Posts Tagged ‘Libya’

Trying to catch up on various recent posts, though am a bit behind, so apologies. A few longer pieces have landed now as well. In the short term, here is something for my institutional home RUSI about what policy ideas could be advanced to manage the long-term threat that the UK faces.

What Policy Changes Are Needed after the Manchester Attack?

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary31 May 2017
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismSecuring BritainTerrorism

A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.

It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.

If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?

This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.

And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.

What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.

However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.

Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.

The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.

Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.

A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.

One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.

Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.

Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.

A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.

But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.

Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.

Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.

Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.

Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.

It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.

Banner image: Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi’s suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.

A slight sideways step for me, though if you read it you will see there is some links to other stuff I have done, this is a paper commissioned by the Europe-China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), an EU vehicle that funds research on China for European policymakers. I have written other papers for them in the past. This one was written late last year and focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ and looks in particular at the cases of Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran. The full paper can be found behind this link. I have pasted the introduction below.

Beyond this, I spoke to the Financial Times about jihadists in Syria and potential blowback in Europe, and to Bloomberg about Boko Haram.

Short Term Policy Brief 79

China and the Middle East

November 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Introduction

What are China’s key strategic interests in the Middle East and what is the status of its relations with key countries in the region?

During his opening speech at the first China-Arab Expo (an event that had been upgraded from the previous Ningxia International Investment and Trade Fair and the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum), Yu Zhengsheng, Standing Committee of the Politburo member and fourth most powerful man in China, highlighted trade and energy as the two main pillars of Chinese-Arab cooperation.Delivered in September 2013, this speech crystallized a policy which has been abundantly clear for some time with China and the Middle East, where the policy priority and focusis on securing energy and developing trade partnerships, while remaining as detached as possible from the intransigent regional politics.

As prominent Qinghua academic in international affairs Yan Xuetong has put it, ‘China can strengthen cooperation economically with countries in the Middle East, but politically, it had better stick with declaring its stand…the complexity of the Middle East politics is far beyond our comprehension.’ With ample domestic turmoil and local difficulties to manage, Chinese
leaders have little appetite to be dragged into a region that has challenged western policymakers’ capabilities for decades.

Nevertheless, events in the wake of the Arab Spring have challenged China in a number of different ways, forcing it to re-evaluate long-held positions and think more deeply about the implications of its growing international footprint. Questions around citizen security were highlighted in the wake of the rushed evacuation of some 35,860 nationals as Libya collapsed, while the decision to abstain from the vote to impose a no-fly zone meant that resolution 1973 was passed. This led to questions about this possibly being a signal that Beijing might be adapting its position on Responsibility to Protect– something it had previously treated as anathema to its sacred ‘non-interference’ principle in international affairs. Particularly raised during the Libya crisis, both issues have hung heavy both over China’s considerations of other aspects of the fall-out from the Arab Spring in the broader Middle East. It remains, however, unclear that they have signalled a dramatic shift, rather than a course adjustment that means such issues are now a higher priority for Beijing policymakers.

Adjacent to these considerations are other larger questions about China’s geopolitical position. For example, the hawkish line often advanced that the current conflict in Syria is part of a larger trajectory of regime change that flows from Damascus, through Tehran to Moscow and Beijing is one that resonates amongst a certain (predominantly nationalist and military) community. This perspective is one that is echoed in Moscow, and is often touted as a reason why the two vote in lock-step with regards to the events of the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran. Chinese foreign policy thinkers who adhere to this perspective often see the world through a binary US versus China lens. For them, the Middle East is an ideological battleground where the US is seeking to upturn the table in favor of a new chaotic order that it controls, and one that will ultimately undermine Chinese national interests. Found amongst academics at prominent think tanks like CASS, it is unclear the degree to which such perspectives dominate senior levels of Chinese foreign policy thinking.

At the same time, China continues to be concerned about the spread of jihadist ideas (with little clear understanding of what motivates them or nurtures their growth) and the possibility that these might filter back into the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwest China still dominated by the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. There have been reports that Chinese nationals – both Uighur and non-Uighur – have participated in the fighting in Syria, and China has grown concerned by the growing appearance of jihadist videos and materials during investigations into violence in Xinjiang from the unrest there in July 2009 until today. China has also increasingly featured as a potential target in a growing array of jihadist material. Most recently, al Shabaab’s al Kataib media published a video in which they discussed the Uighur’s plight, while in May 2013 (though likely produced substantially before his reported death in December 2012) al Qaeda ideologue Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti released a video through the Turkestan Islamic Party’s media wing, Islam Awazi, in which he provided ‘advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan.’ For China, the potential danger of becoming too involved in Middle Eastern politics is that the eyes of violent Islamists who have thus far focused on the west, might eventually turn to China and portray it as a target– a situation Beijing has thus far managed to avoid thanks to careful diplomacy and the fact that Islamists remain focused on the west as the principle ‘far enemy’. However, Beijing’s concerns remain heightened in the wake of a number of incidents. For example, the suicide attack in Tiananmen Square Beijing in early November 2013 was linked to a Uighur Muslim protester, and was subsequently praised, but not claimed, in a video by TIP. That particular incident came in the wake of110 detentions in Xinjiang of people accused of ‘disseminating religious extremism and material. Highlighting the ongoing violence in the province, in December there was another incident at a police station in Bachu County outside Kashgar that led to 11 deaths (the same county saw 21 killed in another incident in April 2013). All of these examples help underline how nervous the central leadership in Beijing are about this issue.

But these worrying local concerns remain secondary to more large-scale energy concerns, something that reflects a long-standing pragmatism in Chinese foreign policy towards the Middle East. Back in 1994, leader Jiang Zemin highlighted that China should oppose ‘hegemony’ by helping dissident states in the Middle East like Iran, but at the same time should ensure that international stability remains sound in order to facilitate China’s ongoing growth and development. This approach is one that resonates today, where, for example, China is clearly supportive of Moscow’s approach towards Syria and Iran through
measures in the UNSC, but at the same time takes a secondary seat to Russia’s willingness to take a more prominent position in making its point.

For example, in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, east Damascus, Syria on August 21, 2013, the Russian government took the lead in countering the western push to define this as the red line that justified intervention against the Assad regime and instead worked to develop a way for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Russia’s public interventions culminated in an opinion editorial in the New York Times on September 11, 2013 by President Vladimir Putin. In contrast, throughout this period China made regular statements through the Foreign Ministry, but avoided much further publicity. At the regular MFA briefings, Hong Lei offered support for the Russian efforts: ‘the Russian proposal offers an important opportunity to ease the current tension and properly address the international community’s concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons.’ They later offered Chinese experts to participate in the disarmament assurance group, but otherwise remained relatively low profile. China is publicly supportive of Russia’s positions on Syria, but is not as eager to attract the sort of confrontation that Russia seems to prefer. This Quietist approach to foreign policy is something that can be found across China’s foreign policy agenda.Ultimately, China does not seek to upset the international order that is allowing it to slowly grow into the world’s largest power.

This brief paper touches upon Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran. This is not a comprehensive overview of China’s relations in the region, but highlights the priority ones as requested by ECRAN. Amongst the important relationships omitted, China continues to be willing to cultivate close relationships with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, but beyond proposing general suggestions about peace processes, has not engaged in the minutiae of the conversation (nor is it likely to want to). On Iraq, China has profited quite effectively from the toppling of the old regime to get its firms in to develop Iraqi fields (something it has been able to do in part thanks to western firms’ concerns about going in to the country), while Saudi Arabia remains one of China’s biggest energy partners, notwithstanding the mute background of Saudi-style wahhabbist ideology slowly filtering in through Gulf money into Xinjiang. Thus far, Chinese officials have not chosen to acknowledge this linkage too publicly, although some academics discuss the growing spread of such ideas and suggest Saudi Arabia as one of the possible origins. None of these relationships currently seem in any sort of dramatic shift and therefore are placed to one side.

More for my institutional home RUSI as I use August to catch up on longer pieces of writing I owe. This looks at the increasingly studied question of foreign fighters, one that we are currently a specific research project on. Results due later in the year! Oh and for those who want to hear me babbling away about terrorism with John Amble and Robin Simcox for the new War on the Rocks, listen here.

How Might Syria Come Back to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 0 Aug 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism
al-mazwagi Syria foreign fighter

British citizen Ibrahim al-Mazwagi killed earlier in the year

The ongoing intractable civil war in Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters of every stripe. Unlike previous jihadist battlefields that have drawn foreigners in, however, this has not so far produced a terrorist threat back in the West. This is not same regionally. Across the border in Jordan, a terrorist network with connections to the battlefield has been disrupted, while in Iraq,Lebanon and Turkey, bombs have gone off with return addresses in Syria. The question now preoccupying European policymakers in particular is whether the pipeline of European nationals going to fight on the battlefield in Syria may eventually transform into a similar set of incidents in Europe.

The first thing to understand is how we have seen terrorist threats emanate from battlefields in the past. Historically speaking, jihadi battlefields have produced three types of terrorist threats (with an unknown number choosing to come back return to ordinary lives): directed plots by individuals sent back with instruction; terrorist plots conducted by individuals who decide to carry out attacks without direction; and networks of individuals that provide support and infrastructure for other terrorist plots.

Directed Plots

The archetypal example of this is Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, the pair of young men at the core of the 7 July 2005 attack on London’s transport system. Khan in particular was a regular to fighting and training abroad, and made at least three known trips to join with extremist groups with whom he conducted some sort of training, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Initially drawn to the battlefield by mythology around Kashmir, he seems to have quickly moved into preferring the Afghan struggle and ultimately believing that he was going to fight and die in Afghanistan. Once there on what he thought would be his final trip in 2004, he was instead re-directed by Al-Qa’ida to return to the UK to launch his infamous terrorist attack.

The clear lesson in foreign fighter terms here was that Khan was drawn initially to the battlefield to fight there, and was then persuaded by groups there to launch an attack back home. The driver of this seems to have largely been the eagerness of the group on the ground, Al-Qa’ida, to strike the West. The arrival of British passport holders seeking to support the cause was a gift to the group that they were able to transform into a tool to conduct a successful operation. The 7 July  cell may have been the only ones to have succeeded, but a number of other plots have been detected that bear similar hallmarks.

Self-Started Plots

Security officials on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken of concern about the growth of lone wolf or small cell terror plots. Usually involving single individuals or tight-knit units of individuals who demonstrate no direction from either Al-Qa’ida or one of its affiliates, expressions of this threat can be found in recent incidents in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, and Woolwich.

In some of these cases, a trace connection can be found to a known terrorist organisation, though there is little evidence of any direction in the choice of targets or other operational specifics. The foreign fighters phenomenon has some linkeage here: in both the Toulouse and Woolwich cases, for example, there is evidence that the individuals involved sought to make connections with radical groups abroad. Specifically, in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah went to Pakistan, trained with Al-Qa’ida linked groups and was then apparently sent back with some loose direction. However, his subsequent attack against off-duty French soldiers and then against Jewish school children seems to have been carried outlargely under his own steam.

Almost five years before Merah committed his bloody acts, a similar dynamic played out in the UK when Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed first left a pair of car bombs in central London before launching an attempted suicide attack on Glasgow’s international airport. Ahmed died during the attempt in Scotland, but Bilal Abdulla was arrested and convicted, with his case uncovering a link between him and Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate, with whom it is believed he had undertaken some training. Seemingly undirected by the group, Abdulla seems to have taken it upon himself to punish the UK for its involvement in the war that tore his country apart.

Networks

In some ways it is the networks that foreign battlefields create that are of the greatest longer-term concern. The danger is not that individuals who are drawn to foreign battlefields may actually come back and launch anti-Western attacks, rather, they might instead provide support networks for individuals who have been tasked to launch attacks or help radicalise others.

With experience and contacts from the battlefield, they present the potential for providing soft support for networks intending to launch attacks as well as becoming potential radicalisers who persuade others of the salience of the global jihadi narrative, using their own personal experience as an example. In most terrorist plots that have been uncovered in the West, links to such radicalisers can be found – either in terms of loud public preachers such as Abu Hamza or more locally radicalising figures who do not appear on the public radar but feature in the background of security investigations.

This last group is deeply intangible, but in many ways can present itself as the most dangerous long-term menace, providing a natural incubator for global jihadist ideas in the West. Those going abroad to fight may have no intention to come back and launch attacks, but through connections they might find themselves drawn into supporting others and invariably through transmission of their experience will act as radicalising agents. Groups eager to launch attacks against the West continue to exist abroad, and it is perfectly possible that they will use these networks and communities to eventually try to direct other attacks.

New Ungoverned Spaces Presents Long-Term Problem

At this point the flow  of Europeans going to Syria to fight has not produced any threats back home, though there have been a number of related arrests across the continent. In the UK a group is facing trial later in the year in connection to the kidnapping of a pair of European journalists in July 2012. A cell in Belgium appears to have been overheard talking about attacking the Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is unclear that this had moved anything beyond the discussion phase.

