It was the final part of the latest Islamic State video that will have caught the attention of the Security Service. After a 15-minute film celebrating the Paris attacks in November, viewers see David Cameron giving a press conference in Downing Street with a message from Islamic State flashing across the screen.
“Whoever stands in the ranks of kufr [the infidels],” it reads, “will be a target for our swords and will fall in humiliation.”
Various London landmarks – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square – then appear in rapid succession before the video comes to an abrupt stop. A terrorism analyst sent me a message shortly after the video was released on Sunday. “I would consider it a warning,” he noted. “That wasn’t [there] because they didn’t know how to fill the last segment.” This is not the first time IS has appeared to threaten Britain, but it is the most pointed and menacing warning yet.
I messaged a British member of IS, who is originally from Buckinghamshire, to ask his view. Was it intended to be warning? “Yep,” came the reply. “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? Idiots.”
The fighter was referring to parliament’s decision to extend British air strikes to IS targets inside Syria, and to those people who counselled against such action his comments may seem to offer vindication. Yet the facts aren’t so straightforward.
Last July I spoke with another British IS fighter, Abu Rahin Aziz, to get his thoughts on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 London terrorist bombings. He was bullish, warning of more attacks, and then he explained in careful detail some of the philosophical reasons Britain remains a target for the group.
Such is our position – historic and current – as an important geopolitical actor that IS prioritises a conflict with us. A core component of its eschatological world-view is the need to confront and conquer “Rome”, the prevailing superpower of the Prophet Muhammad’s time.
That Britain is not a Muslim state would forever make us a target, Aziz said. The Buckinghamshire fighter agreed. “We primarily fight wars due to [sic] ppl being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue,” he said. “Their kufr against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”
I still find it staggering to receive such messages. For the past two years I’ve conducted interviews with more than 100 Western fighters with Islamic State, trying to unpack their motivations and experiences. In that time, I have grown desensitised to images of the senseless barbarism of Syria’s civil war (though I often wish I hadn’t been exposed to so many).
Confronting that is one thing, but it’s the casual callousness of the average fighter that I still find so hard to reconcile. Here are young men who appear to revel in the sadistic sensationalism of it all. Worse still, they have grown up in our society and been to our schools, but are detached from everything to do with our country and culture.
British fighters have joked about playing football with the severed head of James Foley, the American journalist executed by IS in its first such video. Raphael Hostey, originally from Manchester, also boasted that IS would enslave British women and orphan our children. “The only thing which connects me to Britain,” the fighter from Buckinghamshire told me, “is my desire to wage war there and go on a killing rampage in the streets of UK.”
The likelihood of these men returning undetected and launching an attack is exceedingly low. What is more likely is that fighters already in Syria and Iraq will inspire a lone wolf to pull off an attack at home in their name. That is precisely what Reyaad Khan tried to do last year when he led a plot from Syria to assassinate the Queen and other members of the royal family. David Cameron responded by authorising RAF drones to kill him, explaining the decision as an act of self-defence.
“There was a terrorist directing murder on our streets and no other means to stop them,” Cameron told the Commons. “I am not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain why I did not take the chance to prevent it when I could have done.”
The problem is not uniquely British. Belgian, French and German fighters have appeared in countless videos in which war crimes are committed and they warn of reprisals in their home countries. IS’s latest offering is no different. The Paris attackers are shown beheading Syrians they accuse of apostasy. They deliver prepared speeches to the camera with customary bravado and then descend on their victims with the easy calm that suggests such acts have become routine and familiar.
Britain has long been a target for jihadists. The current threat is acute, but worth keeping in perspective. Academic studies show that where home-grown or lone-wolf attackers slip through the net, their plots are often much more contained than attacks carried out by those who have trained abroad.
None of this matters to IS, which has become a master of playing on our fears – this time by suggesting the same carnage that so badly hurt the French will be visited on Britain, too. Such is the power of modern terrorism that the mere threat is enough to cause deep-seated anxiety. When you consider that it takes roughly as long to reach Paris from London by train as it does Manchester, the proximity of what transpired in the French capital last November suddenly feels much too close to home.
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 appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?