El Shafee Elsheikh, AKA “Jihadi George,” was convicted yesterday in a U.S. federal court of eight counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.
The charges stem from his involvement with an Islamic State (IS) cell in Syria that was responsible for the abduction, torture and beheading of western aid workers and journalists.
His victims included two aid workers, Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, and two journalists, Steven Sotloff and James Foley — all of whom were killed in 2014 or 2015.
Elsheikh, a Sudanese immigrant to the United Kingdom who was stripped of his British citizenship in 2018, was part of a notorious four-member group referred to as the “Beatles” by their hostages because of their British accents.
The BBC reports that hostages who survived their ordeal at the hands of the Beatles described the group as a “cohesive unit that revelled in brutality, from handing out random beatings to torturing their prisoners.” One former hostage said the Beatles were “always together and always sadistic.” Before finding Elsheikh guilty, jurors heard testimony from Kayla Mueller’s mother who described how she begged for her daughter’s life.
With Elsheik’s conviction, jurors in a Virginia courthouse managed to do what the British Government has struggled to do for the past decade — directly confront the threat from Islamist terrorists. Unless there is some serious reform in this area, we can expect Islamist terrorists to continue their reign of terror in the U.K.
The failure of the British government to confront Islamist terror is most evident in Prevent, the centerpiece of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy.
A 2021 report from the Henry Jackson Society found that while most of the referrals made to Prevent (which monitors individuals at risk for extremist violence), are related to right-wing extremism, Islamist terrorism remains the principle threat in England.
The Henry Jackson Society reports that in March 2021, 73 percent of the 215 people in custody for terrorism offenses in Great Britain held Islamist views. “This dwarfs the one in five people in custody for terrorism connected offences who were categorised as holding extreme right-wing ideologies,” the report states.
“Of the 43,000 suspects on MI5’s watch list, as many as 39,000 are jihadists,” the report adds. Clearly, Prevent’s focus on right-wing extremism diverts attention and resources away from the problem of Islamist radicalism.
Deradicalization programs also appear to be struggling with Islamist jihadis. In November 2019, Usman Khan, was killed by police on London Bridge after carrying out an act of terrorism. Khan had been referred to a deradicalization program and had successfully completed it. He even became the poster boy for the program and invited to speak at a prisoner rehabilitation conference organised by a deradicalization group, Learning Together, at Fishmongers Hall to talk about it. It was at this event where Khan went on a rampage, killing conference volunteers Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt.
Khan had in fact successfully gamed the system, leading officials to believe he had renounced his violent ideology. It was a deadly mistake that cost people their lives.
Reports indicate the British government is also struggling to deal with IS returnees from Syria. In 2017, the Soufan Center estimated that approximately 850 people travelled to Syria to fight for IS and that about 450 had returned to the United Kingdom. And in 2019, the Washington Post reported that an estimated 900 people travelled from the UK to Syria to join the Islamic State. Very few of these returnees have been prosecuted. These discouraging figures give Islamist jihadis every reason perceive weakness in the process of law.
Identity politics and the culture wars have made it difficult to even talk about the problem of Islamist-motivated violence. The National Association of Muslim Police Officers led a campaign to have the word “Islamist” or ‘jihadis’ removed from attacks that were motivated by Islamist ideology. Instead, they preferred terms such as “faith-claimed violence,” “terrorism abusing religious motivation,” and “adherents of Osama bin Laden’s ideology.”
The rationale behind adopting these euphemisms appears to be rooted in “woke” ideology that seeks to sanitize language so that Muslims are not held collectively responsible for the actions of a minority. But the problem is Islamism, an extremist ideology that policy makers need to be able to speak about directly.
If they can’t talk about the problem, they can’t fix it.
Leaders should push back against, not acquiesce to, the effort to prohibit the use of accurate language to privilege the interests of imagined victims over actual victims of Islamist violence.
So, what can the British government realistically do? The government needs to establish a policy designed specifically for Islamist terrorism. Such a policy would confront and delegitimize Islamist ideology that serves to justify violence. It would also marginalize non-violent groups that give political cover to these individuals.
Deradicalization programs, as currently constructed, do not appear to be fit for this purpose. Providers need training to make them less naïve to the potential for system-gaming on the part of their clients.
The government needs to confront groups that seek to inject woke language and thinking into matters of national security. Leaders must not allow national security to be undermined by wokeness.
We have stumbled into a situation where policy makers are discouraged from even speaking about the actual threats Britain faces and as a result, officials have failed to successfully confront it. This sends a message to Islamist terrorists that they can continue their reign of terror.
This is not a sustainable position.
Wasiq Wasiq is a journalist specializing in defense and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @WasiqUK