Conservatism as a Counterterrorism Tool

The world has experienced a surge in the frequency of Islamist-linked terrorist activity, with multiple mass-casualty attacks globally since the start of June. In this piece (a counterpoint to our previous article by Lewis Tallon), Simon Schofield suggests a rethink of existing counter-terrorism efforts to take a more conservative approach without destroying the values of Western Liberalism.

Karl Popper, one of the foremost philosophers of the modern age outlined in his 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1 the Paradox of Tolerance:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Modern-day Britain is an open and inclusive society, setting a high standard across the globe for embodying these traits, and reaping the rewards by repeatedly topping Soft Power rankings. However, as the recent wave of terror attacks proves, the more we are willing to extend the benefits of an open and inclusive society to those who wish to destroy that society, the more we put the entire project at risk. We take for granted that such a society exists today and will exist forever more, whatever the vicissitudes of fate and the future have in store for us.

Ronald Reagan said in his 1961 address to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce that:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

The same is true of all free societies. Our key values of liberty, free trade, democracy, equality, and universal human rights are not objective truths. They compete in a marketplace of ideas with darker creeds espoused by the far left and right, and by religious extremists.

We now find ourselves at a historical cross-roads, with effectively two choices facing us. One path has us accept that bombings, vehicular mass-murder, shootings and knife-rampages become as much a part of our daily lives as car crashes and cancer; inconvenient, unwanted, even tragic for those affected, but an inevitable part of the human experience.

The other path would have us re-examine the way we live and the laws that govern us, and reject the notion that violence against the vulnerable and innocent is acceptable without fundamentally compromising the values that truly make us the society we are. We need to identify what it is we want to conserve to pass on to our children and what needs to change in order for us to do that.

The problems

Political violence is as old a phenomenon as politics itself. Philip Bobbitt describes terrorism as a reaction to the prevailing values and norms of the day, wherein groups mirror the structural and political organisation of states, but reject their founding premise and follow their own antagonistic agenda [1].

Under the Princely State system, whichever aristrocrat was in power enriched himself and chose his subjects’ religion under the doctrine of cuius region, eius religio, and fought wars by employing mercenary troops to wage religious war against their opponents. In this system, terrorists were highly sectarian militias such as the Protestant landsknechts, responsible for the Sack of Rome in 1527, and the Catholic Spanish tercios who perpetrated the Spanish Fury against the Protestant civilian population of Antwerp.

Under the Nation State system, now in its final death throes, states were legitimated on the premise of delivering greater material wealth to the national group they governed, using large, centralised, hierarchical bureaucracies and employing industrialised militaries in rank-and-file formations to project power. Nation State terrorists were those we are familiar with, who rejected the state’s legitimacy on the grounds of wanting their own nation state, and whilst using similar equipment and structures to state militaries such as firearms, explosives, and military hierarchical commands, fought to secure independence. These groups include the IRA who fought against the United Kingdom for a united and independent Ireland, and ETA, who fought against Spain and France for an independent Basque state.

We are now living through the dawn of the Market State, which is legitimated on the premise of expanding opportunities and freedom for its citizens, tends to look more like a network of functional ‘nodes’ and is increasingly outsourcing certain tasks to outside groups. A Western interpretation of ‘expanding opportunity’ involves an emphasis on individual liberty; equality of esteem regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion et cetera; and a firm foundation in the rule of law, and the role of the state to ensure fair play and freedom from coercion both externally from foreign powers and domestically from criminals and terrorists. The whole system is underpinned by belief in the democratic process, and of power being held collectively as a society, and vested in elected representatives.

Islamic extremists, neofascists and left wing revolutionaries see freedom and opportunity very differently from us, but similarly to one another. They see freedom as being found in submission to a higher authority, who can shield you from the corruption of the ‘other’ – defined differently between groups. Islamists believe freedom is found in submission to Allah, manifested in the creation of a Caliphate, a theocracy which enforces a strictly conservative interpretation of the Shariah. Left and right wing extremists see it as submission to the state, ran by them, to deliver a better future for one’s race or nation at the expense of all others (for the right), or to deliver freedom from exploitation by the bourgeoisie  (for the left).

Setting aside left and right extremism for a moment, whose ideologies are thoroughly well rehearsed and understood, it is important to understand the different faucets of Islamic extremist ideology.

