Charlie Cook Discusses Final Six Months Before Midterm Elections

James Kitfield
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
James Kitfield
July 16, 2014, 6:07 a.m.

LON­DON — Just a few blocks from West­min­ster Palace on a re­cent morn­ing, an an­nounce­ment soun­ded through the Brit­ish For­eign Of­fice. The mes­sage was mat­ter-of-fact and ap­pro­pri­ately un­der­stated: Oc­cu­pants with a view of White­hall Street were re­ques­ted to move away from the win­dows and kindly evac­u­ate their of­fices. Se­cur­ity had de­tec­ted a sus­pi­cious vehicle on the street, and po­lice of­ficers were in­vest­ig­at­ing it as a po­ten­tial car bomb.

These are nervous days in the cap­it­als of Europe, and nowhere more so than in Lon­don. The ter­ror­ist-threat level in the United King­dom has been raised from “sub­stan­tial” to “severe,” mean­ing that an at­tack is con­sidered “highly likely.”

Twice in re­cent weeks, Par­is’s Eif­fel Tower has been evac­u­ated; French po­lice are con­duct­ing coun­terter­ror­ism raids throughout the coun­try. Gov­ern­ment build­ings and land­marks in Ber­lin have been for­ti­fied with ex­tra se­cur­ity. On Oc­to­ber 3, the U.S. State De­part­ment took the rare step of warn­ing Amer­ic­ans of the po­ten­tial dangers of trav­el­ing in Europe.

Mean­while in Pakistan’s law­less tri­bal areas, CIA drones launched Hell­fire mis­siles on 22 sep­ar­ate mis­sions in Septem­ber alone, the most ever in a single month. The mis­siles re­portedly killed Brit­ish and Ger­man na­tion­als in­volved in what West­ern in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and ex­perts be­lieve may be the largest ter­ror­ist plot since the 2006 plan to use homemade li­quid bombs to blow up trans-At­lantic air­liners headed to the United States and Canada. That op­er­a­tion centered on a Qaida-linked cell in Lon­don. In some sig­ni­fic­ant par­tic­u­lars, the cur­rent plot also has echoes of the most re­cent Qaida “spec­tac­u­lar” in the West, the Ju­ly 7, 2005, at­tack on the Lon­don trans­port sys­tem by Brit­ish sui­cide bombers that killed 52 people and wounded nearly 700.

“In this case, the ini­tial in­tel­li­gence came from the United States and was shared with three European coun­tries, and we all fo­cused our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies’ track­ing, tra­cing, and listen­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies on this plot,” a know­ledge­able Brit­ish of­fi­cial said. “Ul­ti­mately, the Amer­ic­ans de­cided to play the card of drone mis­sile strikes in an at­tempt to dis­rupt the plot.”

As with the 2006 plan to blow up the air­liners, the source said, U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies erred on the side of cau­tion by try­ing to pree­mpt the plot rather than wait­ing to let its full con­tours de­vel­op. As a res­ult, a massive man­hunt is still un­der way from South Asia and the Middle East to Europe to try to roll up ter­ror­ists who were pos­sibly in­volved. “But the de­cision on when to in­ter­vene in a ter­ror­ist plot is al­ways a del­ic­ate bal­ance,” the source said, “and in no way does the U.S. de­cision to pree­mpt hinder our close in­tel­li­gence and coun­terter­ror co­oper­a­tion.”

Evid­ence of a ma­jor plot sur­faced in Ju­ly when U.S. of­fi­cials in Afgh­anistan ar­res­ted Ahmed Sidiqi, a Ger­man na­tion­al who at­ten­ded the same mosque in Ham­burg as some of the lead­ers of the 9/11 ter­ror op­er­a­tion. Sidiqi is said to have told in­ter­rog­at­ors that a num­ber of ter­ror­ist cells in­volving for­eign na­tion­als with European pass­ports were plot­ting co­ordin­ated at­tacks in Bri­tain, France, and Ger­many.

The “three-na­tion” plot ap­pears to be modeled after the Novem­ber 2008 at­tacks in Mum­bai, In­dia, in which a cell of 10 Is­lam­ic sui­cide at­tack­ers from Pakistan armed with auto­mat­ic weapons and gren­ades killed 176 people and wounded hun­dreds.

“With the Olympics com­ing to Lon­don in 2012, a Mum­bai-type scen­ario has been on our radar for quite some time,” the Brit­ish se­cur­ity of­fi­cial told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Even though it’s very hard to get that kind of weaponry in Bri­tain, we’re very con­scious of the threat. It’s on our na­tion­al risk as­sess­ment, and we’ve ex­er­cised and pre­pared against any num­ber of Mum­bai-type scen­ari­os, pre­cisely be­cause we do view it as a very vi­able pro­pos­i­tion. If you’re talk­ing about a crowded place with a lot of people, [the Olympics] would cer­tainly qual­i­fy as a ter­ror­ist spec­tac­u­lar.”

Homegrown Ter­ror

In the evol­u­tion of the threat from rad­ic­al Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ists, the cur­rent plot rep­res­ents a danger long an­ti­cip­ated. Al-Qaida and like-minded af­fil­i­ates have for years sought re­cruits among Europe’s rest­ive Muslims, who can move freely in the West. So the alert soun­ded when West­ern in­tel­li­gence ana­lysts no­ticed in­creas­ing num­bers of Ger­man Muslims trav­el­ing to ter­ror­ist train­ing camps in Pakistan. One rad­ic­al re­cruit­ment video in 2009 showed an en­tire vil­lage of Ger­man ji­hadists and their fam­il­ies liv­ing in the moun­tains of Waziristan.

