Comment | Don’t Shoot the Messenger: The Real ‘Jihadi John’ Debate

Attacks by the media and political establishment on campaigning charity Cage over its statements on Mohammed Emwazi are wrong-headed and obscure the real debate we need to be having, argues Yvonne Ridley.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 15:24 - 0 Comments

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Mohammed Emwazi - Yvonne Ridley - CeasefireA GREAT DEAL of hysteria has spewed forth from tabloid television and radio journalists, politicians and columnists alike in recent days following the unveiling of the ISIS front man known as ‘Jihadi John’.

Sadly, like vigilante-style gangs stampeding recklessly to silence the messenger of bad news, very few actually stopped to reflect and take in what was being said by the advocacy group Cage.

Instead, their focus locked like Exocets on a couple of careless adjectives describing Kuwaiti-born Muhammad Emwazi, as “beautiful and gentle” while failing to grasp the subtle differences between past and present tenses.

That Cage worked furiously behind the scenes in desperate efforts to stop the bloody executions of British aid workers – Alan Henning in particular – should be enough to let any rational person conclude that the group is not an apologist for terrorists such as Emwazi.

Cage’s own Outreach Director, Moazzam Begg, returned from Syria in December 2012 following several trips to the country after the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011. He is on record warning people of the evils of ISIS long before they became headline news.

I myself offered to exchange places with aid worker David Haines by using an Islamic intercession based on the Quran, but as we all know by now ISIS has a long distance relationship with Quranic teachings. The Scotsman was beheaded and his death captured on a video featuring Jihadi John.

There is no doubt that Emwazi is a nasty piece of work who has become a useful tool for the murderous group he alone chose to join.

But instead of the pompous invective launched from the mouths of rambunctious Mayor of London Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister David Cameron and a whole host of other frothing, indignant commentators, wouldn’t the sensible thing to do is ask why a young man morphed from a nice kid into a monster?

Well-known British columnist Peter Hitchens describes media reactions to any mention of ISIS as a series of “futile flailing and squawking” adding: “Islamic State’s strength depends greatly on its ability to mesmerise Western media. And the idea of a Londoner presenting the group’s macabre videos might have been designed by a public relations man who understands exactly what makes the British mass media salivate”.

He is, of course right but that did not stop a whole gaggle of misguided individuals from queuing up to besmirch the one advocacy actually trying to put forward workable solutions to the problems of ISIS recruitment and radicalisation.

If, as some have suggested, British intelligence services, MI5 included, have played a part in the radicalisation of the likes of Emwazi; then I want to know, as should every sane citizen of this country. The path from angelic schoolboy to one of the world’s most wanted must be littered with all sorts of life-changing incidents.

At the end of the day, he chose to join ISIS. But if he was pushed onto this path to Hell then surely we need to know by whose hand and how.

Cage firmly believes he was helped on the way by the actions of British intelligence but that does not make the group apologists for terrorism, as some in the media have been claiming.

If that was the case then Cameron is surely guilty too, now that he has ordered a new inquiry into claims the security services may have been complicit in the ill-treatment of Michael Adebolajo, who went on to butcher British soldier Lee Rigby in London. The inquiry will be conducted by Sir Mark Waller, the intelligence services commissioner, an independent watchdog over the security services, following criticism into the circumstances leading up to the soldier’s murder. It will centre on how MI6 dealt with claims from Adebolajo that he was tortured during his detention in Kenya in 2010 by its counter-terrorism police, who have ties to Britain.

The truth is we are all influenced – positively and negatively – in our formative years by outside forces, incidents, events and random people who come in and out of our lives. Thankfully the majority of us will go on to lead law-abiding lives and contribute to the society and communities in which we live. I often tell people I was radicalised by the policies of Margaret Thatcher and her government in the 70s and 80s. One of my favourite sayings is: “If you’re not radicalised then you’re not paying attention.”

Earlier this week I had the unexpected privilege of meeting a July 7 survivor at a meeting on Islamophobia in Newcastle organised by the Stop the War coalition. The London Underground bombings of 2005, without doubt, changed her life both physically and mentally and subsequently brought her into contact, as part of her work, with a series of young men who, in her words, were “dangerous and murderers and have done all sorts of terrible things.”

She concluded that a few had been “helped” on their destructive paths by over-zealous security officers and the actions of counter-terrorism police. You could have heard a pin drop as she spoke of her practical, direct experiences and encounters.

Only by listening to those at the coalface can we start to learn about the triggers that can send a young person onto a ruinous path. Those who lose their moral compass usually end up in prison at the taxpayer’s expense but, occasionally, others head out on destructive forays that can affect us all.

If Jihadi John was indeed radicalised by the British security services then we must find out what mistakes were made and how policies and strategies can be re-shaped to try and avoid a repeat.

Home Secretary Theresa May said of British Intelligence agencies: “You might not see the work they do. You might not know the risks they take. You might not be told about the plots they stop. These remarkable men and women are true heroes. And they deserve the support and respect of every single one of us.”

That might well be true, but what if their strategies are flawed? What if their actions are sending troubled young people on a one-way ticket to the Dark Side? Instead of shooting the messenger let us all calm down and listen.

See Also: Creating ‘Jihadi John’: Are the UK security services putting us in danger?

Yvonne Ridley

Yvonne Ridley is a British journalist and a patron of the London-based human rights NGO cageprisonners.com as well as being the Vice President of the European Muslim League. Her website is www.yvonneridley.org and she's on Twitter @yvonneridley.

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