This may be a little difficult to believe. In the latest terror trial in the UK, the defendant put forward the kind of legal argument that we often see in peace movement nonviolent direct action cases: he was trying to prevent a greater crime... with his crime.
Since the 7/7 atrocities in London on 7 July 2005, there has been a string of terror attacks in the UK inspired by al-Qa’eda and/or Islamic State.
These attacks tend to have three features in common that aren’t often discussed.
Firstly, for almost all the attackers involved, they’ve either made a public statement, or we know from friends or family, that British foreign policy was a major reason for their brutal violence.
For example, two of the four 7/7 suicide bombers said as much in video messages released after the attacks.
Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the group, said: ‘[U]ntil you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people [Muslims], we will not stop this fight.’
His fellow bomber, Shehzad Tanweer, said: ‘What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a series of attacks that, inshallah, will intensify and continue until you pull all your troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, until you stop all financial and administrative support to the US and Israel, and until you release all Muslim prisoners from Belmarsh and your other concentration camps.’
Something similar was said by the sister of Salman Abedi, who carried out a suicide bombing at a pop concert at the Manchester Arena in 2017. Jomana Abedi told the Wall Street Journal that her brother was driven by what he saw as injustices: ‘I think he saw children – Muslim children – dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge’ (see PN 2608 – 2609).
Britain was also involved in airstrikes in Syria at this very time, sadly.
A second thing that these terror attacks have in common is that the mainstream media in Britain has done a pretty good job of suppressing the connection between jihadi terror and British foreign policy.
This has been a case of distortion and self-censorship rather than state interference. Some information gets through, as we shall see, but, for most people, it is lost in the massive flow of distorted news.
Media critics Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have written: ‘That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.’
They explain that: ‘the enormous amount of material that is produced in the media and books makes it possible for a really assiduous and committed researcher to gain a fair picture of the real world by cutting through the mass of misrepresentation and fraud to the nuggets hidden within.’
We’re about to consider an example of ‘effective distortion and suppression’.
A third thing that links most of these attackers together is that they were not seen as very religious before they became involved in jihadism.
“MI5: a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”
MI5 studied ‘several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity’, writing a report in 2008.
The British intelligence agency found that: ‘Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices.’
The evidence actually suggested that ‘a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation’.
Ali Harbi Ali
We see the same three patterns in the latest appalling instalment of this tragic series.
On 11 April, a young British Somali Muslim was convicted of murdering British MP sir David Amess at a constituency surgery, in an Essex church, on 15 October 2021. He was also convicted of preparing acts of terror.
If we want to prevent future attacks of this kind, we need to understand where they come from. ‘Understanding’ is a world away from ‘justifying’, of course.
Moments before stabbing David Amess, Ali Harbi Ali (26) sent a WhatsApp message to friends and family.
He attached a video of the Western bombardment of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Two years earlier, in 2019, an investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars had revealed that more than 1,600 civilians were killed ‘as a direct result of thousands of US, UK and French airstrikes and tens of thousands of US artillery strikes’ in Raqqa, just in the four months, July – October 2017.
In his WhatsApp message, Ali Harbi Ali apologised to his family for what he was about to do.
He wrote: ‘I would have preferred hijrah* so as not to harm you, but I could not. The obligations upon me to take revenge for the blood of Muslims were too great. The shame of abiding in the very lands that carry out these horrendous acts against my brothers and sisters was too much.’
He then said ‘sorry’ to David Amess and stabbed him over 20 times with a 12-inch carving knife.
Ali Harbi Ali then shouted at shocked onlookers: ‘I want him dead. I want every parliament minister who signed up for the bombing of Syria, who agreed to the Iraqi War, to die.’
Amess, an MP since 1983, had voted in parliament for British military action, first in 2003, against Iraq, and then in 2014 and 2015, against Syria and Iraq.
Local man Darren King ran into the church just after the stabbing. He told the police later what the knifeman had said to him: ‘It was all on Syria, the Iraq war, the innocent people who died over there, he wants to kill David, all the MPs that voted for the bombing.’
While Ali Harbi Ali made it clear to the police that he was inspired by the Islamic State group, and felt ‘allegiance’ to them, he also said: ‘if Islamic State didn’t exist, I would have done the same thing.’
