Nafeez Ahmed 11 May 2021
An analyses of the rise, decline and sudden fall of Maajid Nawaz’s government-backed counter-extremism think tank
n 9 April 2021, some fourteen years after its founding, Maajid Nawaz took to Twitter to announce the permanent shut-down of the Quilliam Foundation due, he said, to the “hardship of maintaining a non-profit during Covid lockdowns.”
The announcement was barely noticed by the media, in yet a further indication of the growing irrelevance of an organisation which for a time had been a darling of the US and UK Governments.
But the birth pangs, charmed life and death throes of the entity that once proudly described itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism organisation” serves as a stark reminder not only of Quilliam’s ideological legacy, but perhaps more importantly, the opaque machinery of power that brought it into existence.
Despite the think tank’s spectacular fall from grace, right to the end it had retained close ties to British elites. Among its most recent donors, for instance, was Richard Sharp, who had donated a total of £35,000 to Quilliam up to 2019. Sharp, who was nominated by Boris Johnson to become chairman of the BBC – taking up the post in February – is also a major Tory donor, having given over £400,000 to the Conservative Party.
How did Quilliam, despite such ongoing largesse from parts of the British establishment, end up disappearing off the face of the internet in early 2021? To understand this we must go back to the organisation’s little understood and opaque origins.
A State Endeavour
From the outset, the Quilliam Foundation – launched with £674,608 of Home Office funding – made its primary mission to oppose Islamist terrorism with an unyielding fixation on seeing its own definition of ‘Islamism’ as the core driver of radicalisation. The organisation would go on to raise a total of around £2.7 million from the UK Government up to around 2011.
According to the award-winning former Guardian senior investigative journalist Ian Cobain, a UK Government official told him that Quilliam “was actually established by the Office for Security and Counterterrorism (OSCT) at the UK government’s Home Office.” The initial plan “was to fund it covertly, with money appearing to come in from a Middle Eastern benefactor, but actually channelled by MI6. But a decision was taken to grant it acknowledged – but far-from-trumpeted – UK government funding,” Cobain added.
A former OSCT staffer who worked in the agency at the time has denied any knowledge of OSCT’s role. However, arrangements like this are not normally done on an agency-wide basis but are ‘need-to-know’.
Corroboration for Cobain’s account comes from the little-known fact that two years before the Quilliam Foundation was established, one of its co-founders was already in close contact with the Home Office, which had facilitated Government involvement in editing his celebrated autobiography recounting his experience of leaving Islamism.
In 2013, I was told by a former Home Office researcher that The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left – the bestselling memoir of Quilliam co-founder Ed Husain – was “effectively ghostwritten in Whitehall.” Both Ed Husain and his colleague Maajid Nawaz were members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which calls for the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate through non-violent means.
This background is crucial, then, in understanding Quilliam’s obsession with ‘non-violent extremist ideology’ as the linchpin of vulnerability to terrorism – an approach that was attractive to a New Labour Government which after 9/11 had, following the lead of the Bush administration, dragged Britain into prolonged bloody wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across the Muslim world, while pursuing discriminatory counter-terror policing measures at home.
According to my Home Office source, one of his colleagues in the department with “close ties” to Jack Straw and Gordon Brown had revealed to him about Ed Husain’s book that “the draft was written by Ed but then ‘peppered’ by government input” in 2006. In addition to the Home Office, other agencies involved were “No. 10, Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the intelligence services [and] Foreign & Commonwealth Office.” This process had produced “at least five drafts of the book, and the last one was dramatically different from the first”, and was particularly designed to advocate a pro-government slant.
Starting life as an instrument of the British state under New Labour, Quilliam transitioned into a handmaiden of ‘Big Society’ conservativism before gradually devolving into an extension of pro-Trump lobbies.