Firstly there is the concept of Salafism. This is the idea that we should all be living as the devout ancestors (the salaf) did in the days of Mohammed. This is an ultraconservative philosophy which takes a literalist and puritanical approach to Islamic law (the Shariah) and rejects many of the fundamental tenets of liberty and democracy. There is also the creed of Wahabbism, named for its 18th Century promulgator Mohammed Ibn Abd-al Wahhab, this is a particularly virulent strain of Salafism and arguably the single most conservative interpretation of Islam, which is sponsored by Saudi Arabia and aggressively spread abroad by the Saudi state, which funds mosques and Madrasas (religious colleges) globally.

Secondly is the concept of Islamism, or political Islam, which is the notion that the Islamic faith should play the major, if not the only, part in public and political life. Islamists reject democracy, secularism and often the state itself, citing that Allah and Islamic scriptures are the sole sources of law.

Thirdly, is the concept of Takfir. Takfir is a controversial and hotly debated practice, which is similar to the Catholic idea of excommunication. Effectively it is the practice of one Muslim declaring another an enemy of the faith and expelling them from its ranks. Generally speaking there is a stringent evidence requirement to declare someone a kafir (non-believer) and a requirement for due process, where a recognised religious authority must make the pronouncement. A takfiri is someone who takes it upon themselves to declare who is and is not a Muslim, possibly going so far as to issue punishment themselves, up to and including executions.

Fourthly, Jihad is the concept of struggle. There are Muslims who hold the idea of a greater and lesser Jihad, where the lesser is the struggle against external forces hostile to Islam, and the greater is one’s personal struggle to be a better Muslim. Jihadism, however, is the more extremist concept of enforcing any or all of the above philosophies using the application or threat of physical violence against those who disagree.

These categories are separate but related, and it is possible to fall into some categories without others.

The reason for going on this tangent however, is to illuminate the gap between being an ultraconservative Muslim (a Salafist), and a Jihadist who spreads their beliefs by murdering those who offend against them. The reason questions are asked when a Jihadist atrocity is carried out by someone who is ‘known to the Security Services’ is because this gap can be traversed both at rapid speed and in relative secrecy, before intelligence services can identify and interdict them. Conventional wisdom in the current era suggests that the former is acceptable and should be tolerated under the doctrine of pluralism, but that the latter is a clear and present danger to be neutralised.

The Islamic State’s policies, strategies and tactics as outlined in their magazine Dabiq, make for enlightening reading in terms of what they want to achieve and how. A map shared in 2014 allegedly demonstrated IS plans for expansion out of Iraq and Syria into North and Central Africa, Spain, Greece, the entire Middle East and South Asia. Whilst the veracity of this map has been called into question by some experts, who claim it was produced by IS fans, rather than by the group’s command core itself, it is likely not far from the most ambitious goals of the group. It is fairly clear that the ultimate goal is to establish a global Caliphate where believers live under strict interpretations of Shariah, and unbelievers either convert, pay the jizya (infidel tax) and accept their place as second class citizens, or are put to the sword.

The ‘how’ seems to be applying the father of IS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s tactics of using extreme violence to draw dividing lines, forcing everybody to take a side. Zarqawi perpetrated a campaign of bloodshed against Shi’a communities, hoping that reprisals against Sunnis would drive all Sunnis to seek shelter under the al Qaeda in Iraq (now IS) umbrella. In Dabiq Issue 7, IS outlines a strategy it calls the ‘extinction of the gray zone’. By the gray zone it means the spaces in democracies wherein Muslims and non-Muslims can coexist. In encouraging Muslims to carry out attacks, the theory is that eventually society will reject Islam and all Muslims will be forced to either abandon their faith and join the infidels, or to seek refuge in the embrace of the extremists, swelling their ranks, and likely manifesting their resentment by supporting Jihad.

There are some, like Donald Trump, who have taken a hardline approach, such as his ‘Muslim ban’ policy and his proposals for mass deportations. Others are resorting to vigilantism, with an Islamic Centre in Sutton vandalised hours after the terror attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. This is precisely the sort of backlash the Islamic State is anticipating and will serve little more than to advance Islamic State’s aim to destroy the gray zone.

Others march out the long hackneyed tropes of ‘don’t let the terrorists win’, and ‘terror has no religion’ which distracts from the issue at hand and seemingly argues that maintenance of the status quo is the way forward. Of course these lines are well intentioned and designed to stifle backlash from the right, and to make the very valid points that we can’t sacrifice our fundamental values in the War on Terror, and that not all Muslims are terrorists. However these lines do not make people feel safe. Moderates now must shoulder the daunting responsibility of setting out how we are to fight terrorism, to give people a clear alternative to fighting hateful extremism with either more hateful extremism, or with denial and gestures.

