Counter intelligence: the West’s silly and sinister approach to radicalism

The West’s approach to identifying potential terrorists has been somewhat absurd, argues Arun Kundnani in his new book, which suffers itself from being insufficiently argued.

A young man in London in June 2006 protesting against the arrest of two brothers on terrorism charges that were later dropped completely. Molly Cooper / Photofusion / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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A few years ago, a friend in London’s Metropolitan Police who worked at Heathrow Airport trying to spot would-be terrorists approached me for some advice on how he could be more effective in his job.

I had recently completed postgrad studies in Muslim radicalisation and was working at a well-known think tank. I enthusiastically passed on the reading list of recent books and scholarship on jihadist radicalisation, hoping to inject a bit of liberal nuance into the blunt instrument of police profiling. But in the process, I got the uncomfortable feeling that all this learned theorising was actually useless to the man in the field.

At the time, a lot of seemingly progressive work was being done that tried to distinguish extremists from ordinary Muslims. It appealed to my liberal sensibilities, seeming to be an improvement on the blanket suspicion that had descended on the Muslim community in the wake of 9/11. Instead of blaming Islam as a whole, scholars were encouraging the UK and US governments to adopt a more scientific approach, looking for specific behaviours that might act as warning signs of a terrorist in the making.

Political Islam, or “Islamism”, was singled out. It was depicted as a dangerous ideological virus that was spreading through Muslim populations and turning anyone infected into a potential terrorist.

But the warning signs were hopelessly vague: “opposition to British foreign policy”, “feeling alienated from western culture”, “growing a large beard”. That placed thousands upon thousands of British Muslims in the “at-risk” category, while the actual number of violent jihadists remained minuscule.

Far from being either liberal or scientific, this new thinking on radicalisation continued to ­demonise a huge cross-section of the community.

Arun Kundnani's new book, The Muslims are Coming!, finally offers a thorough critique of the idea that Islamist ideology was any kind of indicator of violent impulses and details the often surreal responses that this notion encouraged among western security agencies.

The FBI poured millions into entrapping Muslims who may have once voiced a few radical views and were therefore considered to be on the road to terrorism. The most absurd case was that of James Cromitie, an unemployed former drug dealer who was offered US$250,000 (Dh918,000), a holiday and a BMW to get involved with a terrorist plot. The judge said at the time: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope”, but the jury still found him guilty and sent him down for 24 years.

In the UK, the government response was less gung-ho but perhaps even more insidious. Its counterinsurgency strategy, known as Prevent, seeks to find and monitor anyone holding “radical” or “un-British” views, regardless of whether they have shown any inclination towards violence. Anyone opposing the Iraq War or the occupation of Palestine suddenly became a potential terrorist. Kundnani is only slightly exaggerating when he says everyday life for these communities “increasingly resembles the patterns described in classic accounts of totalitarianism”, in which Muslims are forced into pathetic declarations of their love for supposedly “British values” such as parliamentary democracy and gay rights so they can prove they are not about to blow themselves up on the Tube.

This is not just a problem of civil liberties, he writes, it is impractical – swamping intelligence agencies with useless leads and further alienating the very communities that they are trying to bring onside. It also set the stage for ludicrous attempts by the British authorities to tell Muslims what their religion was really about. A sanctioned and sanitised version of Islam was put forward as the example of what a “good Muslim” should follow. Certain community leaders who could spout the right rhetoric – embracing democracy, moderation, spiritualism – were plied with cash and heralded as bearers of the “true Islam”, while others were denounced as “anti-western extremists”. These efforts bore little relation to the real debates within Islam, since they were designed to cater to the needs of British foreign policy.

Kundnani’s most profound point is that this process, which is frequently defended by ministers and commentators as a defence of “Enlightenment values”, actually undermines the central tenets of the Enlightenment – freedom of belief and freedom of expression.

Muslims, for example, are often denounced in the West for taking offence at certain books, images or cartoons. The right of Muslims to be offended becomes an indicator of radical tendencies and in the climate of the war on terror, singles them out not just as conservatives, but as potential terrorists.

For all Kundnani’s valuable insights, however, there is something unsatisfying about the book. He struggles to offer an alternative to profiling, arguing that the focus of counterterrorism should be on those who specifically incite violence. But this poses a near-impossible challenge for security agencies, since any terrorist with a modicum of sense will keep his violent schemes to himself until the last moment.

Kundnani repeatedly says that radicalisation is the solution, not the problem. Muslims must be free to voice radical political positions without fear of being tarred as terrorists, as this will involve them in legitimate democratic debate. “Al Qaeda’s violent vanguardism thrives in contexts where politics has been brutally suppressed or blandly gentrified,” he writes.

But this idea is never fully explored. There are hints that encouraging radical politics would involve the liberation of oppressed communities around the world – he mentions Egypt, Palestine and Somalia as places where western power has helped to suppress political freedoms, generating a backlash. But solutions to these problems cannot be found overnight and would never satisfy the truly extremist.

Nor is he correct to fully dismiss the power of religion and ideology in creating the psychological justifications and rewards needed to carry out acts of extreme violence. Politics may be the focus of a terrorist’s actions, but it is religion that provides the framework for understanding politics and helps to overcome fear. Regardless of how it started, the spread of a violent and nihilistic interpretation of Islam is now a fact in many places. The early attempts to counter that ideology may have been blunt and ineffective, but that is no reason to abandon them entirely. By focusing blame exclusively on western foreign policy, Kundnani seems to imply that terrorism is an inevitable by-product of the West’s violence and mistakes abroad.

But that does not help the security agencies tasked with preventing the next attack. Western democracies are not in a position to simply shrug off terrorism as an unfortunate consequence of pursuing their interests abroad. Leaders face immense pressure from the media, opposition and voters to be seen to be doing something. That pressure feeds down to people like my friend in the police force who has been told he must somehow spot the next suicide bomber before a plot is even hatched.

Terrorism breeds an irrational psychosis. Deep down, we know there is a vastly greater chance that we will die in a road traffic accident on the way to the airport than be blown up by a terrorist in mid-air, yet somehow we still acquiesce to the ridiculous routines at the security gate. And society has tolerated mass surveillance and profiling for the possibility that it may turn up the next terrorist needle in the haystack.

Kundnani is right to show how disturbing this surveillance state on Muslims has become, and he is particularly strong in showing how western countries portray themselves as blameless, even as they continue with their own brand of terrorism in the form of drone strikes and military invasions.

But his conspiratorial tone is off. The war on terror was not a plot by governments looking for an excuse to demonise Islam. Indeed, he reminds us of the long-forgotten fact that George W Bush strongly courted the Muslim community in his 2000 presidential campaign, seeing a kinship among fellow religious conservatives.

Rather, the massive overreaction that followed 9/11 was tragically typical of democracies, in which leaders live in perpetual fear of blame. The terrorists understood this point all too well – 9/11 was a huge success for the jihadist movement precisely because it turned communities in the West against each other, undermining their own liberal values and justifying the claim that there was a fundamental clash of civilisations underway between the West and Islam.

Real resilience would have required compassion and understanding, and Kundnani’s book is vital in showing how far from that ideal the West has strayed in its response to the jihadist threat. The hope is that the capacity for democracies to learn and adapt will allow these lessons to shape a new course in the coming years.

Eric Randolph is an Asia analyst for Thesigers research and consultancy firm.