Before launching Quilliam, Ed Husain had also cut his teeth working under a man who has been accused of promoting the far-right racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory. According to Douglas Murray, who has promoted a range of anti-Muslim and white nationalist views while working with several alt-right networks, “Around the time Ed Husain came to public notice, I recruited him to work with me (through Civitas, the organisation that originally hosted the Centre for Social Cohesion). He liked my views and I had great hopes for him to become a source for real reform. This gave him the time and financial freedom to set up QF.”
Notably, it was around the same time that Murray had delivered his distinctly illiberal 2006 speech demanding a ban on Muslim immigration to Europe, and for “conditions for Muslims in Europe” to be “made harder across the board.”
So the Quilliam Foundation was not simply an organic enterprise hatched spontaneously by a handful of awakened British Muslims. To a substantial extent, it had been conceived and nurtured by elements of the UK Government. Indeed, before Quilliam was established, Ed Husain’s approach to radicalisation had blossomed under the wing of both Whitehall civil servants and right-wing civil society groups with anti-Muslim sympathies.
Later Husain’s co-founder, Maajid Nawaz, would write his own memoirs, but his personal story was riddled with contradictions. I investigated these in 2016, speaking widely to Nawaz’s friends and family, most of whom did not identify as Islamists.
In one shocking part of his book, Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Radical Awakening, Nawaz falsely claimed that in the mid-nineties his brother Kaashif Nawaz was a would-be suicide bomber, who had threatened to blow himself and others up with a rucksack bomb to fend off neo-Nazi gangs. In reality, friends and family familiar with the incident – and Kaashif himself – told me that Nawaz had fabricated the entire story as a result of a personal spat in which Nawaz had threatened to turn over his brother to Britain’s security services for criticising Quilliam co-founder Ed Husain’s support for Bashar al-Assad. As a result of the printing of this fabricated story, Kaashif – who never joined Hizb ut-Tahrir – lost his security clearance while he was employed at a technology firm. It was confirmed to me by several members of Nawaz’s own family that it was this, not Nawaz’s rejection of Islamism as he often claims, which created a huge rift within the family that never healed.
But this was just one anomaly out of many. One of the most glaring is Nawaz’s account of his deradicalisation process, which he says unfolded during his imprisonment in Egypt as a Hizb ut-Tahrir member. In his book, Nawaz claims that having firmly decided to reject HT ideology in prison, after his release and return to Britain he found his wife’s continued support for HT so abhorrent he did his best to avoid spending time with her and their son.
In reality, in precisely this period, no sooner had Nawaz arrived back in the UK – which happened largely thanks to his wife’s incessant campaigning (in breach of Hizb ut-Tahrir principles) – he went straight back onto the HT circuit. Far from staying away from his wife and son because he hated HT, as he claimed, he was actually promoting HT everywhere from SOAS, to BBC News, to street protests where he repeatedly and vehemently reiterated his support for a global Islamic caliphate – just days before he suddenly announced his departure from the Islamist movement.
I knew Nawaz’s narrative as outlined in his book was false because I had met him several times in 2006 after he had arrived back from his prison ordeal in Egypt as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. He had come to speak at several events organised by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), and branded himself as an unapologetic critic of repressive Middle East governments and their Western supporters. Later that year, in October, he spoke at the annual Al-Quds rally organised by a range of groups including Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). All this was happening when, he writes, he could not stand to be in his own home due to his wife’s HT sympathies.
At the time, I remember feeling quite wary of all this. I knew the IHRC well, as I had once worked there as a researcher in the late nineties for just over a year after they published my work on Russia’s invasion of Chechnya. One of the things I’d discovered while there is that the bulk of IHRC’s funding came from donors close to the government of Iran who are ardent supporters of the regime and its ideology. I was told this at the time by the organisation’s chairman, who boasted of his close personal links to Iran’s Guardian Council. As a result of these ties, the group became increasingly sectarian in its response to human rights issues – firing ample criticisms against repression of Shi’a communities in Bahrain, for instance, but doggedly avoiding criticisms of Iran’s domestic human rights abuses. This was exemplified in the group’s silence on Syria, where Iran has played a key role in escalating sectarian violence in support of the Assad regime.
