The Islamist-liberal alliance, a traditionally powerful force in parts of British political life, has suffered a significant setback after serious allegations about one of its key figures recently surfaced. Robert Lambert is a former police officer in the Special Branch – a division of the British police service that is linked to national security, protection of VIPs, and known to work closely with the Security Service (also known as MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency). In retirement Lambert has been closely associated with Islamists in the UK: he works at the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) in the University of Exeter, a center funded by front groups for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shortly after 9/11, when Lambert was still an operational police officer, he created the Muslim Contact Unit -- a deeply controversial division with London's Metropolitan Police -- to cultivate links with extremists within the Muslim community. The idea behind it seemed sensible enough: the police would need to engage with difficult aspects of the community to build intelligence on individuals of concern. Yet, the unit was soon engaged in much more than just intelligence-gathering. Extreme Islamists were not only being actively partnered by the police; they were also being supported, bolstered and, in some cases, even funded.
One example, the STREET ["Strategy to Reach, Empower, and Educate Teenagers"] project, founded by Abdul Haqq Baker, its current Managing Director, aims to help those young Muslims who may be susceptible to violent extremism. Baker is also Chairman of the Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre, committed to propagating "the true call of understanding Islam, through the Quraan and Sunnah of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wassalam [may peace be upon him]) upon the understanding of our pious predecessors." In other words, the ethos of the mosque is Salafist, the most extreme form of Islam, an emulation of the spirit and ways of 'al-Salaf al-Salih' (the "pious predecessors"). Typically, Salafists advocate one of the most literal and austere forms of the religion, as well as a range of values that are not usually compatible with liberal democracy. The significance of this in relation to Preventing Violent Extremism was laid out by Abdul Haqq Baker himself in a 2008 article for the magazine Criminal Justice Matters, in which he acknowledges that, 'Salafist ideology is considered by many to be one of the significant contributory causes to violent extremism." He goes on to state that, "Adherents of this particular branch of Islam" – which, as the comment above indicates, includes himself – "consider their practices mainstream, away from the extreme spectrums of both liberalism and violent extremism." Was Baker therefore judged to be an appropriate partner precisely because of his commitment to Salafism?
Lambert was apparently thinking along just such lines. He has argued that, "Salafis and Islamists often have the best antidotes to al-Qaida propaganda once it has taken hold." Yet, as Baker has admits, their ability to administer this "antidote" in practice is not necessarily proven. In an interview with CNN about Richard Reid, the would-be Christmas day "shoebomber" who had worshipped at the Brixton Mosque, Baker stated, "He came because he said that we were teaching the pure form of Islam and that we should show him the straight and narrow sort of view of Islam and practice of Islam – which is the orthodox Islam. He was happy that we weren't going to be feeding him rhetoric or erroneous beliefs."
Reid's experience of the Salafist brand of thinking did not steer him away from the path of jihadi [holy war] terrorism; his encounter with non-violent extremism clearly failed to defuse his appetite for violent extremism. Lambert, however, persisted in supporting STREET and many projects like it, despite public outcry at the police's promiscuous embrace of reactionaries espousing values at odds with those of mainstream British society.
Since leaving the police service, Lambert has continued to cultivate strong partnerships with Islamists and regularly publishes reports in their defence. It has now emerged, however, that during his time as a policeman, Lambert was a spy who regularly posed undercover to infiltrate invidious groups and gather intelligence. Moreover, Lambert was a senior officer who oversaw the infiltration of other officers as well – almost always into political groups deemed to be extreme. Using the alias, "Bob Robinson," Lambert posed as an activist in Greenpeace from 1984-1988. The fallout has been far reaching.
Once revelations began emerging, it became clear that Lambert had not only infiltrated the group but had overstepped the mark by entering into a long-term relationship with one of the activists, called Jenny, in a bid to further his credibility. On another occasion he arranged for police officers to storm Jenny's house in a ruse to make it seem as if he were a wanted fugitive. The Guardian reports:
By 1988, Jenny had moved into a Hackney flat with two others, who were not politically active. One day, special branch detectives raided Jenny's home, letting slip that they were "looking for Bob". He was not there. She remembers that one of the detectives picked up a pair of shoes and asked who owned them. They belonged to Jenny. The raid, the Guardian understands, was orchestrated by police to bolster Lambert's cover story.
Lambert seems to have exceeded the reasonable grounds of undercover investigation by entering into a personal relationship with Jenny, and then arranging to have her house raided. After one officer confessed that sexual relationships were frequently used as a 'tool' in undercover assignments to gain credibility. The conduct of Lambert and a number of his undercover colleagues in the Metropolitan Police is now under review.
Lambert is struggling to convince his Islamist allies that he was not – and is not – now secretly gathering information about them, too. Many are struggling to believe anything he says. Daud Abdullah, the former Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, who signed the pro-Hamas Istanbul Declaration which insisted on perpetual jihad against Israel, initially tried to defend Lambert. Writing in the Guardian, Abdullah said:
The "exposure" of the former special branch officer Bob Lambert comes at a convenient time: it can serve as a distraction from the scandals that have engulfed the neocon tendency in the government. Lambert has been a staunch critic of the government's Islamophobic rhetoric and exclusivist policies. This, to a large extent, explains the excitement that has greeted disclosure of information about Lambert's past career among certain people.
These people seek to achieve two things: to assassinate Lambert's character and discredit his academic work. Both will fail.
Shortly after, however, some of his most notable Islamist allies distanced themselves from him. The Cordoba Foundation, a front for the Muslim Brotherhood which has previously funded Lambert's EMRC Centre in Exeter, cancelled on short notice an event at which he was due to speak. Representatives of the Centre announced:
The Cordoba Foundation regretfully announces that the forthcoming event on the 8th of November "Launch of Two Ground Breaking Pieces of Research" has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
The event had been due to take place in the London Muslim Centre, which is linked to the radical East London Mosque. The Muslim Centre is also home to the Islamic Forum Europe, a front organization for the far-Right Jamaat-e-Islami party.
That Lambert's friends from these Islamist groups have now abandoned him is damning. Aside from issuing a few half-hearted apologies, Lambert has been notably mute on the subject. His speaking tour to promote a new report, which attacks and smears political opponents of Islamism as ""Neocons" and "Zionists," has ground to a halt. Given that hardly anyone now trusts Lambert, and his conduct is also subject to a broader investigation by the Metropolitan Police, the Islamist-liberal alliance might finally be starting to unravel.