The circus: How British intelligence primed both sides of the ‘terror war’

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‘Jihadi John’ was able to join IS for one simple reason: from Quilliam to al-Muhajiroun, Britain’s loudest extremists have been groomed by the security services

Every time there’s a terrorist attack that makes national headlines, the same talking heads seem to pop up like an obscene game of “whack-a-mole”. Often they appear one after the other across the media circuit, bobbing from celebrity television pundit to erudite newspaper outlet.

A few years ago, BBC Newsnight proudly hosted a “debate” between Maajid Nawaz, director of counter-extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, and Anjem Choudary, head of the banned Islamist group formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, which has, since its proscription, repeatedly reincarnated itself. One of its more well-known recent incarnations was "Islam4UK".

Both Nawaz and Choudary have received huge mainstream media attention, generating press headlines, and contributing to major TV news and current affairs shows. But unbeknown to most, they have one thing in common: Britain’s security services. And believe it or not, that bizarre fact explains why the Islamic State’s (IS) celebrity beheader, former west Londoner Mohammed Emwazi – aka “Jihadi John” - got to where he is now.

A tale of two extremists

After renouncing his affiliation with the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Maajid Nawaz co-founded the Quilliam Foundation with his fellow ex-Hizb member, Ed Husain.

The Quilliam Foundation was set-up by Husain and Nawaz in 2008 with significant British government financial support. Its establishment received a massive PR boost from the release of Ed Husain’s memoirs, The Islamist, which rapidly became an international bestseller, generating hundreds of reviews, interviews and articles.

In Ed Husain’s book - much like Maajid Nawaz’s tome Radical released more recently to similar fanfare - Husain recounts his journey from aggrieved young Muslim into Islamist activist, and eventually his total rejection of Islamist ideology.

Both accounts of their journeys of transformation offer provocative and genuine insights. But the British government has played a much more direct role in crafting those accounts than either they, or the government, officially admit.

Government ghostwriters

In late 2013, I interviewed a former senior researcher at the Home Office who revealed that Husain’s The Islamist was “effectively ghostwritten in Whitehall”.

The official told me that in 2006, he was informed by a government colleague “with close ties” to Jack Straw and Gordon Brown that “the draft was written by Ed but then ‘peppered’ by government input”. The civil servant told him “he had seen ‘at least five drafts of the book, and the last one was dramatically different from the first.’”

The draft had, the source said, been manipulated in an explicitly political, pro-government manner. The committee that had input into Ed Husain’s manuscript prior to its official publication included senior government officials from No. 10 Downing Street, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the intelligence services, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.

When I put the question, repeatedly, to Ed Husain as to the veracity of these allegations, he did not respond. I also asked Nawaz whether he was aware of the government’s role in “ghostwriting” Husain’s prose, and whether he underwent a similar experience in the production of Radical. He did not respond either.

While Husain was liaising with British government and intelligence officials over The Islamist from 2006 until the book’s publication in May 2007, his friend Nawaz was at first in prison in Egypt. Nawaz was eventually released in March 2006, declaring his departure from HT just a month before the publication of Husain’s book. Husain took credit for being the prime influence on Nawaz’s decision, and by November 2007, had joined with him becoming Quilliam’s director with Husain as his deputy.

Yet according to Husain, Nawaz played a role in determining parts of the text of The Islamist in the same year it was being edited by government officials. “Before publication, I discussed with my friend and brother-in-faith Maajid the passages in the book,” wrote Husain about the need to verify details of their time in HT.

This is where the chronology of Husain’s and Nawaz’s accounts begin to break down. In Radical, and repeatedly in interviews about his own deradicalisation process, Nawaz says that he firmly and decisively rejected HT’s Islamist ideology while in prison in Egypt. Yet upon his release and return to Britain, Nawaz showed no sign of having reached that decision. Instead, he did the opposite. In April 2006, Nawaz told Sarah Montague on BBC Hardtalk that his detention in Egypt had “convinced [him] even more… that there is a need to establish this Caliphate as soon as possible.” From then on, Nawaz, who was now on HT’s executive committee, participated in dozens of talks and interviews in which he vehemently promoted the Hizb.

I first met Nawaz at a conference on 2 December 2006 organised by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) on the theme of “reclaiming our rights”. I had spoken on a panel about the findings of my book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry, on how British state collusion with Islamist extremists had facilitated the 7/7 attacks. Nawaz had attended the event as an audience member with two other senior HT activists, and in our brief conversation, he spoke of his ongoing work with HT in glowing terms.

