Tackling al-Qaeda’s UK propaganda

Stigmatising Muslim organisations is not an effective way to counter radicalisation from scholars like Anwar al-Awlaki.

British Muslims line up each day for afternoon prayer in East London
Anwar al-Awlaki is wanted dead or alive by the US for his links to an attempted airplane bombing in 2009 [Reuters]

The name Anwar al-Awlaki has risen quickly to achieve the same media notoriety in the US and UK as Osama bin Laden – an arch enemy of the West who is understood to be ‘radicalising’ Muslims to carry out acts of terrorism and political violence under the banner of al-Qaeda’s global jihad.

Al-Awlaki is described as “a pro al-Qaeda preacher based in Yemen with extensive connections to a number of terrorist plots, including 9/11” in a recent report by the Centre for Social Cohesion in London. 

The same report highlights the incident in the US that first raised al-Awlaki’s international profile:

US Army Major Nidal Hassan, the gunman suspected of carrying out the November 5, 2009 attack on Fort Hood, Texas, was later revealed as having attended the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia Falls during the time that Awlaki was its main preacher.

The spotlight switched from the US to the UK when it was alleged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with an attempted al-Qaeda bomb attack in the US, had been ‘radicalised’ by al-Awlaki while he was a student in London.

In turn this speculative claim gave rise to a host of allegations that al-Awlaki has received support from mainstream Muslim organisations in the UK.

The blame game

Al-Qaeda leader’s tour of Britain revealed, North London Mosque: questions over terrorist preacher read the headline of a blog posting from the Telegraph newspaper and countless other news stories and blog posts followed a similar line of reasoning: blame and stigmatise mosques and Muslim organisations allegedly responsible for failing to challenge al-Awlaki’s al-Qaeda influence in the UK.   

In my assessment, the assumptions that lie behind many of the allegations deserve to be investigated closely and there should be careful and independent scrutiny of the facts before blaming Muslim organisations, especially those organisations that have an impressive track record of successfully combating violent extremism and hate crimes of all kinds.

In addition, I assess that blame – if and when it is appropriate – should be shared with the UK government, which has a duty to discuss information about known ‘hate preachers’ like al-Awlaki with Muslim community representatives.

I say this because the cornerstone of the UK government’s preventing violent extremism policy was to work closely with Muslim communities to tackle ‘radicalisation’ of exactly this kind.

Each specific allegation needs to be taken on its merits but there is a discernable trend at work here which is best described as ‘guilt by association’.

In my experience, this is never effective as a counter-terrorism strategy and is invariably counter-productive. 

Effective counter-terrorism remains tightly focused on individual conspirators and the movements they represent. It does not alienate the very communities where terrorists seek support and recruits.

Effective counter-terrorism also avoids torture and human rights abuses because that too alienates communities where terrorists seek legitimacy and support.

Counter-terrorism strategies

In contrast, ineffective counter-terrorism casts its net wide and far beyond the actual terrorist networks involved and creates entire ‘suspect communities’ where alienation and distrust become normal and terrorist recruitment flourishes.
As my research partner Jonathan Githens-Mazer points out, there is an urgent need to examine al-Awlaki’s influence in the UK carefully instead of rushing to judgement and blame.

If it is true that al-Awlaki was invited to lunch at the White House after 9/11 it should serve to remind us that not every association with an individual who becomes involved in non-state terrorism should be interpreted as prima facie evidence of complicity or naivety on the part of the host.

Whatever failings might eventually be attributed individually or collectively to mosques and Muslim organisations in the UK, the government has a duty to ensure that any such investigation is conducted authoritatively and independently by a competent member of the judiciary and not simply left in the hands of partial and influential think-tanks. 

It is no coincidence that the think-tanks leading the allegations against mainstream Muslim organisations are part of the same neo-conservative elite that promoted the ‘war on terror’.

Just as the ‘war on terror’ proved to be hugely ineffective and counter-productive so too will this initiative if as a result the UK government is persuaded to endorse the stigmatisation of mainstream Muslim organisations that strive hard to be part of the solution.    

In any event, the full extent of the problem of al-Awlaki’s al-Qaeda influence in the UK should not be a matter of blame for mosques and Muslim organisations alone.

Parliament should expect the government to give an account of its own successes and failures in this regard not least in respect of its preventing violent extremism policy.

False allegations

In the meantime, pending a meaningful government initiative to establish and publish facts in respect to al-Awlaki’s al-Qaeda influence in the UK, I should at least attempt to set the record straight in respect to one of the most ill-informed allegations currently being circulated.    

Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Andrew Gilligan was quick to accuse the North London Central Mosque of hosting al-Awlaki and remains slow to offer an unambiguous apology. 

Instead, the mosque has been left to defend itself against erroneous and inaccurate allegations.  

In the same vein, Gilligan seeks to play-down the significance of Policy Exchange’s retraction of an ill-founded allegation that the mosque distributed extremist literature.

As Gilligan rightly notes, this mosque is significant because I use it to describe the success of its trustees and staff in tackling the violent extremism it had become noted for under the control of Abu Hamza until 2005.

Gilligan questions my ability to make the assessment that the mosque is now in safe hands and his reasons for saying so are well rehearsed in the UK.

Therefore, in highlighting Gilligan’s role I do not mean to obscure the work of other commentators who agree with his analysis.

Rather, my purpose is to contrast the negative assessment of neo-conservative think-tanks and journalists like Gilligan with the local ‘old Labour’ member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn, local councillor Andy Hull, local police and other local politicians and community leaders who share my positive assessment of the North London Central Mosque.   

Thanks to the commitment of Jeremy Corbyn, a trusting and equal local partnership with Muslim communities was established in Finsbury Park long before the government conceived and implemented a preventing violent extremism policy.

In contrast, failings of trust and equal partnership lie at the heart of parliamentary criticism of aspects of Prevent policy and implementation in Muslim communities.

For those of us involved in the Finsbury Park partnership, the success of the North London Central Mosque in tackling violent extremism is a remarkable achievement and a role model for others.

Regrettably, the weight of think-tank and media opinion appears to have discouraged the government from adopting and promoting the Finsbury Park model for local success.


Certainly the neo-conservative think-tank Quilliam has been a preferred source of very different expertise on the topic.

In consequence the mosque has been smeared and stigmatised as being part of the problem it has tackled successfully over the last five years.

It is a tribute to the strength of a genuine local partnership that the North London Central Mosque can withstand constant attacks from powerful lobbyists and a cold shoulder from government.

In addition, as we explain in our forthcoming report, it is the same solid local partnership that helps the mosque cope with hate crimes, criminal acts which create a climate of fear and intimidation.   

Not every mosque in the UK enjoys the support this mosque has received from local police, local politicians and local councillors over a long period.

Other mosques and Muslim organisations have often been left to tackle violent extremism, of the kind al-Awlaki promotes, on their own.

Still worse, others have been encouraged to tackle it on the basis of ‘guilt by association’ promoted by Quilliam, Centri and like minded neo-conservative think-tanks.

Preliminary research findings suggest that success in tackling the influence of al-Qaeda propaganda and violent extremism in the UK has sometimes been achieved by mosques and Muslim organisations most regularly stigmatised by Quilliam, Centri and their sponsors as being part of the problem.

It follows that a narrow focus of blame on named Muslim organisations and groups for allegedly failing to counter al-Awlaki’s support for al-Qaeda is often misplaced – as it is in the case of North London Central Mosque – and invariably serves to deflect attention from more fundamental collective and institutional failings in attempts to prevent violent extremism.

Robert Lambert is the co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.