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Charlie Cooper, Programs Officer at Quilliam
James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward
Robin Simcox, Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society
Chaired by John Glen MP
Thursday 11th September 2014
House of Commons, London.
John Glen MP
Good afternoon, my name is John Glen, I’m the Member of Parliament for Salisbury, and it’s my great pleasure to welcome you here for this Henry Jackson Society discussion on ‘The Rise of the Islamic State and Implications for UK Security’. So if you were here for the Northern Iraq session before, then there may be some overlaps of interest. We have three excellent speakers who will speak for 5-7 minutes and then have a discussion. We must finish promptly at two o’clock.
Our first speaker is James Bloodworth. He is the editor of Left Foot Forward and has previously written in many of the mainstream media outlets in the UK as well as other publications. Charlie Cooper is the programs officer at Quilliam. He researches militant Islamist movements and most recently focused on the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, exploring in particular its ideological clashes with al-Qaeda. Our final speaker is Robin Simcox. He is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, I’m sure he’s known to many of you as a prolific commentator on this and other subjects.
If we could start with James, are you ready James?
Great, thank you James, five to seven minutes.
James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward
Hi everyone, I know my fellow speakers are going to be taking about some interesting aspects of the growth of ISIS today. I wanted to take a slightly different focus. So not just at ISIS, but the history of absolutist totalitarian movements such as fascism and communism and Islamism, and what I think it can tell us about the motivation of ISIS as we are seeing now.
Obviously there are multiple factors that motivate people to join a movement like ISIS, and I’m sure other panellists are going to talk a bit about that today. So, for example, there is a sense of alienation that some Muslims feel from British society, due to things like racism and stunning alienation from government apparatus in Iraq. There’s rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, there is also, in some instances, resentment about global injustice that leads people to this very dark path.
I want, though, to talk about the power of ideas and more specifically the power of ideas in of themselves, and what I mean by this is I want to show certain outcomes are no more than the result of people having certain thoughts in their heads, and as a consequence performing certain actions. This isn’t to say ideas don’t have grounding in the material world, but rather it’s to argue that a liberal and open society isn’t universally attractive and it hasn’t ever been, if you look at recent movements, absolutist and totalitarian movements. So, for example, we in this room probably accept freedom as a given whether we’re social democrats, liberals or conservatives. Believe it or not though there are, in every society in the world, movements of varying degrees of strength that don’t think like that, who that think quite differently.
The conclusion you should perhaps draw from this, and it’s actually quite a depressing one, is that anti-liberal movements are trying to pop up their heads above the parapet from time to time in every society. So in an Orwellian twist there really is a war without an end, to some degree. It should be obvious why; there is no end of history, there is no nirvana, there is no utopia. Life is a constant struggle for a free and open society, and it’s a struggle against the forces that would otherwise close those societies down.
The reason that those ideas develop in opposition to open societies are numerous, and the reason they’re often so difficult to combat is that they can often be no more than the expression of the temperament of the individual that is holding those ideas. Freedom breeds anxiety, as I’m sure you’re all aware, and to accept a free society you have to accept anxiety as part of the price, and not everyone can do that.
So, for example, freedom means some people will do better than others. I’m a social democrat so I believe in reducing the gap between rich and poor, but at the same time I accept a central objection to a completely egalitarian system, but not everyone does. Some people are willing to use force to bring about a fully egalitarian society because they don’t accept the freedom of some people to do slightly or greatly better than others.
Similarly you’ve probably noticed that extremist movements, when they involve an element of religion, they don’t particularly like the dating game. Or to be more specific, they don’t like the fact that in western society, women have almost as much sexual freedom as men; therefore, just as much choice as to who they have relations with. So to quote an ex-communist that appears in our [inaudible] novels, ‘when religious movements start preaching extreme sexual morality at women, what they’re often doing is trying to overthrow a society in which nobody has asked them to dance.’ This side of it looks more like male insecurity on steroids.
So, in sum, some people join ISIS for similar reasons that people in the past joined communist and fascist movements and other absolutist movements. They reject the sort of freedom with all its imperfections and all its anxiety, all its competition that we take for granted. I think, as I mentioned, temperament is an underplayed element of this, probably because it’s very hard to know exactly what to do to inoculate against it.
So ISIS and violent Islamism more generally are, as I’ve said, the latest in a long line of anti-liberal doctrines and movements that reject the open society. Because Islamism, because ISIS-like doctrines like communism and fascism carries absolutist status, it no longer is a guide to action but an abstraction that must be imposed on reality by force, regardless of the human cost. I think this also highlights a mistake people commonly make, when they blame Islam as a uniquely malevolent religion. Certainly Islamism I’d say has roots in Islam, but so did communism have it roots in European social democracy. Strands of fascism had its roots in right-wing Catholicism. The point is that all ideologies, when taken to an absolute, invariably cause huge damage to societies.