Other networks can be found across Europe, and as security agencies focus on them, it is likely that other echoes will be heard. The bigger problem, however, is the situation in Syria where an inability to topple the regime and an incoherent opposition means that we are slowly seeing a Balkanisation of the country with radical groups  taking hold of pieces of territory and are creating parallel governance structures. This presents the danger of new safe havens allowing groups to train and plot. This is all the more menacing when one considers the heavy presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the latest incarnation of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) on the field, as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups. Atop this, there are the reports of growing numbers of foreigners from across the Muslim world some of whom are connected to other Al-Qa’ida affiliates being drawn to Syria. Networks linking these spaces and groups to the West are of clear concern and rightly alarm security services.

Syria’s slow slide into chaos and civil war is tearing at the fabric of the Muslim world. The already tense Sunni-Shia divide now has a battlefield in which to brutally play itself out and has already provided overspill into neighbouring countries. The West remains divided over what to do, and age-old rivalries are playing themselves out in the UN Security Council. European foreign fighters provide a direct link between Europe and a battlefield that is developing in so many different directions that it is difficult to know what the repercussions in the longer-term will be.  What does seem clear though is that the community of foreign fighters is likely to prolong the incubation of extreme and violent Islamist ideas in Europe for the foreseeable future.

RUSI is currently undertaking a research project looking at the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Europe and how this can express itself as a terrorist threat back home.

A longer piece that I wrote a little while ago that is testimony I offered to the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, but has only been published now. It explores the threat in relation to the UK and how British interests are affected by what is happening in the evolution of terrorism in North and West Africa. It may re-emerge in parts in a future RUSI piece I have been working on, but for the time being here we go. The title is not of my choosing, but was the one offered by the call for submissions.

The UK’s Response to Extremism and Political instability in North and West Africa

Written evidence from Raffaello Pantucci Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

1. The threat of North African terrorism to UK interests at home and overseas is not new to the British Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIA). Recent events, however, have highlighted how the threat has evolved and in particular how this threat might express itself back to the United Kingdom or as a threat to national interests abroad.

2. As the more general threat from Al-Qa’ida terrorism has disaggregated and diversified, the particular menace from North and West African has developed into a higher profile priority. All of this poses a problem for the SIA who have limited resources that had focused on other parts of the globe.

3. With North Africa in particular, the Prime Minister staked out a particular rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist incident at In Amenas when he told parliament ‘we face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life…. those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan.’ [1] But what exactly is the threat to the United Kingdom from networks in North Africa that have so far not presented a clear and present danger to British domestic interests? Moreover, how does this feed into the larger picture of the terrorist threat faced by the country?

The Threat Back Home

4. In the years immediately after 11 September 2001, British security forces were less concerned about the threat from South Asia than about Algerian terrorist networks operating or present in the UK in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham.

5. This concern was premised on an expectation that these networks were closely aligned to Al-Qa’ida ideologically and that individuals from these groups had formative experience and expertise from undertaking jihad in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. As such, British security services were monitoring a number of North Africans living in the UK, including Amar Makhlulif – also known as Abu Doha – Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre. Abu Doha was believed to be a key figure in a network of plots that stretched across Europe, North America and as far as the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. He was also connected to fellow Algerian Ahmed Ressam who was intercepted on 14 December 1999, headed from Canada to detonate a device at Los AngelesInternationalAirport to mark the millennium. Abu Doha also knew Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre, both of whom were extradited to France where they were convicted for their involvement in terror plots in France with links to Algerian networks. [2]

6. All of these men used to frequent the community established by Abu Hamza Al-Masri at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. This was a place where Al-Qa’ida-linked recruiters would operate and which Kamel Bourgass used as a postal address and photocopy shop for his poison recipes. Linked to a broader network of Algerians, Bourgass went on to murder DC Stephen Oake and was convicted of plotting to carry out a terrorist incident involving ricin. Whether he was directly connected to Al-Qa’ida remains unclear, though it is evident that he was involved in Algerian networks that had supported fighters from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). Whilst his ultimate targets and aims –and even, possibly, his name – have never been definitely clarified, the plot and the network around him seemed to indicate that the threat to the UK from Al-Qa’ida networks was most likely to emanate from the North African community that gravitated around Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque.

7. Beyond Algerians, post-2001 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), another North African group, were certainly part of the UK threat environment as were other Islamist organizations with their roots in Algeria and Tunisia (En Nada for example). However, threats did not appear to materialize from these groups in the same way as from the Algerian community.

8. This profile was turned on its head when just over a year after Stephen Oake’s murder, when a cell known by their police codename ‘Crevice’, was arrested as part of a plot within the UK. They hailed mostly (though not exclusively) from second-generation Southern Asian backgrounds, and had close connections to British extremist groups like Al-Muhajiroun, as well as to Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque. Operation Crevice and a number of cells connected to it highlighted the way in which elements mostly from Britain’s South Asian community had made connections directly to Al-Qa’ida. While the connection was not exclusively South Asian by any means, they constituted the largest group involved in the networks in the UK and the connection to Afghanistan and Pakistan became an intelligence focus.

Diversification

9. As time has passed the threat has adapted. As Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the Security Service put it last June, ‘whereas a few years ago 75% of the priority casework addressed by my Service had some sort of Pakistan and/or Afghanistan dimension, thanks to our efforts and those of our international partners that figure has reduced and now stands at less than 50%. We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider. Al-Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan has declined and we see increasing levels of co-operation between Al-Qa’ida groups in various parts of the world.’[3]

10. The nature of these foreign battlefields and their draw to Britons has also changed. The numbers may be small, but the flow of Western individuals drawn to participate in fighting abroad has continued unabated. In the case of North Africa and the Sahel in particular, it is not clear how many British citizens have traveled to the fight there. There is already one reported instance of a young Briton trying to walk across the Sahara from Mauritania to Mali, and it is unlikely that he is the only one. [4] In Libya, a number of British residents and nationals of Libyan descent returned to fight alongside the rebels, though most seemed drawn by a nationalist, rather than a jihadist, narrative. And it is likely that some vestige of the previous connection between Algeria and groups in the UK continues to exist. But so far, none of this has translated into a direct threat of terrorism in the UK.

11. The most prominent international terrorist network in North Africa, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has singled out the UK for direct punishment in its rhetoric only a few times. These threats have for the most part been connected to Abu Qatada – also known as Omar Mahmoud Othman – the radical cleric currently in British detention facing extradition to Jordan for his alleged role in terrorist plots in the country. [5] On 22 January 2009, for example, an AQIM cell snatched a group of tourists that included British national Edwin Dyer, and while Swiss and German nationals taken with Dyer were eventually released, Dyer was brutally executed in late May 2009 after the group made repeated statements demanding the British government pay a ransom and release Abu Qatada. In April 2012, the group repeated this request when they demanded Britain release the cleric and send him to an ‘Arab Spring’ country in exchange for Stephen Malcolm, a dual British-South African national who was snatched by the group in November 2011.

12. In contrast, France has some fifteen nationals currently being held by various groups in the Sahel, [6] alongside an unspecified number of nationals or residents fighting alongside the various Islamist networks operating in the region. On 5 February, French security forces arrested four people on the outskirts of Paris for their association with a network sending fighters to join AQIM. The four were linked to Cedric Lobo, a twenty-seven-year old social worker arrested in Niamey, Niger for trying to join the fighters in Timbuktu. This was merely one in a number of investigations the French are undertaking as they try to get a handle on the connections between North African jihadists and other networks at home.

13. However, while there are networks in North Africa with tentacles back in Europe, it is not currently clear that these groups have either the capacity or intention to use them to launch attacks. In fact, the far more likely impact might continue to revolve around regional incidents in which foreigners are targeted as a means of gaining attention and as reprisals for Western involvement in northern Mali. These are not likely to be on the scale of In Amenas, but more along the lines of kidnappings or the targeting of Western corporate interests. Of particular concern in this regard are Mali’s neighbours Niger and Mauritania. Niger in particular appears to be in the cross-hairs with a number of alarming incidents of late, including the double suicide attack in late May in which bombers targeted a military base in Agadez and a French run (the company Areva) uranium mine in Arlit, killing 21 people. The attack was claimed by the potentially resurrected MokhtarBelmokhtar’s ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’ that was also responsible for the In Amenas incident. [7]

14. Moreover, following the 2011 intervention in Libya, a new area of instability has opened up with a growing menace also posed by training camps in the lawless southern parts of the country. A further threat is apparent in Benghazi, where Western interests have been repeatedly targeted, including the assault on the British ambassador in June 2012 and the death of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012. These particular dangers have resulted in the issuance of a number of alerts by the Foreign Office advising against travel to the city by British nationals.

15. But potential regional repercussions may stretch beyond the immediate borders of Mali and the Sahel. There have been reports of Nigerian extremists training at camps in Timbuktu, and Boko Haram leader, AbubakarShekaku, was believed to have been spotted in Gao in mid-January. Reflecting potential concern from this link, in January, France issued an alert to its citizens in northern Nigeria and those living around Abuja fearing potential reprisals for French action in Mali. Again, there is potential evidence that the Boko Haram link may have stretched into Niger with a recent incident at a prison in Niamey allegedly involving Boko Haram prisoners who were trying to escape and had managed to arm themselves with guns. [8]

16. Indeed, the connection between Nigerian Islamists and Sahel-based groups seems to be more than occasional, and in December 2011 a group calling itself ‘Al-Qa’ida in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ – a group that seems likely to have been a precursor of sorts of the Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru – claimed to be holding British national Chris McManus who had been snatched in Birnin-Kebbi, northwest Nigeria. In March 2012, British Special Forces mounted an assault to save Mr McManus and fellow hostage Italian national Franco Lamolinara, an incident that ended with the deaths of numerous captors including the two Europeans. This sort of kidnapping was repeated again in February 2013, when a group of British, Italian, Greek and Lebanese nationals were snatched from a construction site in northwestern Nigeria, and then soon after the seizing of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon. The first incident was believed to be linked to Ansaru, with the group claiming responsibility and who later executed the prisoners on the basis of a claimed visible British support for the government in Nigeria. Responsibility for the second incident remains unclear though appears to fall to elements close to Boko Haram, and the group was ultimately released unharmed in April 2013, two months after their abduction. The danger to such individuals and companies is clearly going to increase in the near future in the broader region, though again, this keeps the threat at a regional, rather than international level.

17. The resolution of these two kidnappings highlights the particular danger, however, from groups that are espousing a globalist jihadist rhetoric. While Boko Haram appears willing to have negotiated the release of the group, Ansaru chose instead to execute its hostages. This poses a serious consideration for governments and companies operating in the region. Hostage negotiations that can be concluded peacefully, involving exchanges of money or something else, are one issue. If on the other hand, as it increasingly seems likely with Ansaru, the group is seeking to make a point – then the insurance costs and willingness of individuals to work in areas where the group is active will increase. Fortunately, thus far incidents of kidnapping by such groups remain relatively few in number, however, this shift in methodology requires close attention given the potential implication to foreign interests investing money and materiel into the region.

Recommendations

18. While the prime minister may have struck a dramatic tone when he spoke of ‘existential’ and ‘generational’ struggle, the underlying problems have long tails. A pragmatic British counter-terrorism response needs to focus on a number of aspects that strike the balance between protecting national interest and political realities at home. The British public – and most other Western publics and governments – will no longer support long-term heavy military engagement in foreign nations from where the direct threat to their country seems opaque. The result must be a light-footprint approach focused on training to develop local capacity and on understanding how the threat is set to develop. In the longer term, this would involve a clear focused on stabilization and development that will help resolve age-old regional disputes, and in turn reduce the space available for Islamist groups to move in. [9]

19. More practically and immediately, such an approach should seek to:

Strengthen and Develop Local Links

The Prime Minister’s visit to Algeria and Libya is an example of how this approach should work in practice: developing strong links to local security forces and bolstering their capacity to address domestic issues through the provision of training and equipment. Going forwards, training future leadership cadres in regional militaries will have the added bonus of allowing for the early development of strong local contacts.

20. Help Foster Stronger Regional Connections and Develop Border Security

The lessons of In Amenas and the subsequent incidents that have been seen across the region is that terrorist networks in this region are highly mobile and adaptable, and are able to slip back and forth across porous borders. Helping foster greater regional co-operation and interaction is therefore essential in countering these groups’ ability to act. Developing regional confidence-building measures and brokering regular interactions between regional security forces will help cross-border governmental relationships develop into effective counter-terrorist tools.

21. Improve British Regional Intelligence Capacity

British foreign intelligence capacity, and in particular defence intelligence, has been shrunk in recent years. This poses a problem when the armed forces are asked to deploy in previously uncovered parts of the world. Developing and maintaining this capacity across the board in at-risk regions will be crucial in identifying future threats, as well as understanding them better when incidents occur. How DIS and other SIA collaborate in sharing intelligence and pre-empting threats is also a point to consider

22. Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Threat These Groups Pose and How They Connect Together

International terrorism is no longer the monolith it was in the period immediately after 11 September 2001. In order to continue to counter it, it is crucial that we understand the various groups and sub-groups involved, their nature and aims, their complexity and how they relate to, and communicate with, each other. By better understanding these relationships, it will also be easier to develop counter-strategies that focus on identifying fissures between groups and ways of pulling them apart.

