport. The following year, an attempt was made to bomb a family restaurant in Exeter.

In each of those instances terrorists had evaded the security services and placed explosive devices in public areas. Only good fortune born of incompetence saved lives. Back then terrorists were mostly unable to visit hot spots such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan’s tribal areas in order to learn their trade undetected. Instead, they relied largely on the internet to make crude and improvised devices. But in June 2012, with political unrest on Europe’s doorstep, Jonathan Evans, the then director general of Britain’s Security Service, baldly noted, “parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda”.

Evans was speaking before IS morphed into the beast it has become today, the datedness of his remarks demonstrating just how fast events in the region have spiralled out of control. To appreciate just how grave the situation has become, consider Nasser Muthana, the young British fighter with IS who in July 2014 tweeted a picture of a bomb-making factory with the caption: “So the UK is afraid I come back [sic] with the skills I’ve gained.”

It was precisely this threat that Andrew Parker, who succeeded Evans as the head of the Security Service, spoke about last month in his Lord Mayor’s Defence and Security Lecture.

“The threat we are facing today is on a scale and at a tempo that I have not seen before in my career,” Parker said. In the past year the Security Service has thwarted six attacks in the UK and several more overseas. The attack on a Tunisian beach in June killed 30 British holidaymakers, demonstrating just how diversified the threat to both our citizens and our interests is becoming. This will only intensify in the coming years.

It now looks increasingly likely that IS has also carried out its first act of international terrorism by bombing a Metrojet flight en route from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Egyptian Sinai to St Petersburg in Russia. IS’s Sinai branch claimed responsibility for the atrocity, although its claims have not yet been categorically proven. If true, however, there are profound implications, not least that IS will have demonstrated its ability to bypass airport security procedures, whether for passengers or for staff.

Western airlines have long been an obsession of jihadists. Last Christmas, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula issued a call for attacks on British Airways and easyJet in response to what it described as the British government’s “arrogance”. American and French airliners were also identified as potential targets.

A senior official told me that in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, British intelligence officers assured the Prime Minister that the Games would be free from terrorism. Were Britain to host the 2016 Games the intelligence assessment would be very different. This is telling – the Syrian civil war was already in full swing by the time of the London Games, but it did not, at that stage, pose a significant threat to our national security.

In the early phases of the war, the terrorist threat to the West appeared to be in decline as jihadists made their way to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. There was little interest in carrying out attacks at home. A naive romanticism surrounded these early fighters. The Guardian’s George Monbiot compared them to volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. British fighters I was interviewing at the time seemed to appreciate this. One man from London with whom I developed a long-standing relationship even asked me to thank Monbiot on his behalf. “It really helped the mujahedin,” he said. This man epitomised the optimism of the early wave of fighters, who could not understand why they were considered a security threat. “Why is the gov [sic] calling us security threat and terrorists akhi [brother]?” he asked. He was sincerely bemused.

Nasser Muthana, the fighter who later boasted about his bomb-making skills, was also keen to reassure the government that Islamic State posed no threat. “Mi6 believe 300 Brits have returned to the UK . . . and how many terror attacks have they done? 0!!” he wrote. “We aren’t interested in you. We want Khilafa [the caliphate].”

The change in IS’s posturing towards the West came after the declaration of the caliphate in late June 2014. From that point the group adopted a more belligerent and expansionist policy, with the first edition of its English-language magazine promising to conquer Rome and defeat “crusaders” around the world.

Its fighters became more brazen. They cheered the beheading of western hostages and boasted of planning attacks in the West. There is a rationale for this: the caliphate cannot have static borders and must be territorially expansionist. Its duty is to confront the West and subjugate it to Islam.

Jihadist fighters believe they need a state ruled by a religiously sanctioned amir (leader) before waging wars of conquest. Without such an authority in place, offensive jihad cannot take place, because the group’s primary aim is to acquire and then amalgamate new territory under Islamic rule.

By contrast, defensive jihad requires no official sanction. Instead, jihad in this instance arises naturally, in response to external events such as invasion or occupation. Indeed, the Syrian jihad grew out of precisely these circumstances – an inevitable response to months of brutal repression after Bashar al-Assad tried forcibly to suppress peaceful protesters.

