20 October 2009

The Radicalization Conundrum: notes on the 'Prevent' fiasco

Arun Kundnani from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has this excellent comment on the fiasco that has emerged relating to the government's Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) funding programme due to the Guardian's recent spate of reporting on the issue. Kundnani is the author of an IRR report based largely on interviews with officials involved in implementation of Prevent funding and policies.

Some initial caveats, though:

1) The response from Muslim communities across the UK has been sheer outrage. This is understandable - the IRR and Guardian revelations indicate that police and intelligence agencies have pressured local authorities to use their PVE-brokered relationships with certain community organisations to gather generic sensitive information about people's personal lives, simply because they happen to be Muslim. Local Muslims are now looking at their local community workers, youth workers, local authority officials, and so on, with huge suspicion. The perception is that they are being criminalised due to their faith, and the result is that many now no longer want to have anything at all to do with PVE funding at all.

2) This reaction, while understandable, needs to be tempered. The new evidence illustrates that systematic 'spying' has indeed occurred, but it's unclear which organizations have been involved, and to what extent this has occurred as a centralized policy of government, as opposed to a more discrete strategy pursued by particular elements of police and intelligence agencies. There are many organizations and individuals involved in Prevent work, from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities, who are not involved in 'spying' activities. Therefore it's counterproductive to assume that anyone and everyone involved in Prevent work is actually a spy, as some are now doing.

3) It's also clear that some of this intelligence gathering has gone on under the rubric of the Channel Project, an interagency counter-radicalization initiative whose aim is to identify 'vulnerable' young Muslims who are 'at-risk' of become violent extremists. The logic of the Channel Project - and of all this surveillance-centred 'de-radicalization' work - is essentially based on a deeply flawed understanding of violent radicalization which focuses on surveillance to deal with symptoms, rather than resolving root causes.

4) The scope of risk-assessment is rendered potentially unlimited by the assumption, recently espoused by the MI5 Behavioural Science Unit for instance, that there is no “typical pathway to violent extremism” for British Muslim terrorists who fit “no single demographic profile” – all genders, classes, ages and localities of British Muslims may therefore potentially be “at-risk”. Categorizations of being “at-risk” from violent extremism could include anything from holding foreign policy grievances or expressing disillusionment with the parliamentary system, to holding religious beliefs assumed to contradict an as yet amorphous and contested conception of shared values – ‘symptoms’ which have no proven relationship to a propensity for violence.

5) Left out of all the flurry and fury are two issues: i) the social exclusion of the vast majority of British Muslims from mainstream British society, not by choice, but due to social structural factors which have led to up to 70 per cent of ethnically South Asian Muslims in Britain living in poverty; almost 100 per cent unemployment rates for youth in particular areas in Birmingham, Manchester, etc.; and institutional discrimination in access to housing, education, health-care, etc. - issues which do not by themselves lead to violence, but which do generate discontent and suspicion toward British civil society ii) the core role of the al-Muhajiroun organization (currently mobilizing under the banner of 'Islam4UK') in providing a radicalizing social network which provides links to al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups abroad, and which has been linked to every major terrorist plot in the UK, including the 7/7 bombings. The instrumental role of extremist ideology as manifest through al-Muhajiroun, as a 'pull' factor that exploits grievances about foreign policy and domestic injustices while abusing religious language and symbols using audiovisual and other techniques of indoctrination, has been ignored by police and intelligence services. By underplaying the significance of this specific network, authorities imply that radicalization is a generic community problem - when it simply isn't.

There's more to say on the issue of violent radicalization, but for now I want to focus on the question of al-Muhajiroun, which is supposed to be a proscribed organization. It now turns out that it was never proscribed - rather, its successor groups were banned, and now that its members are mobilizing under the banner of 'Islam4UK', they're free to run around mouthing the usual inflammatory drivel, which often includes inciting to violence and terrorism.

According to senior government and intelligence officials, at the time of al-Muhajiroun’s founding in 1996, the network was mobilized by MI6 to send British Muslims to Kosovo – coinciding with British and American military assistance to the Kosovan Albanians. This has been confirmed for instance by John Loftus, former US Justice Department official; as well as by former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in his memoirs.

This was part of a general post-Cold War strategy of co-opting Islamist extremist and terrorist networks to exert influence in Central Asia, the Middle East and beyond. Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who has testified before US Congressional and Senate Committees about pre-9/11 classified intelligence documents she translated, confirms that US intelligence services maintained a “very intimate relationship” with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban “all the way up to September 11,” to secure geopolitical influence in Central Asia.

Even after 9/11, elements of this relationship were not discontinued. Concurrently, reliable reports indicate that the Bush administration in around 2003 began encouraging Saudi government financing of al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist Salafi groups across the Middle East and Central Asia (particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan) to counter Iranian Shi’ite influence. A Presidential Finding signed by President Bush in early 2008 confirms that the CIA has backed this programme with at least $300 million.

In Lebanon, for instance, extremist Salafi groups co-opted by the ruling Hariri faction have been financed by US-Saudi largess as a counterweight to the Shi’ite group Hizbullah. The Lebanese Daily Star (20 April 2007) reported that the United States had earmarked $60 million to reinforce Interior Ministry forces and Sunni organisations identified as “jihadists."

Ironically, a key figure benefiting from this policy is al-Muhajiroun leader Omar Bakri Mohammed, currently residing in Beirut, who has reportedly received material support from Lebanese Salafi networks which he now vocally promotes. In one recent interview, he proclaims, “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organize their jihad against the Shi’ites… Al-Qaeda in Lebanon… are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.” He is currently being investigated by Lebanese security forces who accuse him of training al-Qaeda forces in Lebanon.

Has Bakri benefited indirectly from US-Saudi intelligence sponsorship of extremist groups? It certainly seems that he has, given his current alliance with the CIA-financed self-styled Salafists in Lebanon. This disturbing prospect is made all the more worrying given that his extremist network, al-Muhajiroun aka 'Islam4UK', continues to operate with impunity in the UK, openly inciting to violence, yet ignored by law-enforcement authorities. Bakri himself still addresses his British followers through video link and internet broadcasts.

Urgent action must be taken to arrest, charge and prosecute the central players in this network, who have violated British law with impunity by condoning and promoting terrorist activity. Long-term action must be taken to deal with root structural causes of marginalization and disenfranchisement, affecting communities of all faiths and non-faith in Britain, as background causes of vulnerability to different kinds of extremism. As far as the Muslim community is concerned, urgent action must be taken to develop fresh approaches to counter the rhetoric and ideology of violent extremism promoted by this network. This must include developing an authentic indigenous vision for Islam which is progressive, inclusive and liberating.

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