Islamic State’s ‘radicalized’ British volunteers: a useful threat?

I feel sorry for the Bradford husbands and other British Muslim families whose children and relatives have absconded to join Islamic State’s savage utopia, but I don’t feel any sympathy at all for the ‘radicalized’ volunteers themselves who have gone to Syria.  It isn’t as if you have to look very far to know what ISIS is like.

We are, after all,  talking about an organization that believes it has a divine right to rape women from religious minorities; that beheads and buries alive children and adults; that murders prisoners of war and hostages en masse in exemplary execution-spectacles; that recruits even eight year old children to carry out suicide bombings; that forces homosexuals to jump off buildings; that has casually wiped out even the most ancient historical artefacts and remains in its attempt to establish an Islamic year zero at the heart of Syria and Iraq.

All this has been done in plain sight, and no amount of ‘grooming’ can conceal facts that ISIS doesn’t even begin to hide, because it is actually proud of its barbarity.   In short, this is a gang of fanatics driven by bigotry and sectarian hatred, that rules through the gun, the knife and the whip, whose language is blood and death, and which has trampled even the most basic and elementary laws of mercy and decency in war and peace that humanity has evolved over thousands of years through various religious and secular traditions.  Such an organization deserves only universal contempt, and those who go and fight for it deserve the same.

All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand how this monster came into being, or the socio-psychological motivations that have attracted so many young men and women to such an inherently repulsive and malignant political phenomenon.  But there is an essential contradiction at the  British government’s clumsy, ineffective and increasingly authoritarian attempts to counter pro-ISIS ‘radicalization’ amongst British Muslims that rarely receives the analysis it deserves; namely, that in Syria at least, these ‘radicals’ are fighting on the same side as the government that is trying to prevent their radicalization.

This isn’t just an accidental or coincidental relationship originating from the fact that ISIS and the West have the common objective of overthrowing Assad.    ISIS receives logistical and financial support from the UK’s main allies in the Middle East.  From very early on in the Syrian conflict, US intelligence services regarded the creation of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Syria as a strategic asset.  There is abundant evidence to suggest that Western governments have provided weapons and training to same extremist pool that gave rise to ISIS’ current ‘principality.’

Earlier this month, this relationship flitted briefly through the mainstream media, when the Swedish jihadist Bherlin Gildo was acquited of terrorism charges at the Old Bailey, after his lawyers successfully argued that British intelligence agencies were providing weapons and ‘non-lethal’ help to the same ‘terrorist’ groups that he was allegedly supporting.

Gildo’s lawyers based their defence on the grounds that he was helping these unnamed rebel groups before the emergence of ISIS, and cited press articles referring to Western armed supplies to Syrian rebels in 2013 that suggested that the West was doing the same thing in the same period.  The notion of a cut-off point before and after ISIS is misleading; Gildo had apparently worked with Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization with a very similar ideology and modus operandi to Islamic State, which the crown prosecutor as a ‘proscribed group considered to be al-Qaida in Syria.’

The startling suggestion, in a British court, that British intelligence services had been assisting ‘al-Qaida in Syria’ ought to have raised a few questions about the UK government’s anti-extremism agenda, such as why the UK has been supporting some of the same groups that it has described as a threat to British national security.

These relationships are hardly a historical novelty.  Western governments have often collaborated with extremist jihadist groups that they have regarded as useful foreign policy tools, no matter how often these groups have bitten the hand that feeds them.  In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and its allies favoured the most violent and extreme mujahideen groups in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’  NATO’s allies in Libya also included individuals and militias that belonged to the al-Qaeda franchise.

For all the talk about a ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria, such groups have received similar support from the Middle Eastern states seeking Assad’s overthrow for the same reasons,  and these efforts have received the tacit or direct support from the same Western governments, including our own, that also want to bring Assad down.

Some might call this policy ‘shortsighted’, but it really isn’t.  It’s a question of priorities.  For the time being, the reactionary Sunni states of the Middle East see sectarian war against Shi’ism as a tool of counter-revolution and a geopolitical lever that can be used to counter Iranian influence.  This dovetails neatly with the West’s determination to ‘rollback’ any regime seen as a) a potential obstacle to Western strategic domination over the region’s resources b) an ally of Russia, China or Iran and c) as a threat to Israel.

Of course these ambitions may leave a trail of devastated states and potentially destabilising political chaos, in which organizations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra can thrive. But that is a risk that our governments have clearly considered is ‘worth it’, as Madeleine Albright once said in a very different context but for very similar reasons, perhaps in the belief that the West and its allies will ultimately be able to reshape the wreckage in its favour.

So ISIS isn’t only a threat; it’s also a convenient threat.    Its savagery and barbarity acts as yet another justification for the endless projection of military force abroad, and a new domestic threat that can be politically mobilised to produce evermore authoritarian governance at home, and an increasingly McCarthyite attempt to eradicate a Muslim ‘fifth column.’

These are the calculations that have helped paved the way for the ISIS nightmare.   So let’s by all means talk about why young British Muslims are so drawn to an organization that ought to be an absolute pariah, but when we talk about ‘radicalization’ we ought to remember these ‘radicals’ may also have their uses – and not only for ISIS.

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