To bring up Arthur Koestler again, who I’ve already mentioned, once said the difference between a person of liberal and absolutist temperament was ‘the absolutist’s viewed wrong ideas as crimes against future generations’. I think this is an absolutely crucial point. Its why, for example, someone like Che Guevara in the sixties was prepared to fire nuclear weapons at Miami in a first strike because the rationale, if you can call it that, was that in the long run you would ultimately save lives if there was no more United States of America.
In the utopian mind the wrong ideas have to be punished in a similar way we punish other crimes. Even the much esteemed Bertrand Russell is quoted as accepting that if it could be demonstrated that humanity would live happily ever after if the Jews were exterminated, there would be no good reason not to proceed. The Aztecs believed that you could rip the heart out of thousands of people so the sun wouldn’t go out. The means, any means become acceptable when you throw your lot in with utopia: whether that is the classless society, paradise and, yes, a caliphate. When these ideas bump up against reality, as they inevitably do, the people espousing them don’t tend to drop the ideas, but instead they often murder a large proportion of the people they are running their experiment on. After all, if you believe you are creating heaven on earth then anything that stands in your way can be crushed under your foot like a rotten apple. In the case of ISIS, this involves – as we have seen – the taking of women and girls as slaves, murdering those [inaudible] convert to Islam and insufficiently Islamic minorities.
Just before I wrap up, I think part of the reason that revolutionary despotic ideas have a tendency to attract young men and teenagers is that there is something very infantile about the whole mentality of “if I was king”. The anti-Stalinist historian Robert Conquest, again someone I think is really worth studying on the topic of totalitarianism, defines it as ‘a belief that it only needs well-intentioned people in power to solve everything by a minute degree’.
On that note, a nineteenth century French novelist once described the excesses of the revolution, the French revolution, as ‘nothing but the anger of a disappointed child’. Even Leon Trotsky, himself something of an absolutist, recognised the sheerly psychopathic element that underpins fascism, writing in the thirties, ‘one hundred million people use electricity but still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms’. In Syria today, and Iraq, in the twenty first century exists the seventh century.
To look for the root cause of ISIS, as I’ve written before, is to kind of miss the point. There are certainly plenty of reasons for the groups rise, and there are concrete things that can be done to persuade young people thinking of fighting for ISIS that it’s the wrong path for them to take. But I think we should get away from the idea that groups like ISIS and totalitarian groups in general will simply go away if only the West plays nice. It’s perfectly possible for Western governments and organisations to formulate policy that minimises the impact and effectiveness of ISIS, the mistake is to assume that one day we’ll no longer have to worry about the absolutist mentality. ISIS represents, to my mind, all the barbarism that every now and then that is inclined to crawl out from the depths of the human subconscious – just as European fascism once did the same.
If there is anything possibly good that came out of ISIS and jihadism, it should be a reminder of exactly why democracy, pluralism, women’s and LBGT rights are so valuable. They didn’t drop out of the sky, they were fought for and they also need to be constantly defended.
Thank you very much.
John Glen MP
Thank you very much, James. Charlie.
Charlie Cooper, Programs Officer at Quilliam
Thank you, James.
I’m going to talk about Islamic State more from a recruitment point of view and then what we can do to reduce the threat that people returning from Iraq and Syria, as many have done, which is the threat that they could and do present to the United Kingdom.
First, I’m going to talk about what appeal they have. I mean, why is a group that beheads people, summarily executes people in their hundreds and talks about massacring people, boasts about massacring people, what appeal does this have? The thing is, in Iraq and Syria we have witnessed over the last five, ten years, twenty years, instability; totalitarian non-Islamist ideologies which have really torn apart the material these countries are made of. The Sunni majority in Northwestern Iraq have seen the Maliki government systematically marginalise it from the politicking of Iraq over the past few years, which has meant that it is very disgruntled. There is going to be no Sahwa like there was in the late 2000s that kicked al-Qaeda in Iraq out of power.
What we need to do is realise that it’s a political solution and a political problem we’re dealing with here, and that’s where the appeal lies for Islamic State in the local region. It’s a fact that what people are living under now in places like Mosul and Rawa is actually preferable to what there was before, which is quite a shocking thing, but we need to recognise it.
