On Friday 3 July, a day before he was killed in a drone strike in the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, I spoke with the British fighter Abu Rahin Aziz. We discussed the ten-year anniversary of the bombings in London, and the government’s subsequent counterterrorism strategy. He was in bullish mood: celebrating the attacks and warning of more in the future.
“7/7 was a big blow to the UK,” said Aziz, a credit controller who stabbed a football fan in the head with a pencil in May 2013 before skipping bail to join IS last year. “They [the government] have failed: in fact, extremism has increased.”
It is hard to dispute Aziz’s bleak assessment, given the number of British citizens who have joined the militants. It is believed that roughly 700 Britons have moved to Syria, joining 3,500 people from across Europe. What they see in the self-proclaimed caliphate is the birth of a new history, the revival of an ancient Islamic power that offers sanctuary, salvation and puritanism.
“A land that is free from the corruption and oppression of man-made law and is governed by the sharia,” was the description in a statement by the Mannan family, a group of 12 British Bangladeshis from Luton who moved to an area of Syria under IS control at the end of June.
The party included three generations of the same family, led by a septuagenarian grandfather – the oldest European to have made this journey. They followed another family of 12, the Dawoods from Bradford, who arrived in Syria a few weeks earlier.
Millions of pounds have been poured into counter-extremism initiatives over the past decade. But this has failed to move the likes of Aziz, who also lived in Luton and who, like one member of the Mannan family, had links to al-Muhajiroun, the extremist group Tony Blair banned in response to 7/7.
Islam and the west are irreconcilable, Aziz insisted during our conversation. Muslims can never be at home in non-Muslim societies because the west is at war with Islam. Terrorism at home is justified because of government policies. “If the Brit gov [sic] is concerned for their citizens then they need to look to their actions,” he said. “They are responsible for what happens to citizens.” This echoes the sentiments of Mohammad Sidique Khan, who orchestrated the 7/7 attacks.
Aziz said that Britain had committed too many slights against the Muslim world – both historic and current – to spare herself, and that more attacks here are inevitable. I asked him what victory would look like. “Taking land where we are able to establish rule of Allah,” he said. On a personal level he described success as shahada – attaining martyrdom.
That is what fellow IS adherents believe Aziz attained hours after he sent me a message on the morning of 4 July, when a coalition drone strike targeted a convoy of vehicles in which he was travelling.
Given the number of British citizens now training with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist threat to our country has been extended by at least a generation. On this front the police and the Security Service have delivered remarkable success over the past decade. They have disrupted complex plots and prosecuted individuals involved in serious conspiracies. More than half of all those charged with Islamist-related terrorism offences have pleaded guilty in court.
However, efforts focused further upstream have largely failed. The government’s Prevent strategy has one overarching goal: dissuading young British Muslims from supporting terrorism against the UK. That approach seems reasonable but has been poorly calibrated.
The focus on achieving security at home left the jihadist campaigns abroad largely unaddressed. Moreover, some preachers in the UK were allowed to promote radical views, in the hope that this might act as a “safety valve” for otherwise angry men, dissipating and deflecting their energies.
Some of the most basic ideas that define our society and our whole way of life were never promoted with enough vigour or conviction. Freedom of speech, religious liberty and protections for minorities have all been secured only because of Britain’s secular values. This is what gives religious conservatives the opportunity and right to practise their faith as they see fit while allowing others to live in freedom and dignity, too. This has never been robustly explained by our government, let alone celebrated by it.
“Regardless of being born and bred in the west, the epitome of democracy, our Islam was not washed away,” the Mannans said in their statement from Syria. Yet it was secular Britain that allowed them to live as free Muslims, pursuing whatever version of Islam they saw fit. Will such religious pluralism be tolerated in their new land?
The Prevent programme has had some successes. One of its aims was to foster new voices from within Muslim society, breaking the influence of conventional gatekeeper organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, and today opinions and ideas that would have been inconceivable before 7/7 proliferate across the liberal spectrum.
Herein lies the crucial dynamic at play in the UK. As these fresh viewpoints and spokespeople have gained prominence, Britain’s Muslims have become more polarised. Those on the extreme fringes have become more alienated and have retreated further into the security of their reactionary redoubts. Finding ways to reach them has never been more difficult, or urgent.
Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the NS and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation