Tackling the terrorist threat within the UK

  • Recent alleged terrorist plots and dozens of arrests have given rise to the fear that the UK is home to thousands of terrorist sympathisers. The context in which these figures are measured is vital to an understanding of jihadist history in the UK.
  • Much work needs to be done to understand the grievances of Muslims who feel alienated by governmental policies. It is only by addressing these problems that the long-term threat can be nullified.
  • There is mounting evidence to support the British Government's claim that more terrorist attacks are inevitable against the UK. Reports indicate that the number of individuals involved in terrorism in the UK is now running into thousands. This estimate was given in a recent BBC documentary by the head of Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorism branch, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke. While it is one of the most authoritative public statements to come to emerge regarding the UK terrorist situation, it is not an observation that should come as a surprise.

    The last indication the government gave assessing the scale of the problem was in 2005 in a leaked Home and Foreign Office dossier entitled Young Muslims and extremism, which observed: "The number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than one per cent."

    This very loose way of presenting the scale equated to less than 16,000 individuals (one per cent of the total UK Muslim population) and referred explicitly to those engaged in, or supporting, terrorist activity at home or abroad. Furthermore, an assessment of that scale could hardly be considered 'extremely small'.

    In 2004, a leaked document put the number of active supporters of Al-Qaeda in the UK at 'up to 10,000'. There was no clear definition of what 'active' precisely means. However, Clarke qualified his recent comment by stating that those estimated thousands included direct and indirect supporters and financiers.

    How can these large numbers, although estimates, be explained? The answer lies in not restricting the interpretation of these levels as a solely four-year-old phenomenon arising from the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, and the subsequent Afghan and Iraqi wars, but rather as an extension of a movement that has existed at an active level within the UK and Europe for decades. The 'Londonistan' label, applied derisively (particularly by the French, frustrated by the UK's refusal to heed warnings and its willingness to accommodate individuals wanted by the French), seemed well deserved when British Muslims travelled first to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union and then moved to Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia as mujahideen.

    The UK jihadist history

    The extent of extremist activity in the UK was known and, in some cases, supported by the UK intelligence and security services. This was particularly so during the Afghan war (1979 to 1988) when the Secret Intelligence Service and CIA - through Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Agency - ran training camps in Pakistan for mujahideen from across the globe, including the UK, preparing them to join the fight against the Soviet Union. This war was enormously significant in the development of the global jihadist movement and provided a level of organisation in global recruiting and ideological development that continues to serve Al-Qaeda and its franchises around the world.

    Later, in the 1990s, radical Islamist groups were recruiting young British Muslims to fight Serbian forces in Bosnia. The early to mid-1990s saw the emergence of the 24-hour news era and the creation of new media channels, which provided access to a wide array of information all too vividly portraying the brutal reality of the conflict. This, in addition to the relatively easy access to the theatre, provided material for jihadist recruiters. The number of active fighters and sympathisers swelled during this time.

    The transition from mujahideen to terrorist and the distinction between them is unclear. It may be more useful to think of the transition as one of methodology rather than motivation or objectives. It should not be doubted or come as a surprise, that the shift from organised guerrilla fighting to planned terrorist attacks can be made within the ideological context in which the planners and recruiters operate.

    This ideology is based on a defence of Muslim populations and lands driven by an extreme salafist interpretation of Islam that rejects foreign influences. That such beliefs could then easily be turned towards other foreign presences in Muslim lands, as well as those in the rest of the world, is not altogether an impossible feat.

    A great number of those who travelled to Bosnia and Chechnya have since returned to the UK and Europe, and their agendas and associations are now of great concern. Andrew Rowe, a Muslim convert who cut his jihadist teeth in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, was jailed in 2005 on two counts of possessing an article for the purposes of terrorism. His associates, travel plans and incriminating articles all strongly indicated a credible involvement in the global jihad and an impending attack.

    Furthermore, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen, who was also the suspected recruiter of the 11 September 2001 ringleader Mohammed Atta, was a former fighter in the Bosnian Mujahideen.

    The turning point

    The global jihadist movement turned against the UK as a direct consequence of Britain's support for, and heavy involvement in, the Afghan and Iraqi wars, and what is seen as a 'pillion-passenger' approach to Israel. This is supported by pre- and post-war government assessments, as well as numerous research pieces.

    Therefore, the Iraqi war, which was viewed by many with unpopularity and cynicism, not only presented a valuable opportunity to recruit latent and new members to the global jihad, but it also turned the UK into a direct target. In fact, it influenced a whole new generation of radicals, increasingly disaffected by the UK Government's perceived indifference to the plight of Muslims in Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya, believing that the UK position was as overtly anti-Muslim as the US.

    After 11 September 2001, security services across Europe frantically tried to ascertain the level of involvement of European networks in terrorist attacks in an effort to prevent assaults on Europe. This in turn marked the clear end of any informal tolerance of jihadi activity and their recruitment. This only further alienated the UK and Europe as enemies of the Islamic movement. This was later exemplified in January 2005 in a statement by Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, who threatened 'horrendous' consequences if the then new anti-terrorism laws were not relaxed. He called upon his audience to 'join the global Islamic camp against the global crusade camp'. In effect, he indicated that it was time for British Muslims to take sides and make the UK a target.

    Complicity and tolerance

    The attacks of 7 July 2005 and previous foiled attacks are, in part, consequences of the long period of complicity and tolerance in the UK of Islamist extremists.

    The necessary ending of this informal agreement in the period following 11 September 2001 was further compounded by UK involvement in Iraq, which added further motivation to disaffected Muslims in the UK to at least sympathise with increasingly radical views, if not to become involved. The broad, non-violent attitudes of victimisation and disenfranchisement within Muslim communities are critical as they provide a context and environment in which further radicalisation can take place at the hands of recruiters and propagandists.

    With personnel spread far and wide - mechanisms and knowledge in place for the recruitment and radicalisation of young Muslims, as well as the great potential for new members to engage in such an organisation - the threat facing the UK is significant. In the short term, the solution can only be prevention through better intelligence, improved physical security and better crisis management.

    The longer-term approach, however, is considerably more difficult, but essential since short-term measures cannot, by definition and given the scale, solve the problem. A return to the approach so criticised by Israel, Europeans and others where the UK accommodates individuals and groups engaged in or supporting violent efforts abroad, is not viable since the damage is effectively done, and would result in overwhelming opposition from allies and neighbours.

    This long-term effort can only be achieved through better representation of broad moderate views, reflected in policy, which can ultimately undermine the rationale for violent action.

    Without intending to be partisan, the current government is unlikely to be in a position to achieve this convincingly, at least in its current form - lacking the credibility among the Muslim community to build necessary bridges.

    While the current threat to the UK may have the appearance of being a new phenomenon, the effective 'infrastructure' has existed here for many years.

    Through a global effort by Al-Qaeda (and franchises) to expand its activities in conjunction with the UK's more recent foreign policy directives, the danger that was harboured effectively turned against the country. With no immediate way to reverse this process, the UK has a long struggle on its hands in which the police, security services and political government must act coherently and intelligently.

    Finding effective ways to mitigate the short-term risk, while not endangering the long-term solution, should be an over-arching concern in dealing with this threat from within.

    Garry Hindle is head of Terrorism and International Homeland Security and Resilience at RUSI.

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