Security, Counter Terrorism and the Counter Narrative
21st April 2016
Homerton College – Cambridge
Home Affairs Select Committee: (1 DEC 15)
Written evidence of Mohammed Akunjee Solicitor specialising in terrorism and serious crime
- I am a defense solicitor working in the field of Terrorism and Terrorism related offending. I have been engaged in this field of work within the context of legal defence from late 1999 onwards.
- Throughout the currency of my career I have had intrinsic experience with the narratives of various proscribed organisations, terrorist organisations, as well as a working engagement with the numerous tranches of terrorism related legislation and their application through the prism of the Prevent strategy.
- I have worked on cases concerning individuals who have been accused of an affinity to terrorist organisations and on cases where the accused have traveled to conflict zones and returned to their home countries.
- In addition to my normal activities in my role as a defense lawyer I have also been involved in matters relating to the repatriation of â€˜regretteesâ€™ (persons who have traveled to conflict zones and then regretted their initial decision) in a more direct and proactive capacity.
- In June of this year I was involved in traveling to the border region of Turkey and Syria to negotiate the release and repatriation of a female British citizen. She had found herself in the custody of rebel forces operating in Syria. The process of her retrieval involved negotiating with various parties including elements within the authority structure of the UK, the Turkish authorities and the rebel parties themselves.
- In March 2015 I was involved in advising the families of the three schoolgirls (Shamima Begum, Khadiza Sultana and Amira Abase) who left Bethnal Green Academy (BGA). The girls had travelled from East London to ISIS controlled Syria; indeed I had given evidence to this committee on that subject at that time. Some of the same process outlined above were employed in the BGA schoolgirls situation in order to achieve contact between the girls and their families. In this case social media, namely the Twitter campaign â€˜#callhomegirlsâ€™, was deployed to positive effect.
- I have advised individuals and entities in the UK and abroad on their operations and the framework of the laws applicable to them in their activities pertinent to assisting people escaping from conflict zones. I have also advised entities with respect to the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
- From the experiences outlined above and being mindful of my responsibilities as a solicitor to the strictures of legal professional privilege I have attempted to provide some answer to the question â€œwhat motivates people to leave the UK and aid the conflict in Syriaâ€.
- The question in focus is what factors contribute to causing young British people to leave the safety of the UK and expose themselves to the deadly risks and discomfort of a war zone.
- From my experience both, direct and anecdotal, such travelers fall broadly in to three categories:
- The Aid Worker
- The Just War Protagonist
- Supporters of the ISIS Caliphate
- All three have different reasons for engaging in conflict related activity. It is not uncommon to find deep stresses within the family dynamic of such people, however the initial common impetus on the reasoning leading to travel is empathy, usually based upon viewing the suffering of others on the mainstream news media (something which Lord Prescott correctly identified). The second most important factor is foreign policy â€“ namely the perception of a biased foreign policy affected by the UK and others which creates war or promotes suffering of civilian populations when war subsists. Oft cited examples of this are: Gulf War II, the ongoing conflict in Palestine and the invasion of Afghanistan. A compounding factor is the perceived bias from sections of the media surrounding these issues. Such individuals then feel it is their â€˜dutyâ€™ to redress the balance within their personal sphere of influence/ability and therefore fall into one of the three subsets above.
- All three groups display a highly developed sense of social responsibility, concept of justice and sense of personal responsibility for others. However, particularly in the third class of traveller such notions are expressed exclusively for those who support ISIS or sometimes, but to a lesser extent, for Muslims generally.
THREE TYPES OF TRAVELLERS
Humanitarian Aid Worker
- Genuine aid worker wishing to alleviate pain and suffering of the Syrian people as result of the on-going civil war.
- Examples of who they are:
- Despite engaging in humanitarian efforts aid workers and charities working for relief programs in Syria have been targeted by the UK police for arrest, questioning and subsequent investigation by the Charity Commission. Muslim Charities and Muslim aid workers have felt this acutely particularly under William Shawcross, Gwyn Prins and Peter Clarke involvement with the Charity Commission. This has led to resentment and furthering the feeling of the â€˜us and themâ€™ paradigm within the Muslim community.
Just War Proponents
- These are individuals that believe in the struggle to overthrow the current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and/or fight against ISIS.
- Motivations for travelling are usually that â€˜western governmentsâ€™ are not doing enough with respect to either Assad or ISIS.
- Interestingly both Muslims and non-Muslims who travel to fight in a â€˜just warâ€™ cite the following concepts under international law as justification for their involvement in the conflict:
- right to self-determination
- right to self-defense as defined in international law and sympathetically expressed in various iterations of Sharia law (defensive Jihad)
- Examples of who they are
- The UK has a non-coherent policy toward returnees from this subset of people. From the perspective of the Muslim community and Muslim returnees, it appears that non-Muslim fighters with the PKK affiliate group YPG are effectively immune from prosecution however; anyone else appears to be subject to such prosecution.