23. Recognising the role of local communities

The growing priority and focus placed upon North and West Africa in counter-terrorism terms requires a parallel push in Prevent terms. Prevent – the forward looking aspect of counter-terrorism that seeks to stop people from adopting radical narratives – policy will play a key role in ensuring that Britain’s North and West African communities understand British foreign policy in the region and feel that their views in turn are being heard and understood. If engaged with positively, they can play a key role in protecting Britain’s interests. Without robust counter-narrative work and effective CT-informed community policing, there is a risk that the issue of the ‘home grown’ South Asian terrorism of 2005 onwards will be witnessed again in the North and West African community.

24. Yet all of this presents a further potential long-term problem: that of how the UK should balance a strategy of encouraging local people to deal with local problems whilst guaranteeing that human rights and due process are observed (support for which governments might undermine efforts at engaging with local communities in the UK). The foreign secretary highlighted this problem during a speech at RUSI on 14 February 2013, observing that alliances of convenience based on a common threat perception can lead to political backlash that can also inflame the very narrative they seek to address. The answer to this is unclear, and is likely to be found in a pragmatic approach that ensures that certain red lines are not crossed by British authorities, while also recognising that allies using methods that Britain may disapprove of may end up turning up information that helps to address the threat. As such, efforts should be made to train local authorities in improving their methods and agencies should be proactive in advancing this perspective; simply cutting off contact is not a workable response.

Conclusion

25. The time in which threats abroad could be seen as detached from threats at home has passed. Terrorist networks in North Africa may have difficulty reaching Britain’s streets, but the potential for such groups to threaten British nationals and interests overseas is high, and the intent to strike in the UK continues to lurk in the background of their rhetoric. The region is rich in energy and other commodities that make it a key target for a range of groups. Regional instability is set to result in upward pressure on energy prices and other commodities sourced from the region, something that will have a direct economic impact on the UK.

26. The British government’s current response focuses on intelligence co-operation and local capacity-building as a means of countering the threat posed by such groups. However, countries in the region have very different abilities to address such problems at present. The reality is that groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Signed in Blood Battalion,Ansaru and Boko Haram operate in a territory that is almost the size of Europe. Groups in northern Mali in particular have strong smuggling and nomadic traditions, making them adept at slipping back and forth across porous desert borders. None of this is new to foreign security services, which have increasingly come to view AQIM as a criminal-terrorist network focused on drugs and smuggling rather than on perpetrating international terrorist attacks.

27. Furthermore, nations in the Sahel in particular lack the capacity to implement long-term strategies to counter the underlying issues that facilitate recruitment into terrorist groups. Establishing ‘Prevent’ and ‘Combating Violent Extremism’-style programmes in these countries will be important, but is something that is currently hard to envisage. The focus at present is on countering immediate threats, and clamping down on emerging crises, rather than on a long-term vision for dealing with national issues whose roots are deep.

28. The threat to the UK remains offshore. However, it is not impossible, for example, to imagine a group or individual deciding, without direction, to launch an attack within British borders, or elsewhere within Europe with links to the region. Fed off a diet of grim images from Mali, radical messages online and a perception that the British government is complicit in the deaths of Muslims abroad, a group or individual might decide to launch a lone actor-style operation. But there are many potential sources of motivation for such an incident, and this would not necessarily have to be linked to North Africa.

29. Additional to this, the danger exists that British jihadists may start to see the region as an alternate battlefield where they can receive training. There is already some evidence of this shift at least in notional terms. In a plot disrupted in April 2012 in Luton – a group who later pled guilty to plotting to carry out a terrorist attack and training – spoke in January 2011 of potentially going to join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as an alternative to going to Pakistan. The group were ultimately able to make some connections in Pakistan, but had they not, the Sahel may have been an alternative for them. While Syria currently offers a more tempting and active battlefield for aspirant British jihadists, given the ongoing British connections to Libya and opportunities offered in the broader Sahel, it is possible that more individuals may choose this path.

30. It is also possible that groups in North Africa decide to launch an incident themselves, or that their networks come to be directed by individuals with a more aggressively anti-Western agenda. Again, both scenarios are possible, but the absence, so far, of any evidence of plotting, or indeed of anything more than rhetorical intent against the West, suggests that, at present, this threat seems distant. This might abruptly change in the future, but the tipping point is hard to judge in every case.

31. If the dynamics of conflict and instability continues, flow of refugees from the area also may provide AQIM or other groups with an opportunity to send operatives to Europe and the UK.

32. More likely, trouble will continue to brew in North Africa, with the periodic targeting of foreign interests continuing to be used as a means to attract attention, as well as to punish the West for its involvement in Mali and elsewhere. That the problem remains regional does not preclude the need for a response, however, as simply ignoring it will not make it go away and indeed will simply store up problems that will need to be confronted later. The current impasse faced by Europe is the direct result both of years of neglect of the problem, and of the fall of a number of authoritarian regimes in North Africa. To step back from North and West Africa now could provide an opportunity for Al-Qa’ida affiliates to establish themselves in a region closer to Europe than ever before.

NOTES


[1] David Cameron to parliament, 18 January 2013, < http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130118/debtext/130118-0001.htm >, accessed 26 February 2013.

[2] These men were not the only ones; others included DjamelBeghal and KamelDaoudi , a pair who belonged to London’s Algerian community before they were extradited to France (from Dubai and London respectively), where they were convicted for their roles in planning an attack on the American Embassy in Paris.

[3] Jonathan Evans, Address at the Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture, Mansion House, City of London , 25 June 2012.

[4]

[5] Within this context it is worth noting that Abu Qatada used to boast to British intelligence services of his hold over Britain ’s radical Algerian community. He claimed to be able to rein in any potentially negative repercussions that might occur as a result of the extradition of Rashid Ramda . See Special Immigration Appeals Commission, AQ v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Open judgment before the Honorable Mr Justice Collins, [2004] UKSIAC 15/2002, 8 March 2004.

[6] Lori Hinnant , ‘Why Are So Many French Held by al- Qaida?’ , Associated Press , 21 February 2013.

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22654584

[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/niger-official-boko-haram-prisoners-tried-to-escape-from-niamey-jail-killed-2-guards/2013/06/02/6b25b6b8-cb78-11e2-8573-3baeea6a2647_story.html

[9] This is apart from the Prime Minister’s recent statements about increasing the volume of DfID’s budget that is used for peace and stability operations.

A much longer piece that has been percolating for a while with James for the Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, returning to my UK Islamist connection research. Some more longer pieces on the situation in the UK in the pipeline ahead of the Olympics, and to those interested in the technical aspect of Olympic security I would direct them to my earlier piece  for Homeland Security Today.

UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings
by James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci
Published on Friday, June 22, 2012

The full impact of the cascade of uprisings that have become known as the “Arab Spring” is still unclear. Fighting between protesters and the Assad regime continues in Syria, while countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are still defining the new order that will emerge from the upheavals of 2011. Key amongst those currently shaping this new Middle East are a substantial community of Islamists who have spent most of the past few decades in exile and residing in Europe. While much of their activity in Europe has been focused on political change in their home countries, few were untouched by their experiences living in the West. Indeed, many of these exiles consciously sought to use their time in Europe to engage with and advance their respective agendas among Western academic and political institutions, among the Western media, as well as among European Muslims.

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of how UK-based Islamists in particular have responded to the Arab Spring, and to assess how much, if at all, their long personal interactions with Western society have influenced their views and actions in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa.  Given the large number and diversity of Islamists in the West in general and the UK in particular, this article will only focus on a few of the most prominent individuals in the UK. Despite the inherent limitations of such an overview (some important groups, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, have been omitted from this paper), this study aims to help clarify and describe the often divergent ways in which Islamists, both those currently based in Europe and those newly returned to the Middle East, have so far reacted to the unfolding events of the Arab Spring.

An Evolving Islamist Scene

For the last fifty years, Western Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, have acted as havens for Islamists who were born elsewhere. Many of these non-native Islamists originally hailed from the Arab Muslim Brotherhood, its South Asian equivalent the Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as other organizations like the Turkish Milli Gorus and the supposedly pan-Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The first Islamists fleeing persecution arrived in the 1950s and early 1960s, primarily from Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and many of its key members forced into exile. Before long, these Brotherhood members began organizing themselves in exile to stir up revolution in their homelands. In 1962, one of the most prominent of these exiles, Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the founder of the Brotherhood Hasan al-Banna, co-established the UK Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).[1] While its stated intent today is to “represent” and “serve” the Muslim student population within the United Kingdom, FOSIS initially aimed to promote Islamism among foreign Muslim students in the UK who would then return to their home countries to spread Islamism there. The group also sought to reach out to potential Western-born allies such as Malcolm X.[2] In the U.S., Muslim Brotherhood activists established the Muslim Student Association for similar reasons.[3] At about the same time, a group of middle-class South Asian students decided to establish the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM) out of study groups they used to hold in East London. By 1964 they were holding national conferences and inviting prominent South Asian Jamaat-e-Islami leaders to speak.[4]These activities were bolstered in the 1970s when more Islamists arrived in the West, including especially from Bangladesh following the 1971 War of Independence.  The 1980s brought a new wave of Islamist exiles, particularly from Syria, where in 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood tried and failed to overthrow the regime of Hafez al-Assad and was brutally suppressed.  Yet more Islamists arrived in the West in the early to mid-1990s, including most notably leading figures from al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian wing, and from HT.

The result of these migrations to the West was clearly visible in the UK by the late 1990s, when London was home to the general secretaries of the Muslim Brotherhood branches of Iraq, Syria and Tunisia, as well as to hundreds of lower-level activists. In addition, from the early 1990s members of various jihadist movements also started to migrate to the West, and especially to the UK, as they lost their sanctuaries first in Pakistan and then in Sudan, while also being driven out of Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Each wave of new Islamist arrivals created new groups, both formal and informal. Some, like the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and al-Qaeda, directly aimed at fostering violent revolution in their home countries; some, such as HT, aimed more at creating a global pan-Islamic political identity and movement; others, including some Muslim Brotherhood members and their South Asian counterparts, simply aimed to stop fellow Muslim immigrants in the West from losing their Islamic identity and to maintain their mostly moral support for the Islamist struggle back home. (It is important to keep in mind, however, that these Islamists arrived as but one part of much larger socio-economic Muslim migrations, and also that not all activists arriving from the Muslim world were Islamist. Indeed, a number of secular dissidents, from pro-democracy liberals to Communists, from feminists to gay activists, also established bases in London or Paris, from which they promoted reforms in their home countries as well as among Muslims in the West.)

In retrospect, by opening their borders both to such a wide variety of Islamist activists as well as to large numbers of Muslim economic migrants and refugees, Western governments were effectively turning their societies into large-scale, unplanned social science experiments. Islamist ideas and influence flowed into Europe, and particularly into poor, deprived and sometimes embittered Muslim communities. Some Islamists also saw this as an unprecedented opportunity to influence Western society from within through a process that Islamists describe as “dawa,” or missionary proselytization, but which critics have described as “Islamization.” Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for instance, speaking in the U.S. in 1994, famously told an audience at the Muslim Arab Youth Association that,

What remains, then, is to conquer Rome … Islam will come back to Europe for the third time, after it was expelled from it twice… Conquest through Dawa [proselytizing] that is what we hope for. We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America! Not through sword but through Dawa.[5]

Such hardline visions of Islamists conquering the West are very much fantasies. However, other implications of the Islamist migration to the West became clear in the post-9/11 decade. Western governments (and again the UK in particular) belatedly realized that Islamist groups had turned some Muslim immigrant communities into havens for supremacist and totalitarian religious ideologies that were either explicitly or potentially violent. These Islamists also created new problems for the civil cohesion of Western societies by fostering a Muslim identity of victimhood, based on the dual narrative that non-Muslims are intrinsically anti-Muslim and that Western governments are consciously waging an open-ended “war on Islam.” This helped to create environments conducive to the spread of al-Qaeda-style jihadist ideology; cognitive radicalization created greater possibilities for violent radicalization to occur.  However, for most Islamist groups, such as the Brotherhood, this was only an accidental by-product of their two principal objectives: to foster the creation of “Islamic states” in Muslim-majority countries, and to encourage Muslims in the West to adopt their Islamist interpretations of Islam. Of course, while Islamist movements were often inspired to work towards these goals as part of a grand political strategy or sense of religious mission, Islamist activism in the West has also been deeply rooted in individual ambition and the desire for personal power and influence.

