Once again,this past week, the Brits have found that a fellow citizen wishes to either kill them or convert them to a particular interpretation of Islam. Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and brought up in a middle class area of West London, a graduate in computer science from the University of Westminster is “Jihadi John.” He is thought — he was masked except for the eyes — to have been pictured in the videos of the beheadings of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines, British taxi driver Alan Henning, and American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter.
The fact that he’s a British citizen occasioned less horrified surprise, or at least less comment, than it did when, in the summer of 2005, four young British citizens murdered 52 and injured 700 of their fellows on London transport. Their leader, Mohammed Siddique Khan, had pre-recorded a video message, aired by Al Jazeera in September of that year, to say that “Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.”
This remains the default position, the rationale and the excuse: you (the Western democracies) make war on Muslims: we, the cutting edge of Islam, make war on you. There was much debate about the radicalization of the young, especially the Muslim young.
Since that time, the radicalization seems to have gone deeper. The numbers of young British people who have left to fight for Islamic State and other extremist groups are a matter of debate: last August, the British Member of Parliament Khalid Mahmood, who has been a constant critic of the lack of effort to de-radicalize young people, said some 500 young Muslims left the UK with jihad in their hearts each year. That makes for a cumulative figure of “at least 1,500,” which is far higher than the UK Foreign Office estimates of 300 to 400, and more than double the number of Muslims – 600 – in the UK armed services.
A few days before the identity of Jihadi John was revealed, three other young Brits – all teenage girls – left the UK, and are believed to now be in Syria. It’s commonly assumed that they have gone to marry Islamic State warriors: the journalist Nosheen Iqbal wrote that “IS lads brand themselves as rock stars. Marrying one is a religiously approved way to channel the mad, hormonal energy that powers all teenagers – Muslim girls included.”
It seems they were groomed by another young woman, Aqsa Mahmood from Glasgow, who left her home in November 2013 to go to Syria and is now believed to be a recruiter for others to follow her example. Her family members are distraught: in a statement, they said that her “actions are a perverted and evil distortion of Islam.”
The family’s spokesman, a well-known activist of the left as well as a lawyer, Aamer Anwar, said in an interview with the BBC that it was the fault of the security services. “Aqsa’s social media has been monitored since she disappeared over a year ago, yet despite alleged contact between the girls and Aqsa, they failed to stop them from leaving the UK to Turkey, a staging post for Syria.”
It was something of a shock to hear that said, especially by one as critical as Anwar has been of security service “snooping.” It’s a huge contradiction – the services snoop unreasonably … and should snoop more effectively. But but it does illuminate two constraints, which now press upon western states.
The first is the constraint of budget. In the UK, as in the United States, the secret services have grown: but still pale before the size of the possible threat. One ex-intelligence officer told me it takes up to 60 officers to mount a 24/7 surveillance, at a cost of between $15,000 to 23,000 a day. The police guarding the Ecuadorian embassy in London, ready to arrest Julian Assange to face rape charges in Sweden when – if – he leaves his near three-year incarceration, cost $17,000 a day. The British security services, MI5, MI6 and the monitoring center GCHQ, have a joint budget of over $3 billion: it means they have to choose, very selectively, who they watch and for how long.
There are the constraints of democracy. Chris Phillips, former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, asked, rather forlornly, on a panel discussion, on Friday, “What do we do when someone hasn’t committed a crime but is on the cusp of terrorism? All decisions taken by security services are based on who at this time is likely to cross the line between belief and action…this one (Jihadi John) got away.”
Dr Afzal Ashraf, a counterterrorism expert in the defense think tank RUSI, said on the same panel that young people were impelled abroad by a perception of success on Islamic State’s part; and because charismatic individuals had radicalized them.
There are constraints of having a free press. The security services knew about Mohammed Emwazi/Jihadi John; indeed, had tried to recruit him. They wanted his identity kept secret: but it was blown, by the Washington Post. Much more comprehensively, Edward Snowden took millions of files from the U.S.’ National Security Agency, a fraction of which have been published, more to come. The security services say it’s immensely damaging. Just as independent journalism becomes more aggressive in publishing leaks, so the dangers to security – from Islamic militancy, from a more aggressive Russia, from cyber attacks and from failed states in the Middle East and Africa, become greater – a malign coincidence.
Young men and women become radicalized in the quiet of their bedroom, sitting before a computer screen, often after they’ve done their homework. A book just published on the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik – who killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in July 2011 – shows one, both intelligent and capable of productive work and friendships, turn himself into a sword of vengeance on the “cultural Marxists” – the ruling Labor Party – who had betrayed Norway into a multicultural hell. His ideas, and his lengthy manifesto, were culled from a feverish search through the Web for writings and images that bolstered his grandiose obsession.
That is how the jihadists of our time and in our countries operate. For all the efforts to counter it – increasingly by Muslim activists, scholars, parents, teachers – the digitalized hatred grows. There are many, many, would-be Jihadi Johns – and Jihadi Janes.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.