Should ‘cyber-jihadists’ have free speech, too?

The jailing of three web geeks for publishing terrorism-cheering material sets a dangerous precedent. PLUS: 21/7 - a terror tantrum.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This is a tough one. Even for those of us who believe in unfettered free speech.

Last week, before the guilty verdicts delivered against the real bombers of the 21/7 sect, three cyber-jihadists were imprisoned for a total of 24 years. They were found guilty of incitement to commit acts of terrorism. At Woolwich Crown Court in England, Younis Tsouli was given a 10-year jail sentence; his accomplices Tariq Al-Daour and Waseem Mughal were banged up for six-and-a-half years and seven-and-a-half years respectively. Their crime? They ran websites that featured beheadings carried out by ‘holy warriors’ in Iraq, and which cheered the killing of ‘infidels’ on 7/7 and provided access to CIA manuals on how to make and detonate explosives.

The term ‘toerags’ doesn’t do them justice. Tsouli published on his site a post about 7/7, the London bombings in which 52 people were killed. It said: ‘From the moment the infidels cry, I laugh.’ The three cyber-jihadists also published information on how to make a suicide vest and advice about sniper training. They encouraged people to go to Iraq and join the Mujahideen.

More seriously, they seem to have been a major outlet in Europe for the propaganda of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until his death by an American bomb last year. In May 2004, Tsouli posted a video showing the beheading of American contract worker Nicholas Berg by a masked jihadi thought to be Zarqawi. It was downloaded 500,000 times in the first 24 hours.

I don’t much care what happens to these Islamist fantasists, who described themselves as ‘jihadist James Bonds’ and posted vile anti-Semitic rants and numerous gruesome videos and photos of people being blown up, beheaded or mutilated – sometimes with an accompanying comment that mocked the ‘weak’ infidels and Jews for whingeing while they were being killed. Let them rot in jail. But I do care about the dangerous precedent set by their case.

The imprisonment of three computer cranks for disseminating disgusting material has further blurred the distinction between words and actions – and it has strengthened the idea that the authorities must protect the public from shocking or disturbing words and images. The real issue here is not the freedom of three losers to publish their war-wank fantasies, but the freedom of the rest of us to see, read and listen to what we please, and to make up our minds for ourselves.

The three men were the first in Britain to be successfully prosecuted for inciting murder entirely on the basis of distributing material on the world wide web. They were convicted under new anti-terror legislation that has made a crime of ‘inciting another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the United Kingdom, which would, if committed in England and Wales, constitute murder’ (1). The prosecution claimed the men were not punished for their political beliefs but rather for the fact that they ‘firmly believed and supported and set about inciting others to [execute] holy war against so-called disbelievers’ (2).

Yet if the cyber-jihadists were not imprisoned for their ideas, what were they imprisoned for? The judge himself, Mr Justice Openshaw, pointed out that at no time did they act out their terroristic fantasies. He said of Tsouli, the ringleader, that ‘he came no closer to a bomb or a firearm than a computer keyboard’. As he passed sentence, the judge said the men had engaged in ‘cyber jihad’, rather than real-word jihad, and declared: ‘It would seem that internet websites have become an effective means of communicating such ideas.’ (3)

Here we have it from the judge’s mouth: the men were imprisoned for their ideas, for what they believed, said and wrote rather than for anything they did. They were jailed for writing about suicide vests, not for making and using them. They got six, seven and 10 years in jail on the basis of the words they wrote and the images they published. Such lengthy sentences are usually handed down for serious assault, rape or manslaughter. Here they were handed down for ‘communicating ideas’.

The jihadist James Bonds did not commit acts of terrorism; they cheered on acts of terrorism. And under Britain’s new anti-terror legislation, such ‘glorification of terrorism’ has been made a crime. The punishment of individuals for what they think or write is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

The cyber-jihadists were losers. One used the online tag ‘irhabi007’ – a combination of the Arabic word for terrorist and James Bond’s secret service number: 007. They may have had connections with someone inside Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and they may have written over-excitedly about fighting a war against the West, but there was little to distinguish their perverted website from numerous other sick sites out there (you can also find the video footage of Berg being decapitated on American gore sites that are visited by thousands of bored and gothy teens). But then, the real concern in this case, it seems, was not with the writers themselves, but with their potential readers.

The judge made references to the potential spread of the cyber-jihadists’ ‘ideas’; others have said the website needed to be shut down and its authors imprisoned because it was communicating ‘lethal ideas’ to web surfers (4). This judgement reflects badly on the rest of us. Three cyber-jihadists were convicted in this case, but the public at large has also been indicted. The implication is that the web-surfing public, especially young Muslims, could be moved to mayhem by reading the obscure rants of some dark-side 007-wannabes. It is the flipside of the argument that far-right material must also be censored lest it cajole the white hordes into beating up some blacks and Asians. We are clearly looked upon as impressionable idiots, as attack dogs who might strike out against infidels or Jews on the command of a cyber-jihadist (if we’re a Muslim), or against Muslims and other minorities (if we’re white and working class).