- The perceived racial/religious distinction in the operation of the terror-laws leads to the promotion of the perception of a two-tier legal system within the Muslim Community. Such perceived bias further alienates young Muslims and contributes to to young people deciding to travel to Syria.
Those who want to join the â€˜Islamic Stateâ€™Â
- These people tend to be driven by the belief of the true Caliphate being established in the body of ISIS.
- Some of the above are motivated partially by â€˜just warâ€™ theory, however the theory in these cases is simplified to a dualistic â€˜us and them narrativeâ€™; â€˜Usâ€™ being ISIS; and â€˜themâ€™ being everyone else. Its expression is identical to the Neo Conservative post 9/11 position as expressed by George W Bush in his September 20th 2001 address to a joint session of congress:
â€œEvery nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.â€
- There are broadly two types of people with different motivations who join ISIS. A process of â€˜temporal chromatographyâ€™ can be applied to differentiate between the two:
- This group tend to have joined pre-August 2014 (before ISIS public beheadings). Their motivations for joining fall within the category of â€˜Just War Proponentâ€™ (see above).
- This groups motivations for joining ISIS revolve primarily around the desire to assist ISIS in expanding its territory as far as possible. They are further motivated by concepts of nation building to establish a territory where Islam may be practiced to its fullest extent without â€˜outsideâ€™ interference.
- The general â€˜push factorsâ€™ are similar across the board namely, the acute feeling that their religion is under attack in western countriesand that they are blocked from integrating into society due to societal bias against Muslims.
- The â€˜pull factorsâ€™ from ISIS drawing such people revolve around ideological arguments demanding Muslims travel to their territory due to their claim of it being the legitimate Caliphate.
- A further factor drawing people to ISIS is that ISIS have an operational benefits system whereby anyone who has traveled to join them is provided with a stipend, housed and catered for at â€˜stateâ€™ expense. This fact is the single most important reason for the new phenomenon of very young UK citizens and whole British families having chosen to go to ISIS controlled territory.
- Examples of who they are:
- Returnees from this class of traveller pose a number of problems and opportunities; they would normally have travelled to Syria attracted to a utopian idealism, having reached their destination they would have been presented with the actuality of the situation, i.e. not a utopian ideal. Given the push factors from the UK contributing toward their decision to leave will normally subsist and indeed likely be further compounded (Media, Social Services and Police interest in they and their families), they still have made the decision to come home.
- Such people present the best resource for dissuading others from taking the same course. The vast majority of these returnees will fall into this camp.
- Security services will highlight the possibility that an element of these returnees may well be â€˜sleeper cellsâ€™ whose true intention for returning is to perpetrate a terrorist attack on UK soil. Though this threat cannot be ruled out completely, the fundamental difficulty for security services and police in prevention of crime/terrorism is detection. With respect to â€˜regretteesâ€™ if there were to be an open policy of reintegration into UK society, the detection problem would not exist. Appropriate resources could then be focused on persons assessed as particularly problematic.
General problems with current policy
- Currently there appears no distinction in UK policy toward returnees from any of the classes with respect to prosecution. There also remains no recognition of the different motivations and experiences of people who have joined ISIS pre August 2014 and post August 2014.
- Indeed, current UK policy from the perspective of the Muslim community seems to treat all returnees as potential subjects for terrorism charges save for only two categories:
- Non-Muslims who have traveled to Syria to join the YPG
- Children who have traveled to Syria
- Where there exists the perception of a two-tier criminal justice system with a particular minority group as its focus, it is difficult to contemplate anything more corrosive to community cohesion than targeted and selective injustice.
- Such perception of injustice and erosion of civil liberties on the back of national security concerns have long been known to be counterproductive. Stella Remington stated in 2009 the following:
“It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, [which is] precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police stateâ€¦ I think people are fully aware that the more you intrude into people’s civil liberties, the more you set up grievances for people toâ€¦. encourage people to do all the unpleasant things that are going onâ€¦”
- Given that the UK threat level from international terrorism has not dropped below â€˜Substantialâ€™ since 2006 (when such records began) despite the implementation of over 10 pieces of terrorism related legislation designed to counter terrorism and extremism, it can only be concluded that Ms Remingtonâ€™s words have been proved correct.
UK Threat Level History
Fig 1. UK threat level over time. 
- It is notable that many individuals and organisations who operate within the context of the prevent strategy from across the political spectrum are highly critical of the policy. Indeed all individuals who have testified in front of this committee to date on the issue of Prevent have been critical of it, save for individuals who receive direct funding from the program its self.
- At its premise, the Prevent strategyâ€™s purpose is to:
- Respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism
- Prevent people from being drawn into terrorism
- Work with sectors and intuitions where there are risks of radicalisation
- Prevent supposes that the root cause of terrorism is ideological. From experience and an analysis of a cross-section of militant publications and messaging it is clear that the primary motivations of terrorism is political. Indeed Sir Bernard Hogan Howe in front of this very committee opinioned the same.