In the process of working toward these goals, however, Islamists were themselves evolving—sometimes in radical directions, sometimes in moderate ones—due to their experiences of living in the West. For instance, some Islamist exiles who arrived in the West with narrow quasi-nationalist objectives—such as toppling the Saudi monarchy, or overthrowing Colonel Qaddafi—were compelled to develop a more explicitly pan-Islamist agenda in order to reach out to the diverse populations of Muslims residing in the West. This dynamic seemed especially notable among pro-jihadist groups compared to more political groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami. As Dr. Mohammad al-Massari, the prominent Saudi dissident and acquaintance of Osama bin Laden who ran the Center for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (a UK group which lobbied vigorously for the overthrow of the al-Saud monarchy in Saudi Arabia), has said: “Any Islamic movement worth its salt has to become international.”[6] (Dr. al-Massari himself began his career focused on fostering Islamist revolution in Saudi Arabia, but he increasingly used his perch in London to become involved in an ever-wider array of local and international Islamist groups and efforts.[7])

While some exiled Islamists became more radical and internationalist in their approach, others began to embrace new, comparatively more moderate views as well as adopt new practices as a consequence of their experiences living in the West. For instance, women began to assume far more important and prominent roles in some UK-based Islamist movements, including in groups like HT and Muslim Brotherhood-influenced groups with strong activist presences at universities. (By contrast, the UK branches of isolationist and less political groups like Tablighi Jamaat still have virtually no public role for women.) Other Islamists, particularly those who sought to form tactical political alliances with non-Muslim groups, including Marxist groups like the Socialist Workers Party, began to tone down their rhetoric against non-Muslims and Western society, often for clear tactical reasons. Others, however, began to speak cogently about the importance of democracy and to pay perhaps more than lip service to the principles of equal rights and individual liberty. These changes within Islamism in the West, and the interplay between the contradictory impulses toward both greater moderation and ideological radicalization, are worth looking at in detail, and particularly in relation to the role that many of these Islamists now play in the unfolding events of the Arab Spring.

The Exiles of Al-Nahda

 

The Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, contrary to much of its own propaganda and that of many of its critics, is composed of diverse and de-centralized movements whose factions and regional branches are often involved in bitter factional and personal disputes. (The historical tensions between the Syrian and Palestinian Muslim Brotherhoods are just one example of this.)  Despite this, some common Brotherhood responses to the Arab uprisings of 2011 can be observed. After some initial hesitation, Brotherhood branches across the Middle East and in exile eventually came to welcome the Arab Spring. They asserted the need for “freedom” and “democracy” in the region while also moving to capitalize on emerging opportunities to advance their respective agendas.

Exiled elements of the Brotherhood residing in the West have had the most immediately visible political impact in Tunisia.  Since the early 1990s, the majority of overt senior members and sympathizers of al-Nahda (the ‘Renaissance’ or ’Awakening’ Party), the main Tunisian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, have lived in exile in Europe. Founded in 1981, al-Nahda was part of a wave of Islamist parties that enjoyed a surge in support in the wake of the Iranian revolution and challenged the secular leaderships of the Muslim world. In Tunisia, al-Nahda activists were persecuted with mass arrests in 1989, following an election in which some party affiliates ran as independents, and numerous subsequent incarcerations and bans on literature.[8]Many of al-Nahda’s senior leaders relocated to London, including Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the top leader and founder of al-Nahda, who was granted asylum in the UK in 1993. Ghannouchi is today regarded as one of the most moderate of leading Arab Islamists. In a typical interview broadcast by the BBC in early 2012, Ghannouchi declared, “we don’t want a religious state because in this state a religious hierarchy would control the state and not the people.” He went on to say that he would prefer that people did not wear bikinis or drink alcohol, but that whether or not they did was their choice. Similarly, he stated that if Tunisians elected a Jewish leader, then that would be acceptable.[9]

It would be easy to ascribe Ghannouchi’s apparent moderation to the eighteen years that he spent in the UK.  However, he says (and a careful review of his public statements largely confirms this) that his political ideas have not substantially changed since the early 1990s and that he has always held moderate political views. For instance, on the issue of political pluralism, he told the Financial Times in 2011 that since “our founding statement on 5 June 1981, journalists have asked me: if the Tunisian people elected communists would you accept that? I [have] answered that if the Tunisian people do that then I would respect the will of the Tunisian people.”[10]This position seems consistent with many of the other positions that Ghannouchi has taken.  Indeed, despite occasional outbursts (notably on Israel), Ghannouchi was rarely as hardline as other Brotherhood members who fled from Egypt or Syria. As early as 1994, Ghannouchi told a New York Times journalist in London that he appreciated the West’s political freedoms: “we Islamists may have a lot of criticism of Western values, yet we are seeking refuge in such atheist countries because we appreciate the benefits of freedom and the value of democracy.”[11] Similarly, in his 1993 Arabic-language bookPublic Liberties in an Islamic State (Al-Hurriyat al-Ammah Fid-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah), he criticized Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime as illegitimate, accusing it of seeking to “pull people with chains to paradise.”[12] Although Ghannouchi’s views have yet to be fully tested by the temptations of power, it is clearly arguable that his modern views are simply an evolution of his early 1990s positions. His pro-democratic statements are also, of course, not unique to Western-based Islamists; a number of Islamists who remained in the Middle East hold similar views about democracy.  However, even if Ghannouchi’s experience living in the West did not decisively influence his thought about political pluralism and related topics, his and other al-Nahda members’ time in the West has still been important to their movement’s overall development.

One important consequence of al-Nahda’s period of exile in the UK has been that its members were involved in a variety of pan-Brotherhood initiatives and networked extensively with other Islamist groups. For instance, Ghannouchi became involved with the European Council for Fatwa and Research,[13] an important Brotherhood initiative led by Yusuf al-Qaradawi that has attempted to make the Brotherhood’s version of politicized Islam the default interpretation of the religion among European Muslims. Ghannouchi also developed close relationships with individual members of the Brotherhood—for example, he collaborated with Azzam Tamimi, the prominent Palestinian Brotherhood activist who produced a flattering biography of Ghannouchi for Oxford University Press.[14] Despite his poor command of English, Ghannouchi also frequently interacted with young UK-born Muslims, including while he was speaker at FOSIS-organized events.[15] It could be argued, therefore, that exile in the UK helped to expose Ghannouchi to pan-Islamist circles and other variants of Islamism more than had he remained in Tunisia. It also potentially broadened his intellectual outlook to encompass non-Arab countries such as Turkey, whose ruling Islamist-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP) Ghannouchi today cites as a major influence.

Other prominent al-Nahda members also became involved in UK-focused Brotherhood projects. For example, Said Ferjani, a close confidant of Ghannouchi who had followed him since his early days in Tunisia and came to the UK after being freed from prison on charges of being involved in a coup plotted by al-Nahda,[16] became involved with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the Brotherhood’s main UK front-group, where he served as Head of Policy, Media and Public Relations.  This was a demanding and often hectic job that involved regular meetings with the media, a wide range of Muslim activists, as well as representatives of think tanks and officials from all levels of the UK government. It was through this experience in London that Ferjani became a resourceful and effective lobbyist; he notably sought, via the MAB, to benefit from and influence the British government’s counter-radicalization Prevent strategy. Such experiences gave Ferjani inside knowledge of how the UK government bureaucracy functions and he became adept at lobbying and networking. In a notable success, for instance, Ferjani’s networking and advocacy work led to the MAB becoming one of four Muslim organizations chosen to act as founders of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB), a UK government-funded body intended to address radicalization and poor governance in British mosques.[17] Ferjani in 2008-2009 acted as the organization’s chair and is currently the chair of its Self-regulation and Standards Committee.  He has repeatedly survived attempts by anti-extremism campaigners and politicians within the Conservative Party to have the MAB removed from MINAB.[18](One leading critic of the MAB’s involvement in the MINAB, for instance, said it would be “fatal to the struggle against extremism were the allies of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood to regulate and ultimately control … Britain’s Islamic religious institutions.”[19]) Sometimes Ferjani’s work with the MAB took him abroad; this was in marked contrast to many Tunisia-based al-Nahda activists, who were often banned from travelling.  This provided Ferjani and the UK-based exiles of al-Nahda with unprecedented opportunities to mix with Islamists from other countries and to experience the realities of international politics. In May 2010, for instance, he visited Turkey on behalf of the group to lobby the AKP government to “veto Israel’s possible accession into the OSCE,” exposing him further to high-level politicking.[20]

Ghannouchi’s daughters, who became personally involved in the Brotherhood movement and in related political causes, also help to show how life in the West has impacted al-Nahda’s organization and development. For example, his daughter Soumaya al-Ghannouchi became a prominent media figure while only in her twenties in the 2003-2005 UK protests against the Iraq War.  These organized protests were often staged in conjunction with pan-Brotherhood groups such as MAB as well as far-left organizations such as the Socialist Workers Party. Through this experience, al-Nahda activists like Ms. Ghannouchi acquired useful experience working in coalitions with other Islamist as well as non-Islamist movements.  They were also exposed to a range of non-Islamist ideas. Another daughter, Intissar Kherigi (who uses Ghannouchi’s familial surname) also rose to prominence by helping organize “Islam Expo,” a pan-Islamist event held in London in 2006 that brought together Islamist speakers (including her father) from around the world.[21]  Both daughters have also written extensively, particularly for The Guardian and the al-Jazeera website.  While they do not argue for Islamist policies per se, a frequent theme of their polemical writing is opposing Western counter-terrorism strategies and foreign policy as hostile toward Muslims, often from a left-leaning perspective. For instance, Soumaya Ghannouchi accused Tony Blair of “secularized missionary absolutism” and of “constantly pointing the finger at Muslims.”[22]  A third daughter, Yusra Ghannouchi, also engaged in activism and later became a spokeswoman for her father’s party.[23]

As the Tunisian revolution unfolded in December 2010, al-Nahda used all the tools, skills, knowledge and contacts that it acquired during exile in the West to good effect. From the first days of the uprising, Ghannouchi’s daughters immediately used their contacts in the media and their existing public profiles to advance al-Nahda’s agenda both overtly and surreptitiously. For example, on January 14, Intissar Kherigi was interviewed by the BBC World TV channel, where she was introduced only as a “Tunisian activist and a specialist in human rights in Tunisia;” her affiliation with al-Nahda was not mentioned.  She then lambasted the interim Tunisian government as “completely discredited” and praised “the many opposition parties who are out there, some of whom are in exile, who have fought for democracy for a long time and who are willing to come forward and form a united government together”—a clear reference to her father’s al-Nahda.[24] Later in 2011, Intissar Kherigi even testified before the British Parliament on the Arab Spring, opening her testimony by saying that “I am speaking as a British Tunisian, who has long been active in the struggle for human rights and democracy in Tunisia, and in a personal capacity.”[25] While obscuring her affiliation to al-Nahda and posing as a neutral human rights activist, she then delivered her assessment of the Tunisian situation to parliament, being careful to allay Western concerns and describing Islamist parties innocuously as “faith-based political parties.”

Aided by the media experience and skills that exiled activists acquired while living in the West, al-Nahda has continued its efforts to shape Western perceptions of the Arab uprisings since its return to Tunisia. For example, al-Nahda in Tunisia has clearly recognized, probably partly due to Soumaya’s involvement in the Stop The War movement, that young, educated women were more effective and less threatening spokespeople for the movement than older male members. No doubt, involving younger women helped rebut long-standing criticisms that the group is misogynistic, male-dominated and regressive. In the 2011 Tunisian general election, al-Nahda embraced this approach in their campaign strategy (in which the entire Ghannouchi family was heavily involved) by fielding Souad Abdel Rahim, a photogenic woman who didn’t wearhijab, as a candidate in a prosperous area of Tunis and making her accessible to Western media organizations.[26] Similarly, al-Nahda’s alliance with leftist groups in parliament arguably draws heavily on the lessons learned from the MAB’s alliance with far-left British groups.

Today, al-Nahda, as the largest political party in Tunisia, also draws heavily on the media and public relations experience that Said Ferjani gained in the UK as the MAB’s public relations man and through his work with the UK government in MINAB. Ferjani is now al-Nahda’s main contact for Western media in Tunisia.  So far, this has given him prominent and mostly uncritical coverage in the Western media, for instance in a front-page New York Times story on Tunisia by Anthony Shadid in February 2012.[27]Similarly, Ferjani appeared on BBC Hardtalk, where he stated that he “disagreed with Sharia as a source of legislation” and said that his ideal system would include “what’s best in the West, a democratic system and the heritage of Islam.”[28] While Ferjani may well believe this, his skill in knowing how to clearly present Islamist principles to a Western audience is clearly invaluable to al-Nahda. His ability is particularly apparent when compared to al-Nahda’s secretary-general, Hamadi Jbeli, a less-travelled man who remained in Tunisia under Ben Ali.  In November 2011, Jbeli caused a major storm when he importunely announced that “the sixth caliphate” had begun.[29] In light of this, it appears that the experience and knowledge of the West that Ferjani and Ghannouchi’s daughters acquired while in exile in London are one of the main reasons why al-Nahda’s rise to power in Tunisia has caused less concern in the West than might otherwise be expected. Similarly, Soumaya al-Ghannouchi is one of her father’s closest advisors, particularly on international issues, for instance accompanying him to the World Economic Forum in 2012.