I was also very familiar with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s tactics and ideology from my Sixth Form years in the nineties. That was HT’s golden age. The presence of a small number of HT members and their efforts to promote their concept of the khilafah as a utopian Islamic super-state played a crucial role in creating a mini-crisis in our school in Ilford, when our fledgling Islamic Society tried to establish a regular prayer space.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir group were a constant irritant, but had faced a backlash from the vast majority of Muslim pupils who saw through their rhetoric. Unfortunately, the daily heated arguments in corridors and corners hadn’t gone unnoticed, and before the main HT ringleaders had finally moved on to university life, I and some of my friends had been called into an ominous meeting with the deputy headmaster where we were informed of “serious concerns” that “the school was being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood through the secret activities of your Islamic Society.”
We just wanted a prayer facility. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Brotherhood was. We reassured the school that there wasn’t anything to worry about – the HT ringleaders were only a tiny sub-group with superficial religious literacy, most often making them a laughing stock among their Muslim peers. They were obviously being indoctrinated from outside the school, and had little tangible impact within it. Blocking us from praying would only make things worse. Thankfully, the school relented. It helped that we were able to get support from the school’s head of art, who was a white Muslim convert.
At this time, Hizb ut-Tahrir was renowned for its attempts to recruit new members from schools and universities, along with its far more pro-violence radicalised offshoot, Al-Mujahiroun (AM) – both of which were almost universally despised by young Muslims for their often bizarre and embarrassing proselytisation antics. (I remember attending one antiwar event where AM activist Anjem Choudhary – much later convicted of encouraging support for ISIS – popped up during the Q&A to ramble on about the khilafah, before four other AM activists popped out consecutively from around the room shouting ‘Allah hu Akbar’ repeatedly in unison. The Muslims in the room had their heads in their hands.)
So before Nawaz had announced his departure from Hizb ut-Tahrir, I’d viewed him with the sort of overwhelming scepticism that most Muslims hold of groups like HT – the kind where you don’t really want to touch the thing with a barge pole for fear of getting icky. Of course, I strongly sympathised with the plight of Nawaz and his colleagues due to their ordeal in Egypt where they had been detained without charge and tortured, largely for being idiotic Islamist loudmouths. But the almost celebrity-like attention they were attracting from progressive groups left a sour taste given what we knew about HT ideology.
When Nawaz later teamed up with Ed Husain to formally launch the Quilliam Foundation in 2008, it seemed they had switched from one extreme, to the other. Yet after just three years, their insistence on reducing terrorism to a singular root cause of non-violent ideology – justifying mass surveillance and intrusive policing powers against Muslim communities wholesale – was running out of steam.
The Quilliam Foundation had become most renowned for spearheading the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalisation, which sees non-violent extremism as the origin point moving individuals from grievance to radicalisation to violence. The theory had more to do with the narrow experiences of Quilliam’s founders, and the early ideological biases of Quilliam’s state benefactors, than actual empirical evidence.
But by 2010, the tide of evidence had turned. A leaked classified Whitehall briefing prepared for UK ministers confirmed: “We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence… This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.”
This does not mean religious ideology has no role to play. As I’d told a parliamentary inquiry into Prevent in 2009, the tentative consensus that has emerged among counter-extremism practitioners and experts is that ideology usually emerges as a legitimising factor toward the tail-end of the radicalisation process, rather than an initiating driver.
But Quilliam doubled down on their conveyor belt theory, most notoriously in 2010 when it sent a blacklist of peaceful Muslim civil society groups to the Home Office’s OSCT, accusing them all of sharing the ideology of terrorists. The following year, it lost the vast bulk of its UK Government funding.
Quilliam’s refusal to budge from its approach despite the evidence increasingly caused it to lose credibility in the national security industry. One senior director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a top London-based counter-extremism think-tank, told me that while they had worked briefly with Quilliam in the past, in recent years their increasing lack of credibility became an embarrassment. “Hardly anyone in counter-terrorism or national security takes Quilliam seriously anymore”, he said.
