Her Majesty's Secret Service

Her Majesty's Secret Service

Mini Teaser: 7/7 tested how the British cope with Islamist terrorism. Were they found wanting?

by Author(s): Steven N. SimonJonathan Stevenson

SHORTLY AFTER the Madrid bombings in March 2004, British security services seized a 1,000-pound cache of fertilizer used to make explosives in a raid on a self-storage facility in West London. This discovery prompted the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Home Office jointly to undertake a detailed examination--entitled "Young Muslims and Extremism" and leaked to the London Times--of the security risks posed by the UK's 1.6 million-strong Muslim population. The study drew heavily on the assessments of MI5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency.

The study's findings were highly disheartening from Her Majesty's Government's point of view. They revealed that jihadi groups were heavily recruiting educated British Muslims. Also cited were Muslims' social marginalization and a perceived anti-Islamic bias of British foreign and security policies--especially with respect to the UK's participation in the U.S.-led Iraq War and the police authorities' disproportionate arrests and detentions of Muslims--as key contributors to the inclination of some toward extremism and violence. The study identified two extremist recruiting organizations with high profiles in Britain: Hizb ut-Tahrir and its offshoot, Al-Muhajiroun. Both call for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. Al-Muhajiroun has additionally designated as apostate any Muslim entering the employ of the British state, extolled the 9/11 bombers as the "Magnificent 19", and endorsed the hostage-taking and massacre of children in Beslan.1 Further, the FCO/Home Office paper cited two primary policy goals: first, "to isolate extremists within the Muslim community, and to provide support to moderates", and second, "to help prevent young Muslims from becoming ensnared or bullied into participation in terrorist or extremist activity." At the time the study was leaked, the UK government had already taken some measures to implement these policies. These included ministerial outreach to British Muslim community groups, briefings to Muslim representatives, and discussions with Muslim youth and student organizations; rigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws; distribution of a (purportedly) well-received "think again" CD-ROM explaining UK policies and other "mainstreaming" literature; training programs for foreign imams to give them a better understanding of problems faced by British Muslims; and tailoring financial instruments to Islamic strictures to facilitate property ownership. The British government, however, decided that UK policy needed "further consideration", which meant a concerted program with covert as well as overt elements that was "fundamentally cross-governmental . . . and properly costed and resourced", to both integrate and co-opt British Muslims and reduce their threat. A program emerged, codenamed Operation Contest.

The idea was that MI5 would lead an all-out interagency effort to win Muslim hearts and minds while also more directly preventing imminent radicalization. The FCO and the Home Office continued to conduct very public community relations and anti-discrimination efforts and added focus groups to their repertoire. But MI5 and other law-enforcement and intelligence agencies also dispatched hundreds of undercover officers in regional "intelligence cells" or "Muslim Contact Units" to monitor suspected terrorists and mapped the "terrorist career path" in order to develop a comprehensive "interventions strategy" whereby government agencies would confront Muslims at "key trigger points" before they were drawn into the radical fold. The heightened British effort did not stop the horrific terrorist bombings in London on July 7 or the attempted bombings on July 21, both of which were committed by upstart groups composed mainly of British Muslims who subscribe to the worldview of Osama bin Laden. Still, there is little doubt that the mobilization of MI5 has better prepared the UK to deal with a security problem that, given the concentration of Muslims in Europe and their ability to navigate the region quietly and relatively unobtrusively, stands to become even more acute. Europe, including the UK, is nearing a tipping point at which localized Muslim insurgencies could become a fact of life. After all, the population of the European Union includes roughly 15 million Muslims (about 4 percent), and that component is set to double by 2025--a consequence of both immigration and high fertility rates.

Europe's Crisis

EUROPEAN MUSLIM terrorists are increasingly homegrown, and European intelligence agencies generally agree that most European jihadists (roughly two-thirds) are upwardly mobile. Consistent with this consensus, the UK's study notes that while extremist recruits can be underachievers who may have resorted to criminality, the other likely pool consists of university undergraduates with technical qualifications. Historically, university students have typically been the first to be radicalized--even in groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Red Brigades that style themselves as proletarian. In the British context, where the central problem is social marginalization, Muslims moving up the social ladder are more likely to run into significant discrimination or racism as they venture outside their own religious and ethnic circles.