But while al-Nahda has scored successes in Western political and media circles, the Ghannouchis and other exiles have to some degree struggled since returning to their home country of Tunisia. This may be the result of the perceived advantages these exiles enjoyed while abroad when compared to the rest of the movement. It is also due to their perceived nepotism. For example, the movement’s rapid appointment of Soumaya Ghannouchi’s husband, Rafik Abdesselem Bouchlaka (a former low-ranking employee at the al-Jazeera Centre for Studies in Qatar), to Tunisian foreign minister became a contentious issue within al-Nahda. Said Ferjani’s daughter, the pro-al-Nahda London-based activist Kaouther Ferjani, wrote on her Twitter account, “im pro nahdha but even i know he wasnt best suited for the job, there were better candidates from within nahdha.” She pointedly hash-tagged this as “#nomorenepotism.”[30] When asked about such criticism by Asharq al-Awsat, Rashid al-Ghannouchi responded, “I believe that the questions raised about this are not appropriate, and such questions are being raised from the door of political opposition.”[31] Such curt responses help explain why Ghannouchi and his family have a reputation for being intolerant of criticism.[32] They also show a lack of awareness that Tunisians might resent such nepotistic practices, particularly in light of Ben Ali’s similar practices, as well as evidence that Ghannouchi’s time in the UK has not instilled in him too much belief in meritocracy.

On March 26, 2012, al-Nahda announced that it opposed calls for the Tunisian constitution to make Sharia the source of all legislation. This raises the question of whether al-Nahda is still an “Islamist” movement or if it has now moved decisively in the direction of “post-Islamism” or secularism. Definitions aside (and bearing in mind that al-Nahda’s professed moderation and pragmatism has not yet been fully proven in the new Tunisia), it remains an open question as to whether Ghannouchi would have ultimately reached the same conclusion if he had not lived in the UK.  Indeed, much of his criticism of traditional Islamism is informed by the examples of Iran, Sudan and other failed Islamist states. Moreover, it is worth noting that, unlike Ferjani and others, Ghannouchi himself does not speak English fluently, spent most of his time in the UK moving in exclusively Arab and Islamist circles, and had little contact with mainstream British society. But even if it is hard to argue that the movement’s core ideology has been decisively affected by the experiences of its former exiles, it seems clear that al-Nahda’s political skills and public relations capabilities have been immeasurably enhanced by the group’s time in exile.  This does much to explain the group’s success in post-Ben Ali Tunisia—particularly against disorganized political rivals. Indeed, al-Nahda’s success has helped establish it as an international force as well. In June 2012, Ghannouchi headed to Cairo as part of an effort to help the Muslim Brotherhood broker a post-election political victory. It seems the Tunisian leader was welcomed as a political mediator in Egypt because of his influence and stature in the wider Islamic movement. At about the same time as this high-profile visit, rumors circulated in Tunis that Ghannouchi may soon step down from his position in al-Nahda in Tunisia to assume a global leadership role in the Brotherhood movement.[33]

Egypt and the Palestinian Question

 

Compared to Ben Ali’s Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was able to operate relatively more openly, even though the regime severely restricted the Brotherhood’s rights and used periodic arrests, harassments and crackdowns to contain their political influence. One result was that the Egyptian Brotherhood had relatively little need for a comprehensive organization-in-exile. A notable individual exception was Kemal Helbawy, a veteran Muslim Brotherhood member who joined the group in 1951 after seeing Hassan al-Banna give a public speech. In many respects the consummate Islamist-in-exile, Helbawy spent his time in exile (mostly in the UK) working for change in Egypt while simultaneously assisting pan-Islamist causes in the UK and internationally. For instance, Helbawy acted as the Brotherhood’s main representative in Europe from the 1970s onwards, while also working with the Afghan Mujahidin in Pakistan in the 1980s and then in the mid-1990s co-founding the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s main pan-ethnic Islamist group that includes large numbers of South Asian Jamaat-e-Islami followers. He also established the Arab-focused Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) after having already founded the Brotherhood’s main British institutional headquarters, the Muslim Welfare House, in north London. Helbawy additionally helped develop the Brotherhood’s presence in other European countries while collaborating with men like Youssef Nada in Switzerland and Ibrahim Zayat in Germany (whose daughter married one of Helbawy’s sons).  In addition to being enormously active in Europe, Helbawy remained connected to the Egyptian Islamist movement and in early February 2011 was still describing himself as a “senior member” of the Egyptian Brotherhood and serving as one of the group’s most public faces on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and other television channels.[34] For decades, therefore, Helbawy was in many respects the model Brotherhood loyalist and activist, someone who advocated for the group and strengthened it in Egypt, the UK and further afield.

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, Helbawy returned to Egypt in April 2011 after almost 30 years in exile and, soon after, rebelled against the Egyptian Brotherhood’s political party.  Rather than supporting the Brotherhood’s official front-group, the Freedom and Justice Party, he instead vocally sided with the party’s breakaway progressive wing led by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh, becoming ever more vocal ahead of the May 2012 first-round presidential elections. In an explosive interview on primetime Egyptian television in early April 2012, he condemned the Brotherhood’s decision to nominate Khairat al-Shater as the movement’s candidate for president, declaring, “the current leadership wants to be in control of all the authorities in the country. They are hungry for power and their will to dominate is no different to that of the Mubarak regime.”[35] Helbawy then crowned this performance by announcing his resignation from the Brotherhood on air and he has continued to attack the movement in subsequent interviews.  This is a remarkable step for an individual who had served the group for over half a century.

In retrospect, the roots of this split between Helbawy and the Egyptian Brotherhood leadership are clear. Helbawy, an English literature graduate, had lived in the UK for many years, set up his own organizations and also interacted widely with Muslim and non-Muslim society. Like other Brotherhood members exiled to the West, various aspects of British life including the openness of its democracy undeniably affected his outlook, and he became critical of many aspects of Egyptian society.  In an interview in early 2010 he declared, “I have said a million times that a woman like [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher is a hundred times better than any man” while also constantly denouncing Muslim societies for technological backwardness and resistance to new ideas.[36]  In a similar vein, in 2008, Helbawy opposed the clause in the Brotherhood’s draft constitution preventing non-Muslims from becoming head of state. In 2010, he also condemned the Brotherhood’s decision to participate in that year’s fraudulent elections.[37] During the years when the Brotherhood was in opposition and in exile, such differences could be papered over and ignored.  But in the post-Mubarak era, such open splits may have become increasingly unavoidable.

Helbawy’s example may be typical of the experience of other Islamist exiles who, after the Arab Spring, are now beginning to realize that they have grown apart from their own organizations.  For a man like Helbawy who served the Brotherhood diligently for decades, this must be especially galling.  Angered by what he sees as the Brotherhood’s selling out of Egypt’s revolutionaries in favor of political maneuverings and backdoor deals with the military, Helbawy has stated “I cannot stand in the ranks of people who turned their backs on the revolution.”[38] For secretive organizations like the Brotherhood, such angry former members are potential threats. “Helbawy knows all the Brotherhood’s secrets,” said one former jihadist in London. “And the Brotherhood knows that once Helbawy starts talking, it is impossible to make him shut up.”[39] Returned exiles like Helbawy who are accustomed to pursuing their own quasi-independent policies in freer political environments may also present problems for the Brotherhood’s efforts to maintain their characteristic political regimentation and ideological coherence. In 2011, after Osama bin Laden’s death, Helbawy, then still a Brotherhood member, embarrassed the group by eulogizing the al-Qaeda leader, stating “I ask Allah to have mercy upon Osama bin Laden, to treat him generously, to enlighten his grave, and to make him join the prophets, the martyrs, and the good people.”[40] Similarly, since his open break with the Brotherhood, Helbawy has travelled to the Islamic Republic of Iran and praised the Iranian revolution, illustrating that he has not yet fully changed his stripes.[41]

Other Brotherhood factions

It is important too to look at exiled Brotherhood members whose home countries have been so far untouched by revolution. Thus far, for instance, a number of Palestinian Brotherhood members exiled in the West have been visibly invigorated by the Arab uprisings.  Azzam Tamimi, for example, the prominent Palestinian UK-based Brotherhood member, has stated,

The more Arab dictatorships that are replaced by genuine democracies, the closer Palestine will be to liberation. Democracies representing the will of the Arab peoples can only be anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian … Whichever way one looks at it, the Arab revolutions are the best news the Palestinians have had for decades.[42]

This line that Hamas’s struggle will benefit from the Arab Spring has been increasingly touted not only by Brotherhood activists but also by a number of other Islamist organizations in the West. Indeed, it may signal a renewed focus on Israel and Palestine by Islamists in years to come.  In March 2012 in the UK, for instance, FOSIS and a pro-Hamas group convened a joint event entitled “Arab Spring: Destination Palestine?” The event featured a number of long-time supporters of Hamas such as Azzam Tamimi and Ibrahim Hewitt, who argued that the Arab Spring would ultimately lead to the defeat of Israel.[43] Further afield, such sentiments have been echoed by Brotherhood ministers in Morocco,[44] and have also been fuelled by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood suggestions that the movement does not necessarily recognize Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.[45] At the same time, however, some existing political positions and coalitions have become complicated by the Arab uprisings. In early 2012, for example, Tamimi criticized his Western left-wing allies (“some of our leftist friends”) for standing by Bashar al-Assad because they viewed Syria as “part of the resistance axis as opposed to the pro-American moderation axis.”[46]

In a similar fashion, other Brotherhood figures in the UK have also sought to use the Arab Spring to advance their own political agendas, even if this means abandoning old alliances and seeking new ones. For example, Anas al-Tikriti, one of the shrewdest UK-based Brotherhood activists and the son of the leader of Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood, has described how he himself has tried to encourage Western support for Islamists in the wake of the Arab uprisings:

I was asked at a recent meeting with some of Washington’s wheelers and dealers about what the American government should do with the Islamic movements gaining prominence and claiming the limelight across the Arab world, I answered simply: support them …  unless we encourage them and offer them an incentive, their own crop of hard-liners will have been proven right.[47]

This is a new iteration of Tikriti’s previous lobbying strategy, which has sought to persuade Western governments that they should fund Brotherhood groups as moderate alternatives to al-Qaeda. (Indeed, Tikriti along with other Brotherhood activists such as Helbawy actively pushed this policy in conjunction with a number of non-Muslim counterparts, including Robert Lambert, a former policeman who established the Muslim Contact Unit within the Metropolitan Police.) It seems that Tikriti and others like him regard the Arab Spring as a new opportunity to leverage themselves into positions of power and influence, and perhaps even to acquire new funds from Western sources, through arguing that Western support for the Brotherhood parties can undermine and moderate more extremist Islamist elements.

The Party of Liberation

 

The UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation—HT) reacted quickly to the opportunities presented by the Arab uprisings, despite having one of the smallest presences on the ground in the Middle East. After the first demonstrations began to erupt in Tunisia in December 2010, the group seems to have rapidly developed a comprehensive strategy of how to use the events to advance their narrative.  Firstly, HT sought to claim that the Tunisian uprising was motivated by a general desire for “Islamic” rule. Secondly, they asserted that the popular uprisings were under threat from the West. Thirdly, the movement sought to take ownership of the uprisings. On January 15, 2011, HT’s London office posted a grainy YouTube of a demonstration in Tunisia titled, “where the masses can clearly be heard calling for Islam and Khilafah.” In reality, the video was from a small and unrepresentative Salafi-led demonstration.[48]On January 29, 2011, HT activists attempted to take over an anti-Mubarak protest that was taking place outside the Egyptian embassy in London. Following a confrontation with non-Islamist Egyptians, HT was forced to hold their protest around the corner.[49]Later that same day, the group held a large town-hall meeting in central London under the banner “After Tunisia: The Future of the Muslim World.” Addressed by senior British-based HT leaders Imran Waheed and Taji Mustafa, and Tunisian Ons Chafi, the meeting participants condemned Western support of “cruel tyrants” like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. While there was agreement with the broad assessment that the protests were due to “the relentless oppression by the regimes, the economic hardship faced by ordinary people due to the neglect by governments, and changes in means of communication had meant that people were rising up to remove the old regimes,” the HT speakers also concluded that “real change could only come under a Khilafa state, which could be independent of the West and which solved people’s problems according to Islam.”[50]  In the following weeks, HT’s activities followed a similar pattern of pronouncements on the “Islamic” nature of the uprisings, meetings and attempts to take over demonstrations, and movement activists appeared convinced that the arrival of their long-idealized Islamic State was imminent.

