Like many others, I have repeatedly bemoaned and ridiculed British weakness vis-à-vis Islamism (for example, here, here, here and here). But what if there's a method behind the British madness? That's the thesis of Jamie Campbell's cover story in the New Statesman dated today, "Why terrorists love Britain." Relying on the insights of Mohamed Sifaoui, author of Inside Al Qaeda (an autobiographical account of how this French Algerian journalist posed as an Islamist and infiltrated terrorist organizations in France and the United Kingdom), Campbell suggests that hosting so many terrorists renders the UK precious to the terrorists, who in turn leave it alone.
According to Sifaoui, it has long been recognised by the British Islamists, by the British government and by UK intelligence agencies, that as long as Britain guarantees a degree of freedom to the likes of Hassan Butt [a loudmouth pro-terrorist Islamist], the terrorist strikes will continue to be planned within the borders of the UK but will not occur here. Ironically, then, the presence of vocal and active Islamist terrorist sympathisers in the UK actually makes British people safer, while the full brunt of British-based terrorist plotting is suffered by people in other countries.
Omar Bakri, leader of al-Muhajiroun.
Campbell then tries this thesis out on Omar Bakri, leader of al-Muhajiroun, one of the most extreme Islamist groups in the UK, who confirms it:
He tells me the story of the companions of the prophet Muhammad who, when travelling to Abyssinia, were given protection and hospitality by that nation. The result of this generosity is the Koranic notion of covenant, namely that as a Muslim it is de rigueur not to attack the inhabitants of any country in which one finds oneself living safely. This, according to Bakri, makes it unlikely that British-based Muslims will carry out operations in the UK itself.
To the extent the allowing of Islamists and terrorists safe haven on British soil is a conscious decision to keep the UK safe at the expense of others, this is an immoral and despicable policy that must be changed immediately. (August 9, 2004)
August 19, 2004 update: A reader, Yoel Natan, points out confirmation of the above thesis from Al-Muhajiroun in reportage by David Cohen of the Evening Standard. In an April 2004 article, Cohen recounts a conversation with Ishtiaq Alamgir, who goes by the name Sayful Islam. He is the 24-year-old leader of the Luton branch of al-Muhajiroun, the Islamist group:
According to Sayful, the aim of al-Muhajiroun ("the immigrants") is nothing less than Khilafah - "the worldwide domination of Islam". The way to achieve this, he says, is by Jihad, led by Bin Laden. "I support him 100 per cent."
Does that support extend to violent acts of terrorism in the UK? "Yes," he replies, unequivocally. "When a bomb attack happens here, I won't be against it, even if it kills my own children. Islam is clear: Muslims living in lands that are occupied have the right to attack their invaders. Britain became a legitimate target when it sent troops to Iraq. But it is against Islam for me to engage personally in acts of terrorism in the UK because I live here. According to Islam, I have a covenant of security with the UK, as long as they allow us Muslims to live here in peace."
He uses the phrase "covenant of security" constantly. He attempts to explain. "If we want to engage in terrorism, we would have to leave the country," he says. "It is against Islam to do otherwise." Such a course of action, he says, he is not prepared to undertake. This is why, Sayful claims, it is consistent, and not cowardly, for him to espouse the rhetoric of terrorism, the "martyrdom-operations", while simultaneously limiting himself to nonviolent actions such as leafletting outside Luton town hall.
Aug. 23, 2004 update: Further confirmation comes implicitly from a Reuters analysis of why the U.S. government is not making the sort of high-level catches its European counterparts can boast of.
While some critics say a lack of similar high-caliber swoops in the United States indicates the Bush administration isn't doing enough to hunt terrorists at home, a range of experts and former officials across the political spectrum say key militants simply stay away because the danger of getting caught is greater in America.
Jan. 10, 2005 update: The same Omar Bakri quoted above now has determined that the "covenant of security" has come to an end in the United Kingdom due to the implementation of anti-terrorist legislation introduced after 9/11. To renew the covenant requires that the British government undo these policies and release those detained without trial. Should that not happen, British Muslims must "join the global Islamic camp against the global crusade camp."