The implication of this case is that we are not grown up enough to make up our minds about dodgy material. Apparently we need the authorities – politicians, judges and lawyers – to stand in loco parentis and cover our eyes whenever anything inflammatory pops up on the web, TV or in newspapers and magazines. What ever happened to the idea that we are rational individuals who should be held responsible for our actions?

This case sets a dangerous precedent indeed. It further blurs the distinction between words and deeds. The 007-jihadists were imprisoned as if their words were deeds – that is, their words were so potentially destructive that they had to be punished with six to 10 years’ imprisonment. The slackening of the category of incitement under Britain’s anti-terror legislation – where you can now even be convicted of ‘indirect incitement’, a situation where your allegedly inflammatory words inspire someone somewhere to do something, even if it was not your intention – has seriously denigrated universal legal principles. It has long been a principle of all civilised systems of criminal justice that people should be held accountable for their actions, not their ideas or opinions. Now, the notion that all sorts of weird and wacky words might possibly lead to the incitement of others has effectively brought this principle to an end in Britain. Today you can be dragged before a court of law and tried for what you think and say as well as for what you do to another person or his property.

I don’t know about you, but the loss of the dividing line between words and deeds – central to all democratic legal systems – is a terribly high price to pay for the capture and imprisonment of three terror-geeks.

If the cyber-jihadists’ words really were potentially dangerous, then a more enlightened strategy would have been to challenge their words rather than persecute them. This case has revealed that there are some poisonous cyber-losers on the world wide web, but more importantly that our society is apparently so fragile and unsure of itself that it cannot withstand the horror of some cranks glorifying terrorism and playing out war fantasies on their computers.

21/7: A TERROR TANTRUM
by Brendan O’Neill

The defence of the failed 21/7 jihadists against the charge that they plotted to bomb the London transport network on 21 July 2005 can be summed up as follows: ‘It wasn’t me guv! It was Iraq/anti-Muslim prejudice that made me do it!’

The bombers, found guilty yesterday, continually played the victim card during their trial. They claimed the bombs were fakes and their actions had been intended as a protest against Iraq. So moved were they by Iraq that apparently they were driven, automaton-style, to do something crazy. Yassin Omar said the only reason it was assumed he was a suicide bomber is ‘because I am Muslim, and straight away that meant I was a suicide bomber…wanting to kill people.’ Er, no. People thought you were a suicide bomber because you were carrying a bomb and you tried to detonate it.

The four men are clearly well-versed in the get-out clauses of the therapy culture, where you can shrug off bad and even criminal behaviour by claiming to be a victim of prejudice or dark external forces. Their failed defence also reveals something telling about contemporary terrorism. For all the claims that these bombings are a political response to political issues – usually Iraq – in fact they look more like a terroristic version of today’s politics of victimhood. The 7/7 bombers claimed to be the ‘ethical’ representatives of the victimised Muslims of Iraq and Afghanistan; in the words of the author Faisal Devji, for the 7/7 sect ‘a good Muslim exists only as a victim’.

Bin Laden himself has frequently justified his terrorism as an attempt to ‘represent’ the victims. In October 2001, he said: ‘Millions of Muslims are being killed. Where are the comments of the educated?’ ‘Fools cry about the deaths of Americans [but] they don’t cry about the deaths of our sons’, he moaned: Muslims around the world are suffering but ‘we do not hear their voices’. 9/11 was an attempt to give voice – to use a suitably therapeutic phrase – to these voiceless victims. In the past ‘the victim wasn’t even allowed to complain’ and 9/11 was an attempt to ‘rebalance that’, said bin Laden.

In short? Contemporary terrorism is a ‘complaint’ more than a political strike. In this sense it fits well with today’s culture of complaint, where individuals and groups represent themselves as victims whose suffering must be recognised rather than as active agents who want to change or reshape society. That is why the 21/7 bombers could so easily disavow responsibility for what they did – because they are not committed political agents with tangible goals; they are self-described victims who threw a terror tantrum on the streets of London.

But they didn’t reckon with the jury of their peers who pointed out the obvious to them, and to those in the media who have fallen for the 21/7 sect’s ‘Now look what you made me do!’ excuses: as grown-ups, you alone are responsible for the fact that you got on to buses and trains with rucksacks packed with explosives.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) Men jailed for inciting terrorism on the internet, The Register, 9 July 2007

(2) Three men ‘urged holy war on web’, BBC News, 23 April 2007

(3) ‘Internet jihadist’ jailed for 10 years, Guardian, 5 July 2007

(4) ‘Internet jihadist’ jailed for 10 years, Guardian, 5 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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