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A Jihadist census: ‘Al Qaeda-Affiliated and ‘Homegrown’ Jihadism in the UK: 1999-2010'

A new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has collated and published unprecedented levels of data on thousands of individuals implicated in Jihadist terrorism.
Luke Heighton
5 October 2010

Almost all potentially serious terrorist plots involving British citizens or British-based Islamist terrorist can be linked to Al Qaeda.

Just one of a number of conclusions reached in a report published on 27 September by the independent London-based think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The report, ‘Al Qaeda-Affiliated and ‘Homegrown’ Jihadism in the UK: 1999-2010’, has been complied using data from nearly 2,000 individuals charged with Jihadist terrorism or related offences over the last eleven years, including some 350 UK residents or individuals engaged in terrorism targeting the UK. It is intended to form only the first instalment of a series of studies that will examine and compare Jihadist activity across Europe, establishing the broader comparative framework which it is hoped will in turn lead to a more precise understanding of the nature of violent Jihad’s threat to national and international security.

This is the first time such quantities of empirical data of this kind have been collated and published in such a fashion, with the aim of charting the history of the British Jihadist movement, identifying shifts in approach to recruitment and organisation, and in particular mapping the organisational infrastructure of violent Islamist extremism in the UK. Indeed the report’s author, Jytte Klausen, believes it may not only have significant implications for national security policymakers, but could eventually help to effect an important shift in public understanding of the origins and changing nature of Jihadism – both in Britain and abroad. 

In her keynote address at an held to mark the report’s publication, UK Security Minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones praised Klausen’s work as exceptionally valuable, not least for its capacity to illustrate the importance played by personal networks in establishing motivations for conducting acts of terrorist violence, as well as their conception and execution. London, she said, is not as significant a global centre for terrorist conspiracy as it once was. However, Neville-Jones explained, in her view this is as much to do with the emergence of multiple new ‘centres’ for such activities across Europe, north America, Africa and the middle east, as it is with a fall in Jihadist activity – a concept towards which she remains deeply sceptical.

This report, she argued, serves the additional purpose of showing government and the security community where gaps in intelligence may yet exist. Klausen, too, suggests that "Londonistan's" role as a global centre for terrorist recruitment and logistical support has diminished in recent years, as have the number of terrorism-related arrests. Crucially, she is quick to dismiss any implication that such a decline is arrests may be related to failures in intelligence gathering and interception, saying that (with the exception of the failed 2007 Haymarket car bomb and the Glasgow airport attack), “every conspiracy targeting the UK has been thwarted by preventative arrests”.

This, of course, raises the Rumsfeld-esque question as to how successful we have been at infiltrating those groups, and stopping those attacks, about which we do not yet know; or the existence of which – as far as what information is publicly available goes – falls somewhere between the known and the unknown unknown. Here Klausen concedes that the visibility of any given Jihadist individual is by no means an exact indicator of his or her position and influence within a particular group, nor can it map precisely that individual’s status within a network of more or less-affiliated organisations. Moreover, the Jihadist movement as a whole has had to adapt to successes in counter-terrorism tactics, the result being that in recent years conspiracies have become “leaner, with more direct external management, often involving only one or two individuals, selected in part because they have no known previous connections to extremist circles within the UK”. 

Nevertheless, the report is unequivocal in stating its author’s belief that of the 350 Jihadists in the UK dataset, four out of five were part of a shared network which can be traced back to one or more of the ‘four sheikhs’ – Abu Hamza Al-MasriSheikh Omar Bakri MuhammedSheikh Abu Quatada, and Haydar Abu Dohar – who together formed the core of London’s violent Islamic movement in the 1990s, in addition to Al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist organisation only formally prescribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 in January 2010.

Of all the potentially dangerous bomb plots surveyed, each involved at least one person who had previously received training in a camp in Pakistan or Afghanistan.The location of such camps may have shifted over time – with fewer in Afghanistan today than was true prior to 2001, whilst more have appeared in the tribal regions of Pakistan, in Yemen, and in Mali – but their connections with UK-based terrorism remain close. Indeed the strength and sheer ubiquity of such links leads Klausen to conclude that, despite such high-profile cases as the November 2009 Fort Hood shootings, the plot to kidnap and behead a British soldier in the UK in January 2007, or that which aimed at assassinating then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March 2008, when scrutinised more closely such notions as “self-radicalisation” leading to direct actions, or of the existence of “leaderless violent Jihad” on anything approximating a large scale are scarcely supportable.

This is not to say that the threat posed by the few who do operate in genuine isolation is not real and serious, nor that it does not pose new and specific prevention problems for counter-terrorism agencies. Rather, each of the cases listed can equally be used to illustrate the fallacy of “self-recruitment” as it is commonly understood. Often it is not so much that an individual’s handler or handlers do not exist, simply that not enough evidence to charge them has yet presented itself, thus their existence remains unknown to the public. 