Now current fighters, there are lots of them. There are twelve thousand, that was the most authoritative estimate; three thousand from Europe in total, from eighty one states across the world. That is a significant phenomenon and much bigger than any form of conflict before. That’s a very striking and important fact.
What seems to confuse people is that there are people who grow up in the UK, in a western liberal democracy and they have a life of luxury and they’re not uneducated, but they still see an appeal an attraction to Islamic State. What this is, is the utopian aspect of the group which we haven’t seen in a group like al-Qaeda.
Islamic State has declared that it has established a caliphate, an Islamist caliphate. It’s not an Islamic caliphate; nothing about Islamic State is Islamic. The fact they have established this caliphate is a huge draw for disaffected youths living in the west. They see, unlike people living in Iraq and Syria, who see it as an alternative, a preferable alternative. People in the West see going to fight for Islamic State as fulfilling their destiny ushering on the end times. They want to go because they see it as a utopia, true Islam, and that idea permeates within all Islamic State propaganda.
On the propaganda issue, you’ll all of heard about it, it’s very, very effective and of a very high production value. Again this is something that defines it against groups like al-Qaeda. I mean, last week al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, released a tape announcing the establishment of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. It was, quite frankly, boring. We don’t have this with Islamic State propaganda. They show strategic victory after strategic victory, many military exploits. It’s really deeply affecting, the stuff that they produce and popularise over Twitter.
The question everyone wants to answer right now is what we do with the people that come back from Iraq and Syria, because the fact of the matter is, even if we don’t want them to come back, they will. What we’ll have is broadly two kinds of people coming back.
The first are those who have been brutalised by the conflict, disillusioned, realised that fighting jihad against other Islamist factions in Syria is not what they went out to fight. They went to fight Assad and they end up killing Muslims, and that’s not what they want. These people are very important. We need to bring them into the country, we need to de-radicalise them. They can’t come back with impunity because they have been fighting with a terrorist organisation, an implicitly terrorist organisation. What we have within this section of people is a resource for future conflicts because this conflict isn’t going to go away. These people have been brutalised and disillusioned by the fight for Islamic State are those people who will be most effective in de-radicalising people in the future. That’s a difficult fact to swallow because many people just see them as a blanket threat. Why would we bring them back into the country when they choose to leave? But since this problem is a long term problem, it’s going to be around for decades, we need to activate this resource, we need to bring these people in and talk to them. We need to figure out what’s going through their minds and then use them in the future to help de-radicalise others and stop others from going out. Now that’s the first type.
The second type of person who will be coming back here it seems hasn’t come back yet. I don’t want to be alarmist about it, but there will be people fighting for Islamic State who will be completely committed to their extremist fascist ideology and completely reject the liberal values that we have. It’s this kind of person we need to be concerned about, and it’s the kind of person the security services need to be very, very careful in detecting.
Again, another reason to bring other people, other disillusioned jihadists, back into the fold, because these will be the people who will be able to identify the other side, the people that don’t want to be noticed and the people that do have malicious intentions if they return to the UK. It’s imperative that we tap into this resource, and recognise that it’s a resource, but we need to be cautious with it. I think it’s short sighted to think we should take away peoples passports while they are there because that will not solve the issue. Equally, blanketly saying there will be long prison sentences for anyone returning, that is a deterrent to disillusioned people coming back.
I’ll leave it with this, as you’ll have seen on Friday, The Times reported that thirty, up to thirty foreign fighters were disillusioned and wanted to come back, but they were deterred by the fact that there were long prison sentences waiting for them. We can’t have simple illiberal measures to punish these guys when they come back. I can’t emphasise this enough. We need to be able to bring them back and we need to be able to talk to them, and they need to feel like they can be brought back into their rights as a British citizen. It’s imperative that we tap this resource.
John Glen MP
Thank you very much Charlie. If any of you are like me you’ll probably have loads of questions provoked in reaction to some of these statements, which is how we want it, so we look forward to getting onto that stage in a moment.
I now invite our last speaker Robin Simcox to address us.
Robin Simcox, Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society
Thank you for coming today. [It’s] amazing really in some way that this event taking place. As some who worked on Iraq quite a lot in this period leading up to the rise of the Islamic State, and anyone else who did knows what a dead subject it was, and how much the world had moved on past this conflict; how little interest there was on it. And a big part of this was that President Obama had said that this “dumb” war he inherited, he campaigned against in 2008 and said he ended responsibly in 2012, – the Iraq struggle – was over. It most certainly wasn’t.
The removal of US troops in 2011 removed a key check on the Iraqi political system, the honest broker that the Americans were in that system. Their removal allowed Maliki to indulge his worst sectarian instincts, created this groundswell of Sunni resentment – [it] was festering already but certainly exacerbated by Maliki – contributing to this amazing rise of ISIS: a group that is associated with only growing in power because of what was happening in Syria.
