Am I right in thinking that Moazzam Begg’s political role is getting more complicated, more important, and more impressive? Here’s a story. It kicks off with:
British jihadi fighters desperate to return home from Syria and Iraq are being issued with death threats by the leadership of Islamic State (Isis), the Observer has learned.
A source with extensive contacts among Syrian rebel groups said senior Isis figures were threatening Britons who were attempting to travel home. He said: “There are Britons who upon wanting to leave have been threatened with death, either directly or indirectly.”
The source is apparently the Observer‘s home affairs editor’s source, rather than a foreign correspondent’s source, so you might well wonder what kind of anonymous source is based in London, has contacts in Syrian rebel groups, and is very, very keen to get the message out that ISIS might kill international volunteers, specifically British ones, who want to leave.
Begg now appears in the story. It’s impossible to know whether there is any logical link between the source and Begg, or whether the Observer writer juxtaposed them to make it look like they support each other, an old hack’s trick. But if you want to reach potential jihadi volunteers with the message that they can’t trust ISIS, an ex-Guantanamo detainee would be a more convincing representative than almost anyone else. He would be a classic “surprising validator”.
Reading down, it seems he certainly knows that some wannabe jihadis have been held against their will in Syria, but any association with the “source” is either the Observer‘s gloss on it, or else that of someone who briefed them.
Begg seems to be moving from a campaign for the release of Guantanamo prisoners, to a campaign both for forgiveness towards volunteers in Syria and to prevent them going in the first place. Both are necessary. But I really wonder about the complex politics emerging around him.
He is the face of the dissident campaign demanding an end to the extralegal punishment that defines the War on Terror. He is also something like a spokesman for people who would like to leave the jihadi movement. These two are mutually consistent. But he is also increasingly a voice for de-radicalisation and prevention as a strategy.
This makes sense as an alternative policy proposal, but it also involves him in the underreported bureaucratic fight between the community-policing (in every sense) people sponsored by DCLG since Hazel Blears’ time, and the traditional intelligence services. One side is focused on prevention, policing by the community (of people who are described as a community), and works with the police and social services. The other is focused on technical surveillance and agent-running. With less money about, the two have been fighting like cats in a sack since 2010.
Mark Townsend’s piece seems to be using quotes from him to further a briefing campaign against ISIS recruiting, and also to back the DCLG-Contest-Prevent people in government versus the hard security lobby.
Then, I also wonder about the mission to Syria that landed him back in jail in 2013. When he set out on that mission, we were still supporting Syrian rebels and especially the FSA, rather than flying close air support for the FSA and the regime at the same time. More than a few testimonies from returned British jihadis mention that they believed the Syrian adventure had some sort of official Western blessing.
So, we have Begg, ex-prisoner and cause célébre. We have Begg, peace activist. We have Begg, de-radicaliser. We have Begg, continuing Islamic aid worker. We have Begg, still a target of police surveillance. Do we have any other roles? I imagine they make sense as a wider whole to the man himself.
I can see every reason to run the best possible propaganda campaign to stop people signing up with ISIS. (I’m not quite as cynical as John Dolan, whose piece is pretty good even if he thinks Luton is in Yorkshire.) But this is complicated, risky, and ambiguous stuff and wants more scrutiny than it gets.
Begg has grown into a bigger and more interesting political role than just that of wannabe jihadi or Rumsfeld victim, the Islamic adventurer the lads wish they were, but at the same time, the wise old head and voice of reason, a figure of the debatable lands. If he doesn’t get killed, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him as an enduring national figure of some sort. But where is he going with it, and how far does he control it?