October 19, 2023 - 7:00am

William Shawcross’s review of Prevent — the prevention strand of the Government counter-terrorism strategy — was considered highly controversial when it was published earlier this year. This was not least due to its insistence that Islamist terror remains the most significant threat to Britain, and that neither resources nor attention were being allocated proportionately. 

He also pointed out that, although counter-terrorism circles tend to define the threat posed by Islamism as one limited to groups like al-Qaeda and Isis, the Islamist movement in Britain is in fact much broader. Indeed, it poses a more complex challenge both in terms of security and this country’s democratic values.

Events of the last two weeks have surely proven Shawcross’s findings correct. First, despite the Israeli government’s insistence that Hamas is equivalent to Isis, they are vastly different groups in both ideological and strategic terms. Hamas’s version of Islamist ideology is closely informed by the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Islamic State would deem as apostates (and therefore deserving of death). That said, Hamas has demonstrated a willingness to use tactics against Israeli civilians which are certainly reminiscent of Islamic State’s very worst abuses.

While Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood are often referred to as non-violent, the position of non-violence is contextual rather than philosophical. In Britain and across Western Europe, a variety of these non-violent Islamist organisations greeted the 7th October massacre of civilians as an act of resistance, amplified by those on the anti-imperialist and decolonial Left. For these groups, violence against Israeli civilians is entirely justified by virtue of the fact that, to them, “Israeli civilian” is simply an oxymoron: there is no such thing. They are settlers, colonialists and all subject to national service — so they are all combatants.

This is a message which obviously has some purchase, evident in the large crowds that gathered in the likes of Manchester, London and Birmingham to celebrate the act of resistance. This is not to mention the established support networks for Hamas in the charity sector (again highlighted by the Shawcross review), and their sympathisers in academia. A number of UK registered charities have long been suspected of links to Hamas, and several have been banned by other countries including the United States — their true activities masked by humanitarian rhetoric. 

That said, in just the last few days jihadists have again demonstrated why they pose the most urgent security threat. On Friday in Northern France, a teacher was murdered by a known extremist whose family was subject to an expulsion order. Meanwhile on Monday, another extremist known to authorities, and who was not supposed to be present in Belgium, gunned down Swedish football fans — possibly an act of collective revenge for the recent Quran-burning stunts in Sweden and Denmark. 

It is unclear if either attack is connected to the situation in Israel and Gaza, although France’s interior minister warned of a rising “jihadist atmosphere” since the Hamas raids. Certainly, in times of higher tension and instability, some jihadists may feel emboldened to finally act. This itself creates a perception of momentum and of the movement’s resurgence which encourages others — something for which Britain should also be prepared. 

A moment when the Islamist movement as a whole feels emboldened is a dangerous one for this country. We, too, have our own “entrepreneurs of rage”, and our own jihadist population which has not gone away even if it has gone (relatively) quiet. 

Throw into this mix the continuing threat posed by Iranian regime operations on British soil, something over which the MI5 chief raised the alarm this week, and we enter a highly combustible period. A period in which, again, we are reminded why Islamist extremism — whether legalistic or violently jihadist, whether Sunni or Shia, and whether state-sponsored or not — poses the biggest challenge to Britain and its allies, regardless of whether they are in vogue in countering-extremism circles. 

Perhaps even more perilous, though, is what else the last two weeks have revealed, when so many can excuse, justify or even celebrate the mass murder of civilians: profound, and potentially irreconcilable, fissures in our own society. 

Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.