Soon, however, HT’s view of Middle East events became noticeably more negative. On February 11, the day that Mubarak resigned, HT leader Imran Waheed held a small “community meeting” in Bradford on the subject of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. According to an HT write-up of the event, “the speakers warned that Muslims must not be fooled by mere cosmetic changes in Egypt and the Muslim world while the corruptkufr systems remain in place.”[51] As the prospects for an imminently restored Khilafa have receded, HT has increasingly soured on the Middle East. The number of publicized conferences and protests focused on the Arab Spring decreased and they returned instead to a steady diet of small, often poorly attended, meetings whose focus was toppling the Pakistani government. By the middle of 2011 and the annual HT “London Khilafah Conference,” the group had fallen back on accusing the West of conspiring against Islam.  They claimed that Western governments were not “giving up” on seeking to control Muslim-majority countries, and also that they were trying to “engineer the change” in Egypt and elsewhere.  The subtext of these pronouncements was that the West was responsible for the non-appearance of the caliphate, rather than that HT’s message had been mostly rejected by the Arab masses. Meanwhile, HT spokesman Taji Mustafa condemned the lack of change in the Middle East, pointing to the fact that “Egypt is still supplying gas to the Zionist entity Israel.” He also complained that people ignored the alleged “voices” calling for “Khilafa.”[52]

HT’s negative perspective on the Arab Spring was tied to its ideological conceit that anything short of a caliphate was “un-Islamic” and thus a failure, and that any form of voting was haram. As a result, in the Middle East itself, the group’s members effectively wrote themselves out of the script by boycotting elections in Tunisia and Egypt as “un-Islamic.” HT’s failure to benefit in any tangible way from the Arab Spring is in part a reflection of its Western experience. A fringe movement in the Middle East, its supporters in the West had reacted to the society around them by dismissing everything, including especially Western parliamentarianism, as “un-Islamic.” While this rejection of parliamentary democracy succeeded, for a time, in winning over some young British Muslims who felt rejected by the West, it failed to bring the group to power in Muslim-majority countries or achieve any real change in the UK. While many Islamist groups in the West have adapted their ideology in light of changing circumstances and sharpened their tactics and political skills, HT has not adapted in Western contexts.  Even though HT has gained some experience mobilizing disenchanted youths in the UK, the movement’s doctrinaire approach has meant that it has grown increasingly disconnected from and unable to respond to the changing realities of the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, the group adopted an ideologically hostile position toward the West and its ideas and institutions that prevented it from understanding how political realities in the Middle East had changed or learning anything from the Western experience.  In particular, HT believers failed to register or understand growing grassroots Arab yearning for some form of democracy and the declining support for the idea of recreating the caliphate or to understand what potential merits of democracy might be. This ongoing clash between Islamist fantasy and Arab reality is well-illustrated by HT’s latest stunt in March 2012: a call for countries to re-adopt gold as an everyday currency, a policy that could hardly be more removed from the daily realities of the Arab World.[53]

The Extremists

 

Anjem Choudhary, a former leader and founding member (alongside Omar Bakri Mohammed) of al-Muhajiroun and its many descendant groups, is arguably the most prominent and publicly confrontational Islamists active in the UK. Choudhary and his followers’ (now known as “Ummah United”) initial reaction to the Arab uprisings was to take to the streets and join secular, Islamist and other groups in calling for the overthrow of regimes.  Outside the Tunisian Embassy in January 2011, for example, Choudhary called for the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak as well as Pakistan’s President Zardari (a theme dear to the hearts of Britain’s predominantly South Asian Muslim population), while also calling for the implementation of the Khilafa and Sharia in those countries.[54] By February, like HT, Choudhary clearly felt like his extremist vision was succeeding in the Middle East, and he reported on CNN that “people are praying in the streets,” and that having tried “nationalism” and “dictatorship,” they were now “wanting to taste Islam.” Choudhary then became uncharacteristically realistic when he admitted that it was likely that a “temporary solution [in North Africa] may be government with American support,” but he remained convinced that over time “this will turn into Sharia.”[55]

Later in the year, however, Choudhary’s harder line returned.  In an open letter he urged Libyans to “implement the Khilafah” and declared that “Libya does not require democracy.”[56] By the end of 2011, he changed his story yet gain. In an article offering what purported to be an “Islamic perspective” on the year’s events, Choudhary highlighted the increasing importance of political Islam across North Africa, but acknowledged that some form of un-Islamic, “democratic regime may materialize in the short term.” He continued to see the uprisings as an opening for Islamists “to culture the masses about the real long term workable alternative of Shariah law and the resumption of the Khilafah.”[57] By March 2012, Choudhary and his followers demonstrated that their core beliefs about a Western conspiracy against Islam had not changed with the release of a short video showing a meager-looking demonstration in London where a group of about six made speeches and handed out flyers on the events in Syria. At the root of the bloody crackdown in Syria, the protestors claimed, is the fact that “no Western regime is going to help the Syrian people, because they are in bed with the Syrian regime.”[58]

Choudhary’s line is relatively moderate when compared to his mentor’s, Omar Bakri Mohammed. Bakri Mohammed claimed early on that the revolts were signs that the time had come for Islam to rise up. He called upon Egyptians to apprehend prisoners to exchange for people incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay or for the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman.  (Egyptian MB leader Mohammed Morsi has since said he would personally lobby for the release of the “Blind Sheikh” if he won office, showing Bakri Mohammed correctly recognized the potential political support that the issue could generate.[59])  While Bakri Mohammed did initially warn that Western “crusaders” could still “stab the Muslims in the back,” he nevertheless predicted that with the start of the Arab Spring, “we are seeing the beginning of the end of the crusaders.”[60]

A year later, Bakri Mohammed’s focus had shifted single-mindedly to his homeland Syria, and he called on the Syrian fighters to show no mercy to their enemies and to “eliminate them, mutilate them” and record it on video. Peaceful demonstrations had failed, and he said there was now a need to rise up and fight.[61]  Prior to this he gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he denied that al-Qaeda had a presence in Syria (they were “enjoying themselves, have a break, have a kitkat,” he said, echoing a popular British marketing jingle[62]), and stated that,

I am the first one to call for holy jihad in Syria and for now there is no al-Qaeda in Syria. If Syrians keep asking for ‘freedom, democracy’—try take it [sic], by all means enjoy it, even bring in Madonna and Michael Jackson. But if you want to call us, say ‘oh God help us,’ and your Muslim brothers will come. We will send you lions.[63]

A month later, he went on Arabic television again to highlight that he had no connection to al-Qaeda, but that stories of their arrival in Syria were merely lies propagated by the Assad regime to scare foreigners.  Unlike his acolyte Choudhary, who has at least maintained a somewhat coherent line of argument, Bakri Mohammed has repeatedly contradicted himself.  According to Bakri Mohammed, al-Qaeda and other “salafi movements” had thus far not participated in the Arab uprisings and were instead taking “a warrior’s rest [to] then gather the booty at the end.” However, he has also declared that, “the only winner in the Arab revolutions is Islamist forces like al-Qaeda, the Salafis, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood.” As he put it, “the ultimate proof is that Islamists already came to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.” Despite contradicting himself, he has been clear about his desire to see the Arab Spring reach Syria and topple the Assad regime.

Abdullah al-Faisal, the formerly Britain-based Jamaican cleric known for his radically sectarian (takfiri) views, has shown little inclination to moderate or reassess his hardline ideology in light of the Arab uprisings.  In July 2011, he ridiculed the West’s previous support for various Arab leaders who were now in trouble, and he highlighted how the West had done little to help them survive.[64] By October, he became obsessed that the West was conspiring to hijack the Arab revolts.  In a blistering speech entitled “Empire Strikes Back,” he declared, “when there is a revolution in a Muslim country, they [the West] try to take it over,” and he pointed to Libya and Tunisia as two clear examples where the initial revolution was being subsumed by forces that he found unacceptable. In notes written emphatically in capital letters, Faisal declared “WE MUST IMPLEMENT SHARIAH IN LIBYA SO WE DON’T REPLACE 1 TAGHOOT [false deity] W/ ANOTHER TAGHOOT.”[65] Unlike Choudhary, who moderates his call for the implementation of Sharia in countries like Libya by framing it as a “suggestion” for the Libyans, Faisal bizarrely claimed that “THE FLAG OF KHILAFAH ARE HANGING FROM ALL THE BUILDINGS IN BENGHAZI”[66] and cited this as evidence that ordinary Libyans would never want “democrazy.”[67] Three months later, Faisal’s argument against the purportedly democratic nature of the Arab uprisings had hardened even further, and he declared that “those who died in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt…if they died fighting for democracy, they died not being loved by Allah.”[68] By early 2012, Faisal—like other hardliners—appeared to have lost hope that the rebellions were bringing about new Islamic regimes in the Middle East.  By the time Syria became the focus of international attention, he simply harped on the illegitimacy of the “Shia Alawite” Assad, claiming his downfall would precede the fall of the Iranian regime.[69] Like Choudhary’s acolytes, he saw the lack of “Islamic” progress in the Syrian revolt as evidence of a Western plot, and he dismissed the uprisings as illegitimate, stating that “the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt were not Islamic revolutions, they were democratic revolutions.”[70]

The Arab uprisings also seemed to accentuate factional conflicts among UK-based Arab Islamist extremists.  Many, for example, who remained committed to their hardline agendas and who sought to ascribe an Islamic character to the uprisings began to criticize those former UK-based Islamist exiles who returned home to participate in the new secular party politics of the post-2011 era.  For example, the aforementioned Mohammed al-Massari appeared on Press TV on January 20, 2011 as the uprisings in Tunisia were beginning.  He dismissed Rashid al-Ghannouchi’s chances of accomplishing much once he went back to Tunisia, saying al-Nahda as an Islamic movement knows “how to fight but not how to govern.” Al-Massari further dismissed the non-religious dimensions of the uprisings, asserting that “the claim the revolution has nothing to do with Islam is not true.”[71] By March, the Arab Spring had begun to reach Massari’s home country of Saudi Arabia and he appeared once again on Press TV, predicting “thousands more” Islamic activists would soon turn up on the streets to protest against the monarchy.[72] These new demonstrators never materialized, and a seemingly disillusioned Massari has since resumed his earlier activities as pan-Islamist preacher who produces occasional videos on Islamic law or the genealogy of hadiths regularly posts to his revived Tajdeed.net website.

The UK-based Egyptian Islamists Yasser al-Sirri and Hani al-Sibai also both largely kept their own reactions to the Arab Spring focused on the situation in their home country. Early on, as events in Tahrir Square appeared headed toward a bloodbath, Yasser al-Sirri published a statement that read “to the Egyptian army, men of the armed forces: move and side with the people before it is too late.” Hani al-Sibai’s statements expressed anxiety about “the people’s uprising being hijacked by a [radical] Islamist trend.”[73] Nine months later, al-Sirri, who had once been detained for involvement with al-Qaeda, told Asharq al-Awsat that “after the revolution in Egypt, the justifications for the presence of secret organizations in Egypt have ended” and added that “it is time for [political] action and there is no room for clandestine or armed action any more.” Al-Sirri’s call to engage in politics and his rejection of armed jihad as an instrument of political change may be seen as an important expression of a new pragmatism among some jihadist ideologues after the Arab Spring.  Nonetheless, al-Sirri has continued to argue that the West and the U.S. in particular pose a threat to Muslim societies and that, in his opinion, the Western countries “are trying to nip the Arab Spring in the bud.” This is clearly another indication that Islamist “pragmatism” and “moderation” have limits.[74]  Indeed, al-Sirri’s statement potentially provides a justification for future jihad—just as al-Sirri called for in February 2011, when he proposed that Egyptians sink some ships to block the Suez Canal.  Ironically, al-Sirri proposed that action not because he thought the West was attempting to thwart the Arab uprisings, but because he complained that the West seemed to be ignoring them.[75] Others following a similar complex trajectory include Osama Rushdie, a formerly hardline Gama’a al-Islamiya member based in the UK, who has returned to Egypt and now supports Aboul Fetouh.[76]

By and large, the older generation of extremists who arrived in Europe in the 1990s have, despite their pan-Islamist rhetoric, clearly retained a fixation on the respective nations from which they fled.  For the most part, they see the Arab Spring as a positive development, although they seem unsure what their role is in this new era and often seem to be struggling to interpret fast-moving events, sometimes adopting more moderate positions, sometimes reverting to comfortable anti-Western and extremist, anti-democratic tropes.  However, when looking at younger extremists born in the UK like Choudhary and his acolytes or Abdullah al-Faisal, a different tendency emerges.  In general, this group was initially enthusiastic about the Arab uprisings since they viewed them as realizations of their long-held calls for Islamic revolution across the Middle East.  But when the Arab rebellions have turned to ballot boxes, this group has fallen back to their old anti-democratic positions, and they have increasingly embraced ever more tenuous, even implausible, positions. For them, the ongoing strife in Syria is a clear-cut example of how the West is conspiring against Muslim warriors who are fighting for the oppressed masses.  They believe this despite the fact that strongest support for intervention comes from the West.[77]

 

The Post-Islamists

 

One potentially far-reaching effect of the Arab uprisings on Islamism in Europe has been to further distinguish between unrepentant old-style doctrinaire Islamists, such as Azzam Tamimi or the extremist Omar Bakri Mohammed, and those exiles gradually embracing a less ideologically rigid, “post-Islamist” outlook.  For the latter group, doctrinaire Islamism has become increasingly diluted by pragmatic considerations and influenced as well by a range of secular, liberal and democratic ideas, sometimes to the point of no longer being recognizably Islamist. This ideational journey has been arguably most pronounced among those Islamists whose high public profile has obliged them to engage extensively with Western thinkers, journalists and academics. In some instances, the events of the Arab Spring catalyzed and perhaps even accelerated this change of mind.  A good example of this is Dilwar Hussain, a well-educated former prominent supporter of a number of Jamaat-e-Islami-derived groups who is now the president of the Brotherhood-founded Islamic Society of Britain. In January 2012, he wrote an article on the Islamists and the Arab Spring:

While some are hailing this [the Arab Spring] as a success of “Islamism,” I would like to suggest—perhaps counter-intuitively—that it is actually an indication of the demise of Islamism; at least old-style, traditional Islamism of the type that sought to create an “Islamic state,” an Islamic version of a Hobbesian Leviathan to govern society.

