4 July 2007

Widening the net lets the bombers slip through

[This is my piece in this week's Independent on Sunday. However, note that this is a fairly conventional analysis, and there are deeper questions, only marginally alluded to here, that need to be asked. Hope to be able to go into those in due course.]

Perhaps we have been too busy congratulating ourselves. The pre-emption and prosecution of dangerous Islamist terrorists in the UK have encouraged a false sense of success. But the police discovery of two "potentially viable" car bombs in central London on Friday and the alarming events at Glasgow airport yesterday show how wrong we would be to be complacent.

The makeshift gas canister devices planted outside a London nightclub echo the very al-Qa'ida plots which police and security officials triumphantly declared shut down. The five fertiliser plotters convicted in April planned to blow up West End nightclubs. Dhiren Barot, who pleaded guilty last November to conspiring to commit mass murder on both sides of the Atlantic, drafted plans to explode gas and explosives packed in limousines.

So there is every reason to believe that the extremist Islamist networks that incubated these cells are fully operational, and actively planning new terrorist attacks. MI5 spokesmen have said as much, confirming that nearly 2,000 Britons linked to al-Qa'ida are under surveillance, with 30 potential terrorist plots being tracked. This is a staggering figure. It suggests that we have a real problem of Islamist radicalisation in Britain. But there are caveats. Is this demonisation by association?

That was pretty much the question addressed on Radio 4's Today programme when London Mayor Ken Livingstone insisted that the vast majority of British Muslims are law-abiding citizens who have nothing to do with extremist Islamism. Radicalisation, he said, was really down to two key factors: anger at Anglo-American involvement in Iraq, and social disenfranchisement. Young Muslims, he noted, are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than others.

But the fault lines in this approach are plain for all to see. As Ed Husain, a British Muslim ex-jihadist, said, while Islamists do have some "legitimate grievances", they believe that all engagement with British democracy, "entering Parliament, creating lobby groups" and so on, is haraam [forbidden]. Husain urged that we need to condemn and directly tackle extremist Islamism, a "confrontational and violent ideology" inspiring young, angry Muslims to become terrorists.

The Husain-Livingstone dichotomy represents the two polarised extremes typical of the way Islamist terrorism is viewed in this country. On the one hand, we have extreme "liberals" who fail to appreciate the extent of the problem of radicalisation. Anger at the Iraq war and social disenfranchisement are factors afflicting millions, perhaps even the majority, of the non-Muslim British public, let alone Muslims. We need something more to explain why some British Muslims want to conduct horrifying acts of mass murder in their own country.

Husain falls in line with the sort of cluttered thinking promoted by pundits such as Melanie Phillips, who paint all Muslim organisations in the UK, from the Muslim Council of Britain to the Islamic Foundation of Leicester, with a single brush-stroke as extremists who cultivate a terrorist mindset. He forgets that it was these very British Muslim communities and organisations that were begging police to arrest Abu Hamza during his reign of terror at the Finsbury Park mosque, and who went ignored for more than half a decade.

Both these extremisms are equally unhelpful in the overall "struggle against violent extremism". The problem of radicalisation cannot be solved by viewing the entire British Muslim community as a potential fifth column.

So how can it be solved? One thing that Ed and Ken agreed on was that our security policies are seriously misconceived. "That's 2,000 out of two million," noted Livingstone, warning against equating a minority under surveillance with the British Muslim community at large. "The police response is wrong," cautioned Husain."We need an ideological assault on Islamism." They are both right. Government thinking has been one-track. The net must not be wide enough, it is presumed, thus the drive to widen it further by exponentially increasing anti-terror powers. Of the 1,166 arrests of, mostly, Muslim suspects under anti-terror laws since 9/11, the result to date is only 40 convictions. According to the BBC, an Asian person is 30 per cent more likely to be stopped than a white person. This is hardly effective or efficient policing.

Overwhelmingly, the fall-out from widening the net since 9/11 has been the unwarranted criminalisation of innocent communities. And the Government proposes only to widen the net further. The result is only going to be an increase in the fall-out, with only a negligible impact on curbing the terror threat.

The solution then is not to allow an entire community of two million British Muslims to feel criminalised, but rather to tighten the net to focus on the specific extremist Islamist groups whom we know are directly involved in al-Qa'ida related terrorist activity. Those groups have still not been shut down. Every major al-Qa'ida plot in the UK since 9/11 - including the fertiliser, gas limo and 7/7 plots - has involved associates of the organisation formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, chaired by extremist preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed, currently exiled to Lebanon.

Although banned, al-Muhajiroun continues to operate under the name al-Sabiqoon al-Awwaloon, forming at least 81 front groups and support networks across the UK. Yet the response from Peter Clarke, the Metropolitan Police anti-terror chief, to questions on Panorama about al-Muhajiroun was that the group "did not feature in the significant part at all".
These groups don't just spring up spontaneously from the ground, they are fundamentally interconnected. The ongoing failure to recognise the significance of Bakri's network, and others linked to it, in the radicalisation process is down to MI5 lacking sufficient analytical expertise.
According to Lieutenant- Colonel Nigel Wylde, a former Army intelligence officer in Northern Ireland and the Ministry of Defence official responsible for Army command and control, although doubling in staff size by nearly 50 per cent, there has been insufficient parallel investment in training and analysis, sacrificing quality for quantity.

The police and security services therefore need to develop mechanisms to engage with and include the resources and expertise of the British Muslim community in tackling Islamist terrorism, rather than alienating them. And this means that existing personnel and resources need to be focused far more efficiently. Failure to do so will guarantee another terrorist attack on our soil.


  1. I am appalled at the gullibility of our journalists. Did anybody ever show us the slightest shred of plausible evidence that there was a terrorist attack in Glasgow at all?

    Smells sharply of mass hypnosis again...

  2. Currently I am writing a Masters dissertation on British counter terrorism responses and to what extent they compromise it's human right record. I was wondering if you would perhaps give me your own opinion to this question:

    There have been calls for Britain to withdraw from the ECHR and to suspend the necessary liberties to ensure security requirements can be met (migrationwatchuk report). Do you think this withdrawl would be an effective step to take in the interests of protecting the state?


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