BY ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS
The narrowly avoided appearance of an al-Qaeda sympathiser on Kensington and Chelsea council premises illustrates the failures of the government’s Prevent agenda.
Last Sunday, the Observer reported that an Islamist preacher who supports al-Qaeda was banned from addressing an event next Sunday at the Kensington Town Hall.
Anwar al-Awlaki was due to give a video address to the audience of an event organised by Cage Prisoners, a support organisation for Guantanamo detainees and British Muslim prisoners. Essentially, it is a group which attempts to portray all Muslims who have been incarcerated on terror offences as innocent victims of a campaign of repression by the US and UK. It is headed by Moazzam Begg, who himself is a former Guantanamo inmate.
Awlaki, described by Cage Prisoners as an ‘eminent scholar’ is a well known al-Qaeda sympathiser who has been accused by the US government of directly influencing Muslim men to fight for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The US Department of Homeland Security has also identified him as the spiritual leader of three of the 9/11 hijackers. Both Harry’s Place and the Spittoon blog have covered Awlaki’s support for terrorism and Islamic supremacy quite extensively.
This event came to the attention of my organisation, the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), a number of weeks ago, and I emailed the head of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Merrick Cockell, outlining Awlaki’s support for the ideology of al-Qaeda. The letter ended with this assessment:
Anwar al-Awlaki represents the most violent and extreme form of Islam, and encourages his followers to take part in violence in order to further the causes of al-Qaeda. As such, his presence at a government institution such as the Kensington Town Hall could be greatly damaging to efforts to curb extremism among London’s Muslim youth.
Unfortunately, Cllr Cockell was on holiday at the time, although I did get a response from a senior member of the council and in the following days they took a genuine interest in learning about Awlaki and understanding why he was a threat. I explained to them that his use of religious texts to justify violent jihad against non-Muslims and his position as a respected scholar means that he is able to convince Muslims that terrorism is legitimate in Islam, and indeed he has succeeded in doing so in the past.
To their credit, the council did inform Cage Prisoners that their event could only go ahead next week on the condition that the video of Awlaki would not be shown. Although, as pointed out by Harry’s Place, they should cancel the entire event as a number of the other speakers (who include Yvonne Ridley; an apologist for murderous decapitator Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) hold views which the council should have nothing to do with.
However, the main issue here is not that the council will most likely refuse to cancel the event, but that an event which billed an al-Qaeda jihadist as its star guest was able to slip through the cracks unnoticed by the government. Were it not for the CSC and a number of other anti-extremists, the event would have gone ahead; allowing Cage Prisoners to present Awlaki to a crowd of British Muslims as an eminent scholar and the face of moderate and mainstream Islam.
The Prevent agenda is a strand of the government’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy and is designed specifically to stop radicalisation at its roots and to promote mainstream voices. Hate preachers like Awlaki are one of the main causes of radicalisation and they are by no means representatives of the mainstream. If Prevent was effective, Awlaki’s impending presence at a local council would have been flagged up and dealt with accordingly. If this was not enough of a justification to question the efficacy of Prevent, then perhaps the fact that the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is listed by the government as a ‘priority local authority’ for the Prevent strategy should allay any fears that this criticism is unfounded.
In repeatedly supporting and justifying terrorist violence, Awlaki has traversed the thin line between free speech and incitement and the council was right to ban him, and should cancel the entire event to show that the promotion of such men is unacceptable. More importantly, elements of the Prevent strategy must be reassessed in order to address the mistakes which nearly led to an al-Qaeda supporter being given a platform in the building of a Prevent ‘priority local authority’.