Countering the “foreign policy blowback” narrative that some commentators offered in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena terror attack that killed 22 people and injured more than 1,000 in 2017, the British government released a report that places the blame for the attack firmly on the ideology of their parents and wider social circle— not on British foreign policy, institutions, or social attitudes.
The 200-page report was released in March after a four-year public inquiry led by former high court judge John Saunders, appointed to examine government actions before and after the attack which took place at the end of an Arianna Grande concert on May 22, 2017. The report highlights the process by which the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, 22 and his 19-year-old brother, Hashem, who helped carry out the attack, were radicalized by “noxious absences” including a prolonged disengagement from mainstream British education and parental absence. It also highlights “malign presences” including “the ongoing conflict in Libya and engagement with a radicalising peer group” that included British-born Raphael Hostey and Libyan born Abdelraouf Abdallah, who “functioned as inspirations and ‘poster boys’ for Islamic State” in South Manchester.
The Facebook account of Hashem Abedi – jailed for 55 years in 2020 for his role in the attack, whose youngest victim was 8 years old, was found to include images of him “holding guns, pictures of Islamic State fighters, including some where they are chopping off a man’s hand, and a passenger plane heading towards the Twin Towers with the caption ‘For Allah.’”
“The Abedi family holds significant responsibility for the radicalisation” of the attackers, the report states. “That includes their father “Ramadan Abedi, mother Samia Tabbal and elder brother Ismail Abedi, each of whom has held extremist views.” The report adds that the “overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK and across the world would entirely reject the attitudes and behaviors of Islamist extremism” embraced by the attackers and their family.”
Mainstream Islam, the report states, “tends to be protective against violent Islamist extremism” because, according to its worldview “diversity of religious worship should be defended as part of God’s creation” and that “[m]oderation and the sanctity of human life are ethical tenets of traditional Islam.”
The report’s anatomizing of the difference between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political ideology is welcomed by Professor Steven Greer, Human Rights expert, author of Tackling Terrorism in Britain: Threats, Responses, and Challenges Twenty Years After 9/11, and Research Director at the Oxford Institute for British Islam, a reformist think tank.
“Certainly, for people in the West, it is very, very important to draw the distinction between Islam as a faith — which in the West has largely taken for granted the separation of religion and state — and Islamism, which denies this and seeks to undermine it,” Greer told FWI.
The willingness of the Manchester Arena Public Enquiry to blame the Abedi family’s ideology for the radicalization of its sons represents a sea change from the narratives offered publicly in the aftermath of the attack in 2017. For example, Jeremy Corbyn, then leader of the Labour Party, explained the attack by invoking “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.”
With this rhetoric, Corbyn was offering a narrative promoted by Islamist-led groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, which declared that the invasion of Iraq would serve as “a recruiting sergeant for a new generation of young people seduced by the message of extremism.”
A similar narrative was offered by Sahar Al-Faifi, an executive member of the Muslim Council of Britain and an organizer for MEND, a nonprofit that advocates for Muslims in the UK.
In June 2017, Al-Faifi declared in a Facebook post that terrorism – or “crimes,” as she called it – are caused by Britain’s foreign policy and that it is part of the government’s strategy to deny this fact. British officials, she said, have a strategy to “unequivocally deny the role of Britain’s foreign policy and their support of dictatorships across the world as they are their main beneficiaries of arms deals.” Al-Faifi then asked her readers, “So after this, do you not think that Westminster attack, Manchester bombing and London Bridge are timely and their purpose is clear? This is not some sort of conspiracy theory. This is called mimetic warfare!”
In the post Al-Faifi criticized the then Prime Minister’s pledge to confront extremism, declaring “The identity and the nature of the attacks have not been revealed, yet Theresa May promised to step up efforts to combat so called “Islamist” ideology and work with other countries to prevent terrorists. What does that mean?!…… Does this mean more discriminatory laws and laws that undermine our civil liberties? Probably yes.”
Al Jazeera Arabic described Al Faifi in February 2020 as “a Saudi dissident” and “supporter of the preacher Safar Al-Hawali,” an Islamist leader of the Qutbist Sahwa (Awakening) movement in Saudi Arabia. Al Hawali’s 2018 book Muslims and Western Civilization, refers to the West as the enemy, supports terrorist acts regardless of the effects on Muslim communities and believes Muslims have a religious duty to support jihadists.
Responding to the report, Fiyaz Mughal, founder of interfaith counter-extremism groups Faith Matters and Muslims Against Antisemitism, wrote “Many children of Islamist leaders who sought refuge in our country grew up to become activists and mouthpieces for an Islamist set of narratives that was never really part of British Muslim communities before the mid-90s. Steeped in victimhood, “the west” versus Islam, such narratives propagated heavily laden conspiracies that Islam was under threat.”
Greer told FWI that British leaders need to come to grips with the reality that most Islamists are playing a long game, and do not expect to achieve dominance in the West anytime soon. Nevertheless, “They want to exploit the freedoms of Western democracy to emphasize difference, to separate, to encourage friction and hostility between the Muslims on the one side and everybody else on the other,” Greer said.
Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.