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Theresa May’s counter-extremism plan will create an incompetent police state

After the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, the Tories proposed a series of policies that would effectively police and criminalise thoughts. This will do nothing whatsoever to address what incubates violent extremism.

Police investigate at the scene of the crime in Finsbury Park, 19 June 2017. Ik Aldama/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Theresa May’s response to the upsurge of violence that has hit Britain since the beginning of 2017 will fail for one fundamental reason: she refuses to hold her own government to account for its systematic incubation of extremism. 

"As I said here two weeks ago, there has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years – and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia,” said the Prime Minister, hours after a 47-aged man, Darren Osborne, ploughed a van into Muslim worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque.

This was the fourth terrorist attack in the UK over the last three months. The first was the attack outside parliament; the second was the Manchester suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert; the third came in the form of van and knife attacks in London Bridge.

May’s welcome recognition that Islamophobia is a form of extremism was muddied by her proposed solutions.

May’s welcome recognition that Islamophobia is a form of extremism was muddied by her proposed solutions: a package of draconian powers including new anti-terror powers for police and security services; the creation of a new statutory body, a Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE); and more stringent internet controls.

Conservative Party sources familiar with the proposals have said that the new anti-terror offences would allow police to target extremists who endorse “radical views but stop short of advocating violence”. 

In other words, the Tories want the power to police our thoughts so they can criminalise ‘extremist’ ideas which don’t endorse violence.

But the absurd consequences of such amorphous definitions of ‘non-violent extremism’ have already occurred under Prevent, the government’s domestic counter-extremism programme. Even normal students have been labelled by police as being ‘at risk’ of “domestic extremism” just for “attending protests, sympathising with occupations and making demands on issues such as a living wage for university staff and an ethical investment policy.” 

The CEE, whose planned role would be to identify extremists, counter their messages and promote pluralistic values, would be hopelessly hobbled under such an amorphous conception of extremism.

The Tories want the power to police our thoughts so they can criminalise ‘extremist’ ideas.

And extending such thinking into internet regulation threatens forms of censorship that could empower an already unaccountable security establishment – the result would be expanded mass surveillance that would routinely red-flag people sceptical of government, but be useless in identifying real terrorists. 

Yet the unsuspecting British public is largely unaware of the fact that Theresa May’s proposals will do nothing – literally nothing – to address the fundamental drivers behind the incubation of violent extremism in Britain.

Our hate preacher

Tory Party sources claim that the proposed new anti-terror powers would have made it easier to prosecute the likes of Anjem Choudary and his followers. 

It is a convenient mythology promoted by officialdom that Choudary, the firebrand pro-ISIS hate preacher who presided over the banned extremist network formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, only received his terrorism conviction last year because our laws are too weak. 

Choudary is reported to have been the key radicaliser for the London Bridge attackers, who had been recruited into his al-Muhajiroun network. Muslim community sources I spoke to on the ground told me that the London Bridge terrorists were widely known as open ISIS supporters. One of them had fought with an Islamist militia group in Libya, and another had attempted to join the jihad in Syria. 

Choudary was not arrested during this period... because he was useful to MI5.

Choudary himself was Britain’s top ISIS recruiter according to police sources, siphoning as many as 500 Britons to join ISIS groups in foreign theatres like Syria since 2011. 

According to a senior Scotland Yard counter-terrorism officer who had investigated Choudary, Choudary was not arrested during this period not because he was ingenious at staying within the bounds of the law, but because he was useful to MI5. The truth, said the officer, is that police had overwhelming evidence sufficient to prosecute the ISIS recruiter – but were constantly prevented from doing so by Britain’s security services. 

So this has never been about the police and security services having inadequate powers to prosecute hate preachers. The man who radicalised and recruited the London Bridge attackers was himself protected by MI5 for short-sighted intelligence purposes. 

A very British jihad

One of those purposes, according to former counter-terrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, was to augment British support for the rebellions against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Britain had supplied extensive weapons and military training to rebel groups in Libya and Syria with direct ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

When I interviewed him in 2014, Shoebridge had warned with startling prescience that the MI5/MI6 green light to Britons to join various rebel groups in Syria would likely backfire when they returned home. Many of them had gone on to join dangerous jihadist groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda – and would bring that ideology back with them. 

This year, he was tragically proven right.

Not only did the British government allow Britons to travel abroad to foreign theatres from 2011 to 2013, where they received military training, with some becoming radicalised by violent Islamist militias – they were then allowed to return to Britain with few repercussions. As many as a third of British foreign fighters reportedly arrived back home this February, just before the spate of ISIS-inspired violence kicked off. 