The distinction between offensive and defensive forms of jihad was popularised in the early modern era by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian warrior-scholar who led the Arab contingent of mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Azzam argued that offensive wars are of less importance than defensive ones. The latter, he insisted, are fard al-ayn (an individual obligation), under which every Muslim is personally obliged to remove the source of belligerence. Wars of conquest are only fard al-kifayah (collective responsibility): an obligation that is communally satisfied provided someone undertakes it.

“It is a duty of the amir to assemble and send out an army unit into the land of war once or twice every year,” Azzam wrote. “Moreover, it is the responsibility of the Muslim population to assist him, and if he does not send an army he is in sin.”

For the members of IS, this, as much as anything else, explains their change in approach from June 2014 onwards.


One of the main problems for Islamic State at present is how to project power while trying to fight offensively. Like any military force, the group wants to achieve a competitive edge over its adversaries but realises it cannot achieve this technologically. Consequently IS has dev­eloped another approach – an asymmetry of fear – through which it has cultivated a reputation for brutality and barbarism that it hopes will act as a deterrent.

To achieve this, the group releases films of its acts of extreme violence, presented to the world as if each were a new offering from Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino. The strategy has proved remarkably effective. Shortly after the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was captured in December last year (the following month, he was filmed being burned to death in a cage) the United Arab Emirates withdrew from coalition air raids against IS targets. The corollary was clear: the UAE would not expose its pilots to the risk of capture.

The Kurds have so far proved highly resilient against the advance of IS. As a result, the level of violence perpetrated against captured Peshmerga fighters has slowly increased as IS tries to intimidate its soldiers into acquiescence. One recent release is among its most barbarous yet. It begins with the (by now sadly) familiar scene of captured men, all wearing matching overalls, being forced to kneel in a line. A knife-wielding executioner delivers his message of foreboding before the captives are pushed to the floor and beheaded.

The depressing familiarity of these videos has eroded their potency. Not so for the Kurds. To restate IS’s nihilistic relentlessness, this video was intended to shock more than any other that had come before. The captured Kurds had their throats only partially cut by the executioners, who then used this opening physically to rip their heads off. The agonised captives are seen writhing in agony as their heads are yanked in tearing, jerking motions.

The violence spawned by Islamic State is not whimsical: there is always an underlying message or a rationale behind it. Tactics such as the horrific treatment of captured fighters has produced results in the past, as in 2014 when IS marched on Mosul. The Iraqi army melted away, abandoning posts and fleeing for refuge. Quite simply, no one was prepared to risk capture.

This approach derives from a well-established strategy first pursued by al-Qaeda in Iraq – from which IS grew. In the years immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, senior al-Qaeda theorists debated how the movement could endure the “war on terror” and emerge victorious. Two divergent views emerged.

The first came from Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian who argued that the global jihad movement would find it difficult to secure the kind of political sanctuary it had enjoyed under the Taliban. This would make it harder to maintain a centralised command-and-control structure, or to run training camps. Instead, he argued for a more diffuse approach, through which al-Qaeda would inspire individuals in the West to conduct random acts of terrorism: “lone-wolf” or “self-starter” terrorism.

Arguing against al-Suri was Abu Bakr Naji (widely believed to be the pen name of the Egyptian jihadist Mohammad Hasan al-Hakim). Naji wanted al-Qaeda to adopt a scorched-earth policy: more brutal attacks, more nihilism, more death. He believed the jihad movement’s adversaries could be scared off by its fighters making the cost of participation unacceptably high. Jihad, he argued, “is nothing but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others] and massacring”. He recognised that such an approach would invariably result in significant loss of Muslim life, too – the very constituency in whose name he claimed to act – but dismissed any concerns about this with blithe indifference. Yes, people would lose their parents and their children but “such is war and the masses must become accustomed to it”, he surmised.

Successful military leaders from Islamic antiquity “knew the effect of rough violence in times of need”. This shaped Naji’s views about how al-Qaeda should proceed. Islam’s historic warriors had not been harsh without reason – “How tender were their hearts!” he wrote – but they were nonetheless compelled to act with severity because they “understood the matter of violence” and “the nature of disbelief and its people”. It was this reading of Islamic history and jurisprudence that led him to conclude that “we must burn the earth under the feet of the tyrants so that it will not be suitable for them to live in”.

