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What can we learn from the Emwazi episode?

The big story for the last week has been Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as Jihadi John. He was born in Kuwait but grew up in London and graduated here in computer science, before leaving to join the Islamic State terror group in 2013. His appalling acts as their executioner have been well covered in the media but his British background raises other public policy issues that merit serious attention.

The most obvious concerns the effectiveness of MI5 in monitoring extremist groups and protecting us from them. It appears that Emwazi was on their radar as early as 2005 when he had links with the 2007 London suicide bombers. It is alleged MI5 tried to recruit him as an informer. So how was he able to leave the country in 2013 to join Islamic State? There is a deep tension between maintaining national security and respecting individual liberty. Even if claims that MI5’s harassment drove him to radicalisation were true, the security service is now criticised for letting him slip under their radar. Was the coalition government wrong to replace control orders with the weaker Tpims, as some are now suggesting? We need a national debate on the liberty/security issue after the General Election to find a cross party consensus.

A second issue is the extent to which we have funded the extremist groups to which Emwazi belonged. It transpires that several British charities, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Trust have given several hundred thousand pounds to Cage, an activist Muslim group which has supported Emwazi personally. The Charity Commission is now investigating whether these grants complied with the donors’ objectives and only used for charitable, not terrorist, purposes. Individuals involved in Cage have been accused of terrorism offences. Their view is that they are “a Muslim response to a problem that largely affects Muslims”. Again there is a tension between respecting the concerns of the Muslim minority and guarding against extremism that threatens mainstream society.

The same applies to media criticism of the costs of accommodating the Emwazi family. They have drawn on benefits and tax credits worth in the region of £40,000 per year. One newspaper has estimated that they have cost the tax payers close to half a million over the 20 years and MPs have called for this to be stopped. That said, the family came here from Kuwait as asylum seekers and it is important that that our attitude to them is not changed by their son’s terrorist activities in Syria. Britain’s tradition of offering sanctuary to genuine asylum seekers has a long and laudable history underpinned by Old Testament teaching. Exodus and Leviticus both commanded “do not ill-treat or oppress the alien for you were aliens in Egypt”. The challenge is to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and those who are here to threaten our peace and security. That calls for prayer and wisdom, especially for those who have to make difficult decisions, but also for those who shape public opinion. 

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