Jihadists and spooks
Revelations about ‘Jihadi John’ have led to calls for more curbs on democracy and free speech, writes Eddie Ford
We have been deluged with endless details and speculation - most of it extremely idle - about the personality and motives of the 26-year-old Kuwaiti-born Londoner, Mohammed Emwazi (aka ‘Jihadi John’). Seemingly responsible for several video-taped beheadings, his apparent ambition when 10 was to be a professional footballer and his list of favourite things at that time was chips, the pop group, S Club 7, The Simpsons and the best-selling Goosebumps book, How to kill a monster. A favourite media image is of Emwazi, or ‘Mo’ as he liked to be called then, wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap.
He spent his early years in the “dirt-poor” district of Taima1 in Kuwait City, his father being a Bedoon who had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime - and like all Bedoons, was regarded by the authorities as an illegal immigrant.2 By various accounts, Emwazi - who arrived in Britain aged six and grew up in west London - was a polite, mild-mannered young man, and went to school at the Quintin Kynaston Academy. Two of his school contemporaries, as it turns out, later became jihadist fighters for Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Shabaab - both subsequently killed in action.
Rather embarrassingly, or perhaps fittingly, Quintin Kynaston was a favourite with Tony Blair when he was prime minister - he used it to launch his ‘extended schools’ scheme. Naturally, a statement from the school’s current leadership said they were “shocked and sickened” by the unmasking of Emwazi. One of his former teachers told the BBC that he was a “lovely, lovely boy” and had been considered a “success story” because he went to the university of his choice (ie, Westminster). He had, however, received anger management therapy after getting involved in fights. Apparently, he would get very “worked up” and it would take him a “long time to calm himself down”, so the school helped him to “control his emotions”.
Anyway, he graduated in computer studies and then drifted between jobs as a computer programmer and made efforts to move abroad after gaining a foreign-language teaching qualification - before eventually getting a job with an IT firm in Kuwait. Just like his school days, he was highly regarded - the “best employee we ever had”, who was “calm and decent”, yet withdrawn and not particularly sociable. A bit of an enigma, always slightly troubled. In April 2010 he requested emergency family leave to return to the UK. Emwazi’s Kuwaiti employers never saw him again.
What really happened, however, was that Emwazi was detained by counter-terrorism officials in Britain - who fingerprinted him and stopped him from returning to Kuwait. Emwazi had been on MI5’s radar since 2009, when he was refused entry to Tanzania. He insisted that he wanted to go on safari, but MI5 claimed he was using it as an entry point into Somalia as part of a plan to join al-Shabaab.
From there he was put on a plane to the Netherlands, where he was exhaustively questioned by the intelligence service, later saying in a series of emails that the British officers knew “everything about me”: ie, “where I lived, what I did, and the people I hanged around with”. He felt like a “person imprisoned and controlled” by the security service, which prevented him from living the new life he wanted in Kuwait. Indeed he said he already felt like a “dead man walking”. He also claims that he was asked to become an informant, but refused - an MI5 officer allegedly said that in that case “life would be harder” for him.
In fact, an audio tape from this period has emerged with him openly contemplating suicide just to get away from MI5 “harassment” . The recording was made by the advocacy group, Cage (formerly Cageprisoners, a London-based organisation founded by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee), whose stated aim is to “highlight and campaign against state policies developed as part of the war on terror”.3 In the tape, Emwazi says MI5 “threatened” him and tried to “put words into my mouth”. For example, an officer told him: “We’re going to keep a close eye on you, Mohammed. We already have been”. Emwazi said the agent also asked him what he thought of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and the July 7 2005 attacks in London. Emwazi replied “innocent people” had been killed in the attacks and it was “extremism”, and that what happened on 9/11 was “wrong”.
Four months after being refused re-entry to Kuwait, Emwazi sent an email to Asim Qureshi, Cage’s research director, expressing sympathy for Aafia Siddiqui - a Pakistani-born al-Qa’eda operative who had been sentenced in the US to 86 years in prison for assault and attempted murder.4 Qureshi says he last heard from Emwazi when he sought advice in January 2012, describing him as “extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”. Close friends of Emwazi interviewed by The Washington Post report that by this stage he was “desperate to leave the country” - apparently in 2012 he tried unsuccessfully to travel to Saudi Arabia to teach English. Some time that year, Emwazi finally ended up in Syria - and in the middle of the following year, according to some press stories, MI5 informed his family as to his current known location.
Creating much controversy, Cage held a press conference on February 26 chaired by none other than John Rees, former big-wig of the Socialist Workers Party and now Counterfire. At the event, Qureshi stated that Emwazi’s repeated detention and interrogation by the security services made him “susceptible” to “radicalisation”, and also justified Cage’s long-held view that jihadi violence is “driven” by the actions of the west. Amnesty International though was less than impressed by the press conference and is presently “reviewing whether any future association with the group would now be appropriate”.5 Furthermore, the Charity Commission confirmed on March 2 that it was “investigating” two major funders of Cage, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Anita Roddick Foundation. On the other hand, the commission complained that the recent public statements by Cage raise “clear questions” as to how the organisation could or should “comply with their legal duties as charity trustees”. In other words, don’t express sympathy for people who may become terrorists.