By January 2007, Nawaz was at the front of a HT protest at the US embassy in London, condemning US military operations in Iraq and Somalia. He delivered a rousing speech at the protest, demanding an end to “colonial intervention in the Muslim world,” and calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate to stand up to such imperialism and end Western support for dictators.

Yet by his own account, throughout this very public agitation on behalf of HT from mid-2006 onwards, Nawaz had in fact rejected the very ideology he was preaching so adamantly. Indeed, in the same period, he was liaising with his friend, Ed Husain – who at that time was still in Jeddah – and helping him with the text of his anti-HT manifesto, The Islamist, which was also being vetted at the highest levels of government.

The British government’s intimate, and secret, relationship with Husain in the year before the publication of his book in 2007 shows that, contrary to his official biography, the Quilliam Foundation founder was embedded in Whitehall long before he was on the public radar. How did he establish connections at this level?

MI5’s Islamist

According to Dr Noman Hanif, a lecturer in international terrorism and political Islam at Birkbeck College, University of London, and an expert on Hizb ut-Tahrir, the group’s presence in Britain likely provided many opportunities for Western intelligence to “penetrate or influence” the movement.

Dr Hanif, whose doctoral thesis was about the group, points out that Husain’s tenure inside HT by his own account occurred “under the leadership of Omar Bakri Mohammed,” the controversial cleric who left the group in 1996 to found al-Muhajiroun, a militant network which to this day has been linked to every major terrorist plot in Britain.

Bakri’s leadership of HT, said Dr Hanif, formed “the most conceptually deviant period of HT’s existence in the UK, diverting quite sharply away from its core ideas,” due to Bakri’s advocacy of violence and his focus on establishing an Islamic state in the UK, goals contrary to HT doctrines.

When Bakri left HT and set-up al-Muhajiroun in 1996, according to John Loftus, a former US Army intelligence officer and Justice Department prosecutor, Bakri was immediately recruited by MI6 to facilitate Islamist activities in the Balkans. And not just Bakri, but also Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was recently convicted in the US on terrorism charges.

When Bakri founded al-Muhajiroun in 1996 with the blessings of Britain’s security services, his co-founder was Anjem Choudary. Choudary was intimately involved in the programme to train and send Britons to fight abroad, and three years later, would boast to the Sunday Telegraph that “some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition”.

Historian Mark Curtis, in his seminal work, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, documents how under this arrangement, Bakri trained hundreds of Britons at camps in the UK and the US, and dispatched them to join al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya.

Shortly before the 2005 London bombings, Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal Pulitizer Prize winning investigative reporter, was told by a senior MI5 official that Bakri was a longtime informant for the secret service who “had helped MI5 on several of its investigations”. Bakri, Suskind adds in his book, The Way of the World, reluctantly conceded the relationship in an interview in Beirut - but Suskind gives no indication that the relationship ever ended.

A senior terrorism lawyer in London who has represented clients in several high-profile terrorism cases told me that both Bakri and Choudary had regular meetings with MI5 officers in the 1990s. The lawyer, who works for a leading firm of solicitors and has regularly liaised with MI5 in the administration of closed court hearings involving secret evidence, said: “Omar Bakri had well over 20 meetings with MI5 from around 1993 to the late 1990s. Anjem Choudary apparently participated in such meetings toward the latter part of the decade. This was actually well-known amongst several senior Islamist leaders in Britain at the time.”

According to Dr Hanif of Birkbeck College, Bakri’s relationship with the intelligence services likely began during his “six-year reign as HT leader in Britain,” which would have “provided British intelligence ample opportunity” to “widely infiltrate the group”. HT had already been a subject of MI6 surveillance abroad “because of its core level of support in Jordan and the consistent level of activity in other areas of the Middle East for over five decades."

At least some HT members appear to have been aware of Bakri’s intelligence connections, including, it seems, Ed Husain himself. In one passage in The Islamist (p. 116), Husain recounts: “We were also concerned about Omar’s application for political asylum… I raised this with Bernie [another HT member] too. ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘On the contrary. The British are like snakes; they manoeuvre carefully. They need Omar in Britain. More likely, Omar will be the ambassador for the khilafah here or leave to reside in the Islamic state. The kuffar know that - allowing Omar to stay in Britain will give them a good start, a diplomatic advantage, when they have to deal with the Islamic state. Having Omar serves them well for the future. MI5 knows exactly what we’re doing, what we’re about, and yet they have in effect, given us the green light to operate in Britain.”

