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The ‘Jihadi John’ Feeding Frenzy

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 Jihadi John
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In the case of the unmasking of Jihadi John, one of the perspectives that was excluded from the ‘spectrum of thinkable thought’ was the view that Britain’s aggressive foreign policy has been a key driver of ‘radicalisation’, leading young British Muslims towards armed struggle or ‘jihadism’.

The identification of the Islamic State killer ‘Jihadi John’ as Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi stirred a media storm in Britain in February, with pages and pages of coverage. The coverage demonstrated again the soundness of Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model’ of the Western mass media. In this view, the corporate media actually has ‘the societal purpose of protecting privilege from the threat of public understanding and participation’. While free from state interference of the Stalinist variety, the mainstream media nevertheless serves power rather than truth. Chomsky and his co-author Edward Herman coined the phrase brainwashing under freedom to describe this paradox.

One of the signs of ‘brainwashing under freedom’ is that only a narrow range of views are expressed in the media. Chomsky argues that the range of views is systematically narrowed in order to serve powerful interests. There is not only a narrow range of views-that-are-expressed, but of views-that-are-expressible.

In the case of the unmasking of Jihadi John, one of the perspectives that was excluded from the ‘spectrum of thinkable thought’ was the view that Britain’s aggressive foreign policy has been a key driver of ‘radicalisation’, leading young British Muslims towards armed struggle or ‘jihadism’.

This view was expressed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the apex of the British intelligence system, in advance of the second ‘Gulf War’ (a conflict that does not deserve the title ‘war’). In September 2003, the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee reported that a 10 February 2003 JIC report had warned the then Prime Minister Tony Blair of this danger: ‘The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.’

After the 2003 invasion, the British Government commissioned a secret study, ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’, conducted jointly by the Home Office and the Foreign Office. (The report can be downloaded in four parts from the Sunday Timeswebsite [paywall] or viewed on globalsecurity.org.) This 2004 joint report named factors causing ‘extremism’. First on the list were ‘Foreign policy issues’. The report said:

‘It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims including young Muslims is a perceived “double standard” in the foreign policy of western governments… in particular Britain and the US. This is particularly significant in terms of the concept of the “Ummah”, i.e. that Believers are one “nation”…’

‘This perception seems to have become more acute post 9/11. The perception is that passive “oppression”, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, eg non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to “active oppression” – the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam.’

‘This disillusionment may contribute to a sense of helplessness with regard to the situation of Muslims in the world, with a lack of any tangible “pressure valves”, in order to vent frustrations, anger or dissent.’

In other words, many British Muslims see themselves as part of a global Muslim community (ummah), and when they see the British government waging violent war on other parts of that global community – against ordinary civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, it hurts them. Their anger over violent civilian deaths at the hands of the US and UK, and their despair at the possibility of changing these foreign policies, make some young British Muslims vulnerable to recruitment by al Qaeda. This was the British Government’s own internal, multi-agency, analysis in 2004.

In June 2005, Britain’s Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre reported to the government that ‘events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK’.

A few weeks later, Britain suffered its largest al-Qa’eda-style terrorist attack, the 7 July suicide bombings in London that killed 52 commuters.

Following the bombings, the anti-terrorist branch of London’s Metropolitan police compiled a report on the motivations of Muslims planning acts of political violence in the UK. A headline introducing one section of the document ran:

‘Foreign policy and Iraq; Iraq HAS had a huge impact.’ (Emphasis in original.)

The anti-terrorist specialists reported: ‘Iraq is cited many times in interviews with detained extremists but it is over-simplistic to describe terrorism as the result of foreign policy. What western foreign policy does provide is justification for violence….’

In 2006, Britain’s internal intelligence agency, MI5, stated publicly on its website, in a section on ‘International Terrorism and the UK’:

‘In recent years, Iraq has become a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.’

So there has been quite a bit of establishment support for the view that British foreign policy has been a significant factor in leading to jihadist violence by British Muslims.

This is to leave aside the fact that the 7/7 bombers themselves pointed to British intervention abroad as motivations for their attacks (in video statements by Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer). A credible claim of responsibility for 7/7, made within hours of the attacks, referred to the bombings as ‘revenge against the British Zionist Crusader government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan’. Michael Adebolajo, who killed British soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013 said during his trial for murder that ‘Allah commands that I fight those militaries that attack the Muslims.’ He added: ‘The Iraq war probably grated on me the most when I was in college’.

When ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked and his personal history could be traced, there was inevitably speculation on what could have motivated him to carry out his horrendous crimes. How did the media treat the possible role of British foreign policy in fostering the ‘radicalisation’ of people like Emwazi?

Very simply. The issue was almost completely ignored, as the media preferred to blame ‘Islamist ideology’.

