Place Matters: The Geography of Radicalisation

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, we will ask ourselves again why it was that four seemingly well integrated and ‘normal’ individuals would resort to such catastrophic measures, killing themselves, fifty-two innocent people, and injuring scores of others. Much of our focus in the intervening years has been on the people who commit acts of terror, their psychology, history and relationships.

We have spent much less time thinking about the role of place and geography in the radicalisation process. Why do the majority of home-grown terrorists come from such a small number of places in the UK? Why do certain places seem to inspire the use of violence? Why do some institutions and organisations become a magnet for radicalised individuals? What kind of attachment or dislocation to place do terrorists have? And how might certain geographical environments provoke or dissipate trigger factors for radicalisation?

As RUSI launches a major new project exploring the geography of radicalisation, this article sets out the research agenda and the unanswered questions we need to explore.[1]

The Geography of Home-Grown Radicalisation

A review of trials over the last five years reveals an interesting geographical pattern: a small number of places appear time after time in connection with those convicted of terrorism-related offences. Places such as Crawley, Leeds, Luton and Waltham Forest seem to have a significance that is difficult to understand. Why Waltham Forest and not Newham, which has twice the concentration of Muslims relative to the overall population? Why Leeds and not Bradford, which has five times the number of Muslims, the vast majority of whom are from Pakistan/Kashmir? Why Luton, which has a Muslim population smaller than Leicester and only one third that of Bradford? And if London is home to half of all UK Muslims, why does it not figure more prominently?

The government’s Prevent funding is generally prioritised to those areas with the largest Muslim populations, but this does not seem to tell us the whole story. A number of other factors might help to explain this pattern: socioeconomic indicators; citizenship and levels of political engagement; the presence of new migrants and the scale and speed of demographic change; patterns of segregation; efficacy of public services; voting patterns and frustration with local political representation; the presence of far-right groups; the presence of radicalisers and certain types of ideological groups; and diaspora and other links to key parts of the world, such as Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. We need more detailed analysis of a broader range of factors to understand why certain places have significance as the source of radicalised young people and – importantly – why others do not.

Within these geographical areas, a number of spaces and institutions are important. Some mosques have been associated with convicted individuals, notably Finsbury Park mosque which was attended by the 21/7 bombers and the 2001 shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Individuals frequented the meetings of certain groups: members of the transatlantic attack plot and the London/Glasgow airport bombers attended Tablighi Jamaat meetings, and the fertiliser plot gang attended meetings of the banned extremist group Al-Muhajiroun in Crawley and Luton. In some cases, these groups offer a convenient meeting place; in others they play a causal role.

A mix of semi-public private spaces, such as gyms, bookshops and outdoor activity centres, feature in many of the known plots. For example, Iqra Books in Beeston was a centre of activity for the 7/7 bombers. There are widespread concerns about radicalisation taking place within prisons, where vulnerable individuals are sitting targets for radicalisers. Finally, universities provide a common thread running through many cases. Members of the transatlantic and 21/7 groups attended London Metropolitan University, those involved in the fertiliser plot attended Brunel University, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the alleged Christmas Day transatlantic bomber – studied engineering at University College London. However, positing a causal link between universities and radicalisation is currently a leap too far.

Radicalisation and the Physical and Built Environment

As well as a place’s demographic, social, economic, cultural and political characteristics, its physical and built environment might also be able to explain its association with radicalisation. There is considerable evidence from a range of settings to show that a person’s physical environment has a significant bearing on their outlook, sense of identity, and their relationships with those around them. This may tell us something about the geography of radicalisation.

Evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the level of community dispersion and the urban/rural mix influences responses. Neil Southern’s research in Belfast found that in those areas where Protestants were spread geographically, they tended not to respond to state oppression with violence, whereas those in more concentrated areas did. He also found that Protestants in rural communities, who suffered terrible losses of community members who were in the security forces, did not embark on a process of retaliation like their urban equivalents.[2] A recent special edition of the Journal of Urban Technology highlighted research showing how features of the built environment – architecture, painted murals, infrastructural layout, and so forth – can have a knock on impact on behaviours and social practices.[3]

Fred Boal argues that a lack of mixing allows communal grievances to develop unchecked, which provides the emotional framework within which a community justifies the use of violence. The greater the degree of division, the higher the tensions:[4]

Problems existing in divided cities are intensified in polarised cities ... With the latter, issues tend to be interpreted in zero-sum terms. Spatial paranoia is to the fore in response to residential succession or to allocation of areas through the planning process. Territoriality is ever present.

