Extremism and the media: The talented Mr. Butt

Thanks, Butt, no thanks

During the long debate on the use of torture to extract information from prisoners, serious intelligence professionals have argued that torture provides unreliable information, as demonstrated numerous times at Guantanamo, most recently in the Binyam Mohamed case. With the incentive of staving off bodily harm, prisoners have been willing to simply say what their captors have wanted to hear.

These days the media interest in political Islam, driven by the fear of politically motivated violence, is so strong that Muslims marginally involved with Islamist movements must be at least somewhat tempted to sell embellished stories to a cash-laden media on their way out. Britain’s Ed Husain and America’s Daveed Gartenstein-Ross both wrote notable books outlining their adventures with radical Islam, albeit not without some controversy. Yet both insisted their experiences and activities were genuine, and their opinions valid.

But for Hassan Butt, former spokesman for the (now defunct) extremist group Al-Muhajiroun, the truth of his radicalisation fell a little short. Once interviewed by CBS’s 60 Minutes on his return from the dark side, Butt claimed to have sent up to 200 British Muslims to terrorist training camps in Pakistan, met with 7/7 mastermind Mohammad Sidique Khan and participated in the 2002 attack on the US Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, which killed 12 people.

But speaking in December at a trial of another terrorist suspect in Britain, Butt admitted that he made the whole thing up, going as far as cutting himself with a knife to claim attacks against him by Muslim extremists. “If I wasn’t going to cash up on it, someone else was going to cash up on it,” Butt told the court after spending the last few years consulting with the British government and media as a counter-terrorism expert, telling them what they “wanted to hear.” Sound familiar? Whether coerced by pain or money, people will always say what needs to be said for their own benefit.

Butt was arrested four times by police between 2002 and 2008 after making his claims yet was released each time without charge – all while consulting British government officials on countering radicalisation. This should have been a clue to someone that something wasn’t right. Butt was by no means a minor player in al-Muhajiroun – he held enough sway to be accepted as a spokesman for the group – but his admission casts serious doubt over the threat the group posed to Britain as a path to real homegrown violence, and exposes the gullibility of reporters who considered them to be a serious threat. If the 200 British Muslims in Pakistani camps don’t exist, then that phenomenon (which certainly did exist for the 7/7 bombers) becomes much more of an anomaly. The inner world of jihadism is a seductive one – for proponents and opponents. But like a lot of similar phenomenon, the secrecy creates its own opportunities beyond religion and politics.

The media’s part to play in this cannot be understated. While a slew of tabloid (and not so tabloid) media rushed to report on Butt’s alleged change of heart years ago, only four newspapers (three British, one Pakistani) and a Reuters news feed have reported the story since it broke on February 9. One of the British newspapers even headlined its report “Taxi driver coaxed into becoming al Qaida spy,” burying the news about Butt charade in a story that focused instead on a friend’s conviction for collaborating in an al Qaeda plot.

While testifying on behalf of his friend Habib Ahmed, Butt revealed his fraudulent past, as well as a plot by the two to sell stories to the media on behalf of al Muhajiroun (one of whose goals was to “create as much controversy and to create as much profile through the media as possible”) and peddle, for £100,000, a behind-the-scenes documentary explaining why young British Muslims ended up in Pakistani terror camps. Whether inside the movement or outside it, Butt’s motivation in the end was nothing more than financial.

In the end – despite the now plausible scenario of hoodwinking the media instead of actually planning terror – Ahmed was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Mr. Butt doomed his money-making future with his testimony. More importantly, the alarm raised by Butt’s statements over the years have resulted in deep suspicion – often without evidence of any sort – of terrorist activity among Britain’s Muslims. Where such activity can be proven by good intelligence and factual evidence, it should be prosecuted fully. Unfortunately, Butt’s escape-from-extremism story pushed anti-terrorism efforts into the realm of paranoia and clumsiness. The talented Mr. Butt got years of attention from the media, the government, and police. In the process, he also distracted them from the investigations needed to properly protect the public from future terrorist attacks.

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.

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