He was a cherubic young man, and a delinquent who liked mind-altering substances. Searching for a purpose in life, he found a murderous cause that targeted his own country. It was too exciting to resist. Many of his peers joined too. His career in treachery culminated in a secret dash through France under the eyes of the security forces.
This is the story of Salah Abdeslam, logistics chief of November’s terrorist attacks on Paris. Captured in Belgium last month, he will be tried in France. But it’s also the story of Guy Burgess, one of the Soviet agents recruited at Cambridge in the 1930s. Burgess came from the top of society and fell for communism, while Abdeslam came from the bottom and fell for Isis, yet the two men are remarkably alike. The story of Burgess and his generation may foretell the path of today’s Isis recruits.
Days after the Paris attacks, Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam, gave a speech titled, “What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism?” Many of his insights apply as much to the Cambridge communists as to the jihadis.
Firstly, says Roy, “Only young people join.” Abdeslam probably embraced Isis at 24; Burgess joined the KGB at 23. (Two excellent biographies of Burgess have appeared in recent months, Stalin’s Englishman and The Spy Who Knew Everyone*.)
Both Burgess and Abdeslam were alienated figures looking for a cause. Just as Abdeslam never felt he belonged in Belgium, Burgess saw his class as detached from a Britain crushed by the Depression. In 1934 he joined a hunger march to London, albeit travelling by train and wearing his Old Etonian tie.
His homosexuality probably gave him additional distance from his society; Abdeslam, intriguingly, frequented Brussels gay bars, according to barmen there. Both men had a taste for intoxicants: Burgess mostly drank, whereas Abdeslam and his brother ran a bar that was closed down last year for selling drugs.
Burgess found in communism what Abdeslam found in Islam: a complete theory of the world and a grand global cause. Handily, their versions of these creeds could be explained and absorbed in about 20 minutes.
Neither man converted alone. “It is a peer phenomenon,” writes Roy. “They radicalise in the framework of a small network of friends.” Abdeslam’s network was Molenbeek in Brussels; Burgess’s was Cambridge. From 1929 to 1933, “the central subject of ordinary intelligent conversation” at the university shifted from poetry to politics, wrote Burgess’s contemporary Julian Bell. “A very large majority of the more intelligent undergraduates are communists or almost communists.” Today, jihadi terrorism seems to have a similar grip on Molenbeek’s young.
Even within these radical networks, Burgess and Abdeslam moved in particularly radical circles. Burgess’s college, Trinity, produced four of the Cambridge men known to have become Soviet agents; the fifth, Donald Maclean, was next door at Trinity Hall. Abdeslam radicalised with his brother Brahim, and was recruited by his slightly older childhood friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud. (Burgess’s own slightly older mentor was Arnold Deutsch.)
Isis and the KGB had the appeal of exclusive secret clubs that were changing the world. Today’s jihadi recruits feel, thrillingly, that they are joining “the small brotherhood of superheroes”, writes Roy. Similarly, Kim Philby recalled that after he and Maclean became Soviet agents, their chum Burgess felt “that he was being excluded from something esoteric and exciting. So he started to badger us, and nobody could badger more effectively than Burgess.”
The Cambridge men were British insiders, who could give the Soviets information. The Molenbeek jihadis are outsiders, so they can offer Isis only violence.
Like today’s jihadis, the Cambridge spies rejected the traditions of their elders. Just as older European Muslims are not jihadis, older members of the 1930s’ British upper class weren’t communists: Burgess’s father was a staid, unsuccessful naval officer. To say that terrorism is inherent in Islam is therefore as misguided as saying that communism was inherent in the prewar British upper class.
Burgess’s spying career ended in 1951, when he and Maclean fled Britain for Paris, and from there went to Moscow. Abdeslam sneaked out of Paris to Brussels on the night of the attacks.
Burgess quickly discovered that the USSR was a terrible place. He drank himself to death there in 1963, long after the communist light had failed. Most Cambridge men had abandoned the creed even before the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Some youthful prewar Soviet sympathisers, like Burgess’s friend Goronwy Rees, eventually grew into staunch anti-communist British patriots.
Given today’s speedier communication and Isis’s military weakness, the new creed will probably fail sooner. Many foreign fighters who travelled to Isis’s “caliphate” have already discovered that it’s a terrible place.
Meanwhile, jihadis can do terrible damage. And after their era ends, don’t expect peace to descend. Some young men will always seek glamour in killing for a cause (recall the European-wide jubilation when the first world war broke out) and there’s always a new cause to kill for.
*‘Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess’ (Hodder & Stoughton), by Andrew Lownie; ‘Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone’ (Biteback Publishing), by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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