The Messenger

Posted: February 11, 2020 in RUSI Journal
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With considerable delay, doing a bunch of catch up posting. A lot has changed in the offline world, with a change in my role at RUSI and a new position in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) reflecting the fact that am spending more time out in Asia. Still working on much the same things, but with a slightly different geographical orientation. First up, a book review in the RUSI Journal for Shiv Malik’s long-delayed book The Messenger.

The Messenger

In early October 2018, the Metropolitan Police issued a press release detailing the conviction of a grim-faced man called Hassan Butt for some amateurish online fraud. On the surface, this was a fairly pedestrian case. It was, however, the culmination of years of investigations involving networks linked to Al-Qa’ida in the UK, the destruction of a journalist’s career, a High Court debate about the protection of journalistic sources, and the role and links of MI5 in the terrorist networks it was investigating.

Shiv Malik was the journalist at the heart of this story. After almost a decade of work, he has produced a gripping account of his experiences being caught up in the frenzied early days of the British discovery of a homegrown terrorist threat.

The story told in this book is part of an earlier time in Britain’s exposure to violent Islamist terror, when the threat everyone was focused on was articulated most severely in the July 2005 bombings: young men who had decided to turn so brutally against their community. Shiv Malik’s The Messenger tells the detailed story of one such case. It focuses on Hassan Butt, an individual whose extremist views gained prominence within the public discourse and who ultimately spoke out and turned against his former comrades. The book gradually reveals, however, that Butt might also have been working for the Security Services all along as part of a complex undercover operation.

Butt’s story has always raised more questions than it has answered. He first emerged in the public eye after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, a militant Islamist organisation based in London and Lahore. After moving to Pakistan, Butt headed a group of British extremists who supported Al-Qa’ida and claimed to have mobilised over 200 young British men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He communicated with the British public through press releases and extremist statements, acting as a one-stop shop for foreign journalists seeking pro-Al-Qa’ida perspectives. Butt thrived in this role and enjoyed his heavy influence on the public discourse so much that his Al-Muhajiroun leader – the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed – started to joke about how he had eclipsed him in infamy.

Despite having achieved this celebrity status, Butt turned on his former colleagues by deciding to work against Al-Qa’ida: the organisation he had previously so fervently supported. His own reported reasons are explored in the book, and they appear to stem from encounters with serious Al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan whom he helped to launch a series of brutal attacks in Karachi. When he challenges one of them about the innocent people killed in the attacks, he is simply told that ‘they’ll be carried by Allah for their good deeds’. For Butt, this is an unsatisfactory answer. He finds himself appalled by the fact that ‘they’d decided when to end other, innocent people’s lives’. This appears to have been Butt’s Damascene moment.

Malik, the author, entered Butt’s life at the same time. He was initially pointed to Butt as someone under evaluation by the BBC as a potential source of information regarding the July 2005 bombings. Malik developed a strong relationship with Butt, even deciding to help write his biography. He quickly became wrapped up in Butt’s adventure, partly on the basis of their shared history as two young South Asian men growing up in England.

In the years immediately following the July 2005 bombings, the two worked together in discussing the threat the UK faces and attempting to develop Butt’s story into a book. Malik found himself ‘truly believing in [Butt]’ and claimed that ‘[he] was willing to give almost anything to see him succeed’. This honesty and candour sets up the book’s climax: in May 2008, Butt was arrested and denied much of the story that he had shared with Malik under questioning.

It is safe to say that Butt’s tale is confusing. As well informing Greater Manchester Police that he had lied to Malik after his arrest, he faked his own stabbing and claimed that former colleagues had attacked him for his betrayal. This came after Malik had launched an expensive High Court appeal to protect the manuscript and notes that he and Butt had been working on – a reaction to police demands to use the text for prosecution.

But, as the book shows, the twists and turns do not end there. We still do not know what Butt’s real role was. The theory that he might have been working for the Security Services all along is repeatedly alluded to alongside the importance that Malik attaches to Butt’s contact with some of the most dangerous jihadist figures in the UK. The latter is evidenced by his widely recorded contacts, interviews and appearances by independent observers. Despite his proximity to numerous investigations, however, he was never prosecuted for terrorism offences.

In light of this evidence, Malik tentatively concludes that Butt was manipulated by the Security Services so they could control his narrative and distract journalists from more serious investigations. The author alleges that he was warned about such tactics by an older colleague who had similar experiences in Northern Ireland; a tip-off which arguably strengthens the credibility of his argument.

But Malik takes his conclusion even further. In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s security services were deeply alarmed by the new threat they faced. They could not, however, mobilise the public support or resources necessary to counter it. By purposefully introducing such an extremist voice into public discourse, they would alarm and excite the public, thereby giving them the opportunity to secure the resources they needed. While such extremist voices had previously been caricatures – like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza – Butt offered a young, eloquent and homegrown alternative which was far more disturbing.

Of course, there are holes in this narrative. One simply has to think back to the tabloid headlines used to describe the two radical preachers just mentioned to see the appeal they provided to newspaper publishers. Why the authorities would need to add another voice to this narrative is unclear, but this ambiguity is exactly the space that intelligence forces like to work within. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that – despite a slow start – the UK’s intelligence services have been able to penetrate the violent Islamist networks that threaten the country.

We are unlikely to know whether Malik’s conclusion accurately reflects Butt’s real role for a long time, if ever. A narcissistic and creative megalomaniac, Butt is a complex character who once mixed with some of the most dangerous men in the UK. And while, if he was associated with the Security Services, such people are essential to enable our security forces to protect us, this book reveals some of the consequences of these people’s actions on those around them. For example, many of Butt’s reported friends are now serving long prison sentences because of evidence he provided against them, while others are dead due to links he appears to have helped nurture.

While Malik had to take a break from journalism after this experience, Butt moved in networks responsible for encouraging and practicing violence. Though he may have secretly been working against them, it is hard to know how strong his loyalties were.

In the murky world of intelligence gathering and informers, lines of trust and reliability regularly blur – this story reveals what this reality looked like within the context of the UK’s struggle against violent Islamist terrorism. Written in the fast-paced style of an investigative report, this book is an excellent journey through a historical case which filled our front pages. It provides a fascinating account of the early wave of jihad in Britain.

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