Assessing the Tragic Murder of James Foley

A British Muslim man as executioner.  The waves of British Muslims in militant jihadism


It has only been a few short days since the Islamic State released a video in the internet parading the beheading of American video journalist James Foley. The world has looked on with horror at yet another appalling example of extremist political thinking laced with seemingly Islamic principles. It invariably creates much consternation among those who regard this as a problem of Islam. There is also the situation of the individual who carried out the heinous act. He appears to be a British Muslim man with a South London accent. This has created worry among British policymakers who feel that this suggest potential threats on UK soil.

For a group numbering no more than 25,000 people, the Islamic State controls a landmass the size of Britain, covering parts of Syria and Iraq. These individuals are so frightening that even Al Qaeda disassociates from them. Much has already been said about how they originated, who potentially funds them and facilitates them, and how technologically savvy and effective they are at creating fear. Others have argued that the Islamic State will simply disappear within a year or so, and that the present focus on them is no more than a ruse to divert attention from more pressing concerns in Ukraine or Gaza, for example.

While much of this remains an evolving area of discussion and enquiry, I want to take this opportunity to elaborate on the question of why British-born Muslim men take up militant jihadism in lands far from their places of birth. I would describe British Muslim men involved in the Islamic State as the third-wave jihadists. The first wave consisted of men who would now be in their mid- to late-40s, and they were radicalised in the early 1990s as a result of the Bosnian War. At the time many young men travelled to Bosnia and took part in military efforts fighting those they regarded as oppressors, namely Croats and Serbs. These young men were largely undetected by the security services and travelled freely to and from the Balkans.

Second-wave jihadists were radicalised by the events of 9/11 and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. British-born Muslim men found their way into Iraq during the mid-2000s and they took part in efforts against American and European forces. As a result of British policy making on counter-extremism and deradicalisation, considerable effort was put into working with communities to build resilience from within as well as focusing on aspects of policing, security and intelligence from without. This seemed to have the desired effect until the late 2000s, when an economic crisis as well as cutbacks to specific localised funding, combined with deepening economic and social divisions, further marginalised an isolated body of young British Muslims who felt increasingly disenfranchised.  As the Arab Spring evolved from 2011 onwards, and without the specific lack of constructive intervention in Syria, some young British Muslims felt called to arms in the region.

In many ways a great deal of the explanation for why British-born Muslim men, and a small number of young British Muslim women, are moved enough to physically relocate themselves to parts of the Middle East and take up arms rests on two principal factors. The first is the lack of a seemingly effective foreign policy towards the Middle East on the part of the British or other Western powers. Intervention is not a solution on its own for localised problems that consist of historical ethnic, religious, sectarian, political and cultural ruptures. These are centuries in the making. Given also the nature of how many of these post-Ottoman nation-states are arbitrary in design, hurriedly fashioned after end of the Great War, they are deeply unstable entities. As trouble flares up in these parts of the world, the West feels it can only intervene through military measures. This does not provide any short, medium or long-term solution to the problems; rather, it tends to exacerbate and accentuate them. In particular, in Syria, the West has done nothing at all through fear of upsetting Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Russia and China given their particular resource interests in the region. Given the recent outcomes in Libya and Egypt, largely orchestrated by the West, the lack of action in Syria has been especially hard to bear for much of the world witnessing centuries-old heritage laid waste and with millions of people losing their homes and forced into exile.

The second crucial issue is the fact of life for British Muslims today. The recession that began in 2008 has widened existing social and economic division, leading to a concentration on the haves at the expense of the have-nots. The current coalition government is focused on reducing the size of the public sector and the welfare purse, while solidifying the banks, facilitating a housing asset price bubble and providing tax breaks to big corporations. In effect, largely ignoring the many in favor of the powerful. Among these groups in society British Muslims also experience the debilitating effects of an economic downturn and as an extension of their existing beleaguered circumstance, Islamophobia has been on the rise for the better part of a decade. Violence towards Muslims on the basis of how they are perceived is on the rise. Hatred of Muslims on the internet spreads virally and misunderstanding runs deep.  As in the case of the first two waves of British jihadists, this current generation is also ‘made in Britain’.

Undeniably, what makes British Islam so unique is that while it creates the conditions for young Muslims to be inclined towards radicalism, extremism, political violence. It is also the place that creates some of the most flourishing intellectual, spiritual, civil society and pro-integration thinking and action anywhere across Western Europe. This is something for which we should be very proud. In Britain, it is possible to be a good Muslim and a good Englishman without these identities, behaviors, philosophies or polities coming in conflict.

Thus, the way to ensure that no British Muslim finds their way into foreign lands to take up arms against the West is to deal with two principal fields of interest: First, it is important to ensure that integration delivers on its promises and that focusing on Muslims as the current bête noire in society eventually diminishes. Since the Rushdie Affair in the late 1980s British Muslims have been vilified in the public space leading to their marginalization. The issues across the world in Muslim lands merely sharply increased the focus on Muslims at home, and largely as a result of narrow political and media thinking. Second is the area of foreign policy. The double standards regarding selling arms, trading fighter jets, hoarding vast foreign reserves in the major banks and the rhetoric on delivering security, freedom and democracy needs to shift focus onto developing genuinely long-term solutions.

There are a significant number of foreign journalists held captive by the Islamic State. There are perhaps 500 British-born jihadis operating within the Islamic State, half of whom allegedly have returned to the UK. But given the confidence of the Islamic State in recent months and weeks and their effectiveness in creating the fear they so crucially seek, the challenges remain acute, in Syria and Iraq, but also at the international level as the West remains unsure of exactly of its next steps. The bigger picture requires the bigger solutions. There is still a long way to go.


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  • About the autor
    Dr. Tahir Abbas

    Tahir Abbas is a Professor of Sociology at Fatih University, Istanbul. He writes at

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    • davidbfpo

      There is much I would agree with in Tahir’s writing. We have seen British Muslims in different ways as public servants in the same city, Birmingham.

      British Muslims, whether citizens or residents, have fought abroad before. Before Bosnia there was the resistance to the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan; where incidentally Americans fought too. At the time this activity was not illegal, that changed after 7/7 (2005) with new laws being introduced. Very few British Muslims are known to have fought in Afghanistan in the Taliban era and post-9/11 (2001). What jars with many today is that a “blind eye” was turned to those who went to Libya during the fighting to oust Gadafy – so how can going to Syria to fight the Assad regime be wrong?

      One analyst this week wrote that 1 in 800 British Sunni Muslims has gone abroad to fight, even so that remains a tiny number and as a proportion of the Muslim population very small. See:

      What is noteworthy is that in May 2014 at least half of the estimated five hundred who had gone to fight ahd returned ‘home’. Listen to Shiraz maher’s remarks on this podcast:

      Perhaps sixty have been arrested, even fewer charged with a criminal offence and a small number have been convicted. How many have not been officially identified? How many are known to their families and communities?

      Has anyone spoken to them, asking why they had returned? We know that a few British Muslims have died, often in suicide bombings in Syria and open sources indicate those there do not fight on the frontline.

      I suspect that many if not all of those who went found the Syrian civil war was not what they expected. Learning that the ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ factions kill more fellow Muslims, often unarmed than regime combatants must have been a shock and hard to reconcile with their original motivation. Combat, let alone hard living, is not for many. I expect many of those who have returned have rejected what they found in Syria.

      Yes the UK needs to look at the two themes of integration and foriegn policy, meantime we need to help and learn from those who went to ‘fight’, but came ‘home’. Disillusioned ex-‘fighters’ are the greatest threat to those who recruit and encourage those here today.