The United States Congress, as a result of Senate Joint Resolution 65, marked Afghanistan Day, with a proclamation of support by President Ronald Reagan.
If this seems strange now, it is worth remembering that this was in the days when the Americans still felt giving money and arms to people running round shouting 'Allah Akhbar' and trying to establish an Islamic state was a good idea.
Eighteen years later, America learned the hard way that it is important to judge movements, not by their immediate use for you, but by their end goal.
The Sydney cafe siege of Man Haron Monis has provoked some interesting responses, not least as he appears to have been a high profile, and rather unpleasant figure, in Australia for some years. My twitter timeline is often clogged up with people complaining about the government of Tony Abbott and perceived Australian racism, yet what is most noticeable in the Monis case is the tolerance with which Australia appears to have treated him.
2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of what can perhaps be seen as the first Islamist terror attack in Australia - the Battle of Broken Hill in 1915. Perhaps the most detailed comparative piece on Broken Hill and Martin Place so far has been by an Australian Pastor, Mark Durie, published by the Middle East Forum as "One Hundred Years of Jihad in Australia" That is perhaps a slighly erroneous title, as Australia was hardly threatened by jihadist actors during its decades of a more isloationist foreign policy, or, crucially, when it had far fewer Islamists on its territory.
This being The Guardian, Sparrow perhaps avoids the obvious point - that Anarchists came to reject such violence as a strategy (or even a tactic) a development yet to shape many Islamist actors. Either way, there is plenty of interest in both articles, and they serve as a reminder that some issues may not be as new, or even as threatening, as they at first appear.
I gave a guest lecture in London yesterday, and whilst there picked up a copy of the Camden New Journal, and a pamphlet on LGBT liberation by Laura Miles of the Socialist Workers Party, "Pride, Politics and Protest: A Revolutionary Guide to LGBT Liberation"
An example of the difficulty some people face living the life they wish was starkly set out on p.8 of the CNJ - the suicide of West Hampstead GP Dr Nazim Mahmood. Having spent Eid with his family in Birmingham, Dr Mahmood was confronted by his mother and told he needed to be cured of his homosexuality. He subsequently committed suicide, leaving behind a male partner of 13 years.
Given the restrictions religious scriptures and religious organisations place on sexuality, one might expect the SWP's pamphlet on gay rights to critically examine the world's main religions, their attitudes to gay men and women, and the impact this has on people's lives. Instead, of 32 pages, less than 2 are devoted to religion, and most of that is taken up by criticism of the homophobia of the Russian Orthodox Church (to be condemned, but hardly the biggest issue facing people here in the UK) There is then brief comment on anti-gay laws in three countries - India, Uganda and Nigeria. Although this section does manage a passing reference to encouragement for this from 'homophobic churches' the point is qualified before it is even made
"Very often such homophobic laws and attitudes are relics of colonialism by various imperialist powers not least of course, Britain" (Miles, 2014, 15).
No explanation is forthcoming as to why former colonial powers have long since abandoned anti-gay legislation, whilst some Commonwealth nations are launching attacks anew. In this brief global summary, one might also have expected reference to Iran, probably the country with the worst record in the world for executions of gays, and one of the few to conduct forced gender re-assignment. More than 4000 homosexuals have been executed in Iran since the Islamic Revolution - a subject Laura Miles does not see fit to mention.
Instead, 'Pride, Politics and Protest' ticks many of the boxes that appear to matter these days on the 'revolutionary' left. Russell Brand's book, Revolution is praised, islamophobia and Israel's attacks on Gaza condemned, the Bolsheviks are displayed as far-sighted on the issue of gay equality, the nuclear family gets booted in a two page spread, as do the Nazis.
There are repeated references to the BNP, and sweeping references to UKIP's homophobia, without any attempt to understand the complex debates and arguments within that party on issues such as gay marriage. One could be forgiven for thinking the biggest issue facing LGBT people in Britain was whether Nigel Farage still wants to park the issue of gay marriage.
Laura Miles simply does not do complicated detail - there is no mention here of the beliefs of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, or any of the rising evangelical trends in the UK. The second biggest religion in the country - Islam - is not mentioned at all, save for the listing of gay Muslim support group Imaan under 'Useful organisations and Contact Points' - although why any person would need to contact them, given the content of this pamphlet, is a mystery.
When she was still in the SWP, Lindsey German famously argued that the issue of 'gay rights' should not become a 'shibboleth'. Ever since the Socialist Alliance in Preston discovered you could win council elections with Muslim votes, the SWP and the various splinters from it, have been on a precarious roller-coaster ride with a succession of Islamist actors. Far from being a guide to 'liberation' (whatever that means), what they lose, as Laura Miles pamphlet shows, is their critical faculties.
The Sunday Telegraph has a major piece today on a possible government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK.
Such a move was probably inevitable once it became clear one of the MB's leaders, Yusuf al-Qaradwi, was promoting the concept of a Sunni-Shia sectarian war, and encouraging any able bodied Sunni to go to Syria to take part in that conflict. We are today seeing some of the consequences of that advocacy - in the continuing number of Britons travelling to fight in Syria, the threat posed to our own citizens by those in jihadist organisations and the dangers we face from those returning from the front line in Iraq and Syria. This is not simply about terrorism - what price women's rights, community relations or concepts of democracy in a community influenced by ISIS?
Curiously Robert Mendick and Robert Verkaik's newspaper article holds back from examing the scale of the British establishment's blunders with regards to the MB. These encompass politicians, the police and academia. Mayor of London Ken Livingstone brought Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London as a man we could do business with, a Muslim theologian with the respect and ear of British Muslims. I wonder if Ken, listening to al-Qaradawi's call for violence against Shia Muslims, has now had time to reflect on the wisdom of that approach?
Then there is Bob Lambert QPM, who as head of the Metropolitian Police's Muslim Contact Unit, faciltated not only Al-Qaradwi's London sojourns, but regarded him as a bulwark against the influence of Al Qaeda. According to Lambert's memoirs, this support extended to the Commander of the Met's Special Branch. To paraphrase Brendan Behan, there is no situation so bad, the intervention of a police officer can't make it worse.
Earlier this year, I raised the question of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in British academia. The organisation Spinwatch, with its illustrious advisory board and staffed by some prominent researchers on the British left in Prof David Miller of Bath University, Tom Griffin, Hilary Aked and also Tom Mills of the New Left Project, has been funded by the Muslim Brotherhood's Cordoba Foundation, to the tune of £10,000.
Since then, Spinwatch output has at times reflected issues of concern to the MB - a 2011 report concerning the "Cold War on Britain's Muslims" and a 2013 report exposing a pro-Israeli lobbying group, BICOM. At the 2011 Critical Terrorism Studies conference in Glasgow, Prof Miller reacted angrily to a conference panel on 'Religious Terrorism.' It was perhaps no coincidence that the papers presented in that part of the conference were not sent for peer review, and consequently did not appear in the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, where several Spinwatch writers may be found.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Dr Lorenzo Vidino has been advising the Cabinet Office on its review of MB activities in the UK. It may also be time that a few academics began to look critically (in the true sense of the word) at what impact the Muslim Brotherhood may be having on parts of British academia.
I had another late night request yesterday from the Evening Standard's letters page, asking for my views on the proposed UK intervention in Iraq. I don't know if they will use my words in today's edition, but here they are:
Twenty five years after the Rushdie protests, we still don't have a viable policy to address Islamic extremism. Twenty years since British jihadis fought for the Bosnian Mujahideen, we are still scrambling to properly respond to the issue of UK Islamists fighting overseas. If in doubt, revert to type - support the same side as the Jihadis, then when that is exposed as folly, launch air raids, and hope for the best. In the very year when government in Libya has collapsed (the RAF's last destination) that is not good enough.
Western governments should tackle ISIS at source - stop its funding from the Gulf, stop its flow of manpower via the Turkish border, and stop the flow of support from Salafi Muslims in Europe - be it directly as fighters or indirectly as often dubious charities. Whilst support for a secular Kurdish state could have been given by now, more generally, a retreat from this troublesome part of the world is overdue. As what is really a Sunni v Shia civil war continues (towards an Islamic Götterdämmerung?) let us look to our moat. And where he can, the Prime Minister should begin to pull up the drawbridge.
Paul Stott, University of East Anglia
Britain has had twenty five years, since the domestic protests in support of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, to develop a viable strategy towards Islamism. We still seem to be stumbling from crisis to crisis, forever apologising and scared of giving offense. It is all very British, and it is all a big balls-up. There is time to take a better route, but that moment will not be around for ever. Here is my letter to The Standard:
David Cameron has adopted a curious approach to ISIS. Firstly we have a British Prime Minister informing people establishing what they consider a pure Islamic state, they are not really Muslims at all. Does he think they are going to agree and give up their hostages?
Such pointless words are in fact solely for domestic consumption, and an electorate fatigued by Islamist extremism, yet fully aware of earlier, flawed interventions in the Middle East.
Next he repeats the canard Islam is a religion of peace. Far from being a pacifist, Muhammad is one of histories most impressive and innovative military commanders, fighting nine battles in ten years, whilst his companions led 47 military campaigns (see Islamweb.net). It is from this turbulent period of Muhammad and his companions, and their establishment of sharia, that Salafis (those who seek a return to the original path) such as ISIS and their British members receive inspiration.
Rather than verbiage, the PM would be better advised ensuring evidence of war crimes by British jihadis is being carefully collated, dual citizens lose their UK nationality, and our NATO ‘ally’ Turkey controls its border with Syria.
Paul Stott, University of East Anglia
I am not in London yet, so have not seen if it has been printed, or if it has been printed and edited down. There is more that could have been said. For example on the differences between the Islamic State and post 2001 Al Qaeda, or the need to stop encouraging Islamist actors in the UK by ceding ground to them. I can think of few things sillier than fatally raising expectations on issues such as 'voluntary' sharia councils in the UK - but that debate will do another time.
I have sadly missed the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, which closed on August 19th.
You can gain some insight into what was missed by looking, whilst you can, at the relevant section on the British Library website. There is also a book written to accompany the event, and an excellent summary appeared in the May issue of Fortean Times, courtesy of Paul Gravett.
As a long term observer of that curiously puritanical streak which runs through the British left, I was immediately drawn to this paragraph in Gravett's article:
It’s ironic that the first exhibition devoted to comics was probably the touring display of so-called ‘horror comics’ - imports, reprints and imitations of uncensored American comic books like the notorious Tales from the Crypt - organised by the National Union of Teachers. This display toured the country and was the basis of a film strip projected in schools. While these were intended as part of their campaign to raise alarm about the effects of this shocking material, it probably also gave many youngsters their first exposure to these tempting terrors. Pressures on the government to take action came from many sides, including the unlikely alliance of the Church of England, right up to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and the anti-American Communist Party who discreetly ran the Comics Campaign Council. The result in 1955 was the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. Very few prosecutions resulted but it is still in force and the stigma against comics has never entirely gone away.
It is worth re-capping on that. A major trades union, the NUT, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Church of England all campaigned against the presence in the UK of American comics. And this resulted in legislation being enacted against 'harmful publications'. Legislation that has never been repealed!
Just skimming through the various histories I have on my bookshelf of the CPGB, I cannot find any mention of the Comics Campaign Council as a prominent 'front-group.' Then again sympathetic histories may be very likely to avoid the subject.
I have never actually got round to reading Melanie Phillips' critique of the education system, All Must Have Prizes. However, judging by this recent announcement on the staff email list at the University of East Anglia, it has some predictive value:
We will have two extra seminars on 23/07 and 30/07.
Patricia Esteve (Universitat Rovira i Virgili) will present “Affirmative Action through Extra Prizes” on 23/07 from 4 to 5 pm at ARTS 3.15. The following is the abstract.
Abstract: Some affirmative action policies establish that a set of disadvantaged competitors has access to an extra prize. Examples are gender quotas or a prize for national competitors in an international competition. We analyse the effects of creating an extra prize by reducing the prize in the main competition. Contestants differ in ability and agents with relatively low ability belong to a disadvantaged minority. All contestants compete for the main prize, but only disadvantaged agents can win the extra prize. We show that an extra prize is a powerful tool to ensure participation of disadvantaged agents. Moreover, for intermediate levels of the disadvantage of the minority, introducing an extra prize increases total equilibrium effort compared to a standard contest. Thus, even a contest designer not interested in affirmative action might establish an extra prize in order to enhance competition.
If you want to know why community relations are poor in some parts of the UK, and negative attitudes expressed towards Islam in Britain, this is as good a place as any to start:
1986 - 2007 Activists from organisations such as the Islamic Foundation and Muslim Council of Britain produce a series of pamphlets setting out how Muslim school children living in Britain should be educated
2007 - 15/07/14 - Activists attempt to implement these strategies in some Birmingham schools
2014 - Media exposure of accusations of a Trojan Horse approach to schooling at some Birmingham state schools emerge. As well as anonymous documents (probably fake) these include accusations made by former head teachers from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The NASUWT is representing several
- Muslim community representatives, the National Union of Teachers and some left leaning journalists, dismiss the accusations, and state they are rooted in Islamophobia and racism
- Across three seperate inquiries, many of the accusations are substantiated
- 15/07/14 - Some of those involved in allegedly seeking to push Islamist agendas in Birmingham schools, resign
- 23-25/07/14 Academics and political activists in the Birmingham Muslim community complain that the Trojan Horse affair has damaged community relations. They make no mention of their own role in any damage done, and conduct no critical self analysis.
Last weekend saw the most succesful leader of a British fascist organisation, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, leave its leadership, for the undefined role of 'President'. He has been replaced by Adam Walker, a former teacher from County Durham.
In a quickly written but detailed analysis of these events, Larry O'Hara of Notes From the Borderland magazine has given a wonderful summation of Griffin's 15 years in charge of the BNP:
"For some time now, Griffin has been a politically dead man walking, but this should not blind us to the strategic breakthrough he made in far right politics. Despite his European dalliances (and those closer to home with CI8/Blood & Honour in the past) he has never been a Nazi, seeking to develop a non-Nazi fascism that combined both electoralism and extra-parliamentary politics. Sadly for him (though not anti-fascism) he could never convince enough BNP members of the nuances and salience of this strategy."
Do read the full article, "The BNP's Nick Griffin Gets Booted Upstairs".
Whilst Islam struggles to bend with the times, the Christian church in England leans like a weeping willow in the breeze. As the Church of England's General Synod votes to accept female Bishops, consider the gem below from Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney:
This is a significant moment in history and for me the overwhelming emotion was one of liberation: for me this is about stating that from now on men and women can use their gifts in the Church in whatever way they are called. This is about God-given equality.
Rachel Treweek, the i paper, 15/07/2014, p.7
The last thing changes in the Christian church this century have been about is 'God'.
What demand for an equal role for women, or changes in the status of homosexuality means is pressure from society has forced the Chuch of England to shift on positions it has held for centuries. If this desire for equality were 'God-given' one might have expected followers of the holy book to have enacted it hundreds of years ago?
Apart from a few traditionalists (i.e. most of those who actually believe the Bible) this probably does not matter. But we should not let the likes of Rachel Treweek get away with claiming these contemporary changes are consistent with her religion. They have never been before, and they are not now.
And that is a failing, not of the Chuch of England, but Christianity full stop.
There was an interesting blast from the past at the "Putting Birmingam School Kids First" public meeting on the 26th June.
Who should be amongst the concerned parents but Helen Salmon. Both Ms Salmon, and her five year old son Ben, spoke at the event.
When the Respect party split in 2007-8, in Birmingham the dispute centered on the inability of the organisation to field diverse slates of candidates. Muslim men, one of them a recent defector from the Conservative Party, predominated. Helen Salmon of the SWP objected. Salma Yaqoob inferred she was racist, and things got very nasty indeed.
As divisive and damaging as the 'Trojan Horse' affair, and the behaviour of Islamist educationalists which preceded it has been, clearly a reconciliation has occured between Helen Salmon and Salma Yaqoob, who organised the public meeting.
Is it me, or is there not something slightly sinister in seeing children giving speeches in this way? Especially as the words were almost certainly written by his mother? Where once the individual confessed to thought crime and pledged to take the correct path in future, now it seems, they get their children to accompany them............
Amongst the flurry of World War One related posts and comments, there seemed little point in adding my own - it is not my field. I do though want to share the words of Atatürk on the graves of those Allied soldiers who fell in what is now Turkey:
"Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
― Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
The article below is one I wrote yesterday, for the Harry's Place website. It considers a new initiative from the former leader of the Respect Party, Salma Yaqoob, in the wake of the scandal about Islamist influence at state schools in Birmingham.
Thank you to Mehrdad Amanpour, who first compared the promotional poster for "Putting Birmingham School Kids First" to the old Benetton adverts, and thus inspired me to pick up my pen.
Putting Birmingham Children First?
Islamists can certainly be slick when it comes to propaganda. Salma Yaqoob is busily promoting a public meeting tonight in the second city entitled "Putting Birmingham School Kids First".
Two issues of the many which emerge from this. Firstly consider the remarkable picture used to advertise this event - a dozen or so mixed race school children in a circle, with boys and girls holding hands. As might be expected with children so young, there is not a hijab to be seen. The kids appear to be wearing sports kit, and if so, are taking part in mixed games.
That should be unremarkable. Except this is Birmingham, and the above image is being used by one of the Park View school's staunchest defenders. Whilst the image used is uncontroversial to most, is that the vision Salma Yaqoob has for schooling in her city? Is that the vision of the Muslim Council of Britain or the Association of Muslim Schools? It hardly seems to be an image Islamic educationalist Tahir Alam and his colleagues have been working towards.
The second oddity with regards to this meeting is the presence of the National Union of Teachers. Concerns raised by teachers have featured in many of the revelations in Birmingham this year - it is after all educational professionals who are placed between the rock of government requirements and the hard place of determined Islamist lobbyists.
Yet the NUT response to OFSTED's critical report, was deeply conservative - its leader Christine Blower lazily playing the race card rather than looking critically at the substantive challenges some stripes of British Islam present to both education and the rights of her members.
One might have expected a trades union to be concerned about staff being forced from their jobs, but not in the brave new world of Ms Blower. When OFSTED commented on the monitoring of staff email by an outside agency employed by one school under investigation - the NUT appeared unconcerned. So one question for panelist NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney - are you representing your members in Birmingham, or are you representing the Association of Muslim Schools?
For all the Benetton style imagery of happy multi-culturalism and children's play evoked by this meeting, its participants - and in particular Yaqoob and Courtney -need to be reminded of an important point. You will be judged on what you do, not on the imagery you present.
You cannot run with the fox, and hunt with the hounds.
Paul Stott is an academic based at the University of East Anglia.
The article below is a report I wrote for the The Backbencher webite last year, following a Northampton University conference. Whether it was something I said or not, I was not invited back for the 2014 follow-up! Anyway, as The Backbencher lost my original article when they swapped servers, here it is.
Assessing the Far Right and the Ground It Stands On?
Friday 28 June saw a conference at Northampton University entitled “The Far Right in Transition”. This brought together approximately 100 people to hear speakers discuss the contemporary and historical far right, its activities and some of the responses to it. The conference had one slightly different tack – me – as I was invited at the last minute to discuss the Woolwich terrorist attack and to put it in some historical context.
Northampton University runs the Radicalism and the New Media research centre and the first part of the morning was devoted to its centrepiece – the launch of the archive of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. Searchlight has been a controversial presence in the British anti-racist movement for over 50 years – Anti-Fascist Action (of which I was a supporter) and Antifa (of which I was a founder) both proscribed their members from working with Searchlight, because of its relationship with the police and security services. Such history was not on the agenda in Northampton – indeed much of the day was about the legacy of Searchlight and its now elderly editor Gerry Gable, as he gifts Searchlight’s vast archive to the University of Northampton for future research.
For all the past bitterness, this may well prove to be Gable’s legacy – the opportunity to view the hundreds of boxes of far-right material that includes books from as far back as the 1880s, magazines from the 1930s, and thousands of fascist leaflets. Some 200 boxes of material have been catalogued by curator Dan Jones, with some 300 to follow. There are complete runs of some material – for example Searchlight itself, and Spearhead, the magazine John Tyndall ran for much of his political life.
