Another catch up post, this time for Hope not Hate’s magazine exploring the idea of reciprocal radicalisation between the far right and violent Islamists in the UK. You can purchase the magazine and support the very worthy organization by following these links and thanks to them to for publishing it!
Raffaello Pantucci explores how extremisms feed off one another
Terrorism Thrives in society’s fissures. This is something that is true in terms of both the alienated individuals who are drawn to extremist ideas, but also of the groups who advance terrorist ideas and narratives who need societal tensions to be able to incite people towards violence.
Absent these tensions, groups find it hard to survive and recruit people. The result is a paradox whereby extremists of both stripes need the other in order to help breathe life into the “clash of civilisations” that they see taking place in the world around them.
As the founder of al Muhajiroun Omar Bakri Mohammed put it: “People, when they suffer in the West, it makes them think. If there is no discrimination or racism, I think it would be very different for us.”
This narrative is one that has remained fairly constant over time. Back in the 1980s, a group of young southeast Asian men in Birmingham got angry about the encroachment of racist groups like the National Front (NF) locally and decided to band together to protect their community.
Among them were Shahid Butt and Moazzam Begg, two young men who grew up to find themselves incarcerated, respectively, in Yemeni prisons and Guantanamo Bay. In both cases, the societal fissures fed on by racist groups like the National Front provided a rationale for focusing on their otherness from British society that ultimately led to them being involved in dangerous activity that rejected the society in which they were born.
The rise of groups like the British National Party (BNP) in northern British cities like Bradford or Oldham was something that was the product of an economic downturn that many blamed on immigrants.
Feeding off this feeling, groups like the NF and BNP came from a long tradition of such tensions in the northwest of England, and had in earlier times led to counter-reactions like in the 1970s-1980s when the Southall Asian Youth Movement emerged and soon after, when twelve members of the Bradford Black United Youth League were picked up for apparently preparing a series of petrol bombs to use against the fascist groups they saw threatening their communities.
These tensions repeated themselves again in the hot summer of 2001 when rioting tore through Bradford as the local Muslim communities reacted to the presence of the NF at an anti-nazi celebration in the city centre. Rioting broke out across the mostly Muslim Manningham area, leading to numerous arrests and tensions that left local youth open to the influences of radical groups like both the BNP and Hizb ut Tahrir. In the protests’ wake, the febrile community environment meant both groups were able to grow and attract followers.
During the period post the September 11 attacks these tensions took on an even stronger flavour. Groups like al Muhajiroun revelled in the shock caused by the attacks to hold public events at which they would glorify the “magnificent 19” who had participated in the incident. In Luton, some young men took off to go and fight alongside the Taliban.
The sense of an alienated society from within continued to grow. It also took off across Europe, as similar stories and narratives started to emerge in different European contexts. Terrified by the attacks of 9/11, attempted shoe bombings, terrorist massacres of tourists in Bali and Tunisia, there was a growing fear of what was coming from within, a tension that radical groups on both sides of the equation benefited from.
It was, ultimately, only a matter of time before a formalised counter-reaction emerged to the Islamists. Part of the al Muhajiroun narrative in particular was to attack society and provoke a reaction, an approach championed by Omar Bakri Mohammed. The group became infamous for making incendiary statements.
In the 1990s, this had got Omar Bakri in trouble with his then organisation Hizb ut Tahrir when he had declared a fatwa on then-Prime Minister John Major for his support of the war in the Gulf. Such negative attention was not the preference of the ultimately quietist and studious Hizb ut Tahrir.
But it was very much Omar Bakri’s way of working and he trained the younger members of his group in this provocative style.
Large conferences on Jihad were organised in London at which he declared ambitiously to want to get Osama bin Laden and the head of Hamas to come to London and he would make pronouncements in public speeches about wanting to “see the black flag of jihad over Downing Street”.
Years later, his acolytes continued in this style, holding anti-social protests in sensitive places like Royal Wootton Basset, the site of the repatriation of the British dead from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – and during the annual minute’s silence in remembrance for the war dead.
Instead of standing in respectful silence, the group would burn poppies and chant about the “criminality” of Britain’s war dead. Taking a more local approach, the group would charge around East London declaring “shariah zones” in which they would attack homosexuals, chide women for wearing revealing clothing and condemn public drinking. In a more brazen daily display, they would march up and down Brick Lane telling shopkeepers selling alcohol they were breaking shariah law.