Bakri is overtly threatening: "The response from the Muslims will be horrendous if the British government continues in the way it treats Muslims," explicitly raising the possibility of suicide bombings under the leadership of Al-Qaeda. Western governments must know that if they do not change course, Muslims will "give them a 9/11 day after day after day!" Bakri shouted, to what the United Press International's Hannah K. Strange characterized as "furious chanting."
Oh, and she recounts this from the conference at which he spoke:
The speakers … called for war against the kuffaar (non-Muslims) and lead chants as a projector screen showed images of dead American soldiers in Iraq. As the infamous images of two planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center replayed again and again, the rapt watchers thrust their fists in the air and chanted "Allahu Akbar! (God is great!)." "Nine-eleven was one example of some people who chose to show us they are men, real Muslim men," said one speaker.
Jan. 17, 2005 update: Sean O'Neil and Yaakov Lappin of the Times (London) have been monitoring Omar Bakri Mohammed's nightly webcasts and offer further details on his views. Anti-terrorist legislation means that "the whole of Britain has become Dar ul-Harb" and therefore "the kuffar has no sanctity for their own life or property." (This has the interesting implication that if countries like the United Kingdom don't protect themselves from terrorism, they are dhimmi states; if they do, they are kafir states.)
Bakri does not explicitly call for attacks in Britain but instructs Muslims to join the jihad "wherever you are" and indicated to one woman that she has permission to become a suicide bomber.
Choice quotes they cite include these:
Jan. 10: "Al-Qaeda and all its branches and organisations of the world, that is the victorious group and they have the emir and you are obliged to join. There is no need . . . to mess about."
Jan. 12: The voices of dead mujahidin are calling young Britons to fight. "These people are calling you and shouting to you from far distant places: al-jihad, al-jihad. They say to you my dear Muslim brothers, ‘Where is your weapon, where is your weapon?' Come on to the jihad."
Asked by the Times reporters about these quotes, Bakri claimed his definition of Britain as Dar ul-Harb is "theoretical".
It means that Muslims can no longer be considered to have sanctity and security here, therefore they should consider leaving this country and going back to their homelands. Otherwise they are under siege and obviously we do not want to see that we are living under siege.
July 7, 2005 update: Four major explosions in London this morning mark the end of the "covenant of security."
July 8, 2005 update: I wrote up this blog in a column today, "[London Terrorism:] British "Covenant of Security" with Islamists Ends."
July 9, 2005 update Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiya television, accuses the British government of being complicit in the "covenant of security." "Until recently, London held the delusion that extremists would not target Britain, but only use it as a base, protecting their freedom as they worked against Arab and Islamic governments. For this reason, Britain was full of convicted [extremists] known for propagating their extremist ideologies."
July 11, 2005 update: Some UK-based Islamists are stating that the covenant of security should never have been breached, because Great Britain provides a unique base for their activities:
even supporters of Osama bin Laden's ideology say the London bombings were the wrong thing to do. "The goal here was illegitimate," said activist Yasser al-Sirri. Al-Sirri, head of the Islamic Observation Center, said Muslims who live in Britain — even those who consider the host government their enemy — have an Islamic duty under an unwritten "security covenant" to obey the country's rules.
His comments suggest a possible split within Britain's radical Islamic community about how to wage the struggle against the West — through terrorism like Thursday's bombings or through psychological warfare as well as violence only in clearly defined combat zones.
"God says if anyone wants to do something [against the host country], he must leave that country and fight them outside. ... He can go to Iraq and fight the American forces there, or British forces, but he shouldn't [kill American or British civilians]. What's the fault of the civilians?" said al-Sirri, an Egyptian accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan. …
A headline in the London-based Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-owned paper, reflected the apprehensive mood of some mainstream Muslim Arabs in Britain. "We told you to ban [the violent Islamists]. Today we say expel them," the headline appearing on an article by Abdelraham Rashid said.
