Ali Harbi Ali has been given a whole life sentence. But perhaps this is too steep an introduction. Perhaps, like me, you’re beginning to lose track of the various perpetrators of Islamist terror in Britain as the news blurs into a constant revolving track of incidents, arriving to a sense of outrage deadened by repeated horror.
Ali Harbi Ali murdered the MP Sir David Amess in a constituency surgery, in a direct assault on British democracy. He told the horrified crowd that he wanted ‘every parliament minister who signed up for the bombing of Syria, who agreed to the Iraqi war, to die.’ He said he did it ‘because of Syria’. He claimed Sir David ‘deserved to die’.
And your MPs, your representatives, tasked with responding to this outrage, decided that action was needed. It was time to regulate the ‘corrosive space’ of social media’. It was time to pass ‘David’s law’, making sure people in public life ‘can no longer be vilified’. What was really essential here, what had caused this vicious attack, MPs argued, was the presence of voters online getting above their station, and letting their elected representatives know exactly what they thought of their behaviour.
If only anonymity had been banned on social media, Ali would never have sent his note attributing the assault to the ‘obligations upon me to take revenge for the blood of Muslims’. If end-to-end encryption had been outlawed, he clearly would never have thought that if he ‘couldn’t go join Islamic State, I should try and do something here to help Muslims.’
The twisted ideology that drove Ali to kill a decent man must have been free speech on social media, the idea that ‘legal but harmful’ content has a place in democratic debate. Our MPs, in their judgement, could see nothing in his words or actions that indicated otherwise.
Or nothing they were willing to talk about, at any rate. The only accepted way to refer – obliquely – to the obvious motivation of Ali Harbi Ali’s crime was to share a condemnation from a local mosque, or to express concern that the brutal murder of an MP might cause a rise in hate crime against Muslims.
Islamist terror occupies a peculiar place in British public life. The vast majority of suspects on MI5’s terror watchlist are would-be jihadis. Three quarters of terrorist and extremist prisoners in Britain are Islamists. The list of the dead is even more skewed. It is, by some margin, the greatest terror threat facing Britain.
It is also the one politicians are least comfortable discussing. Nobody in 2016 had any difficulties tying the murder of Jo Cox to the Brexit debate; confronted again in 2021 by the ideologically motivated killing of one of their own, MPs turned their eyes away, and found another conversation to hold.
The existence and growth of a hostile ideology within a country is a challenge they are prepared to deal with when it comes from the far right. The government’s Prevent programme seems to actively prefer tackling this ideology despite the relatively lower threat posed, possibly because Prevent itself is toothless: Ali Harbi Ali passed through the programme. Other recent referrals include the Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan, the Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman, Reading murderer Khairi Saadallah, and the London Bridge attacker Usman Khan.
But then far right terror, by its nature, is predominantly white. Islamist terror is not. Addressing it means asking challenging questions of the government’s work on integrating new arrivals, invites speculation on the risk posed in different regions, and may require policies which well-meaning liberal MPs find difficult to swallow.
It is far easier to pour more money into the Home Office’s domestic propaganda unit to push out pictures of women in union jack headscarves and hope that things will work out in the longer term than it is to begin the difficult task of deporting extremists who stir up hate, identifying individuals at risk, and giving patriotic British Muslims the help that they need to root this ideology out of their communities.
So, instead: tell me again how online citizens are to blame for David Amess’s murder.