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Britain Tries To Counter Extremists' Appeal

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Britain has been dealing with the challenge of radicalized young citizens for decades. And there is always a tension between protecting national security and protecting individual rights and privacy. Let's talk now with Shashank Joshi. He is a senior research fellow for the Royal United Services Institute in London, which studies defense and security issues.

Mr. Joshi, before this young man joined ISIS, Mohammed Emwazi was apparently a well-educated, middle-class person. What is the appeal of ISIS to someone like Mohammed Emwazi?

SHASHANK JOSHI: Well, I think the principal appeal is the pure utopian message that ISIS offers in its caliphate. It is not offering the prospect of plotting complicated attacks in small cells from faraway places. It's not offering the idea that you have to live in a city like Karachi or Khartoum or Kabul, where you plot attacks against the far enemy. It's offering something in the here and now. It's offering a vision of a pure Islamic state run under sharia law done properly, not like the deviants of Saudi Arabia who soften the message, not like other apostate regimes who refuse to accept spiritual authority, but in fact a utopian, socially complete domain of living with actual territory, the first real caliphate for hundreds of years.

WERTHEIMER: Is there anything in this young man's background that surprised you, that suggested that perhaps this was a curious decision for him to make?

JOSHI: There's nothing unusual about his background, when you look at how he grew up in West London, you look at the schools he went to, the University of Westminster, his degree of education with a computer science degree, his family from a reasonably well-off background. In none of these areas is there anything particularly unusual or anything that directly points to going down this path. It's really a function of the networks he began to join about five or six years ago at least, possibly earlier than that, which saw him gravitate towards an interest in these kinds of activities, particularly in East Africa.

WERTHEIMER: Emwazi was known to British counterterror officials. Do you think there are any conclusions to be drawn about failures of counterterrorism in Britain when you consider this person?

JOSHI: There's a failure of prevention to stop people like this entering those networks in the first place. The problem, of course, is that the security services here are heavily criticized if they don't track people. We just had a case with three British schoolgirls who joined the jihad in Syria and at the age of 15 were effectively allowed to leave Britain and travel through Turkey. And there was enormous criticism for the failure to track these girls, to prevent them from leaving. But on the other hand, if the surveillance is excessive - and in the past, we have had regimes of what are called control orders, which is a kind of house arrest. There has been criticism this is too heavy-handed, particularly in light of the fact that sometimes there is enough evidence to suspect people, but there isn't enough evidence to prosecute them and charge them with a crime. So I think that the legal climate is very difficult. And I think that they're also struggling with resources, given that it takes, say, 30 to 50 people to follow one person for 24 hours a day, and you have hundreds and hundreds of potential suspects right now or over 500 people who've traveled to Syria. And so their struggle is how do you pick out the individuals who are the ones who are dangerous? And in this particular case, Mohammed Emwazi - I think that they were tracking him. They were talking to him. They did stop him going to Kuwait. And in that sense, I think they did all they plausibly could have done.

WERTHEIMER: Shashank Joshi studies counterterrorism at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Thank you very much for helping us with this.

JOSHI: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.