John Rees reflects on the ‘Jihadi John’ story and the role of the secret services in the fight against terrorism

As I chaired yesterday’s press conference about the revelation that ‘Jihadi John’ was Kuwaiti born West Londoner and college graduate Mohammed Emwasi, I found myself thinking that few other events could as effectively illustrate the gaping chasm between the establishment approach to the war on terror and the facts.

Here are some of those facts as they emerged from Emwasi’s two year long contact with the human rights group CAGE between 2010 and 2012 when he went, if the identification made by the The Washington Post is correct, to Syria.

1He was stopped from leaving the country to go and marry his fiancé in Kuwait.

2He was physically assaulted by police.

3MI5 tried to turn him into an informant.

4His fiancé was told by security officers not to marry him as he was a terror suspect.

5He was never charged and no evidence was ever given for these accusations.

6His attempts to use the press complaints process and the diplomatic services of the UK government to free himself from what he regarded as ‘imprisonment by the security services’ all ended in failure.

Moreover, this is now an emerging pattern of security service behaviour: they tried to recruit the killer of Lee Rigby and both Charlie Hebdo killers and the perpetrator of the recent attacks in Denmark were known to the security services.

This should at least raise questions about whether the security services are contributing to the very terror they are supposed to be preventing.

But these questions could not have been further from the mind of most of the press pack at the CAGE press conference today.

Take an early question from the BBC (of course) correspondent who read out the names of the people killed by Jihadi John and then asked if CAGE condemned these killings, obviously forgetting that CAGE’s Moazzam Begg had made one of the most powerful bids to free Islamic State hostage Alan Henning.

I found myself wondering whether when he asks questions of government minsters about Iraq he reads out the names of those killed by British forces…but then he’d have to know the names first.

And what of the Daily Telegraph‘s man who asked why CAGE didn’t report Emwasi to the police…at a time when he had committed no crime and CAGE were trying to help him to clear himself of the attentions of the security services. In other words, the genius at the Telegraph was asking ‘why didn’t you report him to the forces that were already investigating him?’

It was a massive missed opportunity by the majority of the press present. This case is probably the best documented study we have ever had of why a young, bright man becomes an Islamic State killer. The fact that our own security services and the insane assumptions of the ‘war on terror’ mindset played their part in this transition should be pause for thought.

The fact that David Cameron reported months ago that the security services were near to learning the identity of Jihadi John might be another ‘lets think about that’ moment.

Why did The Washington Post beat them to it? Must we now ask did the security services know their contact was Jihadi John and not tell the Prime Minister? Did the Prime Minister, perish the thought, make it up? All unasked questions today, at the press conference and since.

Then there is the question of why CAGE, that has done so much work to try and protest against the marginalisation and criminalisation of the Muslim community, should have had its bank account closed along with a number of other Muslim campaigners, including anti-war campaigners. Is this the signal that needs to be sent? That if you disagree with the war on terror you will be financially penalised? No one raised that issue, or responded to it when it was raised by the speakers, except to suggest that CAGE was abetting terrorists.

There were honourable exceptions. Hind Hassan from Sky was one. And Katrin Bennhold from The New York Times, who has done much to reveal the extra-judicial assassination by drone that has killed two men after their passports were removed by Theresa May, is another.

If this kind of coverage persists it will not simply be the security services and the Masters of War who will be culpable when the next terrorist attacks take place. It will be the majority of a press corps, already branded by the Leveson Inquiry into press standards as needing to do more to root out Islamophobia in their ranks, that will share in the blame.

There is a particular duty on progressive journalists to stand against this tide. It is self evident, as the  very least, that a community that finds no voice in the media will produce some figures, however few, that will reject it entirely finding its protestations of freedom of speech entirely hollow.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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