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Thursday 26 February 2015, David Bowden

The ISIS recruits made in Britain

From 'Jihadi John' to the schoolgirls fleeing to Syria, the inability of Western societies to project clear values leaves young people open to nihilism.

The seeming identification of the ISIS executioner ‘Jihadi John’ as British-raised Mohammed Emwazi – in the same week that three East London teenagers are alleged to have travelled to Syria to join ISIS – has put more attention on the phenomenon of Western-raised jihadists. The details of Emwazi’s background as a computer-science graduate from a wealthy West London family only adds to what is an increasingly challenging portrait of the appeal of ISIS to certain young British Muslims.

Where commentators were quick to point towards familiar explanations of poverty and social exclusion in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Woolwich murders, Emwazi’s seemingly comfortable upbringing hardly seems like an aberration, either. The attempted ‘Pantsman’ bomber in 2009 – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – was the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and held a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London. Similarly, Nasser Musthana was a medical student from Cardiff before joining up.

At the same time, while there have been calls to see the Tower Hamlets teens as victims of online grooming than a terror menace, others have suggested we patronisingly dismiss their motives at our peril. As Emma Barnett notes, these are far from stupid victims: like many other Western women who have joined ISIS, they are academically high-achieving ‘straight A’ students who have proven remarkably resourceful in pursuing their path.

Yet, as Professor Bill Durodié argues forcefully in this week’s Podcast of Ideas, we cannot simply see Western ISIS recruits (or other Islamist groups) straightforwardly as representatives of a foreign enemy. Speaking in the aftermath of this month’s tragic shootings in Copenhagen, Professor Durodié observes that extremist attacks in the West only echo the mainstream Western debate over the harms caused by free speech and offence. It is especially important to recognise that while some young British Muslims are attracted to ISIS due to their alienation from Western societies, they are also alienated in a particularly Western way.

While Graeme Wood’s recent essay in The Atlantic has been much praised for its analysis of what has fuelled the return of ISIS’s own brand of medieval theology, these examples offer a stark reminder that the nihilism driving many Western-raised jihadists has its roots closer to home. How to tackle that problem places far more pressure on Western societies to understand not only what values they stand for, but whether they can successfully argue and defend them among their own citizens.

This was a topic which the IoI’s director Claire Fox discussed on last night’s Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4, exploring whether Western societies can uphold its own values of free expression when faced with online jihadists and propagandists. You can listen to the programme here.

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