The strategy of deterrence was set. “It behoves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us,” Naji said.


Abu Musab al-Suri succeeded in convincing al-Qaeda’s central leadership – then based in Afghanistan and Pakistan – to adopt his approach. This was also embraced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (based in Yemen), which then, principally through its English-language magazine Inspire, began to urge attacks in the West by “lone wolves”. Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, was a notable victim of this strategy. In May 2010, he was stabbed in the stomach at a constituency open surgery by Roshonara Choudhry after she downloaded Inspire and decided to “punish” Timms because he had voted in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In Iraq, however, the situation was different. There, fighters relished the prospect of a direct confrontation with the US and its partners. They adopted Naji’s approach and wanted to turn the entire country into a barbaric and brutalised canvas. Under the stewardship of its first leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq pursued a bruising course of action: attacking coalition forces in Iraq, provoking a sectarian war with the Iraqi Shias, and targeting western societies through terrorism.

Unencumbered and unchecked, Islamic State has now taken Naji’s vision to its extreme extent. One of the unintended consequences of his philosophy is its ability to create powerful bonds of camaraderie and solidarity among its practitioners. Much has been written of the way IS creates a sense of brotherhood among émigrés who join the group: yet this aspect is often overlooked. The diminution of anyone external to the group as “other”, coupled with the perpetration of extreme acts, has a profoundly unifying effect for those on the inside.

As such, there is little room for empathy or compassion for their former fellow British citizens. Consider this message published on social media by Raphael Hostey, a young Mancunian who travelled to Syria in October 2013. “Today’s Jumah Khutbah [Friday sermon] was about Britain,” he wrote, “and how Dawlatul-Islam [Islamic State] will come to them and kill them, enslaving their women and children.”

Ali Kalantar, a then 18-year-old from Coventry who had been studying for his A-levels before he joined IS, expressed similar sentiments. Having told his parents he needed money to buy a laptop for school, he booked a circuitous route to the front line to evade the security services, flying from Birmingham to Frankfurt and then on to Istanbul before travelling to Syria by land. “I can’t wait for the day we fight [Americans] on the ground,” he wrote. “Kill their mens, slave their womens [sic], orphan their kids.”

It isn’t only male fighters who revel in the sadism of IS justice. Khadijah Dare, a convert from Lewisham, in south-east London, who migrated to Syria with her husband, cheered the beheading of the American journalist James Foley in August 2014. “UK must b shaking up ha ha,” she wrote on Twitter. “I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terrorist!” Dare had previously posted pictures of her infant son carrying an AK-47 assault rifle.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, western female migrants are often among the most vociferous purveyors of violent content online. Whereas their husbands are able to fight on the front lines, these women at times feel frustrated by their inability to make a direct contribution towards the war effort. Trying to radicalise others through the internet and inspire attacks at home provides one way of assuaging this need. To that end, one western female who goes under the name of “Bint Mujahid” warned: “Live in fear. Sleeper cells and lone wolves are indetectable [sic]. And they will strike again, when you least suspect it.”

Gauging the extent and potency of this kind of threat is a difficult task. The best academic literature on the security risk posed by irregular volunteer fighters returning from conflict suggests that between 11 and 25 per cent of them become terrorists. There is limited solace in this. Yes, history suggests that most of those fighting in Syria and Iraq will not become terrorists at home, but there are two important caveats to consider. The first is that most will die in combat. The second is that, given the sheer scale of mobilisation in Syria and Iraq, even if you use conservative estimates, an exceptional number will still go on to present a substantial security risk.

If 750 Britons have made their way to the conflict, between 83 and 187 can be expected to pose some form of security challenge when they return. This represents the threat from returnees only. Terrorist attacks such as the 2014 Sydney café siege and Ottawa shooting were carried out by individuals who had otherwise wanted to join Islamic State but had been unable to do so.


The US and UK are both increasingly looking towards drone technology to mitigate the threat from IS. It is unclear just how many western fighters have been killed in drone strikes, but the Conservative government is believed to have agreed on a “kill list” of British citizens.