What needs to be done

Whilst left and right wing terrorism are something to always remain vigilant and intolerant of in British society, these groups are not resourced or organised on the same level as Islamic extremist groups are at present, nor at present do they share the Jihadi fascination for macabre theatre and weapons of mass destruction. As such the ideology most likely to be able to undermine the social contract between state and citizen, and deliver a society-shattering blow on the scale of the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks is currently Islamic extremism. That is not to say, however, that tomorrow’s terrorists won’t be left or right wing extremists, or other ideologies such as radical neo-Luddites, or extreme eco-terrorists.

A Policy Exchange paper published in December 2016, following the ‘most extensive’ survey ever conducted which reached out to over 3,000 British Muslims to gauge their attitudes and beliefs, offers some reassurance for those who are wary or sceptical, and also sheds light on problem areas where more work needs to be done.

Key conclusions of the research:

  • The ‘Muslim community’ is not a monolith that can be discussed in singular, it is diverse and holds many differing views within it, organisations claiming to speak for all Muslims such as the Muslim Council of Britain attract very low levels of support
  • Muslims on the whole are more religious, and faith plays a greater part in their lives than the average British citizen, making them more likely to be socially conservative and traditional in outlook.
  • The majority of respondents support the implementation of Shariah (Islamic Law) when asked in abstract terms, but that support is much lower when faced with specific questions (less than half support Sharia banking for example) – support is also much lower among younger Muslims than older Muslims
  • Despite religious adherence, the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Muslims’ everday concerns are secular such as crime, immigration, education, and health, and particularly secular for example in education terms, where priority was more likely to be on quality of provision, rather than ensuring a particularly Islamic education
  • An overwhelming majority of Muslims feel a sense of belonging to Britain and that they are free to practice their religious beliefs. However, whilst few reported personally experiencing prejudicial treatment, there was a general perception that anti-Islamic discrimination was an issue.
  • Muslims were more likely than the average British citizen to condemn political violence and terrorism, religiosity is not necessarily an indicator of extremist sympathies, and that those who are sympathetic appear to be more likely to be socially engaged in their communities
  • The majority of Muslims are comfortable with the State taking measures to monitor and counter extremism, but also felt that Muslims should do more themselves to fight extremism and that they should play the leading role.
  • One quarter of respondents believe there is ‘no such thing’ as Islamic extremism
  • Whilst 40% of respondents believed that conspiracy theories were problematic, a third of respondents believed the United States Government was responsible for 9/11, with more blaming ‘the Jews’ than al Qaeda. Arguably this belief in conspiracy theories shows a lack of trust in political structures and the media
  • There is a sense of ‘unsettled belonging’, where despite strong feelings of attachment to the UK, there is also the perception of discrimination, stereotyping, and unfair portrayals in the media

A further ICM poll however revealed that 2/3 of Muslim respondents (of 1,086 sampled, which is admittedly not a large sample) would not contact authorities if someone they knew was getting involved in with supporters of terrorism in Syria.

First and foremost we must recognise that this is a multi-faceted problem that will require a broad range of skills and knowledge to combat on many fronts, over many years. There is no silver bullet which will kill the boogieman. We are a diverse society, which is our greatest strength and one of the main reasons we find ourselves under attack. We need disciplined warriors to fight our enemy and protect our vulnerable; we need knowledgeable strategists to devise the plan and see it through; we need powerful voices to make the case for democracy and sell it to those who don’t currently subscribe; we need caring citizens to build bridges between communities, and we need gifted minds to proudly champion our values in every artistic medium.

Secondly we need to be clear that our conflict is with Islamic extremism. The extremists are at war with us; they say as much outright. It’s not everything to do with Islam, nor is it nothing to do with Islam, and we have to challenge everybody who argues otherwise. There is a stifling culture developing where criticism is being silenced, and we have to allow free speech to flourish again.

Thirdly, a National Counter Extremism strategy, a policy Maajid Nawaz has extolled, is absolutely necessary. The strategy is disparate, falling under the purview of the Home Office, the Department for Education, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. It requires a lean, agile structure which reports directly to Downing Street to ensure coordination.