It seems from those statements that he wasn’t taking revenge for the attacks on the terror group so much as for ‘the innocent people who died over there’, as Darren King remembers him saying.
During his trial, Ali Harbi Ali told the court that he had studied previous jihadi attacks in the UK: ‘It made me think that, OK, you could stab “Regular Joe” on the corner, y’know, “Sally Soccer Mum”, “Joe Sixpack”, those sort of people, but, you know, the actual people that made the decisions, they go back to their second homes, they go back to their wives, their children.’
After stabbing David Amess, Ali Harbi Ali made no attempt to harm Darren King or any one else on the scene. He told King: ‘I’m gonna be a martyr, I’m gonna die a hero.’ He said he wanted to be shot dead. King replied: ‘They do that in America, not so much over here.’ The murderer was brought down and arrested by two unarmed police officers.
In the police station, Ali Harbi Ali told the custody sergeant that the charge should be entered as ‘terror’, with a ‘religious’ motive. We’ll come back to this.
The WhatsApp message, what Ali Harbi Ali said just after committing his crime, his statement to court about targeting decision-makers – all these important pieces of evidence about Ali Harbi Ali’s motivation and thinking have been more or less censored by the British media.
Out of these pieces of information, one of the worst hit by media silencing was the ‘Sally Soccer Mum’, ‘Joe Sixpack’ speech to the court.
That speech amounted to a criticism of almost all previous jihadi attacks in the UK.
One terrorist criticising other terrorists was newsworthy.
Well, it should have been.
The ‘Sally Soccer Mum’, ‘Joe Sixpack’ speech has not appeared in any British newspaper or news website, so far as I can tell. There’s one exception: MailOnline, the website of the right-wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, where the speech is just jumbled in with a load of other details. The newsworthy aspects of it are not drawn out and commented on.
This is an example of what Chomsky and Herman talked about above in terms of ‘nuggets’ that you can find if you look for them. They also wrote: ‘That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.’
In this case, Ali Harbi Ali’s ‘Sally Soccer Mum’, ‘Joe Sixpack’ criticism of other al-Qa’eda and Islamic State attackers was 100 percent ‘effectively suppressed.’
Media reporting of this case gives many examples of effectively distorting or suppressing material through its placement.
For example, let’s look at court reports of the day that Ali Harbi Ali was convicted. His WhatsApp message to his family and friends (sometimes described as his ‘manifesto’) was mentioned in only two of nine mainstream British newspapers. However, neither of these two (The Times and the Independent) mentioned the Raqqa video or quoted this sentence from his message: ‘The shame of abiding in the very lands that carry out these horrendous acts against my brothers and sisters was too much.’
All nine papers mentioned Ali Harbi Ali’s reference to British participation in the war in Syria, but, again, they tended to bury or distort the information.
The Guardian was the worst offender, not mentioning the Syria connection until half-way through its article on the conviction; paragraph 14 in a 27-paragraph story.
Not so religious
Those are examples of the attacker connecting his violent attack with British foreign policy, and examples of media suppression of that evidence.
What about the third pattern, of not being that religious to start with?
The Telegraph described Ali Harbi Ali’s family as ‘upstanding and tolerant’, with his father, Harbi Ali Kullane, ‘an outspoken critic of Islamist terrorism’ in Somalia.
When he was in his late teens, Ali Harbi Ali turned to social media to try to understand the civil war raging in Syria. In a police interview after the murder, he said that it was the coverage of Syria that ‘first of all got me interested. And then through that, I learnt about Islamic practices and more about my religion than I knew before.’ (emphasis added)
In other words, his outrage at Western violence against Muslims came first, and greater knowledge of (a harsh and brutal interpretation of) Islam came second.
Like the others studied by MI5, Ali Harbi Ali did not become a violent jihadist because he was such a devout Muslim. He became more knowledgeable about Islam after being led along the path of jihadism (see PN 2592 – 2593).
Okay, finally, what about this legal defence?
This was hard to find out about, because it has also been almost completely suppressed by the self-censorship of the British media.