In a briefing I co-authored with UK foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis, we showed that Britain had also supplied extensive weapons and military training to rebel groups in Libya and Syria with direct ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda. And Britain did so in partnership with the very countries, such as the Gulf states and Turkey, accused by our own intelligence agencies of sponsoring Islamist terrorism.

Courting Islamophobes 

But it is not just Islamist terror that the British state has ended up facilitating.

To her credit, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote an op-ed in The Guardian making clear that the Finsbury Park mosque attack was terrorism, and promising to act “in solidarity with the Muslim community.”

The message, though much-needed, is at odds with Rudd’s own past affiliations. 

It is not just Islamist terror that the British state has ended up facilitating.

Rudd along with several other senior Tory cabinet members under Theresa May have for several years sat on the Political Council of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS): namely, Brexit minister David Davis and international development secretary Priti Patel – while Trade secretary Liam Fox has spoken at a HJS event on the Iran nuclear deal.

Yet the HJS is a London-based think tank that has come under heavy criticism for the openly anti-Muslim views of its associate director, Douglas Murray.

Murray has, long before Donald Trump, called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to Europe; demanded that “conditions for Muslims in Europe… be made harder across the board”; complained that “there aren’t enough white people around”, because they are “losing their country” to the “startling rise in Muslim infants”; and after the Manchester bombing, demanded “less Islam” and fewer Muslims in Britain as the basic solution to terrorism.

Rudd and Patel sat on the HJS political council without any objections to Murray’s anti-Muslim bigotry. In fact, they only resigned from the HJS after I contacted the British government to ask how they remain affiliated to a group that openly promotes anti-Muslim extremism – exactly the sort of Islamophobia that Rudd rightly but belatedly condemned in The Guardian on Tuesday.

David Davis was the only cabinet minister who refused to rescind his HJS role. Since then, HJS has conveniently removed all reference to its political council from its website.

And yet, this is the tip of the iceberg.

Last year, I was commissioned by the hate crime charity Tell MAMA UK to investigate the network dynamics of the far-right. Our report, 'Return of the Reich: Mapping the Global Resurgence of Far-Right Power', uncovered a vast array of connections between the incumbent Conservative Party and far-right extremists on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The Tory Party has, for instance, fostered self-serving alliances in the European Parliament with far-right political parties such as the Danish People’s Party (DPP), the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the True Finns (PS) party, and the Independent Greeks – parties with alarming neo-Nazi affiliations and sympathies. 

My Tell MAMA investigation also revealed that many senior politicians in these parties have direct connections to the anti-Muslim ‘counter-jihad’ movement. The same movement which inspired the likes of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people in 2011; and Thomas Mair, who murdered Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016.

Promoting Extremism

All of which begs the question as to how the proposed Commission for Countering Extremism can really work, when set-up by a government which has systematically allied itself with both Islamist and far-right extremists. 

What we really need is an independent public inquiry into the government policies that have contributed to the unprecedented upsurge in extremist violence this year. 

Will the commission pinpoint extremists in the Tory Party who have vilified Muslims – such as Zac Goldsmith, whose abhorrent campaign relentlessly demonised London Mayor Sadiq Khan? 

Will it identify how hate preachers like Choudary have operated with impunity in Britain because they were being effectively protected by MI5 for narrow geopolitical goals?

Will it highlight the hate preaching of people like Douglas Murray and Katie Hopkins, who shamelessly urged the need for a “final solution” after the Manchester attack?

Will it crack down on Theresa May’s efforts to court repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, described by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in one leaked document based on US intelligence sources as “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [Islamic State] and other radical Sunni groups in the region”?

Rather than a phony politicised ‘commission’ blind to the extremism of its own protagonists, what we really need is an independent public inquiry into the government policies that have contributed to the unprecedented upsurge in extremist violence this year. 

Ideologies of hate fester the most within a supportive material infrastructure. Theresa May’s grand plan to defeat extremism will fail, because it refuses to reform an institution whose policies have incubated that infrastructure: the British state.

About the author

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is editor of the crowdfunded investigative journalism project INSURGE intelligence, a weekly columnist for Middle East Eye, and writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s science and technology magazine, Motherboard. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was twice selected in the Evening Standard’s most globally influential Londoners, in 2014 and 2015. His work on international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest. He tweets: @NafeezAhmed

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