Husain left HT after Bakri in August 1997. According to Faisal Haque, a British government civil servant and former HT member who knew Ed Husain during his time in the group, Husain had a strong “personal relationship” with Bakri. He did not leave HT for “ideological reasons,” said Haque. “It was more to do with his close personal relationship with Omar Bakri (he left when Bakri was kicked out), pressure from his father and other personal reasons which I don’t want to mention.”

Husain later went on to work for the British Council in the Middle East. From 2003 to 2005, he was in Damascus. During that period, by his own admission, he informed on other British members of HT for agitating against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, resulting in them being deported by Syrian authorities back to Britain. At this time, the CIA and MI6 routinely cooperated with Assad on extraordinary rendition programmes.

Husain then worked for the British Council in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from late 2005 to the end of 2006.

Throughout that year, according to the former Home Office official I spoke to, Husain was in direct contact with senior Whitehall officials who were vetting his manuscript for The Islamist. By November, Husain posted on DeenPort, an online discussion forum, a now deleted comment referring off-hand to the work of “the secret services” inside HT: “Even within HT in Britain today, there is a huge division between modernisers and more radical elements. The secret services are hopeful that the modernisers can tame the radicals… I foresee another split. And God knows best. I have said more than I should on this subject! Henceforth, my lips are sealed!”

Shortly after, Maajid Nawaz would declare his departure from HT, and would eventually be joined at Quilliam by several others from the group, many of whom according to Nawaz had worked with him and Husain as “a team” behind the scenes at this time.

The ‘ex-jihadists’ who weren’t

Perhaps the biggest problem with Husain’s and Nawaz’s claim to expertise on terrorism was that they were never jihadists. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a non-violent movement for the establishment of a global “caliphate” through social struggle, focusing on the need for political activism in the Muslim world. Whatever the demerits of this rigid political ideology, it had no relationship to the phenomenon of al-Qaeda terrorism.

Nevertheless, Husain and Nawaz, along with their government benefactors, were convinced that those personal experiences of  “radicalisation” and “deradicalisation” could by transplanted into the ongoing “war on terror” - even though, in reality neither of them had any idea about the dynamics of an actual terrorist network, and the radicalisation process leading to violent extremism. The result was an utterly misguided and evidence-devoid obsession with rejecting non-violent extremist ideologies as the primary means to prevent terrorism.

Through the Quilliam Foundation, Husain’s and Nawaz’s fundamentalist ideas about non-violent extremism went on to heavily influence official counter-terrorism discourses across the Western world. This was thanks to its million pounds worth of government seed-funding, intensive media coverage, as well as the government pushing Quilliam’s directors and staff to provide “deradicalisation training” to government and security officials in the US and Europe.

In the UK, Quilliam’s approach was taken up by various centre-right and right-wing think-tanks, such as the Centre for Social Cohesion (CCS) and Policy Exchange, all of which played a big role in influencing the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme (Prevent).

Exactly how bankrupt this approach is, however, can be determined from Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to express his understanding of the risk from non-violent extremism, a major feature of the coalition government’s Orwellian new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. The latter establishes unprecedented powers of electronic surveillance and the basis for the “Prevent duty,” which calls for all public sector institutions to develop “risk-assessment” profiles of individuals deemed to be “at-risk” of being drawn into non-violent extremism.

In his speech at the UN last year, Cameron explained that counter-terrorism measures must target people who may not “encourage violence, but whose worldview can be used as a justification for it.” As examples of dangerous ideas at the “root cause” of terrorism, Cameron pinpointed “conspiracy theories,” and most outrageously, “The idea that Muslims are persecuted all over the world as a deliberate act of Western policy.”

In other words, if you believe, for instance, that US and British forces have deliberately conducted brutal military operations across the Muslim world resulting in the foreseeable deaths of countless innocent civilians, you are a non-violent extremist.

In an eye-opening academic paper published last year, French terrorism expert and Interior Ministry policy officer Dr Claire Arenes, noted that: “By definition, one may know if radicalisation has been violent only once the point of violence has been reached, at the end of the process. Therefore, since the end-term of radicalisation cannot be determined in advance, a policy intended to fight violent radicalisation entails a structural tendency to fight any form of radicalisation.”

It is precisely this moronic obsession with trying to detect and stop “any form of radicalisation,” however non-violent, that is hampering police and security investigations and overloading them with nonsense “risks”.

Double game

At this point, the memorable vision of Nawaz and Choudary facing off on BBC Newsnight appears not just farcical, but emblematic of how today’s national security crisis has been fuelled and exploited by the bowels of the British secret state.