The Emwazi story obviously has strong echoes of Michael Adebolajo, the murderer of Lee Rigby in 2013, who later turned out to be well known to the security agencies - they attempted to recruit him too, if we are to believe what we read in the newspapers. Sir Menzies Campbell, an outgoing member of the intelligence and security committee, said he expected MPs to request - or demand - a report from the security services after the general election about their contacts with Emwazi: there must be answers. Very unhappy, David Davis, the former Tory shadow home secretary, bemoaned that Emwazi had been “allowed to escape” and become Islamic State’s “western poster boy”. This showed MI5 tactics were “ineffective” - fitting into a “worrying pattern” of complacency and bureaucratic inertia, he said. Instead of relying on “outdated tactics” like trying to recruit Islamists, Davis wrote in The Guardian, they need to be convicted and imprisoned - otherwise that leaves “known terrorists” free to “carry out evil deeds and to recruit more conspirators” (February 27).
Naturally, Nigel Farage could not resist putting his oar in too. He told the BBC’s Breakfast show that getting involved in “foreign wars have probably made things worse rather than better”. Instead, the money wasted on these misguided adventures would be better spent on “boosting” the security services - after all, there is “an enemy within this country”, a “fifth column”, and “we have got to deal with it”. More spooks, please - end the pussyfooting around.
In this way, the press, politicians, the securitocracy - and Nigel Farage - are banging the drum for increased curbs on democracy and free speech, greater state ‘supervision’ of the internet, more government control of schools and colleges, more house detentions, more imprisonment, etc. Showing the zeitgeist, Quintin Kynaston school issued a statement saying it had been “extremely proactive” in working with the government’s Prevent strategy and will “continue to be so for the foreseeable future”. In other words, teachers must spy on their students more effectively - or else.
Prevent, of course, made it a legal requirement for teachers, lecturers, landlords and benefits staff to report behaviour that could be deemed conducive or helpful to “radicalisation” and “extremism” - and was one of the four Ps that made up the government’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy known as Contest: prepare for attacks, protect the public, pursue the attackers and prevent their radicalisation in the first place. Ministers threw cash at Prevent, particularly in the wake of the 2005 London suicide bombings - in the six years after those attacks almost £80 million was spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities.
Their effect was insidious, causing a general climate of political and intellectual authoritarianism - all in the name of combating ‘hate speech’. Not that it prevented Kelvin MacKenzie from ranting in The Sun that the “old saying that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims, has never been truer”. He scared his readers with the findings of a BBC poll, which he said showed that 27% of all British Muslims (ie, 800,000) have “sympathy” with the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris - a statistic that will “rightly put the fear of God up law-abiding and peaceful folk” (February 25).6 Muslims are our enemy: drive them out?
Communists, however, do not regard the likes of Emwazi as just irrational - totally crazy people from a different world. Look at what imperialism is doing every day in the Middle East, with its actions and polices, leading to mass suffering, death and murder. Look at the liars, Jack Straw and Tony Blair, with their dodgy dossiers and phantom WMDs, pushing for a war in Iraq that had totally predictable results - social chaos, dismemberment and barbarism. Judged from this perspective, the jihadist response to imperialist oppression is understandable. The crucial point for us, however, is that organisations like IS are part of this barbarism, never part of the solution - which requires consistent and principled working class anti-imperialism.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that we in the CPGB are resolutely opposed to calls for more state control and extra armies of spooks. We want unhindered freedom to debate and argue: backward ideas should be openly challenged and defeated. Meaning, in short, that the answer lies with the left. Alas, the left at the moment is also part of the problem: it has no viable strategy. With regards to Greece, most of the left robotically urged Syriza to ‘take the power’ - and then do what? Even worse, Left Unity made Syriza its official sister party - tying itself to the mast of managing the capitalist crisis. When it comes to imperialist war, the reaction from the left has - if anything - being even more hopeless. Basically the strategy of the left has been to ‘march, march, march and march again’.
Yet Stop the War Coalition marched for over a decade and got nowhere. Inevitably, the marches got smaller and less effective, precisely because people see that marching on its own could not stop war. Demonstrations and rallies are inherently limited. What the left should be doing is telling the truth, whether it be about Iraq, Greece, Syria, or anything else. More importantly still, we need a governmental project - that should be prioritised above everything. Otherwise all our efforts will ultimately come to nothing, no matter how laudable or sincere.
Trotsky memorably used the analogy of steam and the engine: anger and energy eventually fizzles out without a well organised party to harness it. And out of the dissipation emerge, grimly, forces such as al-Qa’eda and IS l
5. The Guardian March 2.
6. What the BBC poll actually showed, amongst many things, was that 27% of the 1,000 Muslims polled by ComRes said they had “some” sympathy for the “motives” behind the Paris attacks and almost 80% said they found it “deeply offensive” when images depicting the prophet Mohammed were published. On the other hand, 95% felt a “loyalty” to Britain, and 93% believed that Muslims should always “obey” British laws: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31293196.