Fourthly the strategy needs more resources. As former Director General of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller notes, and as the above survey indicates, Muslims want and should play the leading role in seizing back control of their religion from the extremists. Writers and commentators like Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Imam Tawhidi need to be given a greater public platform to address extremist ideology head on and set a fresh and authentically Islamic narrative to replace that held by extremists. Whether under the banner of the above strategy, or as a separate enterprise, we need to fund more social research into the causes of radicalisation, the process, and how to stop and reverse it. Radicalisation studies is an emerging academic field requiring support to ensure we are armed with the facts when setting policy. The strategy needs to focus on highlighting extremism (to reduce number of Muslims who deny its existence), encouraging and supporting Muslims to report those in their community they believe are falling into extremism, and identifying radicalisers (given that they are more likely to be socially engaged according to above research).

Fifthly radicalisation in prison is a strong contributing factor to the extremism problem in the UK. A prison in Durham made the bold move to establish a ‘terrorist’ wing, and other prisons need to follow suit to help prevent the spread of jihadist ideology in our prison system. Where the case can be successfully made to a judge that the risks are sufficiently great, prisons should be granted the authority to house particularly dangerous jihadists in isolation, to ensure that terrorist wings don’t become colleges of terror.

Sixthly, the Home office needs to consider administrative detention. As Steve Hilton said, many attacks we are now witnessing are not ‘lone wolves’, so much as ‘known wolves’. MI5 is monitoring somewhere in the vicinity of 3,500 people it believes are or could be planning on carrying out acts of terrorism. In order to effectively provide 24/7 surveillance on a given individual it would require three six-man teams to work 8 hour shifts. Assuming MI5 operatives earn around £25,000 a year, this would require 63,000 agents, at a cost of around £1.6bn, not including logistical, administrative, technical, or analytical support. Even with this in place it would be impossible to calculate exactly when and how quickly a person could traverse the Salafist-Jihadist gap, and whether a response could be coordinated in time to prevent a terror attack. It would be more prudent to detain those most likely to be dangerous whilst investigations are carried to ascertain the nature and extent of their activities.

As detainees would be at least technically innocent, possibly even actually innocent, it would not be appropriate to house them in prison. Rather it would be better they are kept in high quality accommodation with access to whatever amenities they ask for, with the exception of mobile phones or the internet, except in limited and closely watched instances to maintain family ties. If cleared, they ought to be compensated for lack of wages and given a consideration for inconvenience caused, and if evidence is found then charges can be brought and they can be transferred to holding facilities pending a trial. At present terror suspects can be held for up to 14 days without charge, it would be prudent to have the option to extend this to 28 days, providing a case is made to a judge.

Seventh, we need to address our foreign policy. It is a fallacy, verging on an outright lie, that our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are what motivates Islamic State. In their own words in Dabiq, in an enlightening article entitled ‘why we hate you and why we fight you’, written by John Georgelas, the most senior American in ISIS, it is clearly laid out: “even if you were to stop bombing us… we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam’. Iraq and Afghanistan are ranked in at number 6 for reasons they hate us, behind secularism, atheism, and free speech. Nevertheless we maintain friendly relationships with states which sponsor, harbour, export and promote terrorism and its underpinning ideologies. Saudi Arabia, the wellspring of Wahhabism, enjoys cordial relations including arms deals, diplomatic assistance and security arrangements with the West.

Qatar, the site of the US’s largest Middle East base, now finds itself isolated in the Gulf due to its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are seeking to overthrow the governments of the Gulf and replace them with Sunni theocracies. Democracies should support the Gulf States in addressing this, but without whitewashing the behaviour of states like Saudi Arabia as well. Saudi is engaged in its own internal struggle between the modernising instincts of some members of the House of Saud and the puritanical inclinations of the Grand Mufti and his sheikhs, a tension which we are likely to see play out in the coming years.

Eighth, there are going to be more terror attacks in the United Kingdom. We have one of the finest Security Services in the world and we are still going to be attacked again. We need to make ourselves more prepared – London has already seen the installation of barriers on major roads to ensure cars cannot mount the pavement to run over pedestrians. We should be installing these on every major inner city road where pedestrians are not fully segregated from traffic.

And finally, communities need to pull together, in a concrete sense. The recent terror attack on Finsbury Park Mosque plays right into Islamic State’s ‘extinction of the grey zone’ strategy. It ought to go without saying this is the exact opposite of the approach required. Megan Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church gave a TED talk on why she left the extremist group. On her Twitter friends who helped her realise she needed to leave she said:

My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.

Hostility invites a response in kind, and entrenches negative views and opinions. We should all be going to mosques with a packet of biscuits for a cup of tea and a chat (after Ramadan’s fasting period concludes).

Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps

[1] Phillip Bobbit; The Shield of Achilles, and Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty First Century

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