The British connection
As three Birmingham-based British Muslims face prison sentences after being convicted of terror charges, Anthony Tucker-Jones charts the continuing threat posed by Britain’s home-grown jihadists
While Islamic radicals are not the only terrorism risk faced by the UK, individuals inspired by al-Qaeda represent the greatest and most unpredictable of threats. Few people realise that the majority of the UK’s terrorists are home grown, and that the UK is indeed something of a centre for the development of terrorists who then export their wares.
The recent trial of members of a Birmingham-based Muslim terrorist cell who planned to surpass the terror atrocities of 7/7 demonstrates that despite the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the threat of extremist terrorism has not gone away. Birmingham ringleaders Ashik Ali, Irfan Khalid and Irfan Naseer, who had planned to die as suicide bombers, now face long prison sentences. They were convicted on 12 counts of preparing acts of terrorism between December 2010 and September 2011, when they were arrested.
Militant British Muslims are now also going to Syria rather than just Pakistan and Somalia to gain combat experience. The worry is that Islamist volunteers who have gone to fight against the Assad regime could return home to wage jihad – although, to date, only a few British Muslims returning to the UK have been arrested (for their role in kidnapping a British photographer in Syria last year).
There is a certain irony in the fact that Islamic militants are radicalised because they see Islam not as a religion, but as a political system. They view the secular and the sectarian as one. They believe that Islamic law – or “sharia law” – should be state law and that the Muslim community, known as the “ummah”, should be joined irrespective of political boundaries. This political ideology is known as Islamism and its adherents are Islamists, ranging from fanboys to full jihadists who are prepared to die in the name of holy war.
Interestingly, almost 70 per cent of Islamist-related offences in the UK to date have been carried out by British nationals. More than a quarter of such offences were committed by either British Pakistanis or individuals born in Pakistan. In the past, radicalisation was fed in part by the Advice and Reform Committee, the London-based media liaison office for Osama bin Laden between 1994 and 1998. The committee was virulently opposed to the Saudi Arabian monarchy and its relationship with the West. The Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, also operating in London, shared the same aim of overthrowing the Saudi royal family. Both organisations were clearly Islamist in their goals and helped sow the seeds of the British Islamist connection.
For a while, the Finsbury Park Mosque was an epicentre for Islamist recruitment. Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was its imam between 1997 and 2003, created a network for the recruitment and planning of terrorist activities. Omar Bakri Mohammed was a key figure too, as the founder of al-Muhajiroun in the mid-1990s, which led to the spin-off groups al-Ghurabaa and Sunnah Wal Jama’aah. The late Anwar al-Awlaki, leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, also played a key role in the incitement of British Islamists.
Since the 1990s, there has been a steady increase in the number of individuals convicted in Britain for inciting racial hatred, planning and funding terrorism, inciting murder for terrorism purposes over the internet and conducting terror attacks in the name of Islam. Alarmingly, a total of 213 charges were successfully pressed in 133 separate cases between 1999 and 2010.
Detecting these individuals is often a tough job; two thirds of those who committed Islamist-related offences during this time had no discernible links to proscribed terror organisations. Those that did were connected to either al-Qaeda or al-Muhajiroun. And perhaps more surprisingly, two thirds of those convicted had not been to terrorist training camps.
Between 1999 and 2010 there were eight major terrorism plots in the UK resulting in either an attack or convictions. There was only one successful attack – the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 – but it has not been for want of trying on the part of Islamist terrorists. Seven other major plots were thwarted or were unsuccessful: the 2001 “shoe bomber” plot; the 2003 “ricin bomb” plot; the 2004 “fertiliser bomb” and “dirty bomb” plots; the 21/7 plot of 2005; the 2006 transatlantic “liquid bomb” plot; and the Glasgow and London attacks of 2007. Since then, the list has continued to grow.
Khalid Shahid is thought to have become the first British suicide bomber in the mid-1990s. Fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he detonated grenades after Northern Alliance fighters tried to arrest him. Later that decade, the al-Muhajiroun group came to notice when one of its members, Amer Mirza, was convicted of attempting to petrol bomb a Territorial Army base in London.