It was only a matter of time before there was a reaction. This came in the form of the emergence of the English Defence League (EDL), a body that emerged out of a protest against an al Muhajiroun-associated rally in Luton opposing a parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment on its return from Afghanistan.
Nine people were arrested as counter-action emerged in the city under the name the United People of Luton. Local football fan groups quickly took up the banner and, soon afterwards, a group calling itself the English Defence League (EDL) started to show up around the country claiming to be seeking to take the country back from the Islamists overrunning it.
The EDL stomped around the country, causing consternation as it stirred up racial tensions and caused protest and counter-protest from anti-fascists, Islamists and others.
The more general sense to the public at large was a vague feeling that a “clash of civilisations” was taking place within its own country, merely adding to the sense of alienation and tension between communities.
And, at the sharper end of these protests lurked terrorists. From the al Muhajiroun community numerous terrorists and plots have emerged, including the 2012 plot by convert Richard Dart, Jahangir Alom, and Imran Mahmood. All three were regular al Muhajiroun faces and among the many plots they discussed was an attempt to attack a funeral march at Royal Wootton Basset.
At the other end of the scale, Michael Piggin, a clearly disturbed young man from Loughborough who had accumulated a large volume of nazi memorabilia, was fixated with killing sprees and had even obtained explosives and weapons.
At school, he showed off to his friends that he had attended EDL marches and clearly found the group influential in his life. Piggin was arrested before he could do anything, unlike Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, who detonated a massive car bomb in downtown Oslo before attacking an island where the Labour Party’s youth wing was having a summer gathering.
Seventy-seven people were massacred by a man who had drawn inspiration from, and allegedly visited, EDL marches and who was an adherent of the ideology centred on the perceived “Islamicisation” or Europe.
On the other side of the coin, the EDL was the intended target of a group arrested in June 2012 that was connected with al Muhajiroun elements in Birmingham.
Linked to a cell that had received direct training from al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Birmingham group gathered guns, knives and bombs and had intended to strike an EDL march in Dewsbury but failed to get their timings right, arriving after the march had already broken up.
It was the brutal murder of Lee Rigby that really crystallised the centrality of the extremes on either side in sustaining the process of mutual radicalisation and a level of hatred and division within society in which terrorist ideologies can thrive.
When Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale cut down the off-duty soldier as he walked near his barracks in Woolwich, they sparked off a series of reactions and counter-reactions that inflamed already tense relations.
The EDL almost instantly launched a protest nearby, reaching out to Lee Rigby’s family to offer their support but also using the opportunity to paint themselves as the supporters of the armed forces and society in the UK.
In contrast, Royal Barnes and his wife Rebekah Dawson (both al Muhajiroun associates) amused themselves going past the site of the murder in their car laughing and ridiculing the gathered crowds.
Posting a video of their antics online, they sought to stir anger and hatred and inflame an already explosive situation.
Both were arrested but the murder opened up once again the deep divisions within British society that both groups have continued to benefit from in continuing to advance their narratives.
For the EDL (or their subsequent organisations), the continuing existence of the al Muhajiroun crowd or, more latterly, the ISIS supporters, communities that frequently overlap gives them a reason to continue to rail about the Islamicisation of British society.
In the wake of both the murder of Lee Rigby and the poppy burning incidents, EDL Facebook pages received tens of thousands of “likes”, highlighting the direct influence of such terrorist acts on their support base.
On the other side of the equation, the existence of such far right organisations and the appearance of terrorists subscribing to this ideology merely nourishes the Islamist claim that there is a “clash of civilisations” going on.
And, while the groups themselves are often careful about trying to toe the line of the law, their followers frequently go further, be this in terms of those trying to join groups like ISIS abroad or those at home like Zack Davies who, on January 14, 2015, walked into his local Tesco store and spotted Dr Sarandev Bhambra, a local 24 year old – Sikh – dentist, and set upon him with a large knife.
Shouting about “white power” and that this was “revenge for Lee Rigby,” Davies would have butchered the unfortunate dentist had not a former soldier shopping there stepped in and stopped him.
A confused young man, Davies had been a far right sympathiser for several years and had recently become involved in the nazi group, National Action. However, he also drew inspiration from the brutality of ISIS, claiming to have been inspired by “Jihadi John”’s videos not only showing his disorganised mind but also exactly how pernicious it can be to have two such brutal ideologies espousing hatred on our streets.
Reciprocal radicalisation, it seems, has an impact not only across societies but also within confused individuals.