Clearly, while Muslims in Europe are disproportionately unemployed, imprisoned and undereducated, government programs maintaining a high level of education will not necessarily diminish terrorism. European jihadism turns on more deeply rooted structural factors. After World War II, Muslims immigrated to Europe to meet reconstruction labor needs on the Continent and found life agreeable enough to encourage their extended families to join them. But the increased pressure on European states to employ and house this second wave made many Europeans wary of the Muslim diaspora. When decolonization produced another surge of Muslim immigrants, this attitude combined with colonial condescension and cultural prejudice to raise the social barriers to integration and assimilation. Segregation and underachievement ensued. Furthermore, ties between many second- and third-generation Muslims and their home countries have attenuated. They find themselves in an unsettling limbo, whereby they are not fully integrated into Europe but have no affinity for their ancestral language, culture or politics. Older European Muslims might have simply become insular, but younger ones--like the London bombers--are more prone to search for alternative identities that feel more authentic. More recent Muslim economic migrants to Europe--as several of the Madrid bombers appeared to be--may encounter more depressed material prospects than anticipated, as well as bias, and experience a similar feeling of anomie.

Finding their home countries either unavailable or politically or economically unaccommodating and their host countries inhospitable, then, many European Muslims seek a home in the umma (that is, the notional single nation comprising Muslim believers worldwide), where Bin Laden's worldview now flourishes independently of his personal fate or actions. While it is true that the Al-Qaeda leadership gave the Madrid and London bombings its blessing because of Spanish and British participation in the Iraq War, more significant is the likelihood that the bombings would have occurred regardless of that leadership's specific sanction.

On top of adding high-octane fuel to the jihadi argument that Western bellicosity warrants the mobilization of Muslims, the Iraq issue has led many Middle Eastern governments worried about their respective "streets" to distance themselves publicly from the United States and its allies and has stoked secular European anti-American anger and rejection of war. Iraq, then, is a triply potent motivational factor for European Muslims, among whom the war has been broadly and deeply unpopular. The irony is that the European political bond against the war has now crossed ethnic lines. It is true, as French scholar Olivier Roy has noted, that other conflicts (for example, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya) and more general circumstances (structural marginalization) gave rise to European Muslims' radicalization and violent activity before the Iraq War occurred; non-Muslim European anti-Americanism also predated Iraq. But Iraq confirms and intensifies the jihadi narrative of Muslim humiliation and subjugation by presenting the acute antagonism of Americans killing Arabs and offering the possibility of a triumphant moment during which a Muslim can kill an American in battle. So far, at most only 200 to 300 European Muslims are believed to have joined the jihad in Iraq, and few returnees have surfaced back in Europe. Those who do return, however, will have unique cachet and likely will increase terrorist recruitment, capability and activity.

America's Advantage--and Risk

AS A GROUP, Muslims in the United States have shown no sign of violent protest, let alone terrorism. The U.S. Muslim population, though multi-ethnic and variable in terms of income, is generally prosperous and assimilated. Whereas European Muslims' average income is generally below the poverty line, that of American Muslims is slightly above the national average. Their reaction to September 11 was, on balance, positive and patriotic. Nevertheless, the domestic aftermath of the attacks also seemed to imply that a low religious profile was better for their health, that they couldn't take their civil rights for granted and that their interests were contingent on the absence of serious future attacks within the United States. They view the war in Iraq skeptically, believing that it was not about weapons of mass destruction but rather about punishing Arabs for September 11, finding an easy target, oil, replacing Saudi Arabia as a regional platform for hegemonic U.S. power, and strengthening support for Israel. While most U.S. Muslims voted for President George W. Bush in 2000, they swung decisively to Senator John Kerry in 2004. U.S. Muslims now perceive the implementation of the Patriot Act as draconian, regard the influence of Jews on U.S. foreign policy as inordinate, and lament the absence of official American sympathy for the victimization of Muslims generally. To American Muslims, U.S. democracy promotion is hypocritical and lacks credibility, given that many U.S. Muslims have been denied due process in the name of counter-terrorism and that the United States has tolerated illiberal Muslim autocrats like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, diaspora American Muslims have not tilted toward insularity and violence. Indeed, they have generally come around to the view that terrorist-related activity is impious because it hurts the wider Muslim community. They are not mobilizing in mass dissent.

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