Let’s Be Better at This!

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BOLOGNA — The U.K. intelligence authorities have recently faced criticism over their handling of Mohammed Emwazi, the man known as “Jihadi John” seen executing hostages in videos sent out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A British advocacy group has suggested that Emwazi may have been radicalized due to the way he was treated by British intelligence services. As evidence, they presented emails Emwazi wrote to the group prior to going to Syria, detailing the intense feelings of harassment he experienced from this treatment at the hands of the authorities; according to one newspaper, felt like a “dead man walking.”

On the other hand, former members of the intelligence community and prominent politicians including the British PM have come to the defense of the intelligence services, commending their extraordinary work in keeping British streets safe. London mayor Boris Johnson ( in my opinion quite eloquently) called Cage’s approach to the matter that of an apologist to terror. But my position on this subject is somewhat different. I believe the U.K. intelligence authorities should be criticized for their handling of the situation, but not at all for what CAGE is blaming them. They cannot and should not be blamed for “radicalizing Emwazi,” as studies show numerous factors and mental health issues factor into turning someone into a terrorist. But as former shadow home secretary David Davis puts it, “the fact is that the intelligence services have long utilized tactics that have proved ineffective.” While Mr. Davis’s suggestion for a more U.S.-like prosecution approach may be controversial, the question still stands that with the rising number of Britons joining terrorist organizations in the Middle East, is the government strategy really working?

In my experience as a journalist in Pakistan (where many religious seminaries are involved in radicalizing young children), I have found that the one tool most of these fanatics use is obfuscation of facts and using a muddled myriad of narratives to create a fundamentally polarized world view. They create a perception of a world where all people, countries, and governments are either black or white, good or evil. They may allow discussion, but they eliminate nuance from it. And in my opinion, sadly too often the responses to radicalization end up doing the same thing. The only difference left is that while responses might be doing that unconsciously or mistakenly, those involved in creating these monsters do it purposefully.

If CAGE’s account of Emwazi’s interrogations is to be believed, that may have been the case here. According to the account, he was reportedly asked what he thought of the London suicide attacks of 2005, the war in Afghanistan, 9/11, and his opinion of Jews! Here is my question: sitting in an airport interrogation room, being “aggressively” asked questions as un-nuanced as “What do you think of the war in Afghanistan?” or “What is your opinion of Jews?” — how in the world is that effective counter terrorism strategy? I believe the intelligence community should look inward on the quality of information they collect and the conclusions they draw from it. In my opinion, the Islamic State is a beast unlike al Qaeda or the Taliban. We need to evolve our methodology to better eliminate their sophisticated media campaign for recruiting the troubled minds among European Muslim community.

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