When these dynamics are combined with a sense of humiliation, groups are able to manipulate this to increase support for their cause: ‘The widespread feeling of humiliation and uncertainty ... offers fringe groups an opportunity to justify their recourse to terrorism’.[5]

This link between physical space and the recourse to violence is well documented in relation to urban violence and terrorism occurring within a contained geographical area, such as much of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. More research is needed to establish whether this might also play a role in the radicalisation process and influence the extent to which individuals and groups frame their more global terrorist ambitions. RUSI’s work will explore this dimension in more detail.

Dislocation and Radicalisation

The absence of a distinct sense of place also seems to be important in the radicalisation process. Detailed empirical work by both Marc Sageman, and Robert S Leiken and Steven Brooke highlights the predominance of migration and asylum characteristics among terrorists. Over one quarter (27 per cent) of the terrorists in Sageman’s database grew up in a country as refugees, second generation or guest workers and almost three quarters (70 per cent) were recruited in a country where they had not grown up.[6] In Leiken and Brooke’s sample, 87 per cent were immigrants. Of those who came to Britain, almost half (47 per cent) came through the asylum system, compared to 23 per cent in all countries.[7]

In many cases, links between communities in the UK and their places of origin remain strong and are maintained by regular visits and remittances. What is more, once established, these migration paths facilitate further migration, encapsulated in Myron Weiner’s ‘law’ on migration:[8]

A migration flow, once begun, induces its own flow. Migrants enable their friends and relatives back home to migrate by providing them with information about how to migrate, resources to facilitate movement, and assistance in finding jobs and housing.

Overseas Links and Radicalisation

These links are also important because they play a practical role in enabling the work of terrorist networks through the flow of money, ideas, people and know-how. They also tend to be highly localised; we know, for example, that there is a strong association for British Pakistani bombers with the Azad Kashmir district of Mirpur, and there are growing concerns about particular areas of Somalia and Yemen.[9] These patterns are repeated across Europe. For example, half of those arrested in France in the 1990s for global Islamist terrorism grew up in Oran, Algeria; members of the Montreal group grew up together in suburbs of Algiers; most of the Amsterdam-based Hofstad group came from Al-Hoceima in the Rif region of Morocco; and many of the Madrid bombers were from Tetouan in Morocco. This fits with Sageman and Leiken and Brooke’s research, which found that terrorist cells tend to be based on pre-induction characteristics (family, nationality, immigration status) rather than specifically needed skills.

Certain places are important because of their mythological resonance. For those who came of age in the 1990s, Bosnia was a rallying cry as well as a training ground for young jihadists. For the current generation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine play similar roles. These places not only inspire those who take action, but can engender tacit support and sympathy amongst the wider community.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Place does seem to matter in the radicalisation process, but we do not yet fully understand how and why. RUSI has launched a major new research project to answer this question. It will study the characteristics of the places most associated with convicted terrorists and compare them with a number of control sites around the country. It will seek to understand which characteristics are most important; and will look for patterns in the built environment and the nature of the communities’ links to other parts of the world. Finally the research will make recommendations about how resources and finances can be refocused to tackle terrorism at the spatial as well as the individual and group level.

Rachel Briggs
Senior Research Fellow, National Security and Resilience Department


[1] For more information about this new project, please contact Rachel Briggs:

[2] Neil Southern, ‘Territoriality, Alienation, and Loyalist Decommissioning: The case of the Shankill in Protestant West Belfast’, Terrorism and Political Violence (Vol. 20, No. 1, 2008), pp. 66-86.

[3] Ralf Brand, ‘From the Guest Editor: The Architecture of War and Peace’, Journal of Urban Technology (Vol. 16, No. 2, 2009), pp. 1-7.

[4] Fred Boal, ‘Encapsulation: Urban dimensions of national conflict’, in Seamus Dunn (ed.), Managing Divided Cities (Keele: Keele University Press, 1994), p. 35.

[5] ‘Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism: A concise report prepared for the European Commission’s expert group on violent radicalisation’, 15 May 2008

[6] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

[7] Robert S Leiken and Steven Brooke, ‘The Quantitative Analysis of Terrorism and Immigration: An Initial Exploration’, Terrorism and Political Violence (Vol. 18, No. 4, 2006), pp. 503-21.

[8] Myron Weiner, The Global Migration Crisis (London, Harper Collins, 1995), p. 28.

[9], ‘UK-US working closely on Yemen and Somalia terrorist threat’, 3 January 2010.


Rachel Briggs

Associate Fellow

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