Jihadi John and MI5

So this week the mur­der­ous behead­er of the Islam­ic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked.  His real iden­tity is appar­ently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a Brit­ish cit­izen who was raised and edu­cated in west Lon­don

Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expen­ded over the last couple of days about how he became rad­ic­al­ised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of vil­lain. In such media sound-bite dis­cus­sions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polar­ised argu­ments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced  under­stand­ing.

First up is the now-notori­ous press con­fer­ence hos­ted by the cam­paign­ing group, Cage, in which the Research Dir­ect­or, Asim Qure­shi , claimed that MI5 har­ass­ment of Emwazi was the reas­on for his rad­ic­al­isa­tion. Emwazi had com­plained to Cage and appar­ently the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pres­sur­ising him to work as an agent for them. Accord­ing to Cage, this har­ass­ment lead to Emwazi’s rad­ic­al­isa­tion.

Yet recruit­ment of such agents is a core MI5 func­tion, some­thing it used to do with sub­tlety and some suc­cess, by identi­fy­ing people with­in groups who poten­tially could be vul­ner­able to induce­ments or pres­sure to report back on tar­get organ­isa­tions.  In fact, Brit­ish intel­li­gence used to be much more focused on gath­er­ing “HUMINT”.  The very best intel­li­gence comes from an (ideally) will­ing but at least co-oper­at­ive human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and con­verse with tar­gets who may be wary of using elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions, and they can be tasked to gath­er spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence rather than wait­ing for the lucky hit on inter­cept.

MI5 used to be good at this — spend­ing time to really invest­ig­ate and identi­fy the right recruit­ment tar­gets, with a con­sidered approach towards mak­ing the pitch.

How­ever, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the bru­tal “war on ter­ror” that two prob­lems have evolved, both of which ori­gin­ated in Amer­ica. Firstly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems to have fol­lowed their US coun­ter­parts down a mor­al hel­ter-skel­ter, becom­ing re-involved in counter-pro­duct­ive and bru­tal activ­it­ies such as kid­nap­ping, intern­ment and tor­ture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activ­it­ies inev­it­ably res­ult in blow-back, and can act as a recruit­ing drum to the ter­ror­ist cause of the day.

(Tan­gen­tially, the Home Office also instig­ated the Pre­vent pro­gramme — in concept to counter rad­ic­al Islam in vul­ner­able social com­munit­ies, but in prac­tice used and abused by the author­it­ies to intim­id­ate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)

Secondly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems over the last dec­ade to have blindly fol­lowed the US spies down the path of pan­op­tic­an, drag-net elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance.  All this has been long sus­pec­ted by a few, but con­firmed to the many by the dis­clos­ures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely com­pli­cit but an act­ive facil­it­at­or and ena­bler of the NSA’s wilder ideas.  And what we now know is hor­rif­ic enough, yet it cur­rently remains just the tip of the ice­berg.

This deluge of inform­a­tion cre­ates gar­gan­tu­an hay­stacks with­in which some genu­ine intel­li­gence needles might reside — to use the ter­min­o­logy of the spy agency cheer­lead­ers. How­ever, it con­cur­rently swamps the intel­li­gence agen­cies in use­less inform­a­tion, while also cer­tainly throw­ing up a per­cent­age of false-pos­it­ives.  Bear­ing in mind the sheer scale of the leg­ally dubi­ous snoop­ing, even a 0.001% of false pos­it­ives could poten­tially pro­duce thou­sands of erro­neous leads.

Curi­ous people now have a world of inform­a­tion at their fin­ger­tips. They may click on an intriguing link and find them­selves on a rad­ic­al web­site; even if they click out quickly, the pan­op­ticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an appar­ently legit­im­ate char­ity; “like” the wrong thing on Face­book; fol­low the wrong per­son on Twit­ter; have their email hacked, or whatever.…

The Big Broth­er Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this inform­a­tion pre­dict­ably and pre­dict­ively, with sub­tleties lost and mis­takes made. Mind you, that happened in a more lim­ited fash­ion too at the height of the Cold War sub­ver­sion para­noia in Bri­tain in the 1970s and 1980s, when school­boys writ­ing to the Com­mun­ist Party HQ for inform­a­tion for school pro­jects could end up with a MI5 file, and divor­cing couples could denounce each oth­er.  But at least, then, whole pop­u­la­tions were not under sur­veil­lance.

