After Woolwich: from gang member to radical islamist – By Ismail Einashe
Suspects in the case are 2 young British men of Nigerian descent – Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo (both already known by the security services.) Born to Christian families, they became wayward, angry and turned to gang life, before moving into a deadly embrace with radical islam.
Their story, like so many other young men, whether white, black or Asian is a story of alienation and an inability to self-actualise – this breeds individuals who feel they have little stake in society. These are people torn between extremes, cut-off in socially isolated communities, living lives defined by systematic issues of unemployment and poverty.
Michael Adebowale shifted from being a member of one of the most notorious gangs in London to committing a crime in the name of radical islam. As an adolescent Adebowale had been a member of the Woolwich Boys gang, primarily composed of young Somalis who were known for petty criminality, drugs and anti-social behaviour. In this period his mother became concerned about him and asked a family friend, Richard Taylor, the father of Damilola Taylor, to mentor him. As a mark of respect, Adebowale called him “˜uncle’.
But Taylor’s attempts at intervention could not prevent Adebowale’s slide. In recent years neighbours recalled him changing from a “˜smiling’ boy who spoke to them about “˜Jamie Oliver recipes’, to someone who not only dressed in traditional Islamic clothes, but preached a message of hate.
Adebowale’s journey in some ways reflects wider changes across London-based gangs (including many members of the city’s African diaspora) over the last decade. In the late 1990s the issue of “˜gang culture’ became increasingly well-known to the general public and was documented in the national press. This included such groups as the Centric Crew in Camden to African Delivz in Barking and the Woolwich Boys in South-East London. Many of these gangs were organised along ethnic lines – either Afro-Caribbean or African and tensions developed between them based on ethnic difference.
This was highlighted in a film made by journalist Darcus Howe for Channel 4 on the racial tensions in Britain’s multicultural areas. Howe notably went to Woolwich and investigated the then simmering tensions between Afro-Caribbean and Somali gangs. Later this trend shifted (as I wrote in a previous post for African Arguments) with many gangs becoming multi-ethnic, thus enabling Adebowale to join the Woolwich Boys, a largely Somali gang.
Once these gangs became multi-ethnic and multi-faith opportunities for cross cultural fertilisation opened up. Many young boys who joined between the ages of 12 to 14 were slowly sucked deeper into gang life. By the age of 18 it has often become impossible for them to move away and they become normalised in the gang structure, and identify themselves as belonging to the gang.
In the course of their lives, many young men in these gangs will know someone close who has to been to prison. Prisons are known to be places where radicalization and recruitment take place, and young black men now account for nearly 40 percent of the youth population in jails in England and Wales. Prisons are increasingly a key battleground in the fight against radicalization and extremism.
Whether in prison, or in a gang, many young Britons come into contact with an ultra-conservative Islam, articulated in a growing support for Salafism. Home Secretary, Theresa May, has said “˜thousands’ are at risk of radicalization and a recent investigation by The Telegraph revealed that radical groups such as Convert2Islam, run by Abu Rumaysah, a follower of the exiled Islamic cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, are “˜intent on recruiting young gang members’ and have been running a series of “˜roadshows’ in poor parts of South and East London, with the sole aim to “˜recruit teenagers from broken homes involved in gun and knife crime’.
In 2009 Special Branch “˜warned that members of three gangs in particular – Poverty Driven Children, from Brixton, the Muslim Boys, from Camberwell, and the Money Crew, from Hackney – had been converted to radical Islam inside prison’.
So what does radical Islam, give an ex-gang member? This may be a sense of purpose, identity and a constructed narrative that helps them to overcome their feelings of isolation. Many of these young men have led chaotic lives before discovering radical Islam, once they become engaged in these groups they often discover a social structure, perhaps feeling less exposed in a society they often experience as hostile to them.
Many young men growing up in cut-off zones of poverty in the inner-cities feel rootless and removed from mainstream society. Embracing an ultra-conservative form of Islam gives them protection and identity.
Once they become engaged in such groups they demonstrate the zeal of the convert and often find a focus previously unknown. Suddenly many become active, campaigning and find a voice they may have felt they lacked before. Both suspects in the Woolwich case had spent time around radical Islamist circles in London handing out literature, preaching and spending time with preachers such as Anjem Choudhary.
At the heart of this problem is the pervasive force of alienation that plights the lives of so many young men. There is a thread that connects this feeling and the ideology of radical Islam – the realisation that your problems are your own, providing a grand narrative that lifts very ordinary battles into something more inspiring.
Furthermore, the growing threat of radical Islam in Africa, from Boko Haram via Mali to Al Shabab in Somalia, should be recognised. Africa has increasingly risen towards the top of regions of concern and countries such as Somalia, Nigeria and Mali are increasingly associated with radicalisation and extremism. Indeed, Michael Adebolajo was arrested by Kenyan police in 2010 with 5 others, Kenyan counter terrorism officials believed he was seeking to enter Somalia to join with Al Shabab.
If we are to deal with this threat of radicalisation and extremism among young British Muslims, whether of African descent or not, then we must look to address the issues of alienation, that so many experience. An issue, that cuts across from gangs to radical Islamist groups.
Ismail Einashe is a Freelance Journalist and Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology & Human Geography, University of Oslo.