Why can't British intelligence prevent men like James Foley's killer from fighting in Iraq -- or coming home?
He is "Jailer John" to his prisoners but "Jihadi John" to London's tabloid newspapers, and right now, he might just be the most wanted man in the world. "He" is the jihadist seen beheading the captured American journalist James Foley in Syria. He is British. He is our problem. Worse still, he is not alone.
If Foley's executioner were a rogue radical or "lone wolf," it would be easier to dismiss him as a lunatic extremist of the sort with which all countries are afflicted. But he is not a one-off. The jihadist who executed Foley is one of, it is estimated, at least 500 British citizens likely to be fighting with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. He is believed to be the head jailer, responsible for guarding a number of foreign hostages in IS's de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. He and his British colleagues, it is reported, are nicknamed the "Beatles" by their murderous colleagues, a nod to their country of origin.
But it's also a nod to something else. It speaks to the fact that, far from being products of an austere and rigorous religious fundamentalism, today's jihadists are just as likely to come from Western backgrounds that would ordinarily be considered utterly unremarkable.
Across Europe, from France to Belgium to Sweden, there are reckoned to be several hundred Islamic extremists fighting with IS in the Middle East. And the United States isn't immune to the phenomenon either. But Foley's murder has returned the spotlight to Britain's particular -- and acute -- problem with homegrown Islamic radicalism.
As Prime Minister David Cameron, writing in the Daily Telegraph this week, put it: "We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in Isil [the Islamic State] a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives." The threat, he insisted -- just days before "Jihadi John" littered YouTube with his bloody act -- is domestic as well as foreign. "[I]f we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent. Indeed, the first Isil-inspired terrorist acts on the continent of Europe have already taken place."
Foley's executioner is not even the first British jihadist to orchestrate the beheading of an American journalist. The kidnapping and subsequent execution of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl was organized by Omar Sheikh, a 28-year-old radical from north London. In other words, this is a long-standing problem and one that resists easy solution.
Last summer, for instance, two Muslim converts -- Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale -- stabbed, killed, and then attempted to decapitate Lee Rigby, a member of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, on a south London street in broad daylight. In a video taken at the scene of the crime, Adebolajo explained that "The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by [sic] British soldiers. And this British soldier is one.... By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.... You people will never be safe."
Not all of Britain's jihadists are motivated by religious passions. For some -- terrifyingly -- the jihad has become a badge of radical chic. A lifestyle choice like any other. Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, another London jihadist, recently posted a picture on Twitter of him displaying a severed head. His message: "Chillin' with my homie, or what's left of him."
In 2008, an internal MI5 report, obtained by the Guardian, claimed there was no "typical pathway to violent extremism." The report, written by MI5's behavioral science unit, was based on case studies of hundreds of extremists known to the security services, and it found, disturbingly, that few could reasonably be considered highly religious Muslims brought up in strict Islamic households. Many of the men who had gone on to commit violence, in fact, were not regular attendees at mosques; a disproportionate number, in fact, were converts to Islam (like Rigby's killers). Most of all, the report found, Britain's jihadists are "demographically unremarkable," their backgrounds reflecting a cross-sample of life in Britain's Muslim communities.
Many are motivated less by an austere vision of Islam than by the simple thrill of joining a cause. In that respect, Western-bred jihadists are little different from supporters of non-Islamic extremist political organizations. For many, Islam is a vehicle for the cause more than it is necessarily -- or, at least, initially -- the cause itself.
For instance, two British Muslims arrested and charged with terrorist offenses after having returned from fighting in Syria were discovered to have purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon. If there were a checklist of characteristics that identified an individual as a potential jihadist, it would be easier to monitor likely suspects. But there is not. No wonder the security services often seem to be in the dark. Clamping down on radical preachers or keeping a wary eye on Islamic societies at British universities might be a start. But these efforts have been ongoing for nearly a decade now and it is plainly not enough.
Of the 500 Britons believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to take up arms with the Islamic State, Britain's security services -- MI5 and MI6 -- suspect as many as half have subsequently returned to the United Kingdom. Identifying and then monitoring these individuals is the single greatest task facing the security services.
Richard Barrett, formerly head of the MI6's counterterrorism operations, expressed confidence that Foley's murderer would be identified and dealt with -- one way or another -- "sooner or later." British intelligence officers are using voice-recognition technology to assist the quest to identify the man, but Barrett added that the sickening nature of these crimes means that the search for his identity will not be confined to the intelligence community. "He will have had many acquaintances and friends in the United Kingdom, and those people will wish to see him brought to justice." That confidence reflects the fact that the greatest allies the state has in the identification of potential and actual extremists come from within Britain's Muslim communities themselves. Human intelligence still matters.
But identifying "Jihadi John" and stopping him is a different matter. Military action against the Islamic State might suppress the threat the organization poses in the Middle East, but it could further radicalize other British Muslims who would interpret airstrikes against IS as another "war on Islam." Gains in one arena might easily be offset by setbacks in another. Yet doing nothing is not an attractive option either.
The British government says it can -- and must -- do more. It is announcing plans to confiscate the passports of suspects who might intend to travel abroad. This tactic has been used in the past to limit soccer hooliganism, but today's threat to civil order is of a rather different magnitude. The government has also said it will ramp up efforts to strip citizenship from those whose terrorist affiliations are deemed to have forfeited their right to be considered British. Even so, these measures can only be reckoned a small part of the solution to the problem of radicalization. Britain -- as a state and as a society -- needs to find a way of talking to disaffected Muslims in ways that help diminish the appeal of violence and extremism.
The optimistic view is that Britain's homegrown radicalization problem is a fire that will die out of its own accord. In this view, "IS chic" is just a passing fad, soon to be replaced by something new. But few optimists are to be found. It is, after all, nine years since homegrown terrorists killed 52 Londoners in a series of bombings on July 7, 2005. Although there has been no successful attack in Britain since then, most analysts think it is only a matter of time before another bomber gets through Britain's intelligence and police defenses. Each month brings with it the revelation that another group of would-be jihadists has been discovered; each month fresh prosecutions are brought on terrorism charges. And yet the supply of young men prepared to fight for the Islamic State or other radical groups shows little to no sign of being exhausted.
These problems certainly are not unique to Britain, but they are most seriously felt here. Not for nothing does U.S. intelligence worry that "Londonistan" is a prime threat to American security. Jihadi John is not alone.
Photoillustration by FP