To rehabilitate its haemorrhaging finances, Maajid Nawaz incorporated a US non-profit vehicle for the Quilliam Foundation. As of 2011, I discovered that Quilliam’s US branch was being incubated by over a million dollars in ‘dark money’ funnelled in via a pro-Republican political lobby group, Gen Next Inc.
Among Quilliam’s new directors at its US wing was Chad Sweet, a former senior Bush administration homeland security official, who had just become campaign manager for Senator Ted Cruz. This is the same Ted Cruz, of course, who has promoted notoriously bigoted figures such as the late Jesse Helms (described by the Washington Post as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country”); campaigned against LGBTQ rights; spoken alongside far-right anti-Muslim and anti-black conspiracy theorists including Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz; and became a virulent cheerleader of the conspiracy theories that led to the White House insurrection.
Just two years after being incubated under the patronage of Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, the Quilliam Foundation organised a much-publicised press conference to announce that they had deradicalised far-right thug and convicted fraudster Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon). “Tommy and Kev do not hate Muslims,” claimed Maajid Nawaz at the event. The massive publicity given by Quilliam to Robinson’s fake deradicalisation narrative played a key role in propelling the far-right icon to an almost celebrity-like status resulting in a spate of high-profile media gigs. At the time, several journalists and even former English Defence League (EDL) members pointed out that Robinson had never actually denounced any of his past racist statements about Muslims, and in fact continued to demonstrate loyalty to the EDL.
But these were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to Quilliam’s far-right connections. As Quilliam’s pro-Republican benefactors became increasingly radicalised, with the rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and entry into the White House, so too did the Quilliam Foundation.
In 2015, I uncovered Quilliam’s ties with several key figures who had been linked to far-right supporters of the Trump campaign. Quilliam director Haras Rafiq, for instance, had previously worked with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney – whose fraudulent polling of American Muslim students was used by the Trump campaign to justify its ‘Muslim ban’ announcement; and the Middle East Forum run by anti-Muslim bigot Daniel Pipes, described as a “racist hatemonger” by the Australian Jewish Council.
Quilliam’s in-house theologian, Dr Usama Hasan, had also entertained other notorious hate groups such as the Clarion Project, where he gave an interview despite its publication of Geert Wilders’ call to deport millions of Muslims from Europe, and the Gatestone Institute – which has promoted the racist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory among other white nationalist views – and for whom he signed a ridiculous ‘Muslim reform’ document defaming a famous mosque in Washington DC as a Saudi-funded enterprise funding terror.
My reporting on Quilliam’s far-right liaisons would later be cited by the Home Affairs Select Committee during its inquiry into counter-terrorism, in a session interviewing Haras Rafiq. During his interview, Rafiq lied when asked about Quilliam’s US non-profit being recently directed by Ted Cruz’s campaign manager: he claimed that the US entity was an entirely separate organisation for which the UK group had no responsibility. He omitted to mention that funds from the US vehicle went directly to support Quilliam’s UK-based operations. The parliamentarians were also aghast at Quilliam’s work with Gatestone, to which Rafiq claimed, innocently, he had no idea what Gatestone was all about and would look into it.
He also lied when he told the parliamentary committee that Quilliam has “never had any formal business relationship with Tommy Robinson.” It emerged days afterwards that Quilliam had been paying Robinson £2,000 a month since late 2013.
I later discovered that Quilliam had also received a million dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation from 2014 to 2017. The Foundation funds a wide amount of important and interesting work focusing on the intersection of science and faith, but the critical ‘tell’ is the year. In 2014, Templeton participated in a shadowy annual conference of hard-right Christian organisations known as ‘The Gathering’, where they align funding interests to distribute over a billion dollars in grants to eradicate belief systems challenging their hard-right vision of Christianity. The John Templeton Foundation was also among a small network of 33 right-wing groups which had given money to five of the most prominent organisations behind the overwhelmingly racist Tea Party movement.
