A new year brings with it the feeling of hope that can only come with starting afresh. It did not take long, however, for us to be abruptly reminded of the most unpleasant aspects of 2015.
The release of a new Islamic State execution video became almost common place last year, so IS obviously feels the need to ratchet up the shock factor.
The latest video, released on January 4, did just that. It showed a young child with an English accent threatening to kill all non-believers in the UK. The video is also notable for the appearance of a so-called “new Jihadi John” following the death of Mohammed Emwazi, the previous owner of that moniker, in a US drone-strike in November.
A key suspect in the scramble to identify this new IS executioner is Siddhartha Dhar, a British Muslim convert from east London who skipped bail and travelled to Syria to join IS in 2014. Dhar was awaiting trial for being a member of the prescribed organisation Al-Muhajiroun. He is also known as Abu Rumaysah.
The British connection
The use of a British spokesperson in this and other videos is a deliberate, calculated choice. The English accent immediately brings the conflict in Syria and Iraq closer to home for those in the UK. It feeds the narrative that IS poses a threat not just to Iraq and Syria but also to the West.
Moreover, the British accent reminds us that this threat is not external to the UK but can come from within the country itself. According to this narrative, these terrorists live among us and we never know when they will strike next.
This fear can cause panic, which can in turn feed racism and hatred against Muslims, the vast majority of whom have absolutely nothing to do with IS.
A recently published UK government strategy on tackling extremism acknowledged that there has been a 70% rise in anti-Muslim hate crime. This is exactly what IS wants. Hatred of this kind makes it so much easier to prey on the vulnerable and disaffected.
IS is a media-savvy organisation that knows how to push its agenda to the top of the news cycle. Since 2013, mainland Britain has seen two deaths from terrorism: the horrific murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May 2013; and the killing of a Muslim man by a Ukrainian student who wanted to start a race war. In contrast, a 2014 report from the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation noted that “in the year to February 2015 there were three security-related deaths, 71 shooting incidents and 44 bombing incidents, together with 49 casualties from paramilitary-style assaults” related to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
Simply put, paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has caused more deaths than so-called Islamic terrorism. Nevertheless, the latter occupies a much higher prominence in the news cycle and public zeitgeist. The use of a British spokesperson greatly helps IS in this regard.
A permanent threat
Panic and hatred, however, does not just come from the bottom up. It is also fed from the top down. IS is not the only body setting this agenda. Indeed, it is not even the most powerful agenda-setter in the debate. This role is instead occupied by governments.
The global nature of terrorism, illustrated by IS, means that a terrorist attack on one state, such as France, can now be framed as an attack on every Western state. IS’ media-savvy techniques exploit this by having a British accent deliver threats directly against the UK. Fear, panic, and the reaction that IS wants to provoke is now achieved with the click of a mouse.
This globalised terrorism is not necessarily a recent development. The UK declared a state of emergency after 9/11, despite the fact that the attacks took place thousands of miles away. But the trend is spreading. A year ago this week, leaders from around the world marched arm-in-arm in Paris to remind us that the attack on Paris and Charlie Hebdo was an attack on us all. Less than a year later, the UK and Germany joined France in their military campaign in Syria as a result of the horrific attacks on Paris in November.
Governments are readier than ever to invoke the rhetoric of an emergency, arguing that a threat exists which justifies exceptional counter-terrorist measures that derogate from human rights and the rule of law. The rise of the internet makes it as easy for governments to do this as it does for the terrorists disseminating their propaganda.
The difficulty with all this, of course, is that this threat of terrorism now appears to be permanent, or, at least, it is being framed as such. In turn the exceptional powers of states also become permanent. It has been more than ten years since the last mass Islamic terrorist attack on the UK, yet the threat of another seems more strongly etched on the public mood than ever before.
IS’s skilled media handling is exploiting this, as are the branches of government seeking ever more powers or military action. The result is that 2016 looks much the same as 2015 did.