16 March 2012
I first met Bob Lambert a few years ago on a Thames river cruise and since then have regularly seen him at events in London. About 18 months ago we were both members of the steering group that put together the conference "Moving beyond the Rhetoric: Increasing Trust and Respect between Faiths, Beliefs, Cultures and Communities” at which I spoke about the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester.
The author is the only person I know who has an "ism" named after him. Those who oppose Bob Lambert's views have coined the word "Lambertism" to name them. For example Amjad Khan wrote on Harry's Place:
“This theory essentially advocates governments building closer ties with non-violent Islamist groups and hard-core Wahabis in an effort to defeat violent Islamist extremists. In essence, let’s work with non-violent extremists to defeat violent extremists. Advocates of this approach would argue that non-violent extremists are best placed to deal with violent extremists.”
Unlike many other people who pontificate about countering violent extremism the author has practical experience from a 26 year career with the Metropolitan Police Special Branch countering threats of terrorism and political violence. This book draws upon that experience although he stresses in the disclaimer section that no classified intelligence is included in the book.
The book is a very readable 302 pages followed by 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index. I have not attempted to summarise the book but would like to mention some of its contents before taking an overview.
The author starts by mentioning that his grandfather served in the Metropolitan Police from 1899 to 1924, retiring with the rank of inspector. The author joined the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in 1980 and retired, also with a rank of inspector, in 2007. He points out that the service of himself and his grandfather straddles three centuries, and that both of them had to deal with Irish Republican bombers and with international terrorists.
"In another unremarked parallel, late 19th century London-based anarchist bombers often displayed ineptitude in bomb-making that has been mirrored by al-Qaeda bombers in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This lack of technical skill meant that anarchist terrorists risked accidental death when exploding their unstable bombs while al-Qaeda terrorists risked living when their poorly constructed bombs failed to detonate – the same lack of tradecraft reducing the effectiveness of different tactical approaches to their chosen method of political communication. The same deficiency in tradecraft also undermined strikingly similar revolutionary goals notwithstanding competing ideologies and different political contexts."
One of the key strengths in the author's long police experience is that he can see the commonalities between current terrorism carried out or attempted by radicalised Muslims and previous terrorism by Irish republicans, anarchists, homophobes etc.
The author explains how he and a colleague came up with the concept of the Muslim Contact Unit within the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Again he concentrates on the continuity of terrorism.
"Much has been written during the last decade that either supports or criticises the war on terror, with the major part of a prodigious literature seeking to defend the military-led response to 9/11 on the basis that al-Qaeda represented an existential and irrevocable threat to the West that rendered all prior understanding of counter-terrorism redundant. Consequently academics talk about 'new terrorism' to denote al-Qaeda and most other kinds of terrorism conducted by Muslims and 'old terrorism' to encompass all other terrorism including bomb attacks conducted in the name of Irish and Basque independence. Interestingly, when the term 'old terrorism' was coined insufficient regard was given both to its durability and to its similarities with 'new terrorism'. The conceptual thinking that underpinned the war on terror was undertaken by politicians who either had a prior plan to launch a battle against political Islam – neo-conservative ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz – and instinctive politicians like Blair and Bush who trusted their ability to tap a popularist and media appetite for vengeance."
This chapter summarises the philosophical divide very clearly. What kind of Muslims should the Muslim Contact Unit partner with?
"In addition, counter-terrorism policing was prevailed upon by influential politicians, lobbyists, public intellectuals and academics against forming close partnerships with 'extremist', 'oppressive', 'homophobic', 'anti-Semitic' salafis, Islamists and other Muslim 'fundamentalists'. One major Rand report, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies, written by Cheryl Benard, was especially influential. Lumping salafis and Islamists together as 'radical fundamentalists' Benard cites their antipathy to modern democracy and 'to Western values in general, and to the United States in particular' as an incontrovertible basis on which to treat them as enemies. Any counter-terrorist policymaker, strategist or practitioner reading the report would be bound to conclude that salafis and Islamists should only be viewed as targets for investigation or source recruitment. Benard cautions against accommodating 'traditionalists' (by this she appears to mean any seriously practising Muslims) because to go too far down this road 'can weaken our credibility and moral persuasiveness'. 'Given the fact that core values are under attack', she argues, it is 'important to affirm the values of Western civilisation'."
In a very interesting section later in this chapter, the author compares extracts from the suicide video recorded by Mohammad Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7 July 2005 bombers and the words of Bobby Sands, the first of the IRA hunger strikers to starve himself to death. He does this to demonstrate the continuity of terrorist ideas, to counter the view that we are facing an entirely new kind of threat.
In chapters 4-6, the author recounts the story of the Finsbury Park Mosque. Around 1998 supporters of Abu Hamza had taken effective control of the mosque disregarding the trustees who legally owned the property and were legally responsible for its management. The author describes how the trustees made various attempts to obtain police support for the reclaiming of the mosque but without success.
