Will Baldet, a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Prevent coordinator
The residual threat posed by the banned terrorist group al-Muhajiroun (ALM) group is matched by the enduring public curiosity that it provokes. The symbiotic relationship between the threatening rhetoric that the group employs and the resulting fascination with its activities has played to the group’s strategy of courting attention and transmitting their ideology to a larger audience. For many years the media fed this preoccupation by promoting the provocative exploits of ALM and publishing interviews with its most prominent spokesman, the deceptively outlandish Anjem Choudary.
The recent conviction in the United Kingdom of Brusthom Ziamini, an incarcerated terrorist linked to ALM and now guilty of conducting Britain’s first terrorist attack inside a prison, has brought the group back into the spotlight. While the media and the public remain curious about the continued misadventures of ALM and its devotees, it is academia that has shown the greatest interest in the group. The relationship between ALM activists and the plethora of academics studying terrorism, counter terrorism and radicalisation can, at times, be distinctly exploitative. Some activists regard academia as an uncritical — even sympathetic — ally that can absolve them of their culpability for the UK’s continuing terrorism threat. In the most egregious instances, there are activists who have made use of academic interest to amplify the ALM ideology in ways that might validate it.
Two recent books on this topic, The Islamic State in Britain by Michael Kenney and Al-Muhajiroun: A Case Study in Contemporary Islamic Activism by Doug Weeks, attempt to improve our understanding of ALM. Both books should be praised for the rich detail they bring in capturing the group’s evolution and tactics. Kenney delves deep into their most recent organisational structure and sets out the purpose behind their Dawah (proselytising) stalls that disseminate propaganda, recruit new followers and invite people to private halaqah (study) sessions. It provides a useful guide to the role these halaqahs play in reinforcing the ALM worldview and strengthening social and familial networks.
Weeks, by contrast, has gathered a volume of data unrivalled in academia. It would be impossible to overstate just how unprecedented this quantity of primary material on the history and evolution of ALM over the years is. Although much of the narrative comes directly from a three-day interview with ALM’s founder, Omar Bakri Mohammed — and should be caveated as such — it is fair to say that policy makers, law enforcement, intelligence agencies and academics will genuinely improve their understanding of ALM’s early ideological development. In particular, it provides a level of detail never seen before on the group’s adoption of Salafi-Jihadism.
Both authors recognise that ALM is a mostly degraded organisation. However, both present a version of ALM that does not reflect the ‘long tail’ of this particular serpent and the threat it continues to pose. They are right to say that as a structured group ALM is in disarray, with its remaining activists more akin to a fractured (and fractious) social movement. Nevertheless, although ALM currently lacks the trappings of more formal organisations, and has mutated to adapt to law enforcement pressure, it would be a mistake to underplay the potential threat that its structural remnants continue to present. The failure to acknowledge that reality risks framing its former members as benign activists rather than adherents of a banned terrorist group. It is possible that, as a result of spending significant time with individual activists and developing an intense, interpersonal empathy with them, the fundamental nature of the group has been obscured. While a degree of empathy is vital to understand radicalisation and facilitate disengagement from it, we should never lose sight of the goals their terrorist cause seeks to realise nor how dangerous an adherent can be if the right factors coalesce.
Frustratingly, Kenney’s book ends prior to the establishment of Islamic State and ALM’s pledge of allegiance to its Caliph: perhaps the most significant event in ALM’s history. Additionally, whatever access to the group Kenney may have had, the book feels constrained to a number of interviews spread over a few years and the author’s attendance at several Dawah stalls. One might question whether there is a flaw in the author’s model of ‘ethnography’, a process that would typically involve immersing oneself in the group over a prolonged period, living amongst research participants and engaging in day-to-day activities with them. It should be recognised that the task of studying a group that has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation must inevitably have constrained the respondents’ openness in their interactions with an academic.
