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Generation Jihad

09/02/2010

Last night BBC 2 showed the first episode of Peter Taylor’s three-part series on ‘Generation Jihad’. The opening episode focused on the roots of radicalisation among young British Muslims.

Taylor is an experienced and talented journalist, who is chiefly known for a series of well-regarded documentaries on Northern Ireland. But the first instalment of Generation Jihad also raised a number of important additional questions – particularly about the relationship between radicalisation and Western foreign policy.

Two prominent themes that emerged early in the programme were the central importance of the internet as a tool of radicalisation (something dealt with at length in Tim Stevens’ report for ICSR) and the crucial role played by radicalisers, as active and predatory agents of extremism within Muslim communities.

For example, Taylor discussed the case of Hammad Munshi, Britain’s youngest terrorist convict who was targeted and groomed by older extremists at the age of 15, without the knowledge of his family. Indeed, there is evidence that even younger children have been targeted in this way. At the end of January, police from the Counter-Terrorism Unit in Manchester released a video seized in a raid, apparently showing two infants handling a Kalashnikov rifle and being encouraged to express their desire to ‘kill the infidels’.

In tracing the genesis of Islamist extremism within the UK, Taylor identified the furore over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988 as a moment of awakening and heightened political consciousness among UK Muslims, which was subsequently manipulated by extremists to their own ends. He also emphasised the continued importance attached by UK Muslims to the ‘Ummah’, the wider Islamic diaspora.

Most of Generation Jihad was filmed in West Yorkshire, the home of a number of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 7/7 bomber, and where Taylor himself grew up. Those interviewed (by a Muslim colleague, rather than Taylor himself) included Bilal Mohammed and Rizwan Ditta, who have both served prison sentences for terrorism-related offences. These young men articulated a long list of Muslim grievances about the conduct of ‘Western’ foreign policy over the last two decades. The list included the plight of Bosnian, Chechnyan and Palestinian Muslims, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While denying active support for terrorism, some of the interviewees did express sympathy for the al Qaeda aim of cleansing Muslim lands of the presence of Westerners.

Much of this is binary narrative is, of course, familiar. Indeed, it is often given credence by those who campaign against perceived Western ‘imperialism’ but have no formal connection to the Muslim community. It is also temptingly plausible to Western audiences, as its exponents are well aware. But the reality is that extreme Jihadist Salafist ideology is not as relativist or reactive to Western actions as this narrative would suggest.

It would have been interesting to see the interviewees pressed further on the contradictions in the Al Qaeda narrative, and the shifting sands on which it is predicated. In the case of Bosnia for example, there is evidence that it was the failure of the West to do more to prevent the slaughter of innocent Muslims – that radicalised many young British Muslims, rather than the NATO intervention of the mid-1990s.

Likewise, even amongst strong opponents of the Western presence in Iraq, it is hard to make a case for Al Qaeda in Iraq as liberators. That group’s tactics, which peaked in 2007, have been to ignite sectarian warfare between Muslims through a succession of huge attacks against the Shi’ite community in the country.

In other words, while there are many links between foreign policy and domestic radicalisation, these are not as simple as are often presumed and should be distilled with care.

Taylor ended the programme by reflecting on the difficulties faced by the authorities in dealing with the threat of home-grown terrorists. He agreed that it was serious and that ‘the police and security services cannot afford to take their eyes of Generation Jihad’ but expressed concern that ‘the danger is that we create even greater resentment that will only end in further attacks’.

This evokes a point that Taylor has often made in his earlier work on Northern Ireland – that heavy-handed security measures exacerbated the terrorist threat from the IRA, by gaining them more sympathisers and recruits. It is certainly the case that the less resentment the police and the security services create, the more that they will be able to isolate extremists within these communities. As yet, however, despite some notable mistakes, there have been no major security blunders against ‘Generation Jihad’ on the scale that characterised the early phase of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. And to this point, as far as existing evidence goes, the counter-terrorism efforts of the authorities have not in themselves been a primary driver of violent radicalism.

The next part of Generation Jihad will be on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday 15 February.