Tackling Homegrown Terror in Britain

Image: Francis Tyers/ Creative Commons
What will it take to stop homegrown terror in the United Kingdom?

The suicide bomber behind the Manchester blasts was 22-year-old Salman Ramadan Abedi from Falowfield, South Manchester. Yesterday’s attack highlights one of Britian’s biggest problems – Islamic radicalisation and home grown terror.

The Israeli Embassy Bombings of 1994 in Kensington, West London, that injured 20, saw five Palestinians arrested of whom two were found guilty – Samar Alami and Kawad Botmeh. Both of them were jailed for 20 years. One of them was a lecturer in the London Metropolitan University; the other a chemical engineering graduate from the University College of London – both of them well educated and residents of the United Kingdom. One thing was certain – they did not act alone. Scotland Yard was certain someone else had carried out the bombing.

After their conviction, doubts emerged over whether they were the right terrorists. Organisations such as Amnesty International expressed concerns over their conviction. Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, led the campaign for their release and to overtuen their conviction. In February 2013, he wrote to the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitain University supporting Botmeh’s bid to become Governor after release from prison. The letter read:

I supported Jawad’s case inside parliament and outside including meetings/demonstrations; Jawad’s case is, I believe, a miscarriage of justice.

In November that year, the Intelligence Services Act was passed. It was the beginning of Britain’s electronic surveillance state. A decade later, London faced its first suicide bombing attack. The day, July 7, 2005, was the worst terror attack on British soil yet. Three of the perpetrators were educated in Leeds; all four were British citizens. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the ringleader, was a quiet university student, once interviewed in 2002 for the Times educational supplement. He described his colleagues as saying his college was the best they had known. He played football with the lads, and nobody ever knew his religion.

What makes the London bombers different was their seeming indigenous nature – a great deal of their indoctrination and planning took place in the United Kingdom. A research article by Aidan Kirby published in the journal “Conflict and Terrorism” looked at this facet of the bombers as “self-starters”.

Something changed in Khan. He took too many days off from work – and lost his job as a lecturer. He took a trip to Pakistan, his ancestral home, and everything changed. He grew a beard. With a few other Pakistani youth, he found a connection – a shared sense of slow radicalization. They were banned from several mosques, and frequented a bookstore peddling graphic videos of Muslim killings in Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. These videos were aimed at inciting rage, part of what sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar calls humiliation by proxy, after conducting a series of interviews with convicted terrorists in European prisons.

Khosrokhavar found that many of the terrorists had a common notion of what the West meant – an oppressor of Muslims worldwide. In watching the videos that depict their killings in Chechnya or Iraq, one was likely to feel victimized themselves. Kirby describes it as ‘vicarious suffering’.

Understanding why and how home grown terror ferments it ideology is important. Perpetrators of terror shift nationalities and affiliations, while adapting to technological changes.

The role of digital media in creating extremists cannot be understated. Though several years have passed since the Internet came to life, security forces still cannot hold a monopoly over information. The knee-jerk reaction to a terror attack is to shut down radical online resources. But according to terrorism consultant Evan F.Kohlmann, these moves are at best temporary.

(Image: Mark Stevenson) The Hamara Healthy Living Centre in Leeds

Khan and his childhood friends started hanging out at the Hamara Healthy Living Center. In Beeston (a suburb in Leeds), it was known as the ‘Al-Qaeda Gym’. It was a place where they could pore over maps of the London Tube far from the prying eye. By then, a few local mosques were aware of their radicalization – having barred them from their premises.

They carried out their attacks on July 5, killing 56 including themselves. Soon after, the Terrorism Act of 2006 was passed, widening the scope for investigators to prosecute terrorists. For it had become clear by now that there were many in Britain, particularly preachers, who were influencing British citizens into becoming radicals.

These included figures like Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary, who had been delivering radicalizing speeches since 1999. Up to 100 people associated with him went on to perform acts of terror – yet he was only arrested in 2015 (sentenced in 2016). Among his demands were calls for Sharia law in Britain.

His propaganda travelled print, electronic and spoken mediums. Anjem appeared on television so often that he has his own page on IMDB. Extremist literature, distributed by the Al-Muhajiruoun organization, found its way into the hands of Michael Adebolajo.

Lee Rigby
(Image: Ministry of Defence/ Open Government License) Murdered British soldier Lee Rigby

Along with an accomplice, Michael Adebowale, they hacked a British soldier to death in broad daylight on May 22, 2013. Both were converts to Islam, born and brought up in the United Kingdom. It was an act that anyone with a cleaver could have committed. Terrorism had changed from an intricate, global scheme to a locally coordinated affair of minutes.

The rise of ISIS and the even greater tightening of national security under then Home Minister Theresa May increased the tendency of home grown terrorist to plan locally. But many still chose to fight abroad.

One of the biggest instruments of terror is communication technologies and material that fostered radicalisation. Many have accessed material online, and trained themselves. This is a vehicle for their ‘humiliation by proxy’, an unending experience, fermented both by propaganda and media reports of bombings in the middle-east. FBI studies have found that American military operations were the biggest motivations for many terrorists – who could read about the same in major newspapers.

By February 2017, about 850 recruits were estimated to have fought in Jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq – who hailed from Britain. It’s several times the numbers reported from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, Britain has more internal terrorists than it can track. According to an article in the Economist, up to 3,000 British citizens are suspected of terrorist-activities by MI5 – but the agency can only monitor 40 of them on a 24/7 basis at any one time.

Kohlmann’s 2008 report, “Homegrown” Terrorists: Theory and Cases in the War on Terror’s Newest Front” concludes with a call to use the internet as effectively as terrorist networks have done so. It’s sound advice – as merely banning websites won’t stop recruiters from preying on the vulnerable. As the Economist wrote in the wake of this year’s Westminister Attacks:

The best technology in the world is no substitute for the human intelligence that comes from communities that do not feel alienated from the state.

No immigration ban can stop the terrorist cells who already thrive in the UK. No public purge or display of violence can do so either – as such acts only add to the sense of victimization. Combating homegrown radicalisation requires a counter-extremist effort. But what is also needed is that mainstream narratives stop enforcing a culture of victimization.

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