On 10 December 2017, Sky News mentioned my story when asking former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton MP about his support for a Quilliam report claiming that 84% of grooming gangs in Britain are of South Asian ethnic origin (Maajid Nawaz would later refer to such findings to claim that grooming gangs are disproportionately Muslim). The Sky News host put to Loughton that my report had identified Quilliam’s links to the funders behind the Tea Party. Loughton simply dodged the question and insisted that his place wasn’t to comment on the Quilliam Foundation – although he was appearing precisely to promote Quilliam’s new findings.
Quilliam’s grooming gang claims were rejected by leading experts in child sex exploitation at the time, and completely discredited by a two-year 2020 Home Office study which concluded that grooming gangs are not a disproportionately Muslim problem. In fact, most groomers happen to be white, though this is recognised not to be due to ethnic reasons.
Descent into QAnon
So when Maajid Nawaz descended into the promotion of bizarre and baseless conspiracy theories linked to the QAnon movement – including supporting the Trump-backed insurrection at the White House after the 2020 elections – it didn’t really come as a huge shock.
A number of other commentators, and certainly many of Nawaz’s erstwhile supporters, were taken aback. British Future’s Sunder Katwala, for instance, who had perhaps done the most to catalogue Nawaz’s “active role in fomenting online radicalisation and conspiracies on behalf of a radicalised anti-democratic movement that launched a violent insurrection a week ago”, repeatedly expressed his perplexity at Nawaz’s ostensible “re-radicalisation.”
That widespread surprise was testament to the success with which Maajid Nawaz had crafted his image as a liberal reformer, when his primary benefactors were precisely the opposite. By 2017, Quilliam had received some $3 million in total of ‘dark money’ funding from Republican donors who had become increasingly pro-Trump. Gen Next Inc., which hosted Quilliam’s registered US office address until the day of its demise, includes on its board of directors Yuri Vanetik, who was listed as a major donor to the largest super PAC in support of Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy.
This was clearly not just a question of money pulling strings. It illustrates the context in which the Quilliam Foundation had been operating for a decade, some of which was clearly personal.
Nawaz had surrounded Quilliam’s fortunes with pro-Trump ideologues and lobbyists. Indeed, it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali – the celebrity Islam critic who once agreed that the West “should crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot” – that had introduced him to American artist Rachel Maggart, whom he married in 2014. Ali was a vocal supporter of Trump’s racist Muslim ban, and in the run-up to the 2020 elections accused Joe Biden of “enforcing Shari’ah law” for suggesting schools should do more to teach about the Islamic faith.
In November 2020, Nawaz’s wife tweeted out a video about the COVID-19 pandemic featuring Dr Michael Yeadon, described as an “anti-vax hero” promoting COVID-19 misinformation by Reuters, and noted for astonishingly racist and anti-Muslim tweets. Two months on, Nawaz himself joined Monaco-based millionaire Simon Dolan and others as a signatory to a conspiratorial open letter to the FBI and MI5 titled ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Lockdown Fraud’. Dolan is the executive producer of Renegade, a feature film promoting its co-producer – the notorious antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke.
Of course, Nawaz’s announcement of Quilliam’s demise due to financial reasons was unexpected because of the fact that just three years earlier, they had won $3.37 million from a libel claim against the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) for including him in a list of “anti-Muslim extremists”. Nawaz pledged to use these spoils “to fund work fighting anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism.” Yet less than a year after this victory, Quilliam refused to pay ex-employee Muna Adil on the grounds that it was “unable to pay her as it had run out of funds.”
A Muslim-led counter-extremism think-tank that had once burst into being with the blessings of a Blair government, moonlighted in the shade of David Cameron, and blossomed under the wing of a pro-Trump lobby network, had 13 years later collapsed into destitution while its founder embroiled himself in a bizarre spectacle of QAnon and COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
This happened because the Quilliam Foundation was never really what it claimed to be. The concept behind the think-tank did not belong solely to these former Islamists, but was developed with substantive input before inception from a cross-section of Government officials and right-wing policy wonks.
