The makers of a documentary about British jihadists shown on Channel 4 deserve our thanks
The generation now entering its eighties endured the Blitz, and my generation, their children, lived in its aftermath. When I was young in the 1970s the Second World War was still everywhere: on television, in films, and in the stories our parents told. There were even still a few bomb sites left for us to inspect. Not to be left out, we had a minor Blitz of our own too as we lived through what we euphemistically called “the Troubles”.
The national myth holds that the Nazis and the IRA taught the British to show sangfroid and insouciance in the face of fire. And indeed the nation’s heart gladdened to see the picture of a man running from the attack on London Bridge while retaining the steadiness of hand and presence of mind to ensure that not one drop of beer spilt from his brimming glass. The government, too, maintained a stiff upper lip, and resisted the urge to rush out proposals for anti-terrorist legislation.
The original story of the Blitz spirit contained a fair dose of wartime propaganda. There was enough looting, panic and official incompetence in the Second World War to suggest not everyone displayed stoic resilience. But myths become real when we believe them. The reaction to Islamists attacking two of their God-given targets — teenage girls enjoying an “immodest” concert in Manchester and Londoners enjoying alcohol — was all we could hope for. We kept calm and carried on. The attack on Finsbury Park Mosque met with universal revulsion.
For all that, history is not a reliable guide to the present. At no time in the 20th century could a film like the The Jihadis Next Door have become part of an anti-terrorist investigation. Even before the attack, the Channel 4 documentary (still viewable on YouTube) stood out as a spectacular example of journalistic persistence. Jamie Roberts spent two years interviewing radical Islamists, who may well live next door to you if you live in London. On his film, broadcast in 2016, they waved the black flag of Islamic State. They talked of their dream of seeing it flying over 10 Downing Street as Sharia covered the world.
Ominously for the police, they knew the law and how to avoid its clutches. They were very careful not to say they supported IS, as the admission carried a prison sentence. Nevertheless they rejoiced in the murder of innocents. Abu Haleema, a leading ideologue, said after the murders of 130 in Paris: “The chickens have come home to roost. They’ve brought it upon themselves . . . this is what happens in war.”
A peripheral figure in the film was Khuram Butt. Dressed in a djellaba, he prayed in Regent’s Park before the black flag of IS, and startled picnickers. In June this year he went on to become one of the terrorists whom police shot dead before they could kill any more innocents in Borough Market.
The film’s title was prophetic. In the Second World War and Cold War, enemy agents did not advertise themselves to film-makers. The IRA and the “loyalist” death squads spoke to the camera through front men in their political parties. The Nazis and Soviets were foreign enemies, not neighbours. The IRA had limited political aims. When it was so infiltrated by British agents it could barely fight on, it compromised. Radical Islamists, by contrast, could be next door. They could confine themselves to street and mosque protests and insist on demands that can never be appeased. Or they could turn violent and kill for them. The authorities cannot know who the terrorists will be because the potential terrorists don’t always know themselves.
As I said, history is not a reliable guide to the present. It’s worse than that. It isn’t even a reliable guide to the past. A part of the myth of keeping calm and carrying on is that Britain endured political violence while preserving civil liberties. That was never true. In Northern Ireland, the British government experimented with interning suspects without trial and then suspended trial by jury for terrorist offences. It established a form of internal exile by banning selected Northern Irish residents from the rest of the UK. There were credible accusations of torture and British state complicity in the Loyalist assassination of Republicans.
With terrorism, the question for society is always: do we treat it as a crime or an act of war? The answer depends not on national character or national myths but on numbers. From the 7/7 attacks until this year only two people were killed in terrorist attacks on Britain. Now our luck has broken, and we have learned that the bomber always gets through.
To imagine a possible future look at France. The Islamist murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists were greeted with a burst of national solidarity that had an almost touchy-feely quality to it. But as the number of attacks grew, the atmosphere became nastier. French citizens turned on their socialist leaders because they were unable to protect them. France is now in a permanent state of emergency. The police can search homes without a warrant, and place citizens under house arrest. Children are banned from taking school trips in case Islamists target them, and the state has the power to censor the media should it choose to use it.
Do not believe it could not happen here. Journalists, as always, are a likely target of pressure. The British state abolished freedom of the press in the Second World War and imposed petty restrictions on broadcasters during the Northern Irish conflict. Already you hear people saying we should not have “sensationalised” the Manchester and London attacks because we gave IS the publicity it craves. You can make a stronger case that documentaries are more dangerous. Channel 4 did not pass comment as it showed us British supporters of IS. It tracked them down, persuaded them to talk on camera, and left the viewers to make up their own minds.
There are two defences. The first is the extended argument that democratic peoples need to understand what they are up against. Channel 4 simultaneously showed the jihadis next door, and how difficult it is to contain them.
The second is so simple it risks sounding naïve. But for me it is decisive. We should applaud Channel 4 because it told the truth.