I think this may go some way towards explain­ing so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attack­ers around the world have been known to their nation­al intel­li­gence agen­cies and yet been left to roam free, either dis­coun­ted as too low level a threat in the flood of inform­a­tion or oth­er­wise sub­jec­ted to bungled recruit­ment approaches.

In the ana­logue era much time, research and thought would go into identi­fy­ing per­sons of interest, and more cru­cially how to approach a tar­get either for dis­rup­tion or recruit­ment.  I should think that the spy super-com­puters are now throw­ing up so many pos­sible leads that approaches are made in a more hur­ried, ill-informed and less con­sidered way.

And this can res­ult in cases such as Michael Ade­bolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly har­assed years before he went on to murder Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been tar­geted, they are going to feel para­noid and under sur­veil­lance, wheth­er rightly or wrongly, and this might res­ult in grow­ing resent­ment and push them into ever more extreme views.

How­ever, I would sug­gest that MI5 remains merely the tool, fol­low­ing the dir­ect­ives of the UK gov­ern­ment in response to the ever-expand­ing, ever-neb­u­lous war on ter­ror, just as MI6 fol­lowed the dir­ect­ives of the Blair gov­ern­ment in 2003 when it allowed its intel­li­gence to be politi­cised as a pre­text for an illeg­al war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occa­sion­al cata­lyst, but not the under­ly­ing cause of rad­ic­al­isa­tion.

Unfor­tu­nately, by immers­ing itself in the now-over­whelm­ing intel­li­gence detail, it appears to be miss­ing the big­ger pic­ture — just why are young Brit­ish people tak­ing an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to rad­ic­al views and some drawn to extreme actions.

Surely the simplest way to under­stand their griev­ances is to listen to what the extrem­ist groups actu­ally say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views — he wanted US mil­it­ary bases out of Saudi Ara­bia and US med­dling across the Middle East gen­er­ally to stop; he also wanted a res­ol­u­tion to the Palestini­an con­flict.

Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is met­ing out hor­ror to high­light the hor­rors daily inflic­ted across the Middle East by the US mil­it­ary — the bomb­ings, drone strikes, viol­ent death and mutil­a­tion.

To hear this and under­stand is not to be a sym­path­iser, but is vital if west­ern gov­ern­ments want to devel­op a more intel­li­gent, con­sidered and poten­tially more suc­cess­ful policies in response. Once you under­stand, you can nego­ti­ate, and that is the only sane way for­ward. Viol­ence used to counter viol­ence always escal­ates the situ­ation and every­one suf­fers.

The USA still needs to learn this les­son. The UK had learned it, res­ult­ing in the end of the war in North­ern Ire­land, but it now seems to have been for­got­ten. It is not rock­et sci­ence — even the former head of MI5, Lady Man­ning­ham-Buller, has said nego­ti­ation is the only suc­cess­ful long-term policy when deal­ing with ter­ror­ism.

Along with the UK, many oth­er European coun­tries have suc­cess­fully nego­ti­ated their way out of long-run­ning domest­ic ter­ror­ist cam­paigns. The tragedy for European coun­tries that have recently or will soon suf­fer the new mod­el of “lone wolf” atro­cit­ies, is that our gov­ern­ments are still in thrall to the failed US for­eign policy of “the war on ter­ror”, repeated daily in gory tech­ni­col­our across North Africa, the Middle East, cent­ral Asia, and now Ukraine.

Glob­al jihad is the inev­it­able response to USA glob­al expan­sion­ism, hege­mony and aggres­sion. As long as our gov­ern­ments and intel­li­gence agen­cies in Europe kow­tow to Amer­ic­an stra­tegic interests rather than pro­tect those of their own cit­izens, all our coun­tries will remain at risk.