Abu Rahin Aziz, a former credit controller from Luton, was killed in early July this year after being targeted by the US military. Although it is not known whether the request for the strike came from British officials, Aziz, in the hours before his death, had been using social media to make threats against US interests. Specifically, he had warned that IS would attack the United States on 4 July.

A few days before that, Aziz had been looking forward to the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. He hoped there would be more violent incidents, and boasted that IS would attack the UK, citing Covent Garden, Territorial Army offices and MPs as potential targets. And he named Theresa May, the Home Secretary, as an “enemy of Islam”.

Yet it is not just US drones that are targeting British citizens fighting for IS. In August, David Cameron took the unprecedented decision of authorising an RAF drone strike against Reyaad Khan. The 21-year-old was once a straight-A student from Cardiff who aspired to become a politician, and even Britain’s first prime minister of south Asian ethnic origin.

Like many of the young men who join IS, Khan revelled in its sadism. He boasted about executing prisoners, claimed to have participated in beheadings and warned he would become a suicide bomber. When he later tried to direct a plot to kill the Queen, David Cameron gave the order for the first targeted strike against a British citizen. Another Briton, Ruhul Amin from Aberdeen, was killed alongside him.


At the same time as RAF drones were killing Khan, the US struck against Junaid Hussain, a Birmingham-born computer hacker previously jailed for breaking into Tony Blair’s email account. He claimed to lead Islamic State’s “cyber caliphate”, an online army of hacktivists who, among other things, had hacked the US Central Command Twitter account.

All of these men tried to inspire attacks at home using both the internet and instant messaging services on smartphones, such as WhatsApp, Kik messenger, Wickr and Surespot. These play an important role in connecting IS fighters with those who cannot physically migrate to the caliphate.

Just last month, a 15-year-old boy from Blackburn was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to terrorism offences, so becoming Britain’s youngest terrorist. He had been in frequent contact with an Australian fighter, Abu Khaled al-Cambodi, who introduced him to an IS supporter in Melbourne, Australia, called Sevdet Besim. The Blackburn boy (who cannot be named for legal reasons) then began urging the 18-year-old Besim to behead a police officer during the Anzac Day celebrations, at the military parade to commemorate the first major battle fought by Australian and New Zealand forces in the First World War.

Evidence of the plot emerged following intercepted communications between the men – an issue that came into sharp relief on 4 November when Theresa May presented a draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill to parliament. Under surveillance plans being proposed by the government, details of the internet activity of everyone in the country would be stored for a year.

Concerns persist about the proposed legislation despite the Home Secretary’s attempt to create a framework of regulatory oversight while also limiting the amount of data that is captured. Much of this boils down to a debate about precisely what kind of society we want, given the need to balance civil liberties against security. The bill has been significantly watered down since May first began to formulate it, with the provision of what the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, calls “a powerful, outward-facing super-regulator”. Judges will now have the power to block operations authorised by the Home Secretary.

Yet, for all the talk of oversight and regulation, there is much in the bill to cause alarm. One of the provisions would require companies to help the intelligence agencies hack personal devices. To that end, there has been much discussion of banning instant messaging services such as WhatsApp and iMessage, or at least the technology within them that allows for encryption.

All of this rather misses the point. Easily accessible platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were wildly popular among jihadists operating in 2013 but have since largely lost prominence. This is the result, in part, of the social media companies actively pulling terrorist content from their own platforms; however, it is far from being the chief cause. More importantly the jihadists have lost confidence in those platforms and are migrating to new services such as Telegram.

Herein lies the challenge for Theresa May: not only has the technology already moved on but, as events in the Levant demonstrate, the threat now facing the West is diversifying, deepening and becoming ever more sophisticated. It is also a threat that has proved to be resilient and committed: having endured nearly 14 years of a so-called war on terror, global jihadism is stronger than ever.

Islamic State has captured this spirit of resolute defiance perfectly. Whenever its name is called, supporters chant: “Baqiya wa tatamaddad” – “lasting and expanding”.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London

Now listen to Shiraz discussing this piece on the NS podcast:

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain