12 April 2022

British Muslims are vital allies in the fight against Ali Harbi Ali’s brand of murderous extremism

By Wasiq Wasiq

It took just 18 minutes for a jury at the Old Bailey to conclude that Ali Harbi Ali was guilty of murdering Sir David Amess at a constituency surgery in Southend last October. That this was an act of unspeakable barbarity was evident from the moment the first eyewitness reports of the stabbing came in. Less clear, however, was what had prompted Ali to engage in violent jihadism.

For the 26-year-old university drop-out from London, Sir David’s murder was the end point of a long journey of radicalisation. Indeed, Ali had already decided back in 2015 that he would engage in hijrah – a term originally used to describe the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina, but since co-opted by Islamists to denote foreign fighters leaving their country of origin to engage in jihad.

As Ali explained in a police interview after his arrest, it was the war in Syria that first turned him towards Islamist ideology in his late teens.

‘It was seeing the fighting that happened and everything surrounding it that sort of first of all got me interested. And then through that, I learnt about Islamic practices and more about my religion than I knew before.’

Having failed to follow through on his plan to join Islamic State to Syria, Ali eventually turned his attention to the ‘enemy’ at home. He told police that he decided relatively early on that his target would be one of the 524 MPs who had voted in favour of UK strikes on Islamic State in Iraq.

Ali had concluded that murdering an MP would mean they would be unable to vote again for policies that ‘harmed Muslims’. The jihadist logic was terrifyingly simple: if you vote for action against Islamic State, you are an enemy. The likes of Dominic Raab, Mike Freer and Michael Gove were all considered legitimate targets by Ali, but it was Sir David he would eventually choose.

The implications of that twisted rationale are deeply worrying for other members of our legislature who favour robust action against extremism, particularly when their bread-and-butter is interacting with members of the public. Are they supposed to steer clear of anything that Islamist groups might perceive as hostile to their interests?

The unfortunate conclusion is that MPs need enhanced protection in order to fulfil duties essential to the functioning of a free, liberal democracy without being held hostage by the threat of violent extremism. The Government and law enforcement must take this threat seriously – and the good news is they have plenty of willing allies among Britain’s Muslim communities.

In particular, the findings of a recent report from thinktank Crest Advisory give cause for optimism. Three quarters of British Muslims surveyed said Britain was a good place to live as a Muslim, with many citing freedom to practise their religion as the crucial factor. When it comes to security, nearly two thirds of British Muslims (64%) show relatively high levels of trust in the police and this is also extended to their role of counter-extremism. More than half (53%) feel the police engage well with their community and 63% acknowledge the threat of extreme Islamism.

The Crest Advisory report finds that British Muslims see police and security services as the second most popular choice for preventing extremism and terrorism. The first is religious groups – which suggests there is room for cooperation between Mosques and law enforcement to help root out extremism. And despite criticism from some quarters, the vast majority (74%) of British Muslims support the Prevent counter-terrorism programme and two thirds said they would be likely to refer someone to it.

But the Muslim community cannot be passive in this fight against Islamist jihadists. They must root out those that seek to radicalise others to carry out acts of violent extremism. Although Ali Harbi Ali appears to have acted alone, there are questions that need to be asked about the social and religious circles he was part off. It is therefore incumbent on the government, law enforcement and the Muslim community to come together to defend British democracy against violent Islamist jihadis.

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Wasiq Wasiq is Associate Research Fellow for the Henry Jackson Society in the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.