He added:

For decades now, some activists have looked to the Islamist movements for inspiration. But with the recent developments post-Arab Spring, the evolution of the AKP in Turkey, and the natural process of settlement, some are arguing that the stratification developing within the Islamist movements is just as important as the split between Islamists and non-Islamist Muslim activists. If the old slogans of “Islam is the solution” are being replaced with notions of “freedom and justice” … what does that mean for Islamist-influenced movements and their agendas in the West?

He concluded that a

more open and embracing vision of who we are, and what Islam means to us will be realised [once] there is a shift towards a post-Islamist paradigm among activists in the West. But can this happen? I would argue that it must.[78]

A similar progression toward a less doctrinaire and more pragmatic understanding of how Islam and politics intersect can be seen in the writings of another previously prominent member of British Islamist circles, a convert to Islam, Sarah Joseph. In response to the Arab uprisings, she wrote of her loss of faith in simplistic Islamist arguments:

I am no longer a Utopian. I once believed that we could create an ideal community or society, where justice reigned and people committed themselves to its maintenance because it was worth the sacrifice. However, life has shown me that this is unlikely, and idealised communities are probably not possible on this earth. Not even the Prophet’s community was filled with faultless individuals, all living in perfect harmony and peace.[79]

It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that other Islamist activists will also come to realize that their idealistic conceptions of an “Islamic State” will not provide solutions to any of the social, political and economic woes facing Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, such a realization has led other UK-based Islamists even further down the path toward explicitly rejecting Islamism altogether. For instance, Inayat Bunglawala, who was formerly the main spokesman for Muslim Council of Britain and who was for many years one of the most prominent defenders of Islamism in the UK, wrote in January 2012 that,

When I was younger I was taught by many senior Muslim leaders in the UK and elsewhere that secularism was akin to atheism and that only a truly Islamic state which enforced the Shariah would provide the real answer to humanity’s problems. Looking back, I just shake my head and can’t believe I actually swallowed that argument for so long. It is just so embarrassing. By contrast, the Arab Spring has brought many welcome developments, particularly the fact the people in Egypt and Tunisia have now been able to freely elect their own leaders. One can only hope that the leaders of the Islamic-minded parties that have won those elections now look to best serve their people with honesty and humility. An “Islamic state” which does not respect the human rights of all its people including freedom of religion and gay rights would necessarily be an unjust state.[80]

Bunglawala’s statements are typical of how some high-profile Islamists have shifted some of their perspectives over time thanks to extensive debate and engagement with non-Islamists.  This is an indication of how “critical engagement” with Islamists in the West can potentially be useful in challenging fundamental Islamist tenets and promoting greater ideological moderation. That said, as in the case of Helbawy, Bunglawala’s political views have only partially moderated.  On his blog, for example, he frequently obsesses over Jews and Israel, recently defending the winning image of Iran’s 2006 Holocaust Cartoon competition,[81] blamed anti-Islamist campaigning on the conspiracies of “the pro-Israel lobby,”[82] referred to the British ambassador to Tel Aviv as “our Jewish ambassador”[83] and so on.

Tariq Ramadan, likewise, remains a controversial figure for critics of Islamism.  But it is notable that since the start of the uprisings, Muslim Brotherhood organizations both in the West and in the Middle East have almost ceased to mention or reference him.  This likely has to do with Ramadan’s willingness to be critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and its doctrinaire ideology. Ramadan has broadly aligned himself with a number of new Islamist trends which look to Turkey’s AKP and to the so-called “Turkish model” in their efforts to create what they describe as a “democratic civil State.”[84] Simultaneously, he has described the traditional Islamism of the Brotherhood not as divine, but as a political and man-made movement that represents an “ideological response which must be assessed in the light of the prevailing issues of the day.”[85] He has also criticized the youth-led Egyptian Islamist trend, stating that it “essentially accepts the capitalist order—which I am not happy with,”[86] and has further argued that “some Islamist parties—are playing with Islam in an attempt to gain legitimacy.”[87] Moreover, he has complained that “a veil of silence has fallen over Bahrain,” and that Sunni Islamists have broadly welcomed this for their own sectarian reasons.[88]

Recently, Ramadan has said, “I am not a member of the Brotherhood. My vision is completely different. My aim is to be critical of what they say about Sharia—how it should be implemented and how it should not.”[89] Like many of Ramadan’s pronouncements, this one is opaque.  But this statement does broadly summarize Ramadan’s current position—i.e., that he is not formally part of the Muslim Brotherhood and yet sees himself as part of an evolving Islamist trend, which Ramadan apparently believes he can better influence as a critical and supportive outsider than as a card-carrying member of any political organization. Furthermore, Ramadan’s exclusion from many Western Islamist events may indicate a fear in these circles that even Ramadan, one of Islamism’s most potent assets, may himself be heading down the path toward “post-Islamism.”  Alternatively, this may indicate that in an age when the Brotherhood is openly forming parties, lobbying voters and putting forward candidates for Arab presidencies, Ramadan’s notorious fence-sitting on controversial political and ideological issues, and refusal to commit himself to any clear-cut position, is no longer appreciated.[90]

Conclusions

 

UK Islamism, like Islam in Britain as a whole, remains very much a cacophony of disparate trends and a work in progress whose ultimate trajectory is hard to determine. Given the enormous diversity of Islamist groups and individuals in the UK, no single pattern defines Islamists’ reactions to the Arab Spring. At the same time, however, the Arab uprisings have clearly shaken up the often stagnant waters of British Islamism, catalyzing change and accelerating existing trends; sometimes triggering new moderation and pragmatism, in other instances reinforcing existing extremist views. In response to the Arab Spring, some Islamist activists who found refuge in the West grew noticeably more moderate and open-minded, even to the point of abandoning Islamist doctrine or breaking openly with their own organizations. Others, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and those from the deeply anti-democratic extremist trend within UK Islamism (including some Brotherhood members), grew evermore entrenched in their doctrines and conspiracy theories, and even more suspicious of anything new.  Similarly, the Arab Spring has underscored that, in almost all instances, returning Arab exiles who have spent time in Europe know the West better than it knows them, while their experience in the West has also made them far more politically and media savvy than previous generations.

That said, not all exile groups used their time in exile to re-organize, to acquire new skills, and to rebrand and reshape their political messages. For instance, the UK-based leaders of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood seem to continue to be isolated in the era of the Arab Spring. Their efforts to overthrow Bashar al-Assad have been historically unpopular in London Islamist circles because of Assad’s support for Hamas. Unlike al-Nahda, exiled members of the Syrian Brotherhood (and particularly their most prominent member, the shy, reticent and non-English speaking Ali Bayanouni) did not court Western policymakers, or potential political allies or journalists, and they have failed to forge ties with other Islamists as well as other exile communities like Syrian Kurds and Christians. As such, the Syrian Brothers have been unable to do much to persuade UK or international audiences of the importance of supporting the rebellion against the Assad regime.  Indeed, the Syrian Brotherhood has struggled to convince Syrians in exile and in Syria itself mainly because these audiences lack confidence in the group’s professed moderation.[91]

The impact of the Arab Spring on “homegrown” Islamist parties and UK-born individuals has also been pronounced.  While many UK-born extremists were initially enthusiastic about the Arab Spring, they rapidly demonstrated their inability to do much beyond commenting and organizing protests outside embassies. For some groups—most notably Hizb ut-Tahrir—the lack of radical “Islamic” change in the Middle East following the Arab uprisings has left them disillusioned.  These extremists have already rationalized the failure of their much hoped-for Khilafa to appear by retreating into old tropes about Western domination and conspiracy.  As the Brotherhood and its affiliated groups increasingly exercise political power in the Arab world, this extremist position seems evermore absurd. Because of their incapacity to respond to the new political opportunities created by the Arab Spring, these extremist groups and their ideology risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring has given more open-minded Islamists—including both exiles and UK-born, as well as Arab and non-Arab—the opportunity to reconsider simplistic ideological perspectives that “Islam is the solution” as well as their long-standing prejudices against the West and their delusions about Western conspiracies against Islam.   Others, most notably pro-Hamas activists, have taken a longer-term view of the Arab uprisings, portraying them as events leading one step closer to the fulfillment of their doctrinal goals of destroying Israel.

In addition to shaking up Islamist ideas and sharpening divisions within the Islamist movement, the Arab uprisings have also impacted the organizational structures, practices and capacities of some Islamist movements in the UK.  Indeed, the return of exiles to the Middle East has meant that the leadership of some UK-based Islamist movements—most notably those connected to the Tunisian and Egyptian Brotherhoods—have been weakened or hollowed out.  Over the longer term, it is possible that the continued migration of senior leaders and organizers from the UK in particular is going to have a damaging effect on the capacity of Islamist movements to propagate their own ideas in the West. After all, the Arab Spring has already plucked away some of UK Islamism’s most able and experienced political organizers as well as some younger risings stars, like the Scottish-born Osama Saeed, a former MAB youth leader who now works for al-Jazeera in Qatar.  Now, in groups like the MAB, there is simply no younger generation ready to take over from older leaders. By contrast, other groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun’s radical offspring have lost few senior leaders to the Arab Spring and, even though their political agendas appear increasingly less relevant, these groups still maintain large memberships of younger and ambitious activists.  Will this mean, therefore, an acceleration of the increasing trend toward moderation among young British Muslims due to a general weakening of Brotherhood groups in the West and the descent of extremist groups into ever-deeper obscurantism? Or will the weakening of UK-based Brotherhood groups create a vacuum into which more extremist groups will step? Either way, it is already clear that while many Islamists arrived in the West hoping to change it, it was instead in many cases the West that changed them. It is also clear that the Arab Spring and its future course will play a decisive role in shaping the evolution of Islamism in the UK and throughout other Western Muslim communities.

James Brandon is a Principal Analyst with global risk analysis firm Maplecroft and is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College. He was formerly Director of Research at the Quilliam Foundation.

 

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).


[2]. In 1964. FOSIS arranged for Malcolm X to speak at Manchester and Sheffield universities, during a visit to the UK.http://www.workershistory.org/linked_docs/NWLHJ27_Sherwood.pdf.

[4]. Philip Lewis, Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity Amongst British Muslims(London: I. B. Tauris, 1994), p.102.

[7]. This included the website Tajdeed.net, which became a key forum for the dissemination of radical ideas and material worldwide. Even though al-Massari claimed to have shut the website down in 2005, it remains in operation.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4191396.stm. The site is accessible here:http://tajdeed.net/.

[10]. “Interview transcript: Rachid Ghannouchi,” Financial Times, January 18, 2011,http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/24d710a6-22ee-11e0-ad0b-00144feab49a.html#axzz1q9NysppY.

[12]. Cited in Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 206.

[14]. Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[15]. Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 249.

[17]. Ferjani’s skill in winning such representational leverage for the Brotherhood is remarkable given that the Brotherhood controls no more than 5 out of the UK’s estimated 900 mosques. It is also worth noting that the other three founding organizations were the al-Khoei Foundation, a Shia organization headquartered in America; the British Muslim Forum, that is now largely defunct; and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an organization with close foundational links to Jamaat-e-Islami.

[19]. Paul Goodman, “MINAB’s mosques may not be so moderate,” Daily Telegraph, November 30, 2007,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3644400/MINABs-mosques-may-not-be-so-moderate.html.

[27]. “Islamists’ Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia,” New York Times, February 17, 2012,http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/world/africa/tunisia-islamists-test-ideas-decades-in-the-making.html?hp.

[32]. In London, Ghannouchi was particularly notorious among Arab activists for his use of the UK’s litigant-friendly libel laws to silence criticism and perceived inaccuracies, for instance, winning £61,000 from the Al-Arab newspaper in 2003 and £165,000 from the Al-Arabiya channel in 2008; http://www.carter-ruck.com/documents/newsletters/pdfs/newsletter_summer2008.pdf.

[36]http://ikhwanmisr.net/article.php?id=22724. He also made the claim to a rather surprised-looking BBC Politics show in early 2011,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12356922.

[38]. Ibid.

[39]. Author interview, former jihadist, London, May 2012.

[47]. Al-Tikriti is the son of the leader of Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood and has attempted to acquire funding from the British government, most notably through the Cordoba Foundation, an NGO that acts as a forum for pro-Islamist thought in the UK;http://www.fairobserver.com/article/western-fear-%E2%80%98islamist-other%E2%80%99.

