For some time now, the arguments on terrorism put forward by Western governments have exposed a paralysis of the political imagination. Officials issue statements that implicitly acknowledge that they have little idea of who or what constitutes the ‘enemy’. It seems that the conventional Hollywood caricature of a ruthless, professional, amoral maniac is no longer sufficient to cover today’s disturbing phenomenon of the homegrown terrorist.
In recent times, British officials have tried to harness public fears and anxiety about paedophilia as a way of explaining the threat from Al-Qaeda: they have talked about the ‘strangers’ in this terrorist outfit, and the ‘danger’ that they pose to ordinary people and their children. Now, Jonathan Evans, head of the British intelligence agency MI5, has used his first public speech to argue that the war on terrorism has effectively turned into a child protection issue. It seems that Evans and the rest of Britain’s security apparatus are most concerned about sleazy Al-Qaeda predators who prey on ‘vulnerable’ Muslim children and groom them to do their dirty work.
According to Evans, speaking yesterday at a gathering of newspaper editors in Manchester, England, Britain faces a ‘steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause’ (1). And since many of these new recruits are apparently children, the security services will have to draw on the expertise and techniques of the child protection industry in order to confront the threat of the new terrorism. ‘As a country, we are rightly concerned to protect children from exploitation in other areas. We need to do the same in relation to violent extremism’, said Evans. He continued: ‘As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country… they are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism.’
This presentation of potential terror recruits as vulnerable isolated children reveals more about the disorientation within officialdom than it does about the reality of terrorism. Instead of asking the question ‘What it is about the terrorists’ ideas that might attract a youthful following and why are “we” so inept at influencing these young people to take a different path?’, the authorities have diagnosed the problem as one of immature vulnerability amongst potential future terrorists.
Last week, the UK secretary of state for communities, Hazel Blears, announced that £70million would be spent on training Muslim ‘role models’ to counter the influence of terrorist groomers and to help imans ‘support their vulnerable charges’ (2). Blears imagines that these ‘vulnerable charges’ are similar to the stereotype of the lonely and isolated child as depicted in child protection literature. ‘In some cases, people are isolated from family and friends, indoctrinated and manipulated within a matter of months’, she claimed. And like real-life paedophiles, these terrorist groomers are apparently lurking everywhere you turn on the World Wide Web.
Officials feel more comfortable in discussing how to counter the influence that extremists exercise over young people on the internet than in outlining convincing ideas that might contain the extremists’ influence and win over the apparently vulnerable young audience. Yet in his speech, Evans acknowledged that ‘the source of the main national security problem’ is the impact of an ‘extremist ideology’; he said that the ‘root of the problem is ideological’. Typically, however, he said next to nothing about any ideas that might undermine the moral authority of the enemy and boost that of British officialdom.
Losing the battle for ideas
The principal reason why officials have become distracted by the fantasy of extremists grooming vulnerable children is because they feel insecure about engaging in a real battle of ideas. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, also had a habit of evading the real problem. A few years ago, she put forward a rather downbeat and pessimistic assessment of the threat posed by homegrown British terrorists, arguing that young Muslims are being radicalised on an unprecedented scale.
‘More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalised or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organised training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chatrooms and websites on the internet’, she warned (3). She expressed particular concern about the estrangement of young people from British society, observing: ‘It is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalised and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow UK citizens.’
It’s worth noting that this official anxiety about the threat of homegrown extremism marks a radical departure from how terrorism was conceptualised in the past. Today, terrorism is understood not simply as a physical threat; it is not only the capacity of the terrorist to wreak mass destruction that worries our leaders. They are also concerned about the moral and ideological power that terrorism seems to be able to exercise over significant sections of the British population.
The influence of terrorists over some members of the public means that today’s terror is viewed as an unparalleled danger. Why? Because it means that the battle for moral authority, especially in relation to youth, has become a central component of the war on terrorism. The arguments put forward by Mannigham-Buller and more recently Evans show clearly that this is also a war for people’s hearts and minds. And what is most striking about this battle of ideas is the defensiveness of the officials involved in it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that political and cultural elites in Western societies feel less than confident about winning on the battlefield of ideology.
Their concern about the powerful attraction of radical ideas, and how such ideas can apparently warp and win over young people, betrays their belief that they themselves could not possibly convince others about the superiority of the British or Western way of life. A couple of years ago, it was reported that intelligence officials were concerned about the way in which Islamic hip-hop artists were indoctrinating young people against the West… (4)
With all the talk about young Muslims being ‘indoctrinated’ through websites, jihadist videos and chatrooms, it easy to forget that Western societies themselves have powerful media networks that extend into almost every part of the world. How can relatively under-resourced small media outlets, such as jihadist websites, occasionally win out over the global media industry? Why have the Western media sometimes been unsuccessful in matching terrorist indoctrination with their own view of the world and what values are important? Concern about something like Islamic hip-hop is underpinned by a deep unease about the ability of pro-Western opinion-formers to convince young people with political arguments; concern about the fact that someone somewhere is giving vulnerable children dodgy ideas is underpinned by a profound doubt about the ability of Western culture to influence and inspire today’s youth. Analysts and opinion makers are reluctant to acknowledge the real, obvious problem here: ‘Why are we not giving young people ideas and an outlook on life?’
Politicians and others find it easier to issue handwringing statements about the influence of jihadist radicals on the World Wide Web than to dwell on the weakness of their own ideological case. Sometimes, Western leaders even contrive to present themselves as the underdogs fighting a technologically superior foe. So former UK prime minister Tony Blair once said, ‘[T]o give credit where it’s due, the extremists play our own media with a shrewdness that would be the envy of many a political party’. In truth, what really concerned Blair was not the communication skills of the extremists, but the seeming emptiness of his side of the argument (5).
Thankfully, at least one Blair appears to have resisted the temptation to present the influence of radical Islam as a process of impressionable fragile children being brainwashed. Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, has pointed out that young British Muslims are ‘willing to die for an idea’ and ‘this is a phenomenon we have not seen en masse since the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism’. Idealism seems to have been monopolised by the wrong side in this conflict. Ian Blair is particularly concerned about the fact that the Islamists’ ‘coherent narrative of oppressions, war and jihad’ seems ‘very potent’, and not just to immature young people:
‘One of the truly shocking things – in addition to their intent – is the apparent speed with which young, reasonably affluent, some reasonably well-educated British-born people were converted from what appeared to be ordinary lives – in a matter of some weeks and months, not years – to a position where some were allegedly prepared to commit suicide and murder thousands of people at the same time.’ (6)
To his credit, Ian Blair has not tried to hide behind the rhetoric of child protection. The reality is that it is not the ‘vulnerable’ but often the more idealistic and intellectually curious who are attracted to extremist ideas. Focusing on young vulnerable Muslims lets officialdom off the hook, allowing it to argue that the problem is impressionable immature minds, rather than the failure of society to inspire young people with a positive ideal of Britishness.
(1) ‘Intelligence counter terrorism and trust’, Address to the Society of Editors By the Director General of the Security Services / MI5, Jonathan Evans, 5th November 2007
(2) See ‘Internet used to target extremism’, BBC News, 31 October 2007
(3) Richard Norton-Taylor ‘MI5: 30 plots being planned in UK’, Guardian, 10 November 2006.
(4) The Times (London), 11 November 2006
(5) Blair (2006) p.16.
(6) Ian Blair, Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, ‘Speech for Urban Age Summit, Berlin, 11 November 2006