Conferences like this tend to bring together a slightly curious mix of participants – academics, past and current political activists, community leaders, the police and in this case a sizeable contingent of counter terrorism officers, something that perhaps reflects the concern about events post-Woolwich. Podcasts of all eleven presentations are available, although not the Q and A’s which followed. Of the talks if you only have time to listen to a handful I would firstly pick out Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens who examined the EDL in terms of the international counter jihad movement. It is often stated that the EDL has kick-started a whole series of like minded groups across Europe, but this does not appear to be the case, indeed the EDL actually rather trails in behind groups abroad. Hitchens travelled to Defence League demonstrations in Aarhus and Stockholm, and found that activists there tended to be more middle class than their English counterparts, older and sometimes with political backgrounds on the left, rather than the right. My instinct is that there may be very different local reasons that bring people into such movements in different countries – and even different cities within those nations. It may be that further research across a greater number of countries will answer my hypothesis in time.
Fiyaz Mughal of Tell Mama spoke of his organisations work monitoring anti-Muslim hatred on Twitter. Interestingly, whilst recent media articles have seen Tell Mama referred to as an organisation monitoring both anti-Muslim hatred and intra-Muslim tensions, the later role was not mentioned. Tell Mama has the software to pick out key words in abusive texts, and grooming cases now appears to be a bigger issue in such material than terrorism.
There was some discomfort about where this work can lead – a 15 year old girl ‘Nicole’ was cautioned by the police after she had made 8 months worth of tweets that Tell Mama had monitored, and it seems this police route is the most likely response to such material. Mughal stressed Twitter believe firmly in the First Amendment, and have heard and ignored Tell Mama’s concerns about the platform they provide.
The third talk of interest was Will Baldet of the St Phillips Centre in Leicester, who has responsibility for the government’s anti-extremism platform Prevent, in Leicestershire and Rutland. Here it was obvious how keenly broader ‘anti-extremist’ narratives are running in police and government circles. Anti-fascist demonstrations were identified as a drain on public resources, counter-productive and unwise, as they do not achieve anything. I kept expecting someone in the audience to shout out ‘Cable Street’ but no one did. More seriously, I suspect Will Baldet does understood how much anti-fascists mythologise their history, and see themselves in a life and death struggle against an enemy. To the government and police though, they are just a public order problem.
Baldet identified some key elements in the make-up of far-right ‘extremists’ – anger management issues, anti-authoritarianism, identification as the under-dog, defiance, recklessness, a failure to handle inner conflict, attention seeking and an intolerance of ambiguity. Whilst this type of psychological approach is always interesting, where it gets us is another matter. I asked if a similar chart could be drawn up of Islamist actors, and was told that this typology was in fact an amalgam of the characteristics of neo-Nazi and Al Qaeda members, plus would be suicide bombers in Iraq. Fascinating stuff, but reading through it again, much of it could equally apply to any 18 year old in a street gang or football firm, and arguably to a much wider number of 18 years olds full stop.
On this evidence at least, the answers to assessing the far right and the ground it stands on do not lie in cod psychology.
Paul Stott is an academic in the field of Terrorism Studies, based at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @MrPaulStott
I wrote the article below almost exactly 12 months ago - 0n 22 June 2013. It is re-published here as it is was since lost from The Backbencher site where it originally appeared, and I never got round to pubishing it in full on this blog. Hopefully it has stood the test of time over the past twelve months.
A Strange Kind of Glory: Life Undercover
Monday 24 June sees a Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 at 8pm. From its scheduling, the programme will examine the use of undercover police officers by the Met, and some of the resultant sexual scandals that are now coming to light.
Over the past few years, The Guardian and Observer have run a series of revelations about Special Demonstration Squad operations infiltrating far-left, anti-racist, anti-fascist, environmental and green organisations, mostly via the pen of Paul Lewis. What is noticeable about the police investigations, all of which appear to have run for several years, is the comparatively small beer that resulted in terms of prosecutions for criminal offences and/or prevention of serious crime. In the case of Peter Black, known as Officer A, who infiltrated an organisation protesting against deaths in police custody, one is left with the rather unpleasant impression that the police were not investigating criminal activity, or developing advance indications of public disorder, but instead were looking to find out what dirt protestors had developed on the Metropolitan Police.