One Islamist actually stated that the terrorists attacked the wrong country:
Saad Fagih, a Saudi-born Islamic activist in London, said he thought targeting Italy would have generated a bigger impact because of the outpouring of emotion caused by the fatal shooting of an Italian intelligence agent by U.S. soldiers in Iraq as he escorted a freed Italian hostage. An attack on Italy would have put pressure on the government to withdraw troops from Iraq, much as last year's Madrid bombings led to the fall of Spain's conservative government and the departure of Spanish troops, Fagih said. Fagih, who is under U.N. sanctions for alleged links to al-Qaida — links he denies — said he believed bin Laden knew that an attack on Britain would turn Muslims in Britain against al-Qaida. That's something he says bin Laden would have wanted to avoid.
There could be a heavy price to pay for the violence:
Many Britain-based Islamic radicals also fear the attacks will lead to a crackdown that will prevent them from operating freely. "I am sure many of the radicals are extremely unhappy with what happened. It will make their lives more difficult now. They will not be able to do things as freely as they used to," said Mishari al-Thaydi, a Saudi writer who follows Islamic militants closely.
But they hope otherwise:
Many Islamist activists expressed hope that Britain wouldn't resort to curbing free expression or cracking down on their activities. "The British will not react like the Americans [did] — revenge cowboy behavior response," Fagih said. "The British will sit down and discuss the reasons, the circumstances, the consequences and they will take the decision accordingly. And I think they will reach the conclusion that putting restrictions on freedoms of Muslims will not help. It will actually increase the chances of terrorism."
July 14, 2005 update: "Since radical Islam first found a voice in Britain in the late 1990s," reports Martin Chulov in the Australian,
Downing Street has adopted a unique approach to clerics or imams accused of preaching messages inciting violence against British interests. A pact known as a Covenant of Security has existed, in which the Government has tolerated the extremist views of a radical few. Calls for jihad against military forces that have taken arms against Islamic regimes elsewhere in the world have been accepted as free speech. Websites set up and run from Britain offering training in an array of weaponry and military tactics have been allowed to stay online. And no prosecutions have been launched under laws designed to prosecute those who incite others to commit crimes.
In return for what they deem to be a tolerant attitude towards Islam, British Muslim leaders have tried to guarantee that none of their flock would rise up in violence against British civilians or institutions. But in the wake of the London atrocities all bets appear to be off.
July 17, 2005 update: Time magazine reports being told in 2004 by a self- professed former al-Qaeda associate in Pakistan that Muslim groups in Britain had specifically asked al-Qaeda "not to disturb London or other British cities" out of fear that an attack would "greatly hamper their ideological work."
July 24, 2005 update: In part, the British authorities did not prepare for the bombings this month, reports Nick Fielding in the Sunday Times, because they "may have been lulled into a false sense of security" due to Omar Bakri Mohammed insisting that his followers obey a "covenant of security" that encourages terror outside the UK but not within it. Fielding dates the ending of the "covenant of security" to January 2005.
August 1, 2005 update: Hassan Butt, 25, explains the covenant of security in unprecedented detail in an interview in Prospect titled "A British jihadist." He then tells interviewer Aatish Taseer how he no longer believes in this agreement:
Hassan Butt of al-Muhajiroun.
Butt: I used to be part of al-Muhajiroun, but we parted because of differences; They have this idea - derived from the Koran, a valid Islamic opinion but not one I believe is applicable to British citizens - of a "covenant of security." This means Muslims in Britain are forbidden from any military action in Britain. Now, I am not in favour of military action in Britain, but if somebody did do it who was British, I would not have any trouble with that either. Islamically, it would be my duty to support and praise their action. It wouldn't necessarily be the wisest thing to do, but it wouldn't be un-Islamic, as al-Muhajiroun said. …
Taseer: Where do you think the covenant of security idea comes from? I spoke to an imam who said that you cannot strike against your host country. If you want to support Iraqis, go there and support them.
