Study Exposes British Security Agencies Pressuring Muslim Converts to Spy for UK Government

News & Politics

A new study released last month by the University of Cambridge Center of Islamic Studies exposed the disturbing practice of British security services to lure British Muslim male converts to become informants. The report, an 18-month exercise detailing the experiences of numerous converts, gives a comprehensive firsthand account into how agencies like the MI5 coerce them into spying on fellow Muslims.

"Co-opting converts in the service of state security was said to move from ‘flattery’ at the initial point of contact with converts to ‘veiled intimidation’ when converts reject such overtures," claims the report. Furthermore, some converts asserted that “involvement with the security services would threaten the ability of a convert to practice Islam with integrity and transparency."

An investigation by the Guardian last September showed that the MI5 was paying up to 2000 British pounds to individuals to spy on fellow Muslims. Salman Farsi, an imam at the popular East London Mosque, voiced grave concerns about the intelligence gathered through paid informants.

“We want our national security protected but, as with everything, there needs to be due scrutiny and we need to ensure things are done properly,” Farsi told the Guardian.

He added, “If there’s money on the table, where’s the scrutiny or the oversight to ensure whether someone has not just come up with some fabricated information? Money can corrupt.”

The practice of luring informants with cash is central to the British counter-terror initiative known as Prevent. Over the years Prevent has become highly controversial as its critics accuse the program of targeting specifically Muslims.

Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent at the Metropolitan Police said Prevent “started off as a good idea but had become less and less trusted.”

“We’ve had situations where cameras have been implemented without the community understanding in Birmingham,” he explained to the Guardian. He asserted the counter-terrorism officials “should not be putting Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people.”

Babu also cited the lack of diversity in the police force as major impediment, saying that many Prevent officers lacked any understanding of the communities they were surveilling. He also criticized the funding of anti-extremist think tanks like Quilliam that were highly distrusted in the Muslim community.

The invasive policies of the British security services only adds to the often tumultuous experiences that converts face in light of their decision to accept Islam. According to Abdul Malik Taylor, a former Hindu who converted to Islam 20 years ago, the transition caused a terrible rupture in his personal life.

"It was a very challenging time and an experience I won't forget about it,” he told Cambridge researchers. "I suffered physical and emotional abuse from my family. It was a very testing time."

Adrian (Jamal) Heath said that converting to Islam was like “coming out.” “I was exposed as a Muslim to friends and family inadvertently and my parents took it hard…I was also subject to some ridicule at work,” Heath recalled.

The mainstream media’s heightened and disproportionately negative focus on Islam and Muslims in the post-9/11 era has made matters worse for people like Heath and Taylor.

Warren (Raiyyan) Clementson explained that Muslim converts like himself are too often shown to be susceptible to violence or radicalization in the mainstream press:

“…when I see converts on TV, they have been radicalised or involved in extremist activity…for me personally, it’s a double whammy. Firstly, the negative portrayal of Muslims as a whole and within that, a sub-context of the convert community being portrayed in a radical light…Being a convert myself, and having met so many other converts, this is a fallacy.”

Clementson’s remarks are not unfounded, as some fear-mongering articles in the right-wing press would suggest. Since the 2013 killing of British Marine Lee Rigby by a convert, reverts (children born to Muslim families who commit deeply to Islam in adulthood) attracted unprecedented attention from the press and politicians, who tended to liken converting to Islam as a red flag for extremist behaviour.

In addition to the Rigby murder, media coverage around converts has largely been focused on stories of reverts moving to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside D’aesh. 

Most notably, British Muslim converts in prisons have come under heavy scrutiny of the British state for fear of radicalisation. In a government commissioned report published in 2014 titled “Prevent Strategy,” new converts to Islam in prisons are potential threats. According to the report:

“…as people who convert may initially be less well-informed about their faith, they may be vulnerable to overtures from radicalisers who seek to impress a distorted version of theology upon them…”

However, there was a general consensus amongst the participants that the threat of radicalisation in prisons was exaggerated by the media. One of the participants said that throughout his life in prison, he had met many prisoners with strict orthodox views but just one with the desire to commit atrocities.

Damian Evans, the Prison Master Governor at Whitemoor prison, home of the largest Muslim prison population in the UK, said it would be wrong to view these prisoners though the lens of extremism.

"It is very important that we recognise that the vast majority of practice of Islam within prison is fundamentally a good thing. Islam can very often provide good opportunities for personal change and development," he remarked to the BBC in 2014.

The overblown threats of radicalization in the media help provide legitimacy to the securitization techniques of the British state discussed earlier.

As Farsi noted, there was consensus amongst the converts that security is vital and needs to be taken seriously, however invasive the methods of the state might be. One of the converts gave a firsthand insight into his experience dealing with security services as captured in the report:

"They had wanted him, firstly, to report to them in future and, secondly, to provide details on the converts he worked with. (Meanwhile, they demonstrated that they had ample details on him, including his Internet use.) But he refused: he said that he would inform them if he saw something suspicious, but he would not compromise his integrity by working for them. Then, in his account, ‘they turned nasty’ and only stopped harassing him when he held a press conference to complain."

Across the Atlantic, American security agencies have pursued similar methods. In an infamous entrapment case led by the FBI, informant Craig Monteilh pretended to convert to Islam and infiltrate the Muslim community in Orange County. His actions were so unnerving to Muslims in the county they reported Monteilh to the FBI itself, while taking out a restraining order against him.

State harassment and constant societal suspicion of harboring violent extremist inclinations is a reality for many Muslims in the West. For Muslim converts like those discussed in the Cambridge study, the stress is twofold. The report provides a solid case for the UK government and others to engage with Muslims in good faith, rather than simply dictate policies formulated with little input from those it seeks to address. Tackling a phenomenon such as radicalisation from a grassroots perspective would serve all relevant parties better rather than the prevailing, top-down approach. The cost of failure has been too high already.

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