If you read very closely, you can detect the traces of a rejection of the ‘foreign policy’ argument, for example in these isolated lines in a Daily Telegraph editorial: ‘it is wrong and counterproductive for the West to blame itself for the existence of Jihadi John. Young men and women, many of them middle class, are attracted to Islamist extremism simply because it gives them purpose and the promise of glory.’ (‘We must assert our superior Western values’, 27 February 2015, p. 23) More simply, The (London) Times editorialised: ‘We have seen the enemy and it is not us.’ (‘Heart of Darkness’, 28 February 2015, p. 24) The Independent editorial simply described Emwazi as ‘disengaged’ from British society – for no specific reason. (‘Lost soul’, 27 February 2015, p. 2)

The Guardian played the game cleverly, not editorialising, but commissioning opinion pieces from a libertarian (in the true sense) Conservative MP, David Davis; from a former Islamic fundamentalist, Maajid Nawaz; and from a liberal, Jonathan Freedman. David Davis did not mention any of the support for the ‘foreign policy factor’ within the British establishment, despite referring to the work of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and MI5.

Majid Nawaz and Jonathan Freedman were the only commentators or reporters in the British press to mention ‘foreign policy’ during the first two days of the media feeding frenzy.

One of the features of the Western propaganda system, according to the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model, is that significant information often does appear in the press, but it is effectively suppressed by the media’s placement of the information, the frequency of repetition, and the emotional tone of the report.

Let’s look closely at how Nawaz and Freedman mentioned the ‘foreign policy’ argument.

Nawaz wrote a 15-paragraph, two-column comment. His first mention of ‘foreign policy’ comes in para 13. In his preceding remarks, Nawaz argued that no all anti-immigration voices are racist, and that it is important for members of the political Right to distance themselves from racism. Then we come to this sentence:

‘Similarly, it is disingenuous for many Muslims and others to solely criticise foreign policy grievances without also openly debunking Islamist ideology in its peaceful or violent manifestations. Fall short of this and we become nothing but tools in the hands of ideological propagandists who will use our voices to further the victimhood narrative, just as racists do when talking about immigration.’

So there is an acknowledgement (in some fashion) that ‘foreign policy grievances’ exist, but it is done in such a way – by its placement within the article and within the sentence, and by the language governing it (‘disingenuous’, ‘solely’) – that it is effectively suppressed.

Freedman is much more serious. In a 16-paragraph, three-column comment, Freedman dismisses a number of possible explanations for Emwazi’s turn to al-Qa’eda-style violence. His first mention of foreign policy comes in para 6:

‘So we need to look elsewhere, perhaps preferring politics to psychology as the key to understanding. The favoured culprit is usually western intervention in the Middle East. This is appealing in its simplicity, not least because it suggests a remedy: stop what we’re doing, and Isis will wither away and we’ll all be safe.’

Freedman dismisses this idea as well, but only after referring to some evidence, a rare move. Shiraz Maher, a terrorism researcher, reports that his interviews with jihadists showed they were angry at Western intervention in Iraq in 2003, and they were angry at Western non-intervention in Syria in 2013. ‘Put simply, there is no neat, straight line that begins in western policy and ends in “Jihadi John”,’ Freedman concludes.

As a small point, this ignores the finding of the Home Office-Foreign Office study, ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’, that young Muslims were concerned about both British ‘passive oppression’ of Muslims (for example, non-action over Kashmir) and British ‘active oppression’ of Muslims (for example, the invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan).

Another small point: no one has suggested that there is a ‘neat, straight line’ between western foreign policies and the actions of any particular individual. Rather what has been suggested is that aggressive western foreign policy has been a major driver in the rise of jihadist violence by British Muslims.

And who has suggested this? Freedman says, in a carefully passive construction, ‘The favoured culprit is usually western intervention in the Middle East.’ He fails to mention that this culprit is ‘favoured’ by the Joint Intelligence Committee (the top level of British intelligence), the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre, MI5, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the police’s anti-terrorist branch.

So, in the dozens of news reports over two days of media frenzy about ‘Jihadi John’, and among the dozen or so editorials and opinion pieces in the British ‘quality’ press, there were (I think) only two very brief mentions of the possible foreign policy motivations of British al-Qa’eda-type terrorists – neither of which were signalled in the headlines, introductory subheadings, or initial paragraphs of the articles.

In all the thousands and thousands of words about terrorism in the British elite press, there were 14 words on foreign-policy-as-motivation by Maajid Nawaz, and 165 by Jonathan Freedman, both writing in the Guardian, on successive days.

No news story or comment piece saw fit to mention the ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’ report or any of the other documents referred to above, despite their relevance to the topic of home-grown terrorism. All this evidence has gone into Orwell’s ‘memory hole’, confirming, yet again, the validity of the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model.

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