Eventually the trustees received support from a group of Islamists from nearby in Finsbury Park. Many of the Islamists were political exiles from the Middle East having taken refuge in the UK from the oppression that they faced in home countries such as Egypt. Ultimately the trustees were able to reclaim control of the mosque because the Islamists provided manpower that was able to face down the individuals supporting Abu Hamza. The role of the Muslim Contact Unit was primarily to provide advice.
The problem in Brixton was al-Qaeda supporters recruiting people like Richard Reid to become terrorists. In chapters 7-9 the author explains the valuable work in countering such radicalisation carried out by a group of salafis in Brixton, stressing that the salafis had the kind of "street cred" needed to engage effectively with individuals vulnerable to radicalisation and terrorist recruitment.
In this last chapter before the Appendix on Research Methodology, the author returns to the fundamental question which runs throughout this book. That is the legitimacy and effectiveness of working with people who some would describe as non-violent extremists to counter violent extremism.
"Similarly, there was visible evidence in 2010 of ongoing success for the Brixton salafis in their efforts to reduce the influence of al-Qaeda inspired violent extremism in and beyond their neighbourhood. Just as they first demonstrated a robust response to Abdullah el Faisal’s attempt to takeover their mosque in 1994 so they continued to present a powerful defence of their community against the blandishments of violent extremists.
In a heated confrontation outside the local underground station [Anjem] Choudhury's group were out-talked and out-muscled by the Brixton salafis to an extent that diminished the extremists' limited street credibility further still and enhanced the Brixton salafis' legitimacy and effectiveness. Like their Finsbury Park neighbours the Brixton salafis were demonstrating street skills and civic responsibility…"
In the final paragraph of the book the author states:
"On 5 February 2011 UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, addressed a security conference in Berlin and signalled that the approach to counter-terrorism I have been associated with since 9/11 was being abandoned. Writing in the Times, columnist David Aaronovitch applauded Cameron's decision to exclude salafis and Islamists from a partnership role in preventing violent extremism in the UK. 'Cameron' he argues, 'comes down hard on one side of an argument about how best to combat "home-grown" terrorism' that has 'gone on since 2001, and sharpened after the 2005 bombings'. Clearly, Teather [Brent Central MP and Minister of State for Children and Families] has been powerless to moderate the influence of key supporters of the war on terror in the same coalition government. If the latter are allowed free rein to implement their recommendations in this arena the outstanding counter-terrorism work at Finsbury Park and Brixton will be undone and replaced by a draconian counter-subversion programme. Under such a regime many of the Muslim Londoners who work effectively in partnership with police will be re-cast as subversive and monitored – placed in the same 'suspect' category as the terrorists and violent extremists they have bravely tackled over two decades."
The subject of the book, countering terrorism, is of vital interest for our country. The author has long practical experience in the subject.
The book is at its best when recounting what actually happened at Finsbury Park and in Brixton, which are the main body of the book, but elsewhere the author is a little too anxious to rebut what one might call “anti-Lambertism.” I have no hesitation in recommending the book to everyone interested in this key subject.
The views of the author and the Prime Minister are normally presented as polar opposites. I am not convinced that they are irreconcilable. My views, generally supporting the Prime Minister, are summarised in the piece “We all need to prevent violent extremism – nobody can stand idly by”.
It is quite easy to envisage some people who, while not seeking to carry out any violent acts themselves, or expressly advocating violence by others, nevertheless hold such abhorrent views that the Government should not partner with them in any way that confers legitimacy or gives them financial resources. Of course that does not preclude receiving information from them about potential terrorists; what is excluded is the idea of partnering with them.
The much more difficult question is to decide which persons or organised groups fall into that category of people who should be excluded. They are normally referred to as “non-violent extremists” but in my view that terminology is too loose, since I can easily envisage groups whose views I would describe as “extreme” that I would not exclude, while there are other groups whose views are also “extreme” that I would exclude from any type of partnership with the Government. In my view the classification decision requires detailed analysis of exactly what the person or group believes. Single word descriptors such as “salafi” or “Islamist” are entirely inadequate for the precision of classification required.
Without knowing much more about the Islamists of Finsbury Park or the salafis of Brixton, I am in no position to decide whether they were or were not excludible.
Paragraph 6.60 of the Prevent Strategy Review published on 7 June 2011 states:
“We are concerned that insufficient attention has been paid to whether these organisations comprehensively subscribe to what we would consider to be mainstream British values: democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.”
As a general proposition, that is a reasonable overarching descriptor of the kind of organisation that should be excluded if it fails to subscribe to those values. However it is still not easy to classify any particular organisation and it needs detailed consideration of the organisation’s beliefs.
Paradoxically, one cannot rely upon a simple self-description to reach a decision either way. For example, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not actually democratic! Conversely there may be Muslim groups who for their own reasons do not talk about democracy, but when probed may have no problems at all with Britons choosing our government democratically. There is no substitute for a detailed and probing review before deciding to exclude or engage.