Butt: Most imams, as you know, have come here not as British citizens. There is a difference between a citizen who is born in a country and someone who is here on a visa or a permit. Islamically, I agree that someone who runs from the Middle East - where people like me are persecuted - and says, "Britain, I want you to protect me" has entered a covenant of security. They say, "Look, protect my life and as a result I won't do any harm to you." That I agree with 100 per cent, but most of our people, especially the youth, are British citizens. They owe nothing to the government. They did not ask to be born here; neither did they ask to be protected by Britain.
Taseer: So they've entered no covenant?
Butt: They have no covenant. As far as I'm concerned, the Islamic hukum (order) that I follow, says that a person has no covenant whatsoever with the country in which they were born.
Taseer: Do they have an allegiance to the country?
Butt: No, none whatsoever. Even the person who has a covenant has no allegiance, he just agrees not to threaten the life, honour, wealth, property, mind, and so on, of the citizens around him.
Taseer: Your argument is based on these people being "British," so don't they necessarily have some loyalty to Britain?
Butt: No, that's what I'm saying. They have no loyalty whatsoever; they have no allegiance to the government.
Taseer: Perhaps not the government, but to the country?
Butt: To the country, no.
Taseer: Do you feel some?
Butt: I feel absolutely nothing for this country. I have no problem with the British people; but if someone attacks them, I have no problem with that either.
Comment: I doubt that the native-born Muslim citizen of any other country but Great Britain would make such statements as these.
August 2, 2005 update: Abu Uzair, one of the UK's noisiest Islamists, said on the BBC2's Newsnight program, that in the wake of the September 11 atrocities he thought Britain should not be attacked because it accommodated Muslims. But he then changed his mind: "We don't live in peace with you any more, which means the covenant of security no longer exists. That's why those four bombers attacked London – they believed that there was no covenant of security, and for them their belief was that it was allowed to attack the UK."
August 25, 2005 update: Michael Clarke, whose tagline identifies him as a professor of defence studies at King's College London and editor of Terrorist Attacks in Britain: The Next Phase, has written a jaw-dropping opinion piece, "The contract with Muslims must not be torn up," in which he calls for a return to the covenant of security. First he defines it:
The "covenant of security" between the British authorities and leaders of Muslim communities was a well-understood compromise. There would be high levels of toleration in exchange for self-policing.
That's an interesting take – and completely inconsistent with every other definition cited in this entry, which would be something like "There would be high levels of toleration in exchange for British violence being limited to other countries."
Clarke then cites the opponents of this deal: "The ‘covenant of security' was not just a naive deal, say the critics; it was made with the wrong people. It is time to get tough." They have the ear of the Blair government, post-7/7: "In response, the government wants to look as tough as possible." Clarke then lists the legislative and other changes underway. That brings him to the heart of his argument, which is a call to return to (his wrong depiction of) the covenant of security:
the "covenant of security" and the British approach to tolerating radicalism is not just an expression of political correctness. It serves some hard-headed national purposes. It recognises that there is not one but several Muslim communities among the 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, all with their own national norms and attitudes to culture and assimilation. Self-policing and a better relationship with the police, working with the grain of different national and religious minorities, is fundamental to preventing our gentleman-amateur suicide bombers from becoming figureheads for a national revolt among Muslim youth.
The covenant approach generally suits the police, who know that their effectiveness is ultimately dependent on the legitimacy officers have at local level. They can run zero-tolerance campaigns on antisocial behaviour or any number of specific issues, but only with the implicit consent of the majority. A light touch in general allows for a heavy hand on occasion; it does not work in reverse.
Not least, the "covenant of security" is favoured by most of the security services - it encourages local communities to join the intelligence effort and allows interesting individuals to be monitored more easily. US authorities were exasperated at the way that Abu Hamza was allowed to preach to a large crowd of radical followers every Friday outside the Finsbury Park mosque. But for a British spook, this kind of weekly photo opportunity is worth its weight in gold, and probably far harder to find with Abu Hamza now in custody, pending extradition to the US.
