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Tuesday, February 10, 2009 

Butt out.

When it comes to Islamic extremism and eccentricity, few can quite measure up to such sane and well-balanced individuals as the likes of Omar Bakri Muhammad, the bearded, NHS-style spectacles wearing sheikh who went not denouncing pop songs is paying for his daughter's breast enlargement operation, or the even more zany David Myatt, or rather Abdul-Aziz ibn Myatt, who went from leading Combat 18, the violent far-right sect, to converting to the most radical shade of Islam and berating the "kuffar". Neither however seems to be as inwardly conflicted as Hassan Butt apparently is.

You might recall that Butt, along with Ed Husain, was one of the few who made the journey from being Islamists to becoming almost instant fixtures on our TV screens, giving their insights into how extremism could be tackled. Like Husain, Butt had been involved with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic political party that advocates the re-establishment of the global caliphate, but was most well known for being the spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, itself a split from Hizb-ut-Tahrir, led by the aforementioned Bakri. Butt's claims, as time went by, became ever more outlandish and potentially serious: not only did he claim that he had sent those he recruited in this country to train with al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he finally also said that he had been personally involved with the bombing of the US consulate in Karachi in 2002, an attack blamed on al-Qaida. This eventually culminated in his arrest last year, and the police demanding access to the notes behind the book that Husain was working on with the journalist Shiv Malik.

Butt however, it seems, was a fantasist, a liar who loved attention who kept ratcheting up just how deeply he had been involved within the jihadist movement. With the police investigating his potential links with the Karachi bombing, as well as his claims that he was a recruiter, he admitted to them that he made most of the stories up, going so far as to fake his own injuries to give the impression that other violent extremists wanted him dead for what he was revealing to the media. Not that this was the first time that Butt had been arrested on suspicion of his involvement with terrorism: he was also picked up in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007, each time being released without charge, presumably for lack of evidence.

Butt's admittance that he was a liar though doesn't even begin to answer the far more interesting associated questions. It's beyond doubt both that he was Al-Muhajiroun's spokesman and that he was a radical Islamist, familiar with the ideology and willing to chew the fat with journalists far before his alliance with Malik, as an interview in Prospect magazine shortly after the 7/7 bombings but before Butt apparently renounced his jihadist outlook shows. Are his claims then to have renounced Islamism credible at all? Could this indeed have been all a front, designed to take the pressure off him while behind the scenes he continued with his involvement with the successors of Al-Muhajiroun? In court he claimed that this was not the case, and that although he had never been an active jihadist, he could indeed be accurately described as a radical. It's also true that he had relationships with at least three now convicted terrorists; apparently untrue was that he met Mohammed Siddique Khan, ringleader of 7/7, while it's unclear whether he knew the two British men who carried out the suicide bombing in Israel, although Husain in his book suggests that he had met Omar Khan Sharif through his own involvement with HuT.

Whatever the truth, Butt succeeded in duping not just Shiv Malik, but also Newsnight's Richard Watson, with the programme featuring him heavily during its own investigations into Islamic extremism in this country. He made waves over the pond too, appearing on 60 Minutes on CBS in 2006, after which a rather prescient Adrian Morgan questioned whether Butt had genuinely renounced radical Islam, saying that his stories simply didn't add up. It will doubtless also be a further embarrassment to Husain himself, who came under fire recently from those who had been up till then highly supportive, after he warned that the conflict in Gaza was radicalising youth and that the government's position was not helping. Husain had spoken of Butt going into hiding because of his new work helping to "deradicalise" youth in Manchester, while Butt himself on Newsnight had derided the idea that foreign policy had any role in terrorism, with similar articles in both the Observer and the Mail.

At its heart, Butt's is a case of someone exploiting the media for telling them what they wanted to hear: first that he was a recruiter who wanted to send young British Muslims to fight their countrymen in Afghanistan, then that he had turned his back on his old ways and that to blame foreign policy for terrorism in this country was to "do their work for them", when the real problem was Islamic theology itself. There is of course more than a little truth in that, but to ignore completely the role of foreign policy was always madness; the madness which some, such as this government and the pro-war left wanted to hear, with their ciphers in the press also delighted by it. Butt's fantasist ways shouldn't automatically discredit the likes of the Quilliam Foundation, set-up by Husain and another former HuT leader, Maajjid Nawaz, as it's clear they are also part of the solution, but it reminds us that where there's money to made and fame to be had, there will always be those prepared to embroider their stories to get to the centre of attention.

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Phrases like "agent provocateur", "Mi5 plant", spring to mind. A man who keeps getting arrested but always walks; a proven liar who makes statements designed to outrage.

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