- The Governments own research (both open and classified) reaches the following conclusions with respect to some of the underlying contributors to violent extremism:
â€œ5.27 â€¦.. Issues which can contribute to a sense that Muslim communities are being unfairly treated include so-called â€˜stop and searchâ€™ powers used by the police under counter-terrorism legislation; the UKâ€™s counter-terrorism strategy; a perception of biased and Islamophobic media coverage; and UK foreign policy, notably with regard to Muslim countries, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the war in Iraqâ€.
- The research further stresses the need for future strategy in this realm to specifically address the issue of foreign policy:
â€œ3.27 â€¦ A future strategy in this area will include better communication of Government security and foreign policies to rebut claims made about themâ€¦..â€ .
- In the current counter extremism strategy there is almost no mention of foreign policy what so ever, neither is there acknowledgment of the well documented grievance of the disproportionate use of Schedule 7 Terrorism Act 2000 powers against ethnic minorities.
- Rather than living up to its purported claim of contesting the message of extremism the policy proposes a campaign of shutting down spaces for dialogue and the banning of â€˜extremistâ€™ speakers. There appears nowhere a definition of what â€˜extremist speakerâ€™ is save for a vague reference to â€˜those opposed to British valuesâ€™. The Governments stated list of fundamental British values are:
â€œ[the]values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefsâ€
- The irony being that the Governments new strategy is to deal with no identified grievance from the Muslim community, thereby failing itself in demonstrating tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. The strategy in shutting down debate in all arenas consequently fails to meet its own stated goal of â€˜challengingâ€™ the extremist messaging. The strategy also demonstrates Governments own failure to respect the political beliefs of others by purposefully avoiding any discussion around foreign policy issues.
- It has been said of Prevent in the past that it is a â€˜toxic brandâ€™. Given the observations highlighted above with respect to the Governments stated reshaping of the strategy I would suggest that the brand is being shifted from being merely toxic to being radioactive.
Case Studies of foreign fighters (not related to names listed)
Case Study 1 â€“ British male fighter with ISIS
This individual is in his mid to late twenties and speaks about his life in Syria and the UK.
Around a decade before actually going to Syria he had adopted a militant anti-government attitude whilst living in the UK. This had led to him coming to the attention of MI5, however he had never been charged with an offence.
Exploring what had lead him to become attracted to a militant brand of Islam in the first place, he stated that up until then he had been brought up in fairly typical liberal South Asian Muslim family with a stable financial and emotional situation.
He elucidated that he had lead a life of â€œdossing aroundâ€ and felt a bit like a â€œlost sheepâ€ until he found religion, laboring that it was not â€œradical preachersâ€ that had influenced him but his opposition to events in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A friend of his explained that when younger, the man had indulged in fairly normal teenage mischief. However, religion had initially had a positive, calming influence on him.
The man managed to get to Syria despite being questioned by police at the airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.
He initially joined Jabhat al Nusra but felt that they were not â€˜strict enoughâ€™ and so joined ISIS. His reason for the switch to ISIS was that they were the only group truly implementing the sharia.
The subject demonstrated a lack of empathy with anyone he classified as an â€˜enemyâ€™ but retained an ability to still show affection for anyone considered a friend â€“ even someone who was not in agreement with ISIS but Muslim.
The subjectâ€™s motivations for going to Syria appear to revolve partly around a search for an identity and status; at one stage he took a prominent role on social media from Syria, he appeared to enjoy being recognised and talked about by others in ISIS and also in the West.
Case Study 2 â€“ British male fighter with ISIS
This man in his early thirties had been a prominent member of the circle around the now banned group Al-Muhajiroun.
He had been espousing Militant beliefs for around a decade.
Whilst in the UK he had seemed to enjoy the notoriety afforded to him by the tabloid press, and seemed to know how to manipulate them to get more media coverage.
In Syria he did much the same thing, frequently calling for attacks in Britain on social media platforms. When challenged with the assertion that he was something of an internet â€œtrollâ€ and was just trying to wind people up, he expressed frustration as he felt he was not being taken seriously as a threat.
The subject is deceased.
Case Study 3 â€“ European male ambulance driver/fighter with Independent Outfit
The subject is a young male in his 30â€™s, he comes from a religiously mixed background, when growing up he was well integrated with his peers and society.
His parents having split up some time in the past he began seeking his identity and found religion.
The subject remained well integrated however was sensitized to the suffering of the Iraqi people post the second Gulf war, and later on the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of the Assad regime.
The subject took it upon himself to raise aid and deliver it to the people of Syria, whilst delivering aid to Syria the subject was exposed to the killing of many of his friends by both precursor groups to ISIS and the Assad regime, some of whom were simple aid workers.
The subject initially decided to stay in Syria, working as an ambulance driver, he is married to a Syrian and has a child, the subject now wishes to come back to his home country but cannot do so for fear of arrest in the current climate.