What happened in Syria energised the group further, but it was already a growing threat, even before the problems we’re facing there. Now it’s obviously a threat, to the extent that we have President Obama carrying out bombing raids in Iraq and [it] looks like now advancing into Syria. An amazing turnaround, something which was virtually unimaginable twelve months ago, that President Obama would want to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A group you have to remember not so long ago he was referring to as a ‘Junior Varsity Team’, a ‘JV Team’, trying to make out that they were a group that was only interested in local squabbles and wouldn’t be of any real threat to the region or the west.
I have some concerns; I think there is no doubt, absolutely no doubt, that ISIS need to be stopped, and we may have different views on how to achieve that. I think the military component is going to be vital, but I do have some concerns about some things that are taking place and what could take place in Syria and Iraq.
The intelligence on the ground, for example, in both seems to be one of the challenges. One of the negative consequences of the American lack of engagement in Syria in recent years that strikes me is the fact that now we are struggling to find partners we can work with that are going to provide us with the kind of intelligence we need to effectively target ISIS in Syria.
We all want to weaken ISIS – there is no doubt about that – but one of the consequences can’t be strengthening Assad. It can’t be working with Assad, who’s completely lost any right to be part of the conversation on this.
We have to make sure, as best we can, we don’t strengthen other extremist groups operating in Syria: the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate who ISIS are competing with or other actors that stand to benefit from ISIS being weakened. Vetting the correct Syrians in terms of arming and training strikes me again as going to be a lot more difficult now than three or so years ago.
Iraq: the problems are different to an extent. We obviously did have that network in Iraq, there was a lot of the tribal groups the US was working with to defeat al-Qaeda in the first place, in the 2006-7 period. But when we left Iraq militarily, when we left Iraq politically in 2011, so many of the contacts went up in smoke. There was a lack of American interest in keeping them and I think it’s going to be really, really difficult for us to go back in now and just pick up where we let off. There’s a big trust deficit here we need to begin to fill again. Whether that impacts our ability to effectively attack ISIS in Iraq, I think, is the key worry here.
Obviously the political side of what is happening in Iraq is extremely important. Maliki has gone, which is obviously a good thing. The formation of the Iraqi cabinet this week has been praised and welcomed cautiously. We should make sure we keep a pragmatic eye on this because it’s been [welcomed] by America and Iran. America and Iran have very different goals in Iraq and they have very different priorities and very different perceptions of what makes good government. So at the moment, it seems as if the composition of it is still basically Shia Islamist groups and Shia Islamist stakeholders, which isn’t a great surprise. There have been some welcome additions, such as reform of the army, but I do think we need to make sure we keep being engaged in the politics to make sure these changes do take place, something we were really negligent on, especially the 2010 onwards period.
The other thing I think is interesting to look at from President Obama’s speech last night is he’s still talking about this as a counterterrorist operation. I mean, the US is at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but in terms of Iraq, he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about this as a war. He references American operations in Yemen and Somalia as a precedent. I not sure too many people in Bagdad want it to be more like Mogadishu. I’m not sure too many people in Anbar want to be too much like Hadhramaut in Southern Yemen. It’s an odd precedent for President Obama to use, one not without its complications.
To wrap up on how this affects UK security. Returning fighters is certainly going to be a problem, as we saw in the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014: Mehdi Nemmouche, a returning ISIS fighter, carrying out an attack there, killing four people. Some of these attacks may not be directed, necessarily, by ISIS but by fighters that have been trained by them and inspired by the group. Charlie has gone through some of the different options we have in terms of dealing with this, and I think prosecution has to be an element. If people have committed crimes it would be an odd precedent to set to say ‘we’re going to put those crimes aside’. I mean we didn’t prosecute anyone coming back from Bosnia or Iraq or Afghanistan or Kashmir and things haven’t turned out great as a result. So I think we need to keep that option open, as well as surveillance, and Channel, and de-radicalisation, and all the other things that can go into the mix to mitigate this threat successfully.
So Iraq and Britain obviously face very different challenges as a manifestation of the rise of ISIS but it is underlined by the same basic ideological struggle. It’s an ideological struggle that’s not going anywhere, it’s one that I would warn is going to be generational.
I’ll leave that there, thank you.
John Glen MP
Thank you very much.
I’d like to thank our three speakers for sticking to time. We’ve now got just under half an hour and I think we’ll operate under the Chatham House rules, so you can mention what’s said but not attribute it.