Since writing a piece for this week’s Jewish Chronicle urging people to back the anti-extremist think tank Quilliam, I received some disturbing information warning me off. I believe this came from a source close to government. The claims made against Quilliam were serious and my support for the organisation needs to be examined in the light of what they said.
The most worrying suggestion was that Quilliam had been chasing money from some very unsavoury sources, including Saudi Arabia and, of all places, Libya. My informant also suggested that the Home Office was concerned about how much tax payers’ money Quilliam was spending on offices and travel. All these claims have since been rebutted by Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz. He says Quilliam has indeed had approaches from the Saudis (rather than the other way around), but on the condition the think tank stop its criticism of the Wahhabi kingdom. No money has been received from Libya either, I am told.
It has also been pointed out to me since I wrote the piece that Quilliam founder Ed Husain was critical of Israel during operation Cast Lead and it has been suggested that his comments at the time vilified and delegitimized Israel. It is true that Quilliam issued a press release condemning Israeli action, although I believe Mr Husain’s comments fell short of delegitimisation. Ed Husain is no longer with Qulliam, while Maajid Nawaz remains at its head.
Readers of the Jewish Chronicle should look carefully at the words of Mr Nawaz on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website in January 7th 2009 condemning Hamas commander Mahmoud Zahar for saying that Jewish children everywhere were legitimate targets: “Yes, Israel is not free from blame, as our Quilliam Foundation press release stated, it has acted with utter disregard for human life. There is however, one crucial difference that slices through this debate like a hot knife through butter. Israel does not have an active policy of deliberately capturing children to murder them, or even deliberately murdering civilians for that matter. Israel acts irresponsibly, with impunity and total disregard for the consequences of its military onslaught, and this leads to the deaths of many Palestinian civilians and some children. But it does not deliberately select children to murder, nor justifies doing so. Hamas just has.”
Many, if not most, readers of the JC would take issue with this characterisation of Israel, as would I. But Mr Nawaz’s position on Hamas is categorical and courageous. And it is, after all, the job of Quilliam to take on the Islamists. It is not required of its leadership to support the actions of every Israeli government in every instance.
So to Quilliam’s Libyan problem. In August 2010 Quilliam appointed former Libyan jihadi Noman Benotman as a senior analyst. I knew Mr Benotman as a useful contact for stories on London jihadis during my time at The Observer. He was always thought to have been a prominent member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG] and fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He certainly seemed phenomenally well-informed and plugged in and we met on several occasions around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More recently, Mr Benotman has become an advocate for de-radicalisation programmes and even returned to Libya to help his home country’s authorities “turn” jihadis. His work was not secret, nor was Saif al-Islam’s interest in promoting this work. This ultimately led to six prominent members of LIFG renouncing violent jihad and the release 600 former activists from prison.
A Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Tripoli from late 2009/early 2010 said the following: “The revised LIFG ideology is the result of a two-year initiative, led by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi in his capacity as QDF [Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation] chairman and brokered on behalf of the Libyan government. According to press reports and Libyan officials, Saif worked closely with the UK-based former LIFG leader, Noman Benotman, on the effort to work on a revised ideology with the LIFG in exchange for amnesty.”
The problem for Quilliam is that Saif al-Islam is now toxic. Once he could parade through western capitals as the reasonable, democratising face of the new Libya. Now it is clear he is as psychopathic as his father and quite prepared to support the systematic massacre of his fellow Libyans.
I believe Noman Benotman made a terrible error of judgement by believing that it was possible to work with Saif al-Islam to deradicalise jihadis, just as the Labour government was wrong to believe it could work with Gaddafi to further its interests in the war on terror. The price of such compromise is always too high. Your enemy’s enemy is not always your friend. Why should Libya’s deradicalisation programme have been any more credible than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s or that proposed by dangerous opponents of Quilliam in Whitehall who believe this work must be left to radical “street” Islamists? An authoritarian is an authoritarian, whether Islamist, Baathist, Arab nationalist, or, in the case of Gaddafi, some unique combination of totalitarian psychoses. Mr Benotman recently condemned Gaddafi’s tyranny in the pages of the New York Times, we now need full disclosure in this country of his dealings with the tyrant’s son.
The Libyan connection has dripped its poison through the political and academic life of Britain as Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Mike O’Brien, the LSE, Anthony Giddens, the British Council, the Foreign Office and several other government departments have discovered in recent weeks. As antisemitic states go, Libya is difficult to beat. When Gaddafi came to power there were only a handful of Jews left in the country after the pogroms of the post-war period. One of the new dictator’s first actions was to confiscate all their remaining land and property and that of any Jewish exiles. This was before he graduated to funding international terrorism and bumping off Libyan dissidents, the so-called “stray dogs” of his regime. One of these was the father of my friend Huda Abuzeid, who was murdered in his grocery shop in west London. Gaddafi’s hired assassins pushed kebab skewers through his face in a particularly brutal “hit”. Those who thought it was a good idea to treat with Gaddafi seemed to forget that he was prepared to kill on the streets of our capital city as well as over the skies of Scotland.
Quilliam has always provided an intelligent and sober critique of Islamist ideology. There is a question, of course, whether it should receive government money to do so, but I remain convinced it would be a tragedy if it closed its doors. However, in order to retain the support of those who have argued for its survival, it must clarify, reassess and ultimately consider severing its Libyan connection. Otherwise it will risk losing all the friends it has.