The stories of deradicalisation proffered by the think-tank’s two main founders, Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, were either partly ghostwritten by those officials or replete with inconsistencies and omissions.
The group was pushed forward by Government with a view to use its research to rubber stamp and legitimise intrusive counter-extremist policy approaches based on pre-existing ideological grounds. Using brown, Muslim faces would not only make attractive headlines for a media in which minority and Muslim perspectives were and remain deeply underrepresented, it might gain traction in Muslim communities.
Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, Quilliam’s heavily securitised and often discriminatory recommendations proceeded to alienate even the most liberal amongst Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Its early role in setting the contours of the UK counter-extremism agenda – with a blanket focus on depicting most Muslim civil society actors as dangerous Islamists – helped lay the groundwork of suspicion toward Prevent and its iterations among Muslim communities.
As Quilliam served to accelerate a breakdown in trust between parts of Muslim communities and the Government over counter-extremism, the Government pulled the plug, and the gravy train ground to a halt. Even so, Maajid Nawaz would go onto advise Prime Minister David Cameron, reinforcing a widespread belief among many British Muslims that this was basically how the state wanted to operate its relationship with Muslim communities: without transparency, manipulatively, and with a colonial mindset resorting to use of ‘native informants’ – a perception that caused serious damage, discouraging some Muslims from wanting to engage with their own Government.
In ensuing years, Quilliam replaced its waning British support with a toxic mix of hard-right and far-right sources with direct ties to pro-Trump political networks in the US. As the Republican Party itself became more and more radicalised by the Trump nexus, drifting further and further to the extreme right – to the point of courting and amplifying white supremacists and neo-Nazis – this radicalisation was increasingly refracted through the evermore erratic and inflammatory outbursts of Maajid Nawaz.
Even toward the very end, Quilliam’s brave counter-extremism fighters such as Haras Rafiq, Usama Hasan and David Toube simply looked on in deafening silence, inexplicably refusing to call out and condemn the astounding radicalisation going on in their midst. Why? Did they quietly agree with Nawaz’s conspiratorial outbursts? Did they, for that matter, thoroughly endorse the abhorrent views of the far-right groups that Quilliam worked with, like the white nationalist Gatestone, or the anti-Muslim hate group Clarion?
Whenever I put such questions to the Quilliam Foundation, it always failed to respond. Instead, Nawaz, Rafiq and Hasan resorted to blocking me on Twitter merely for doing journalism and asking questions, a testament to their unwillingness to engage in serious open debate despite all the grandiose lip service to ‘reason’ and ‘free speech’.
All this becomes perfectly explicable when we admit that the Quilliam Foundation was never really a genuine counter-extremism think-tank in the first place. Starting life as an instrument of the British state under New Labour, it transitioned into a handmaiden of ‘Big Society’ conservativism before gradually devolving into an extension of pro-Trump lobbies.
Its singular ‘success case’ of deradicalisation was to gift one of Britain’s most loathed far-right figures a megaphone. Its founders lacked meaningful expertise in the kind of Islamist militancy linked to terrorist attacks, and their published writings about their experiences were full of self-conflicted narratives and nonsensical chronologies. Quilliam did, though, serve a purpose for a time – it launched the careers of its founders, and fulfilled the convenient political function of making it intellectually palatable to believe that ordinary religious-minded Muslims are secretly waiting to explode.
But the biggest lesson of Quilliam’s demise is that attempting to engage with minority communities or solve huge national security challenges through the creation of ‘astroturfing’ entities cannot do either of these. In years to come, few will remember the Quilliam Foundation for its negligible contributions to stopping extremism. Instead, it will be remembered as a pathetic reflection of a somewhat embarrassing period when governments and political lobbies co-opted a coterie of fools, whose gullibility to Islamist ideology was really an alarm bell indicating dangerous levels of unmitigated stupidity. Like all such follies, the result was blowback.