The accent of the man who beheaded James Foley, a US journalist captured in Syria in 2012, is unmistakably British. To any citizen of this country, that piece of information cannot but add a further layer of horror to an act of unspeakable brutality.
The murderer may have grown up on the same streets we walk, taken the same buses, perhaps even gone to the same school. Now he not only appears to have departed from the UK, but to have left behind any vestige of the tolerance and humanity this society at least attempts to instil in its young men and women.
Of course, it is no accident that a British-sounding jihadi was chosen by Isis to carry out this atrocity. Its leaders clearly believe that a Western voice will best convey their message that the West – in its recent attacks on Isis, and history of intervention in Iraq – is to blame for driving them to cut off an innocent man’s head.
We must not bow to such twisted logic. Savagery of this kind is encouraged in all of Isis’s fighters, and has been employed against anybody – Christian or Muslim, man or woman – who stands in their way. The root of it cannot be simply put down to British or American actions. Our response should be to call this act what it was – terrorist butchery – not cower at the words of murderous ideologues.
There are questions, however, that strike closer to home, and ought to provoke soul-searching. There are apparently close to 500 British-born jihadists fighting in Syria. In recent weeks, the black flag of Isis has been raised in London, and leaflets passed out on Oxford Street that call on Muslims to join the so-called caliphate. One recent estimate suggests that one in 800 British Sunnis aged 18 to 34 is fighting for Isis. To point that out is not to demonise this particular demographic, but to admit the problem is of a worrying scale, and in need of a response that targets extremists without alienating entire communities.
We already have an example of how things can go wrong: the Prevent strategy, introduced after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, caused many British Muslims to complain of being unfairly lumped together with potential terrorists – and possibly spied on for that reason. Recent reforms to the strategy, led by the Home Secretary ,Theresa May, have separated counter-terrorism work from community outreach. That is the right way to go about such delicate business.
Yet both prongs – working against terrorists and with communities – could be improved in the face of the increased threat. In terms of counter-terrorism, the renewal of the so-called snooper’s charter has been suggested, which would give the authorities greater scope to monitor online activities. But this would erode wider civil liberties, and may not prevent young men falling for the lure of Isis. Better to bulk-up legislation that would allow security forces to disrupt the travel plans of suspected fighters seeking to leave Britain, and, besides merely jailing those who return, targeting more interventions in prisons, where radicalisation is rife, and other at-risk communities.
Some of the forces driving young men to jihad are beyond the control of any government, and total security from them is similarly out of reach. Where they can be deterred, however, it is imperative that they are.
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