[53]. Hizb ut-Tahrir, “Press launch of ‘Gold Standard’,” March 22, 2012,http://www.thegoldreport.co.uk/publications/gold-standard-the-future-for-a-stable-global-currency.

[60]. “Islamic awakening—Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen riots demonstrations reveloution (sic),” uploaded January 28, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHXw137CbEo.

[61]. “An address to the Muslims of Syria,” February 1, 2012,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTX4qaghWOQ.

[62]. The grammatical error is Bakri’s and is a reference to a famous British advertisement slogan for a chocolate bar.

[63]. “Muslim cleric banned from Britain claims al Qaeda poised to launch suicide attacks in Syria,” Telegraph, January 25, 2012.

[66]. Ibid.

[67]. Ibid.

[71]. “Tunisia still in ‘revolutionary mood’,” Press TV, January 20, 2011,http://edition.presstv.ir/detail/161086.html.

[72]. “Massive protests loom in Saudi Arabia,” Press TV, March 5, 2011.

[73]. “Egyptian Islamists in Exile Call on Army to side with people,” Asharq al-Awsat, February 1, 2011. This was clearly a departure for a man who has long been on the UN- and US-sanctioned terrorist list and started his career as the lawyer for Egyptian Islamic Jihad members;http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/pdf/AQList.pdf.

[74]. “Is al Qaeda over? Egyptian security experts sound off,” Asharq al-Awsat, September 13, 2011.

[75]. “Egypt Uprising the Middle East Crisis XV: London-based Egyptian Islamist Yasser al-Sirri calls to block international shipping in the Suez Canal and to halt the flow of oil,”MEMRI, Special Dispatch no.3557, February 3, 2011,http://www.memri.org/report/en/print4971.htm.

[77]. A final detail to note, however, in the British jihadist scene is that the vast majority of the current generation of British jihadists find their roots in South Asia. For them, while events in the Arab world have some salience—and in particular amongst those animated by pan-Islamist ideas—their focus has tended to be towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is hard to find much evidence of impact from the Arab Spring. For them, the events in the Arab Spring did little to undermine the injustice of the current war in Afghanistan or drone strikes in Pakistan, key issues that dominate their outlook.

[90]. It is true, however, that Ramadan’s recent move to Qatar to become head of the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), a Qatari government project that is also supported by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, complicates such analysis. And yet, at the same time, Ramadan’s relocation to Qatar can equally be seen as a reminder that the Brotherhood’s members are often distinguished not by strict fidelity to any single idea but rather by a hunger for money and proximity to power, Qatar of course being the richest and most important power-broker in the new Middle East. It is worth adding, however, that a rejection of Islamist doctrines does not necessarily lead individuals to become more moderate or democratic, or for that matter, less hostile to the West. Indeed, several individuals above remain religiously or socially conservative, for instance on issues relating to women, and deeply hostile to Israel to the point of anti-Semitism. Others may also retain an “us vs. them,” almost tribalist, orientation and an unthinking support for the “Muslim” side in political conflict, a trend sometimes referred to among British Muslims as “Muslim-ism.”

[91]. It is worth highlighting that this does not mean that the Syrian revolution is not something that has been noted by the British public at large, or the Islamist community in particular. As we saw earlier, it continues to be a focus of the British Islamist conversation, as well as the public discourse in general. What is clear, however, is that the Syrian Brotherhood members based in the UK have played no role in advancing this narrative or shaping the message.

Had a pause in short article writing of late as have been bogged down with larger commitments. However, in the meantime, wrote a couple of short op-eds for what is becoming a regular column for 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) touching upon the riots in the UK and the taking of Tripoli last week (with retrospect there are aspects of the UK one that I am less happy about). The English I submitted is below, and before it a link to the Chinese. More longer pieces in the pipeline on terrorism and China.

Lessons from Libya (In Chinese)

This week’s take-over of Tripoli by the rebel forces opposed to General Gadaffi has stirred a mixture of emotions. In the first place, there is a certain gratefulness that events in Libya are moving towards some sort of resolution. But while some in Europe are proud of the role that they played in ousting him from his position in power, there is an underlying sense of concern about what happens next. Nevertheless, it now seems clear that his time in charge of Libya is up and there are some lessons that can be usefully drawn from the experience of ousting him.

First of all, NATO, the EU and the US should be careful to celebrate this victory as their own. While it seems doubtful that the rebels would have done so well without their support, the fact remains that NATO was running out of ammunition and there is a growing uncertainty in Europe about what they are doing in Libya. There is also still no clear sense that Europe went into Libya with any sort of a clear strategy. All of this is a reflection of weakness rather than success.

Secondly, success in intervening here does not mean NATO now has to (or wants to) intervene in Syria. This is not hypocritical or evidence of double standards. The reality is that you can only become involved where you can make a difference and where you have support. No one liked Gadaffi so support was easy to find, and support came in the form of low-risk airstrikes in support of rebels that shielded NATO from too many casualties on the ground. All easily manageable. Syria, however, would be a very different proposition – quite aside from having a different capacity to respond (Syria is a longtime supporter of militant groups outside its borders), there is nowhere near the consensus in the international community. And of course there is the reality that NATO forces are now stretched over two battlefields (and subsidiary operations in Cote d’Ivoire and Iraq).

The point is that the reality on the ground is different. To call this hypocritical is simplistic and somehow assumes that we live in a world where absolute and universal rules apply. The world is complex and requires different responses that are often dictated by capacity. A one-size fits all policy in international relations is a recipe for disaster.

Thirdly, UN sanctions and resolutions do not equal armed intervention. In this case, it now seems clear that NATO, the EU and the US decided to take the initial sanctions against Gadaffi to their furthest possible point. This meant in the first place to protect Misrata and the other parts of the country Gadaffi had said he was going to crush, and secondly to support a rebellion to oust a leader who had mismanaged his country for four decades. This is a specific set of reactions to a specific situation. In other instances where sanctions have been imposed nothing has followed – for example, Iran, where the EU and US continue to push sanctions – there has been no subsequent military intervention. This means that we need not fear that sanctions against the Syrian regime would necessarily lead to conflict on the ground.

Chinese friends I have spoken to express a great sense of confusion over what the EU and US think they are doing in Libya. They see vast amounts of money being spent with no clear outcome. They worry precedents are being set in international policy that may lead to other problems down the line. While some of these concerns are well placed (going in with no apparent plan as NATO did is certainly not sound policy), the overarching point that they are missing is that a bad dictator has been removed from power and is no longer destroying his own country. In time a new democratically elected government will emerge that will mean that Libya is finally able to interact with the world on its own terms. This is an outcome that is in everyone’s favor. What this does not mean is that this is going to be the strategy that will be pursued in every situation.

Anarchy in Europe (In Chinese)

Britain ablaze, Greece on strike, and lunatics planting bombs and shooting people in Oslo – Europe seems an increasingly dangerous and chaotic place. But what is behind this growing anarchy, and why it is suddenly expressing itself with such fury now?

There are a number of reasons: from social disaffection and anger, to economic hardship and disenfranchisement, to a general anger at elites that it is no longer felt represent the public. It is not, as some have suggested, all a cause and effect from the economic crisis, but rather it is a complex set of issues that all feed off each other to create a multiplier effect that explodes in the violence that we can still see on London’s streets today.

To start with my hometown, London: the trouble there started off as a peaceful public protest in a community with tense relations between police and locals after police shot and killed a young man. This event appears to have been hijacked by local youths and petty criminals who used this as a pretext to launch a violent assault on city centers taking advantage of the opportunity to loot and steal as much as they could. This in turn inspired other communities to launch copycat efforts around the country and the end result has been chaos in major British cities.

It is far too early to say exactly why this has all taken place, but a part of it is clearly anger is directed at ruling elites that are perceived have no connection to the community. Similar, but much less violent expressions of displeasure were seen last year during protests linked to the government decision to charge for university places. This group has moved beyond an expression of political anger to wanton destruction. But nonetheless one of the direct causes of the current trouble are local tensions between police and the community.

This anger at elites is further reflected in the current protests and strikes across Europe, including the months long sit-ins taking place in Spain and the repeated stoppages in Greece and Italy. In all these nations, the publics are tired of listening to politicians that they do not feel represent them. Many young feel that they simply do not have a place in society or cannot get good jobs and end up migrating elsewhere to seek their fortunes. In an ironic twist, in Belgium, the situation has gotten so bad that the nation has not had an elected government for over a year – instead a technocratic administration has managed the nation. In the capital where the EU has its bureaucratic heart, the local government has very little credibility with its domestic audience.

On the more dangerous end of the scale are individuals like Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian self-styled crusader who was so angered at his government’s allowing of Muslim immigrants into the nation that he decided to punish the ruling party. Using a massive car bomb in the city center followed by a shooting of a group of young aspirant politicians, Breivik’s act was in retaliation for what he sees as the conquering of Europe by Muslims and the fact that no-one in Europe is doing anything about it. He particularly blamed the ruling Labor Party in Norway for letting this happen, and consequently targeted them for punishment in late July of this year.

The running thread through all of this is mistrust in government – something that is going to be further accentuated as economies collapse and debt numbers go through the roof. European publics have already stopped voting in elections in ever increasing numbers, now they are turning to other ways of expressing their distaste in their governments. There are clear lessons here for government’s about the importance of finding ways to connect with their publics.

A new post for Whose World Order? this time based around comments I heard at an event I attended in Shanghai. Very interesting debate, more of which will feature in future posts once I get around to writing them. Note the quote that I left under the original post, a lovely quote I meant to include but omitted. Oh well.

Shanghai View: China as an external actor

Date: 30th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: ChinaMiddle East And North Africa,
Tags: None

Recently, with Jonas Parello Plesner, I wrote a policy paper in which we suggested that China’s reaction to Libya was something that reflected the glimmers of a new foreign policy direction for China. While I have since had some push back from foreign friends who tell me that we are focusing too much on one instance to read a bigger trend, I listened to an interesting presentation by a Chinese friend the other day in which he berated his leadership for their incapacity to act on the international stage.

The presentation came during a two-day conference on what Afghanistan was going to look like post- the US withdrawal. The event itself was a small discussion with long presentations and short discussions. Two elements leapt out at me: first was the fact that over two days of discussions (with mostly Chinese speakers) there was next to no outline of what a Chinese strategy towards Afghanistan (or Pakistan) might look like, and second, the final presentation by a Chinese friend that was a full-on broadside at China’s inactive foreign policy. In no uncertain terms he said that non-interference was another way of saying, “do nothing at all.”

With specific reference to Libya, he praised the successful evacuation of Chinese citizens, but also quoted Churchill’s comments after Dunkirk, that “wars are not won by evacuations.” In fact, he was rather condemning of the fact that it had taken the Chinese government so long to reach out to the rebel’s side when it was clear that they were headed for victory in the long run. Gadaffi was a busted flush, and the Chinese government (that has never liked Gadaffi for various reasons – his support of Taiwan, his former foreign minister’s comments about Chinese colonialism in Africa and Gadaffi’s own comments comparing what he was doing to Tiananmen Square), should have taken less than 80 days to get around to reaching out to the other side.

And the problems were not solely linked to indecision: there was also a very basic lack of capacity within the government in foreign policy terms. People had no idea about the Sunni-Shia difference and there was incomprehension about why the Iranians and the Saudis hated each other so much. This is something I have also heard in industry, where the big State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), have difficulties figuring out whom to send abroad to run their factories or branches since their staff have very little experience with the world. The government has been advocating for companies to reach out to gain managerial capacity and expertise from American or European counterparts.

Overall, his sense (and that of most participants) was that China had generally chosen to abrogate its policy in the Middle East and North Africa since it was a bit too far from home and it was a European/American sphere of interest. While China may have interests there, there was no particular interest in the body politic to actually go out and do anything about this. Instead, the focus was domestic, or more generally focused on waiting to see how things shake out over time while continuing to pursue new investments where they can be advanced.

But the problem with this is two-fold: first of all, this means China will wander into more situations like Libya where almost $20 billion has been written off and 30,000+ people have been evacuated at great expense and effort at short notice. And/or secondly, China will be obliged to simply go around paying people off to protect their interests in the world. The problem with this of course is that pay-offs will simply attract more predators. After it was discovered that the Italian government would tend to pay for its people who were being kidnapped in Iraq or North Africa, Italians were more actively targeted.

The discussion did not particularly come to an absolute conclusion. Instead, it circled around a group of serious thinkers who all seemed to agree with the broad conclusion that China’s foreign policy needed adjustment and in a more proactive direction. While a fellow foreign participant who was new to discussions with China was quite alarmed by this, in many ways it struck me as a potentially positive shift, showing China’s growing willingness to mature as a foreign policy actor. This was not quite the “responsible stakeholder” that Robert Zoellick had called for, but it was the inklings of a China that saw its interests lay beyond its borders as well. How it advances them, however, will be the subject of discussion for the next five years at least.