Kasra Aarabi specializes in Iran and Shia Islamist Extremism. He is a senior analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Even accounting for the scale of the domestic economic storm engulfing the UK, the lack of focus on international issues in the British Conservative leadership contest has been surprising, given the prominence placed on defining a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ by leading Tories and a desire to restore pride in the West.
But the stabbing of British author Salman Rushdie was attacked while delivering a seminar in New York state two weeks ago has underlined the need for Britain’s next prime minister, be it Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, to strengthen Britain’s resolve against the threat to our values from hostile regimes that could ultimately undermine our way of life. That is a threat more lasting than any recession.
The perpetrator stabbed Rushdie 10 times in response to ‘blasphemy’ against Islam. This act of terror was not inspired by ISIS or al-Qaeda – the usual suspects – but was driven by Shia Islamist extremism, to which the US and UK have been largely blind.
In the days following the attack, we now know the perpetrator, US-citizen Hadi Matar was a sympathiser of Shia terrorist group Lebanese Hezbollah and its founding organisation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Matar had been in direct contact with the IRGC, which was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in the US in 2019, but is yet to be proscribed in the UK.
Prime Minister Truss or Prime Minister Sunak should signal their eyes are wide open to the terror threat posed by the Iranian regime by proscribing the IRGC on their first day in office. The attack itself comes more than 30-years after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Shia fundamentalist and former supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death – a fatwa that was reiterated in February 2019 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader.
While it may be convenient for Western governments sat at the negotiating table with Tehran to treat the Rushdie attack as an isolated incident, it follows a worrying trend of rising Shia Islamist extremism on Western soil. In less than two weeks, aside from the Rushdie attack, three Iranian regime terror plots on US soil have been revealed –including the foiling of two confirmed IRGC attacks against former US government officials. We have also seen the ransacking of the Azerbaijani Embassy in London by UK-based Shia radicals.
The IRGC is at the heart of the rise of Shia Islamist extremism in the West. Given that most Western nations – including the UK – have yet to proscribe it as a terrorist organisation reveals how little it is understood.
The IRGC is not the conventional armed force of a normal nation-state. It began as an Islamist militia and, despite professionalising, it has remained true to its Islamist militia DNA as reflected in its practices: from its formal programme of ideological indoctrination to radicalise all recruits and their families to using terrorism, hostage-taking and hijackings as its primary modus operandi.
Just as groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda spend resources on radicalising their fighters, the IRGC does the same. The same Quranic verses used by ISIS and al-Qaeda to give religious legitimacy to wage jihad appear in IRGC indoctrination material. This material clearly reveals that the ideology of the IRGC is both violent and extremist and is based on a distortion of Islamic scripture that is no different to proscribed Islamist groups in the UK: from Hizbullah to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The IRGC justifies, glorifies and prioritises armed jihad against the “enemies of Islam” and calls on recruits to kill Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.
This material is far from empty rhetoric. For over 43 years, the IRGC has been responsible for plotting and executing global terrorist attacks, hostage-takings, maritime piracy, political assassinations on foreign soil and human rights violations. The surge in IRGC activity in Europe and the US since 2015 reveals that the interests of this group go beyond the confines of the Middle East.
The UK’s proscription of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation is more important than ever before. There has been an increase in IRGC-related activity on UK soil in the past few years. For example, in Autumn 2015, UK police discovered an Iranian-linked bomb factory in North West London. In January 2020, the Islamic Centre of England – a UK charity run by a representative of Iran’s supreme leader – held a candlelit vigil at its London premises in response to the death of Qassim Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander, who was a designated UK terrorist. In July 2022, “Salute Commander”, an IRGC-video production aimed at radicalising children, was recorded on UK soil.
Homegrown radicalisation of such British citizens for terror-related activity is now a genuine possibility. In recent months, the IRGC Intelligence Organisation has ordered the targeting of Israeli and Jewish citizens living abroad – constituting a direct terror threat to British Jews and Israelis in the UK.
The proscription of the IRGC in its entirety would provide a clear mandate for government, civil society groups, and technology companies to impose an outright ban on activities and content linked to, or associated with, the IRGC. It would enable the UK Government to increase safeguarding measures to protect against homegrown IRGC and Shia Islamist extremism, including through the expansion of the PREVENT programme to include Shia Islamist extremism. The presence of Iranian- state-run institutions on UK soil – like the Al-Mustafa International University – that support the recruitment and radicalisation of terrorists underscores the direct threat.
In 2019 the Government proscribed Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation with the objective of restricting its ability to raise illicit funds and spread its extremist propaganda. Efforts to restrict Hizbullah activity are undermined so long as the IRGC – its creator and primary supporter – remains unchecked.
The Rushdie attack must be a wake-up call for the UK and other Western nations to counter the rising threat of Shia Islamist extremism. The first step towards this must include proscribing the IRGC.