Perhaps the most prominent of the undercover officers to be exposed is Bob Lambert, who was known as ‘Bob Robinson’ when he infiltrated a series of peace, ecological and animal rights organisations in the 1980s. Since retiring from the Metropolitan Police he had forged himself a successful career as an academic, where his research focused on Islamophobia and British counter terrorism initiatives. It was this high profile that was to be Dr Lambert’s undoing – some of those he had spied upon realised that Bob Lambert and Bob Robinson were one and the same, and exposed him when he attended an anti-racist conference in October 2011.
The details of his time undercover include entering into a long term relationship and fathering a child with a woman who had no idea as to his real identity. Both were abandoned. On 13 June 2012 the Green MP Caroline Lucas used parliamentary privilege to allege that whilst an activist in the Animal Liberation Front, ‘Bob Robinson’ had carried out the firebombing of a London department store in 1987.
Having met Bob Lambert in the course of my own academic research, I can say he is one of the most personable and considerate individuals I have known. His slightly bumbling, Sergeant Wilson out of Dad’s Army act belies a sharp mind. The problem of course is it is precisely those qualities that undoubtedly made him such a successful operator when spying upon his fellow citizens, many of whom will have given him their friendship, camaraderie and indeed love in return. Bob’s career in the Special Branch brought him the Queen’s Police Medal and an MBE. But when placed in the context of the ambiguities and indeed personal betrayals he engaged in along the way, those baubles arguably represent a strange kind of glory.
Similar sentiments may be expressed when considering the life of the late Duncan Robertson. On Thursday 20 June along with the writer Larry O’Hara I attended his inquest, at St Pancras Coroner’s Court. Mr Robertson was a long term activist in the British fascist movement, and his death in March this year was marked by a flowing tribute published on the British National Party’s website on 29 April. Croydon BNP Branch Organiser John Clarke was quoted as saying “Nationalism has lost a real friend with the passing of Duncan. Rest in peace mate”.
On 19 May the parapolitical magazine Notes from the Borderland broke the news that far from being a ‘friend’ of ‘nationalism’ Robertson had been working undercover for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight for nine years.
Subsequently Searchlight dedicated much of the May issue of their magazine to his work, rather grandly referring to him as a ‘Searchlight intelligence officer’. There was no explanation of how a man aged only 48 had died, although reference was made to his struggle with ill health. The frightening physical decline in the pictures of Duncan Robertson over the years certainly indicated a man with considerable issues.
The inquest confirmed that Duncan Robertson had passed away on 19 March 2013, having taken 140 paracetemol tablets the day before, whilst staying on his own at a central London hotel. Prior to his death, at one stage he was drinking 150 units of alcohol per week, whilst wrestling with severe pain resultant from a surviving a train accident many years previously. In evidence to the court, Searchlight Editor Gerry Gable described Robertson as a ‘Research Journalist’ saying nothing about the undercover life he had led in the BNP (and other fascist currents) on Searchlight’s behalf. As such, the Court did not consider the pressures forming close relationships with the fascists he was informing on may have had on his mental state.
On 20 June the Coroner recorded a verdict of suicide whilst suffering from depression. The court had been unable to trace any of Duncan Robertson’s family, and he appears to have had few close friends. The current edition of Searchlight salutes him as a comrade, but as with Bob Lambert, one is left with the strong impression that a life undercover is a very strange kind of glory.
Paul Stott is an academic in the field of Terrorism Studies, based at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @MrPaulStott
This is an article I wrote on the 13 June 2013, and had published on The Backbencher website. As it was lost due to some technical issues, for the record I re-prooduce it below.
Domestic Terrorism in the UK – Time To Calm Down Dear?
The murder in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby refocused attention on the United Kingdom’s issues with both terrorism and radical elements within British Islam.