The covenant approach is showing its imperfections, but it needs to be reworked, not ditched. Local Muslim leaders have to re-engage with some of the disaffected youth in their communities and shake themselves out of denial.
Comment: This analysis – which creates a false covenant of security and then calls for its re-instatement – is deeply dishonest.
Oct. 1, 2005 update: In his book, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 75), Quintan Wiktorowicz quotes Bakri:
Muslims living in the West are not in a state of war with anyone and hence they should not break the trust and charter they have concluded with the Western order under which they are living.
But if Tony Blair deploys British forces to a Muslim country, "then he becomes one of the legitimate targets because he has aggressed against the Muslims' countries."
Oct. 23, 2005 update: Imran Patel, a Leeds-based Islamist who had arms training in Pakistan, spoke to the News of the World to make Britons "understand that jihad is valid," adding: "It is permissible but only in appropriate places and Britain is not one of them."
Aug. 21, 2006 update: In an article looking at the non-application of the Antiterrorism Act of 2006, which makes it a crime to glorify or encourage political violence, Souad Mekhennet and Dexter Filkins of the New York Times note the notorious case of Muhamad al-Massari. From his home in London, he runs an Arabic-language site, www.tajdeed.org.uk, that celebrates the violent killing of British and American soldiers. He declares it "legitimate for Iraqis to kill Tony Blair, the same with Bush." Massari holds that he will not be deported or prosecuted for several reasons, one of which is that he does not call for violence in Britain – the old covenant of security. But, write the journalists, "It does not appear that British law makes such distinctions. … It does not limit the application of the law to targets in Britain."
Comment: In theory, the bad old days are over. In practice, the new ones are even worse, laws now being on the books but not enforced.
Sep. 27, 2006 update: A court case concerning an accused British member of Al-Qaeda raises a covenant of security question. The prosecution claims Anthony Garcia (he's of Algerian descent and his real name is Rahman Adam), 24, and six others in a terrorist cell bought more than half ton of ammonium nitrate, a chemical fertilizer, intending to use it for bombs in Britain. Garcia says in his defense that he believed it was to be shipped to Pakistan for use in Kashmir. "At the time I thought it was really the same as fundraising because I thought it was going to help people in Kashmir - to be used as an explosive, as a bomb ... It would be basically to protect the villages under attack from the Indian soldiers."
Jan. 23, 2008 update: MEMRI reviews the current state of this debate at "Islamist Debate: Are Muslim U.K. Visa Holders and Muslim U.K. Citizens Permitted to Carry Out Attacks in Great Britain?" and finds that the covenant-of-security idea wins little support among Islamists.
Aug. 19, 2008 update: As a side note, the Italian government had its own "covenant of security" with Palestinian terrorists some decades back, as reported by Corriere della Sera and summarized by the Jerusalem Post.
A former Italian president says his country had allowed Palestinian terror groups to roam free in exchange for not attacking Italian targets.
Francesco Cossiga's admission confirmed claims of such a deal revealed last week in an interview in the Corriere della Sera newspaper with Bassam Abu Sharif, the former chief of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In a letter published Aug. 15 in Corriere della Sera, Cossiga described a "secret ‘non-belligerence pact' between the Italian state and Palestinian resistance organizations, including terrorist groups" such as the PFLP. The deal, he said, had been devised by Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who in 1978 was kidnapped and assassinated by the Italian terror group the Red Brigades.
Nonetheless, there were several major Palestinian terror attacks on Italian targets in the 1970s and 1980s. They included attacks on Rome's airport and main synagogue, and the hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
Last month, Cossiga accused the PFLP of being behind a terrorist attack at the Bologna train station in 1980 that killed 85 people. That attack has long been ascribed to Italian neo-fascist terrorists, and two leaders of a neo-fascist extremist group were given life sentences for their role in the attack.