UK Islamist groups find shelter under distinct security culture

The high concentration of Islamic activists in the UK has led some European and Middle Eastern governments to question the UK's commitment to the fight against Islamic terrorism.

In fact, these suspicions and misgivings go beyond governments, leading some independent experts to coin sensationalist names such as 'Londonistan' to refer to the UK's remarkably cosmopolitan capital.

Allegations that British intelligence enjoys a 'special relationship' with Islamists are not new and in fact can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, when many Iranian secular and nationalist constitutionalists dismissed Seyed Jamaledin Asadabadi (arguably the founder of modern political Islam) as a 'freemason' and a British agent.

These allegations resurfaced more than 70 years later, albeit this time directed at Ayatollah Khomeini, who was branded an 'English' agent by the remnants of the deposed Pahlavi monarchy. These bizarre allegations continue to this day; an article by Alan Peters (writing under a self-confessed pseudonym and claiming to have been involved in "intelligence and security matters in Iran" before the revolution) in the April 2004 edition of Defense and Foreign Affairs, claims that Khomeini's father was in fact an Englishman by the name William Richard Williamson, born in Bristol in 1872.

Conventional wisdom has it that the high concentration of Islamic activists in the UK is the direct product of a laissez-faire approach and attitude toward asylum and immigration.

There is some truth in this, not least because the UK is known for its hospitality to foreigners escaping terror and persecution. But there is a more complex and covert reason why the UK differs so radically from other Western governments in its approach to Islamic activists on its soil. To put it in its most simple form, it suits British interests to host foreign opposition groups (Islamic or otherwise). The presence of these groups enables the British government to gain some leverage over their governments, who are desperate to have these organisations expelled. Moreover British intelligence can learn a great deal about Islamic networks and groups by simply monitoring the communication and activities of these organisations. It follows that the high concentration of Islamic activism in the UK's capital and other major cities is rooted in the fusion of the country's distinct security culture and its historical hospitality to foreign activists.

Notwithstanding the sophistication of this uniquely British approach, some critics maintain that it could potentially increase the risk of the UK being targeted by Islamic terrorists. However, to date there is no consistently reliable evidence available to make this kind of connection. Indeed the vast majority of Islamic activism on British soil is peaceful and legitimate.

Broadly speaking there are two types of Islamic activism in the UK: an 'indigenous' form that seeks to gradually Islamise Britain in the hope of eventually turning it into an Islamic state and a collection of 'foreign' Islamic organisations who use the relative safety of the country to fight their regimes back home.

Indigenous Islamists

The relatively large Muslim community in the UK (which mostly originates from the Indian subcontinent) has given rise to a substantial number of 'indigenous' Islamic radicals who have been born and bred in the UK. Broadly speaking the indigenous Islamists have been drawn to two very different but inter-connected organisations, namely the pan-Islamic Hizbut Tahrir (Liberation Party)1 and the various groups that have been formed and dissolved by the Syrian cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed.

Hizbut Tahrir was founded by the Palestinian jurist, Taqieddin Nabahani in Jerusalem in 1953. The party espouses a pan-Islamic ideology and aspires to restore the 'Caliphate' and unite the entire Muslim world under a single Islamic state. In the 1960s and 1970s Hizbut Tahrir grew rapidly and spread to most countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The only Muslim country where it failed to establish a presence was Shia Iran. Interestingly, the organisation advocates a doctrine of non-violence and to date there has not been a single credible case where its activists have been linked to terrorism.

Despite its initial success, Hizbut Tahrir effectively split into several factions from the late 1970s onwards and for a while it seemed as though the organisation was heading toward dissolution.2 But it was revived as a global movement in the UK in 1986 by Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, who came to the UK in that year following his expulsion from Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the Jamestown Foundation, Bakri claimed that his activities in the period 1986-96 had not only created a powerful Hizbut Tahrir structure in Britain but had revived cells and structures throughout the Muslim world.3

Despite his charisma and prolific activism Bakri came into conflict with the organisation's leaders in Jordan and was effectively forced to leave Hizbut Tahrir. Upon leaving Hizbut Tahrir, Bakri established Al-Muhajiroun (the emigrants) and took away some of the younger and more radical activists of Hizbut Tahrir with him.