In the Daily Mirror and on BBC News Online, both dated 11 April, you can find these sentences: ‘Tracy Ayling QC, defending, told jurors that the defendant’s case was that he acted to “save lives” in Syria. She said: “His purpose was, as he puts it now, to save lives at the expense of Sir David’s but also his own.”
On the Sky News live commentary on the trial, you can find this report of Ayling’s message to jurors: ‘Ali’s “point of view is an important one” and he has no burden to prove his innocence.’
On the Daily Mail website (also dated 11 April), you can find this reporting of the judge’s directions to the jury: ‘Mr Justice Sweeney told them: “Having considered the defendant’s account, taken at its height, in his favour, I direct you as matter of law, the killing was neither in lawful self-defence, nor in the lawful defence of another, nor in the prevention of a crime.”’ (Almost the same words appear on the Independent website that day.)
If we read between the lines, what this means is that barrister Tracy Ayling put forward three legal defences for this brutal terror attack.
“One terrorist criticising other terrorists was newsworthy. Well, it should have been.”
Ali Harbi Ali was allegedly acting to protect himself as a Muslim threatened by the British parliament, and, secondly, trying to defend Muslims in Syria and elsewhere, who were threatened by the possibility that MPs might in future authorise more death-dealing similar to that in Syria.
Thirdly, finally, we come to the same legal argument that has been made in hundreds of peace movement trials. Ali Harbi Ali also argued that his action was justified in order to prevent future crimes.
This argument was dismissed by the judge, as we’ve seen, but it may be worth just understanding it a bit more.
The Sky News online live commentary on the trial reports from 7 April: ‘Asked what the purpose was of killing Sir David Amess, the alleged killer says: “I decided to do it because I felt that if I could kill someone who had made decisions to kill Muslims, it could prevent further harm to Muslims.”’
The Telegraph reported: ‘Asked what difference killing Sir David would make, Ali said: “For one, he can’t vote again. If he had previous for doing votes like that he won’t do it in the future, and perhaps send a message to his colleagues.”’
According to live commentary by the Basildon Canvey and Southend Echo, ‘Ali said what he wanted his actions to achieve was: “For them (MPs) to cease hostilities with Muslims.”’
When he was asked about his comment at the police station, after the attack, when he had said the killing was ‘terror’, Ali Harbi Ali said: ‘If I was to go back, I wouldn’t use that word’, Sky News online reported.
According to the same outlet, he went on: ‘If I was to use that word [terror] on myself, I would expect the British politicians who bombed Syria to use that word on themselves.’
This is why Ali Harbi Ali’s legal defence was effectively suppressed, just like the connection of his crime to the invasion of Iraq and the devastation of Raqqa.
While Ali Harbi Ali’s assassination of David Amess had no moral justification, if the public is allowed to understand what brought him to that terrible moment in his life, it will shine a light on some terrible things that the British state has done – British state terrorism. It will increase the pressure from the public for a less aggressive and destructive foreign policy.
Ali Harbi Ali’s justification for assassinating David Amess is also uncomfortably similar to that given for US and British drone strikes, which has assassinated propagandists and political figures as well as armed militants on the battlefield.
Failure of protest
And what about the responsibility of the peace movement in all this?
‘The turn to violence by a number of [jihadist] plotters was an evolutionary change that followed after they concluded that non-violent political action would not produce changes in their countries’ foreign policies.’ Those are the words of the former director of intelligence analysis for the New York city police, Mitchell D Silber, writing in the NATO Review in July 2012.
Silber quoted Abdulla Ahmed Ali, who plotted to blow up transatlantic flights with a liquid bomb that could be hidden in a sports drinks bottle, as an example. Abdulla Ahmed Ali (who had also done work with refugees in Pakistan) took part in the movement against the 2003 Iraq War: ‘I became less enthusiastic and confident in things like protests and marches. We had the biggest march ever, one million people, and it didn’t seem to do anything…. So, to sum it up, basically, I thought the root problem was not “dealing with refugees” and “protests”, these are just dealing with the symptoms. The root problem was the foreign policy and that’s something that should be tackled.’
The more we protest against state terrorism, the more effectively we hold back state violence, the less despair there will be among those who are vulnerable to jihadist appeals. Peace activism is the real counter-terrorism.