In contrast to the methodology that underpins Kenney’s book, Weeks immersed himself in every facet of the group for a period of nine years. He participated in their private halaqah sessions, attended their trials and engaged with their families. However, once the book moves from documenting ALM’s history to documenting their beliefs, it starts to unravel and, significantly, fails to contextualise these beliefs. For example, there are many pages articulating the Islamic foundations of the group’s religious dogma, which by their nature are common to many branches of Sunni Islamic tradition. Yet, there are relatively few on the aspects of ALM’s ideology which are unique to them, such as their vision of how Islamic law might be implemented in the UK. As a result, readers without prior knowledge might come away conflating ALM’s extreme political Islamism with orthodox Islam, an outcome that would no doubt please both Bakri and Choudhary.
Weeks also infers that involvement with ALM is a ‘safety valve’ for affiliates that can reduce the risk of violence through activism. This is a dangerously misleading conclusion. Individuals affiliated with ALM constitute less than 0.001% of the UK’s Muslim population yet have been linked to 50% of terrorist attacks. There are groups who agitate for political Islam that might conceivably act as pressure valves, capable of meeting the same social psychological needs without explicitly promoting violence, but ALM is emphatically not one of them. On the contrary, a group like ALM raises rather than lowers the pressure toward violent contention. Indeed, this is part of its appeal for those who join it.
Weeks goes on to suggest that suppressing the group’s activities may actually increase the risk by pushing someone towards violence. Given that all terrorist groups lay the responsibility for violence at the feet of their political enemies this is a dangerous, if unsurprising, assertion. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence to support such a conclusion. We should remember that ALM’s enthusiasm for mass violence against civilians pre-dates the British government’s proscription of the group by several years.
The concept of the ‘Covenant of Security’ — an agreement which prohibits attacks against non-Muslims under certain circumstances — is discussed heavily in each book. In fact, it is arguably (and curiously) a concept that is afforded greater prominence in these treatises than in ALM’s propaganda output, with both authors asserting the Covenant to be a core tenant of ALM and a barrier to its members engaging in violence. If that is the case, it is notable that the study provides no explanation of how members of the group reconciled the Covenant with their obligations towards a Caliphate which was actively at war with the West. To be blunt, they didn’t. From the Islamic legal perspective favoured by ALM, diplomatic relations fall under the authority of the Caliph and individuals cannot overrule him by entering into their own individual peace treaties with nations that are at war with the Caliphate.
The strength of academic sources like Kenney and Weeks is the thickness of description that they provide. Their weakness results from the dependency of the authors on data gathered from key respondents whose primary motivation is to influence rather than inform. The outcome is an excellent granular assessment of networks like ALM that unfortunately loses sight of the broader purpose of the enterprise. That is especially true in the account of the separation of ‘members’ from ‘intellectual affiliates’. The argument that members do not support violence and that it’s only disaffected former members, or individuals who affiliate to the group intellectually, who pose a risk of violence rests on a somewhat dubious distinction. It is one that, in effect, provides an alibi that the group does not deserve.
It is true that the primary risk of violence does not come from the core ideologues that the academics interviewed. However, neither author concedes that these individuals see their role as the encouragement of others to mobilise, without doing so themselves. Moreover, we know the long tail of ALM remains a residual but potentially significant threat. Most recently, that threat manifested in a foiled terrorist plot that targeted St Paul’s Cathedral in London in which their online propaganda was disseminated to and consumed by the now convicted terrorist, Safiyya Sheikh. Any discussion on ALM should recognise the availability of its members’ ideology online and acknowledge its continuing ability to inspire terrorism.
Since neither the public nor media interest in ALM is likely to wane any time soon, it is important they are not whitewashed as legitimate political agitators whose benign activism is unfairly and improperly hampered. The purpose of Al-Muhajiroun is to provoke, to divide, to radicalise and to mobilise beyond its own immediate circles. To put the point more starkly: it is not an accident when ideological affiliates like Brusthom Ziamani or Usman Khan go out and commit acts of terrorism, it is the desired outcome.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.