Bakri apparently dissolved Al-Muhajiroun in late 2004, but in any case his organisation had been operating under various names for several years before the dissolution.

Bakri's network in the UK is essentially comprised of around 200 hardcore activists and several thousand sympathisers. The vast majority of these activists and sympathisers are British-Pakistanis, with British-Bangladeshis comprising around five per cent of the network. Hizbut Tahrir meanwhile has around 3,000 members in the UK, most of whom are inactive. The group has consistently refused to reveal membership details, citing security fears.

Although Bakri's organisation and the British branch of Hizbut Tahrir have some common structural and ideological features, they are nonetheless very different. Bakri's network is essentially comprised of young men who try to grab media headlines with sensationalist events and actions. For instance, on the first anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Al-Muhajiroun distributed flyers glorifying the attacks as a "towering day in world history". Hizbut Tahrir on the other hand is essentially an organisation of young intellectuals who try to develop a gradual and calculated influence inside the Muslim community and wider British society.

Although the UK hosts Islamic organisations from practically all four corners of the globe, three nationalities have assumed particular importance over the years. These are Algerian, Libyan and Saudi Islamic opposition movements.

The influx of Algerian Islamic militants into the UK in the early 1990s was a direct result of the coup of January 1992 that prevented the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from assuming power following its electoral victory. The presence of the Algerian radicals, many of whom were connected to the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armee - GIA), incensed the French intelligence services who consistently lobbied British security to detain and extradite many of the Algerians to France. The refusal of the British authorities to succumb to over-zealous French counter-terrorist techniques led some people in France to make the implausible accusation that British intelligence had struck a 'deal' with the Algerian radicals.

Libyan Islamic militants arrived in the UK in 1995 following their friendly expulsion from Sudan. Apparently, several hundred militants connected to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) arrived in the UK between September and December 1995, and were allowed to establish an effective logistical base on British soil. Given the sheer numbers involved and the extent of their activities, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British authorities, at the very least, turned a blind eye to these developments. In fact it is very likely that British intelligence actively aided the Libyan militants; after all, seven years after Lockerbie, anti-Ghadaffi feeling was still running at a fever pitch in the UK. However, allegations that MI6 jointly plotted the assassination of Ghadaffi with the LIFG in February 1996 are vehemently denied by former Libyan militants.4

The Saudis, like the Algerians, arrived in the early 1990s. Among the half-dozen individuals who aspired to assume leadership over the opposition to the House of Saud, two personalities stand out in particular: Saad al-Faqih and Mohammed al-Massari. Faqih and Massari initially worked together under the rubric of the Committee in Defence of Legitimate Rights, but eventually fell out over a number of important issues. While Massari pursued the politics of pan-Islam, Faqih has been careful to exclusively focus his activism on Saudi Arabia. The latter heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which despite its small size and meagre resources, is considered a credible threat to the

Saudi government.

The case of the Saudi Islamist oppositionists illustrates the sometimes awkward aspect of British policy. This was made all too apparent in 1996 when the British government - under pressure from the Saudis - tried to expel Massari. However the government was eventually thwarted by the UK judiciary and Massari was allowed to stay in the UK.

In the final analysis what is sensationally referred to as 'Londonistan' is in fact a carefully controlled environment that generally works in the interests of the British intelligence services.

While the risk of an Al-Qaeda attack in the UK is all too real, it is difficult to see how modifications of the current policy toward both indigenous Islamists and foreign organisations can minimise the threat.

Mahan Abedin is editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organisation specialising in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia

1 The full name of this organisation is 'Hizbut Tahrir al-Islami' or 'Islamic Liberation Party'.

2 It is interesting to note that the leader of Hizbut Tahrir in Britain, Jalaluddin Patel, in an interview with the Jamestown Foundation, denied the party had ever experienced serious splits in its 50-year history. Jamestown's Spotlight on Terror, Vol. 2, Issue 8, 11 August 2004.

3 Spotlight on Terror, Vol. 2, Issue 5, 23 March 2004.

4 Spotlight on Terror, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 22 March 2005.

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