Woolwich was new on certain levels. For the first time since 2005 terrorists had killed in mainland Britain (there were several murders by dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland in that period) The run of unsuccessful attempts – 21/7, the Haymarket nightclub attack, Glasgow Airport, the attempted murder of Stephen Timms MP – had served as a reminder that for now the UK’s Jihadis lack the tradecraft that the Provisional IRA in particular developed. The Four Lions style attempt to attack the EDL in Dewsbury last June, where would-be holy warriors turned up late, then got nicked on the way home for driving an uninsured vehicle, and a plot to blow up Luton’s Territorial Army base using a bomb under a toy car, had even added a slightly comic element to British Jihadism.
Woolwich was a reminder that a deadly threat does still exist. The added difference was that unlike an attack on a transport interchange or bar, in Woolwich there was no attempt to inflict mass casualties –civilians were free to go about their business whilst the two alleged murderers delivered monologues to anyone with a camera phone.
In recent decades several terrorist strands have existed in the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement did not bring a total end to violence related to the Six Counties/Ulster/Northern Ireland (delete according to your allegiance) but went a significant distance towards doing so. With the Provisional IRA and Loyalist groups de-commissioning, and broad public support holding, those fringe elements who rejected the peace process took some time to re-constitute themselves.
2013 sees Derry/Londonderry (delete according to your allegiance) as the UK’s City of Culture. Derry, alongside Lurgan, is one of the stronger areas for dissident Republicans, who also have a major opportunity to remind the world they have not gone away with the G8 summit held in the province this month. Then again, speculation in July 2012 that dissidents coming together under one umbrella would see an attack at the Olympics came to naught.
For Britain’s stuttering forces on the far right, the murder of Drummer Rigby served as a shot of adrenaline. The extent to which cooler heads have departed the English Defence League was demonstrated by balaclava clad demonstrators throwing bottles in Woolwich. For all the blood curdling talk which sometimes accompanies the EDL (from some of its supporters and some of those monitoring it) the pattern of response to this killing mirrored 7/7 – some unpleasant expressions of racism, petty violence, arson attacks and vandalism – but with no sign of an anti-Muslim uprising or pogrom.
Keep Calm and Carry On?
As well as keeping politically inspired violence in perspective, we need to keep terrorism in some form of context. In 2012, terrorist cases were falling, prompting David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, to comment you are as likely to die from a bee sting as a terrorist:
In terms of our way of life, more long term threats may actually come from needless legislation to ‘protect’ us – something former Home Secretary John Reid and ex-Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Lord Carlile shamelessly promoted in media interviews post Woolwich.
The recent PRISM revelations should serve as a reminder that the function of all security services is to collect data on its own citizens, and that new technology allows greater intrusion than ever before. What was lacking from Reid or Carlile was any evidence that increased monitoring powers could have prevented Woolwich, just as those in the Labour party who wanted to introduce ID cards after 7/7 could not produce a shred of evidence that such legislation would prevent a domestic terrorist conducting a suicide bombing.
The Why Question?
The debate about why people are radicalised is at times circular – it is now unfashionable in liberal circles to play up religious elements, and de rigueur to raise our foreign policy – but at least here in the UK we are having the debate. Surveys from the Pew Research Center suggest in no Muslim country does a majority believe 9/11 was carried out by Arabs. The US, the Jews, Israel or any combination thereof cops the blame. How can terrorism – and counter terrorism – be rationally debated in such environments?
We need to carry on debating these issues. Yes foreign policy is cited repeatedly by Jihadist actors, but equally central, in their literature and statements, are religious issues. If anyone thinks our foreign policy is solely to blame, perhaps they would like to explain why author Salman Ruhdie was in hiding for so long?
Paul Stott is an academic in the field of Terrorism Studies, based at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @MrPaulStott
Last summer I had three articles on security, policing and the far-right published on The Backbencher, a UK based libertarian website which deserves a wider audience.
It was recently pointed out to me that the articles had now been taken down, which happened as The Backbencher had switched to a new server. Checking on this blog, I had not put all the articles on here either, which was an oversight.
I will put each article on this blog, over the next three to four days, and hopefully The Backbencher will also do the same. As ever, comments are welcome, especially as, twelve months on, it is also interesting to see how any analysis stands the test of time.