Moinul Abedin was the first person convicted in the UK of planning an Islamist-related terror attack, in January 2002. Shortly afterwards, in April that year, Iftikhar Ali became the first person to be convicted of inciting racial hatred after distributing al-Muhajiroun leaflets calling for a holy war against the Jews. Brahim Benmerzouga and Baghdad Meziane were the first people to be convicted of funding Islamist-related terror activities, including al-Qaeda.
It was on 7 July 2005 that Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain and Germaine Lindsay became the first suicide bombers to successfully attack the UK. Two years later, Abdul Rahman was convicted for disseminating terrorist material; and in 2008, eight people were convicted with providing or attending terrorist training as part of a terror cell. Also that year, Simon Keeler became the first British Caucasian Muslim convert to face Islamist terror charges, while Rangzieb Ahmed and Habib Ahmed were the first individuals in the UK to be convicted of being members of proscribed organisations – in this case al-Qaeda and Harakat ul-Mujahideen. In 2010, Labour MP Stephen Timms was almost murdered by Roshonara Choudhry in the first attempt by someone inspired by al-Qaeda to kill a public figure in the UK.
While the threat remains at home, some British Muslims have also gone abroad to fight jihad. Also in 2010, British citizen Abdul Jabbar was killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan. Mahmoud Abu Rideh, who had been under a control order in the UK, was killed in Afghanistan during a missile strike, and Luton-based Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly carried out a suicide bombing in the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
The Metropolitan Police claimed in 2005 that some 3,000 British Muslims had gone to Afghan training camps over the preceding decade. Three years later, the Security Service revealed that more than 4,000 British Muslims had attended terrorist training camps in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Between 1997 and 2000, it has been reported that some 200 British Muslims fought in countries such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan. It has also been estimated that 50 British Muslims from the Finsbury Park Mosque have been killed on jihad abroad. Omar Bakri Mohammed once claimed that 1,800 Muslims were being recruited in the UK every year for military service, although this seems like wishful thinking.
In June 2005 it was claimed that 70 British Muslims had gone to Iraq to fight against coalition forces, and the following year it was alleged that 150 had joined the “British” brigade fighting with the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq. Since then, British Muslims have also travelled to Somalia to join the Islamist fighters of al-Shabaab. Similarly, British nationals have travelled to Yemen to be trained by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, where they are now serving with Islamist factions supporting the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Inevitably, some if not all of these men will come home.
The fact that there has not been a successful jihadist attack in the UK for eight years is no grounds for complacency; the Security Service thwarts roughly one major plot every year. After London, the city of Birmingham now is the second worst place for producing home-grown jihadists. While the recently uncovered Birmingham terror cell had an air of Walter Mitty about its farcical activities, had its plans come to fruition, the results could have been devastating. The plotters wanted to turn Birmingham into a war zone. One wonders if it is time to rethink the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, as it is clearly not stopping the recruitment of would-be Islamists at grassroots level.
What is quite remarkable is that, after at least a decade and a half of Muslim militant extremists plotting on the streets of Britain, there has not been a corresponding rise in right-wing extremism. Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik showed what can happen when an anti-Muslim message comes to a head, with horrific results. Fortunately, in the UK, the threat posed by the far right is not as organised or widespread as that posed by al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, limited numbers of individuals are being motivated by fear of the “Islamisation” of Western culture.
James Brokenshire, the security minister, recently warned of the risks of a Breivik-style attack by the far right and singled out the English Defence League for inciting right-wing radicalism. According to him, 10 per cent of young people dealt with under a Home Office scheme to stop youngsters being recruited to terrorist groups were involved with the far right.
In 2011, 17 right-wing extremists were serving prison sentences following convictions for terrorism-related offences. Worryingly, all of them were self-starters rather than being part of wider terrorist organisations. And perhaps not surprisingly, these isolated and alienated individuals shared much the same vulnerability that is exploited by al-Qaeda recruiters.
On the best available evidence, it seems that it is only a matter of time before the British Islamist connection will successfully act to discredit the UK’s Muslim community in spectacular fashion. In the meantime, we have to look to the Security Service to make sure that does not happen. To date, it has clearly done a good job.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is intersec’s terrorism and security correspondent. He is a former defence intelligence officer and is now a widely published defence commentator specialising in regional conflicts