Over the last decade or so - the very same period that the British state was grooming the “former jihadists who weren’t” so they could be paraded around the media-security-industrial complex bigging up the non-threat of “non-violent extremism” - the CIA and MI6 were coordinating Saudi-led funding to al-Qaeda affiliated extremists across the Middle East and Central Asia to counter Iranian Shiite influence.

From 2005 onwards, US and British intelligence services encouraged a range of covert operations to support Islamist opposition groups, including militants linked to al-Qaeda, to undermine regional Iranian and Syrian influence. By 2009, the focus of these operations shifted to Syria.

As I documented in written evidence to a UK Parliamentary inquiry into Prevent in 2010, one of the recipients of such funding was none other than Omar Bakri, who at the time told one journalist: “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organise their jihad against the Shiites… Al-Qaeda in Lebanon… are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.” Simultaneously, Bakri was regularly in touch with his deputy, Anjem Choudary, over the internet and even delivered online speeches to his followers in Britain instructing them to join IS and murder civilians. He has now been detained and charged by Lebanese authorities for establishing terror cells in the country.

Bakri was also deeply involved “with training the mujahideen [fighters] in camps on the Syrian borders and also on the Palestine side." The trainees included four British Islamists “with professional backgrounds” who would go on to join the war in Syria. Bakri also claimed to have trained “many fighters,” including people from Germany and France, since arriving in Lebanon. Was Mohammed Emwazi among them? Last year, Bakri disciple Mizanur Rahman confirmed that at least five European Muslims who had died fighting under IS in Syria had been Bakri acolytes.

Nevertheless in 2013, it was David Cameron who lifted the arms embargo to support Syria's rebels. We now know that most of our military aid went to al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists, many with links to extremists at home. The British government itself acknowledged that a “substantial number” of Britons were fighting in Syria, who “will seek to carry out attacks against Western interests... or in Western states”.

Yet according to former British counterterrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, despite this risk, authorities “turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there,” because it “suited the US and UK’s anti-Assad foreign policy”.

This terror-funnel is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with IS - despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list. He had been blocked by the security services from traveling to Kuwait in 2010: why not Syria? Shoebridge, who was a British Army officer before joining the Metropolitan Police, told me that although such overseas terrorism has been illegal in the UK since 2006, “it’s notable that only towards the end of 2013 when IS turned against the West’s preferred rebels, and perhaps also when the tipping point between foreign policy usefulness and MI5 fears of domestic terrorist blowback was reached, did the UK authorities begin to take serious steps to tackle the flow of UK jihadists.”

The US-UK direct and tacit support for jihadists, Shoebridge said, had made Syria the safest place for regional terrorists fearing drone strikes “for more than two years”. Syria was “the only place British jihadists could fight without fear of US drones or arrest back home… likely because, unlike if similar numbers of UK jihadists had been travelling to for example Yemen or Afghanistan, this suited the anti-Assad policy.”

Having watched its own self-fulfilling prophecy unfold with horrifying precision in a string of IS-linked terrorist atrocities against Western hostages and targets, the government now exploits the resulting mayhem to vindicate its bankrupt “counter-extremism” narrative, promoted by hand-picked state-groomed “experts” like Husain and Nawaz.

Their prescription, predictably, is to expand the powers of the police state to identify and “deradicalise” anyone who thinks British foreign policy in the Muslim world is callous, self-serving and indifferent to civilian deaths. Government sources confirm that Nawaz’s input played a key role in David Cameron’s thinking on non-violent extremism, and the latest incarnation of the Prevent strategy; while last year, Husain was, ironically, appointed to the Foreign Office advisory group on freedom of religion or belief.

Meanwhile, Bakri’s deputy Choudary continues to inexplicably run around as Britain’s resident “terror cleric” media darling. His passport belatedly confiscated after a recent pointless police arrest that avoided charging him, he remains free to radicalise thick-headed British Muslims into joining IS, in the comfort that his hate speech will be broadcast widely, no doubt fueling widespread generic suspicion of British Muslims.

If only we could round up the Quilliam and al-Muhajiroun fanatics together, shove them onto a boat, and send them all off cruising to the middle of nowhere, they could have all the fun they want “radicalising” and “deradicalising” each other to their hearts content. And we might get a little peace. And perhaps we could send their handlers with them, too.

Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Abu Hamza al-Masri speaks at a rally in Trafalgar Square in London 25 August, 2002 (AFP)