Outlining the UK coalition government’s strategy for dealing with violent Jihadism, Baroness Neville-Jones was quick to suggest it will place less emphasis on ‘multi-culturalist’ approaches than previous government, and more on better social and cultural integration – though she did not go into detail as what such an approach might look like in practice. The government, she said, will also be conducting a large-scale review of current anti-terrorist legislation in order to determine if and when it might infringe unreasonably on civil liberties.

On the issue of the scale and the nature of the current threat, she suggested that while it is vitally important the public engage with such questions, we should not fall into thinking such a thing as perfect security from terrorist action can ever exist. Nevertheless, she also sought to emphasise that concerted international attempts to disrupt such activities are meeting with some success, and will be greatly improved by the existence of studies such as this. 

The report was praised by another of the evening’s invited speakers, Rachel Briggs, for drawing attention to British Jihadism’s “lead actors”, but to its “supporting cast” also. However, Briggs was careful to note, too, one of the key methodological problems leaving Klausen’s work open to criticism: that in proceeding from a database which encompasses all known instances of successful conspiracies and convictions; all known arrests; all individuals against whom charges were initially brought but not prosecuted; or those cases which have yet to go to court, as well as those which have been prosecuted successfully or unsuccessfully, the report does little to distinguish qualitatively between each. Is there a possibility, she wondered, that such a methodology risks presenting a distorted picture of both past and present conspiratorial networks? Or  might it exaggerate certain individuals’ roles in such activities, or perhaps even misdirecting the antiterrorism efforts of the security services and of communities alike, whilst stoking resentment towards those pointing the finger of suspicion? 

In perhaps the only note of dissent from the apparent consensus regarding what government and other agencies can and should do to actively prevent radicalisation and potential terrorist violence, Briggs suggested that what is needed is not more ‘top-down’, integrationist or ‘multi-culti’ thinking of the sort currently in evidence, but a broader, better resourced and more inclusive strategy which seeks to engage more closely with both faith-based communities and those around them. While acknowledging the important role that social, educational and (in particular) mental healthcare professionals have to play in such a scheme, Briggs was also keen to stress the importance of each profession remaining outside the immediate ambit of government-led anti-terrorist efforts. Agencies, she argued, should be allowing to operate normally, without the suggestion that the provision of such services is merely a ‘cover’ for more invasive, intelligence gathering activity. 

That counter-terrorism poses profound, perhaps even unique challenges to the legal system, to human rights and civil liberties, is hardly breaking news. That those difficulties should be echoed in even the most scrupulously compiled of reports is neither surprising nor justification for doubting either the report’s independence or the force of a great many of its conclusions. Klausen is aware of such issues and of the limits of such a methodology’s application to recruitment to a criminal network. As she pointed out, “Jihadism is partly a legal – albeit extremist – political movement and partly a clandestine movement pursuing criminal objectives [...] Collecting information that has been presented as part of the adversarial process or has been released to the media is a poor, but necessary, substitute for the information that we would ideally wish to possess: a complete census of who joins the Jihadist movement”. 

Another senior figure who broadly endorsed the report’s findings – though by his own admission he had not yet had time to study it full, having only just been given a copy, was Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Inkster agreed, for example, that in recent years Jihadist recruitment has shifted significantly, targeted increasingly at demographic groups not previously associated with Islamist activities. These groups include mainstream, ‘suburbanised’ [to use a phrase perhaps more applicable in the American context] Muslims for whom the ideology associated with Jihad is entirely foreign.

Thinking back to the immediate aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, however, Inkster issued a cautionary note to those who might argue that Britain’s Muslim population has not done enough to assist in defeating ‘homegrown’ terrorism. Many UK Muslims, he argued, did not react as some outside the community thought they should because (in holding moderate views utterly at odds with Jihadism) they simply did not believe this was any more their fight than anyone else’s – and quite reasonably so. Warning that at the same time as we must work to improve cooperation between intelligence services if we are to properly address the issues at hand, Inkster reminded the audience that we should also recognise such efforts may be seriously undermined by such well-document issues as Guantanamo Bay, illegal rendition, allegations of collusion and torture, or the lack of a set of agreed common principles between European agencies and the world’s biggest intelligence gatherer, the US.

Like Neville-Jones, Klausen and Briggs before him, Inkster was keen to stress that over-securitising of everyday is not at all desirable, to call attention to the growing challenges posed by the emergence of training camps in failing states such as the Somalia and Yemen, and to the improbability of what he called the “international jihadist ronin” thesis Klausen’s report also comprehensively debunks. No less notable, however, was his reminder that as much as we might disparage the ideology which drives Islamism, and as often as we might be able to find Imams more than willing to deny the legitimacy of Jihadist violence, we should not at point underestimate the either reality of their attraction to a large – perhaps even growing body of individuals, and the profound threat they will continue to pose for at least a generation.

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