Review: Britain’s ISIS Supporters

Poppy Begum and her friend 'Aisha', wearing a long black coat and face veil, in a London cafe at nightISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled from Channel 4 (available for 26 days as of this writing)

On Monday night Channel 4 broadcast what purported to be an investigation into a group of British Muslim women who supported ISIS and who ran stalls and study circles around London, as well as using social media (principally Twitter) to raise support for ISIS. What it actually found was nothing the women’s section of the remnants of al-Muhajiroun, a dwindling and banned group known for disruptive and provocative rallies and posters. They added some interviews with Sara Khan of Inspire, a woman from the Henry Jackson society (a neo-conservative think tank) and Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal, as well as footage of the Paris terrorist attacks, all of which, along with the suggestive voiceovers about the sinister implications of what the subjects were saying, seemed intended to make the findings look scarier than they actually were.

The programme opens with library footage of the Paris attacks, followed by tweets posted by various ISIS sympathisers (it didn’t say where) praising the attacks. The ‘investigator’, one Poppy Begum, interviewed Sara Khan of Inspire, who claimed that Muslim communities had not woken up to the dangers of “non-violent interpretations” of Islam that promote an “us versus them narrative”. The programme gives no evidence that this particular group are using mosques or any other facilities owned by the “Muslim community”; rather they use the street or hired community halls, and all research shows that ISIS supporters in the west are not recruited in mosques. Begum then reads out some tweets she was receiving when she opened an account and pretended to be an extremist. They came from three women, all using Arabic “Umm” nicknames (meaning mother of so-and-so) and all followers of a ‘hate preacher’ she said the programme could not name for legal reasons, although I suspect most people who know about al-Muhajiroun knew who she meant. The tweets were mostly remarks supportive of ISIS and their claim to be the Khilafah or Islamic State, using a few of their slogans such as “die in your rage”, a taunt frequently seen in their videos and social media postings. The nearest thing to practical support for ISIS that appeared in the programme was the suggestion that she “start saving for a plane ticket and don’t tell anyone” and use her mother’s bank card; hardly in-depth practical advice on how to reach ISIS territory and what to bring, etc.

Poppy doesn’t do the undercover work herself; she gets an anonymous friend, known only as Aisha and wearing the full veil, to do that. Aisha meets one of her new Twitter pals on a stall in Lewisham (which Poppy calls “east London”, a term that refers to the area north of the Thames, when Lewisham is to the south). One of the three “mothers” invites her to a ‘secret’ study circle which is held in a community centre (which looks like a converted church or chapel) in Walthamstow. Poppy makes much of the ‘secrecy’ but if it was that secret, it would have been held in a more private venue. The ‘circle’ itself consisted of pretty much the same lecture each time from one of the leaders about how non-Muslims conspired against and oppress Muslims and are plotting to destroy the ‘Islamic State’. Again, no evidence of any material support, fundraising or advice on how to join it. They were just pep talks for extremists and the audience consisted of no more than ten adults, if that, each time.

Two women, both in full black robes and veils, standing in a food stop with a small girl in between them. One of the women is holding an assault rifle. The shelves are full of bottles of cooking oil.After Aisha attended two of these talks, Umm L pulled her aside and asked to search her bag, explaining that they did not know her and they had had people spying on them and recording things in the past. Aisha then turned on the waterworks and begged to be let go, which Umm L initially refused to but then expelled her from the venue, calling her a spy (which, of course, she was). Shortly afterwards, her account was deleted and Poppy told us that shortly afterwards, ISIS attacked Paris, as if there was any connection between the two. I thought her performance was pathetic; she’d certainly never make it onto Rogue Traders where old ladies are sometimes employed to trap persistent, burly male crooks. The woman wasn’t armed and her crying made her look guilty; if a simple bag search would have turned up the recording device, the investigation was a pretty amateur affair.

Poppy Begum claimed that “Aisha” worked undercover for a year. They do not have much to show for it. This looks like an investigation that was meant to find a lot more than it did. It looked like they intended to find a cell of women dedicated to supporting or channelling funds, resources or people to ISIS. What it found was a small group of women who meet in study circles to express extreme views about the West and Islam — the same ones they have been sharing amongst themselves for years. I am not a huge fan of al-Muhajiroun, but this programme vastly overstates their threat; their influence has been dwindling for years and they are distrusted by other Muslim activists whose demonstrations they have disrupted on quite a few occasions. The programme purported to give some background details about two of the three women, but this only consisted of the fact that one was a careers advisor and another was married to a prominent male member of the group. There’s a surprise. They did not speak to anyone who is actually in ISIS territory or reveal any close connections between these women and anyone over there. Perhaps they expected to carry on the investigation a bit longer but Channel 4 decided the programme had to go out quickly because of the Paris attacks. The result was one of the shallowest pieces of ‘investigative journalism’ I have ever seen, revealing absolutely nothing of substance.

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