The former head of “Prevent” on how radicalisation can be counteredby Arthur Snell / February 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
At the beginning of 2008 I started a new job with a refreshingly clear objective: “to reduce the risk to the UK from radicalisation overseas.” As the head of Foreign Office “Prevent” counter-radicalisation programme I knew what I had to do. The hard bit was figuring out how. Radicalisation is something that happens in private places, in closed online forums and inside people’s minds. If we succeeded in preventing a future terrorist action, we would never know. When we failed to prevent an attack, it would be painfully obvious, as has become clear in recent days.
It is easy to get angry about Ronald Fiddler, aka Abu Zakariya al-Britani, a British terrorist and member of Islamic State who carried out a suicide bombing killing Iraqi soldiers near Mosul on Sunday, according to an Islamic State media release. In the ghoulish IS propaganda, Fiddler is seen grinning maniacally as he appears to be wired up to a car bomb. One’s sense of disgust only increases on learning that Fiddler had received £1m from the British government. You don’t have to be a Daily Mail reader to feel suckered.
But Fiddler’s story is complex: he was a British-born man of Jamaican heritage who had converted to Islam as a teenager. Shortly after 9/11 he went on what he described as a “religious holiday” to Pakistan and captured by the Taliban on suspicion of being a British spy. On his release by US forces in 2002, he was detained and sent to Guantanamo. On his release in 2004, after extensive lobbying by the British government, supported across the media and the political spectrum, he was lionised as a victim of a failed policy of extra-legal internment, and even briefed the Council of Europe on his experiences of mistreatment in Guantanamo. In 2010, Fiddler received his £1m payment as part of a confidential settlement, paid to prevent the British government having to reveal in a court secret intelligence relating to his imprisonment. It was not compensation; it was a confidentiality payment.
In 2014, Fiddler, who admitted he knew little about Islam, travelled to IS in Syria and became a fighter. In a poignant illustration of how radicalisation destroys families,Fiddler’s wife and five children travelled to Syria and begged him to return to the UK, to no avail.
In the light of his death, there has been much outcry in the press, with gleeful replaying of the then Home Secretary David Blunkett’s statement that, “no-one who is returned…will actually be a threat to the security of the British people.” Given that Fiddler was a high profile individual, it is reasonable to conclude that there was a failure of intelligence on his joining IS. I recognise some personal responsibility here: I had no direct connection with the Fiddler case, but there is a wider point that his activities were clearly insufficiently monitored and he was able to be further radicalised.
But radicalisation is not a linear path. We cannot assume that Fiddler was at one point a peaceful person at ease with himself and his faith and gradually became angrier, more militant and motivated to take up arms. The US authorities alleged Fiddler had been connected with al-Qaida as early as the 1990s in Sudan. This has never been confirmed, but the decision to take a religious holiday in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas after 9/11 appears at best naïve. He may of course have been radicalised as result of his experiences in Guantanamo, which allegedly included torture and humiliation. But he may equally have resolved these issues on his return to Britain to something of a hero’s welcome. Perhaps, in 2010, Fiddler had no intention of becoming a terrorist.
In many cases the emergence of IS as a territorial entity has proved a key turning point in the path to radicalisation. There now exists a self-declared caliphate in the historic heart of Islam, ruled by a caliph (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) who claims descent from the prophet Muhammad. The hijrah, the emigration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca, where they faced hostility, to Medina, where they established a secure foothold, is a key element of Islamic history. In the modern day, hijrah in emulation of Muhammad’s example is a topic in endless online forums and IS propaganda vehicles, with the idea of living in the so-called Islamic State held up as a goal.
This has proved attractive to Muslims from across the world: it is estimated that 850 Britons are based there, alongside recruits from over other 50 countries. Fiddler’s Caribbean heritage would not have been unique: there are, for example, around 100 Trinidadians in the Islamic State. One of them, Abu Sa’at al-Trinidadi told Dabiq, IS’s in-house magazine, “when we first made hijrah, we never imagined that we would witness the dream of Caliphate becoming a reality… But by Allah’s grace… I saw that dream become a reality.” In this view of Islam, it is a duty of believers to travel to Syria. As al-Trinidadi put it in his message to Muslims in Trinidad: “Years have gone by and you still haven’t performed hijrah to the land of Islam, your land, the place that we used to speak about and dream of. It has become a reality, and yet you’ve are amongst those who remained behind.” Quite possibly it took the declaration of the caliphate in 2014 for Fiddler to decide he needed to be there. Radicalisation can take years, but in some cases happens remarkably quickly.
We may never know the full story of Fiddler’s path to this suicide bombing outside Mosul. But an important question remains over whether the authorities can better identify radicalisation as it occurs. Some aspects of his case are significant. Converts to Islam represent a small proportion of global Muslims but are significantly over-represented among Islamist terrorists. Converts may have a less detailed and nuanced understanding of their new faith and are so more susceptible to being misled, as a recent study observed.
Lacking an understanding of Islam is a key point: Fiddler reportedly felt he knew little about the faith, even though he had embraced it decades earlier. Many studies of Muslim radicalisation focus on the ideologies of terrorism, sometimes described as takfirism, without acknowledging that many adherents seem to have scant knowledge of their professed religion. Joining IS is like joining a street gang: it gives a sense of belonging, of purpose and camaraderie. But, unlike a criminal gang, IS also gives its adherents the chance to believe they are warriors in an epic global battle. When we start to see radicalisation as a social problem, touching on mental health, self-esteem and loneliness, we may start to be better at identifying and preventing the Ronald Fiddlers of the future.