Many European coun­tries face a ver­sion of this threat from poorly as­sim­il­ated Muslims, in­clud­ing Al­geri­an im­mig­rants in France, Turks in Ger­many, and North Afric­ans in Spain. Ar­gu­ably, though, the threat from homegrown Is­lam­ic rad­ic­als in Europe is most acute in Bri­tain. Lon­don be­came such a hot­bed for rad­ic­al in­cite­ment and polit­ic­al Is­lam­ist agit­a­tion in the 1980s and 1990s that it earned the monik­er “Lon­donistan.”

Ow­ing to Bri­tain’s co­lo­ni­al his­tory, the largest num­ber of its 3 mil­lion Muslim res­id­ents trace their her­it­age and lin­eage to Pakistan, whose law­less tri­bal re­gions har­bor al-Qaida’s core lead­er­ship and many oth­er ex­trem­ists groups, mak­ing it the epi­cen­ter of glob­al Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ism. Each year, an es­tim­ated 400,000 Pakistanis or Brit­ish na­tion­als of Pakistani des­cent travel between the two coun­tries, provid­ing ample op­por­tun­ity for the tiny minor­ity of ex­trem­ists among them to slip off to ter­ror­ist camps for train­ing and dir­ec­tion.

As re­cently as last year, the CIA pos­tu­lated that the most likely ter­ror­ist threat to the U.S. home­land would come from a Brit­ish-born ex­trem­ist en­ter­ing the coun­try un­der the visa waiver pro­gram. To con­front that threat, the CIA tar­geted about 40 per­cent of its coun­terter­ror­ism re­sources at sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists in the United King­dom.

“Bri­tain is a rather spe­cial case be­cause of its role in the par­ti­tion of In­dia and cre­ation of Pakistan in the 1940s, so people with an ex­trem­ist mind-set look­ing for someone to blame for Pakistan’s prob­lems might reas­on­ably fo­cus on the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment,” said Nigel Ink­ster, the dir­ect­or of Transna­tion­al Threats and Polit­ic­al Risk at the In­ter­na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Stra­tegic Stud­ies in Lon­don. “To this day, the un­re­solved status of Kash­mir is a factor in keep­ing the phe­nomen­on of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion alive for Bri­tain’s Is­lam­ic youth, for in­stance, be­cause a sig­ni­fic­ant pro­por­tion of Brit­ish Muslims came from Kash­mir in the 1960s. Its un­re­solved status serves as a source of con­tin­ued griev­ance that you don’t see in Muslims from oth­er coun­tries.”

Com­ing to Amer­ica

U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism of­fi­cials have been fo­cused on the evolving danger from homegrown rad­ic­als in Bri­tain and the rest of Europe for years. Bri­tain-based rad­ic­al im­ams Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qatada, who once preached ji­had against the West at ral­lies in cent­ral Lon­don, now lie si­lenced in Brit­ish pris­ons await­ing ex­tra­di­tion. The most in­flu­en­tial Eng­lish-speak­ing cler­ic preach­ing glob­al ji­had against the West is now An­war al-Aw­laki, a Ye­meni-Amer­ic­an who grew up in New Mex­ico.

A lead­er of the off­shoot al-Qaida in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula, Aw­laki is the au­thor of the treat­ise “44 Ways to Sup­port Ji­had.” He was re­portedly in­stru­ment­al in the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of would-be Christ­mas Day bomber Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mutall­ab, who tried to down an air­liner en route to De­troit last year; Nid­al Has­an, the Army ma­jor charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in Novem­ber 2009; and Fais­al Shahz­ad, the so-called Times Square bomber, who was sen­tenced to life in pris­on in a New York court on Oc­to­ber 5. Aw­laki was the first-known Amer­ic­an to get his name on the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s tar­geted as­sas­sin­a­tion list.

“Osama bin Laden and Ay­man al-Za­wahiri both speak very little Eng­lish, and they have been re­duced to stat­ic voices in a vir­tu­al world, while Aw­laki speaks with an Amer­ic­an ac­cent and a nar­rat­ive of griev­ance dir­ectly aimed at young, dis­il­lu­sioned Muslim men in West­ern so­ci­et­ies, es­pe­cially Amer­ica,” said Fawaz Gerges, a pro­fess­or of Middle East­ern polit­ics and in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and the au­thor of Jour­ney of the Ji­hadist: In­side Muslim Mil­it­ancy. “There’s in­creas­ing evid­ence that Aw­laki’s nar­rat­ive of the West wa­ging a war against Is­lam is cap­tur­ing the hearts of hun­dreds, and maybe thou­sands, of these young men, and that is chan­ging the land­scape. In Europe, coun­terter­ror­ism of­fi­cials are more wor­ried about Aw­laki at this point than bin Laden.”

Much like their Brit­ish coun­ter­parts, both Fais­al Shahz­ad and Najibul­lah Za­zi, the former New York City push­cart op­er­at­or who plot­ted to bomb the city’s sub­way in Septem­ber 2009, have fam­ily and tri­bal ties to Pakistan. Both traveled there to make con­tact with al-Qaida or the Pakistan Taliban for ex­plos­ives train­ing be­fore in­stig­at­ing their plots. The ad­vance man who scouted tar­gets for the ori­gin­al ter­ror­ist “spec­tac­u­lar” in Mum­bai in 2008 was Dav­id Head­ley, a Chica­go nat­ive.

Late that year, U.S. of­fi­cials wit­nessed an­oth­er mile­stone when Shir­wa Ahmed, a U.S. cit­izen from Min­neapol­is, be­came the first Amer­ic­an sui­cide bomber when he drove a truck filled with ex­plos­ives in­to a crowd in Somalia that in­cluded U.N. peace­keep­ers and in­ter­na­tion­al aid work­ers, killing 20 people. The ter­ror­ist group Al-Shabab, an­oth­er Qaida fran­chise, had re­cruited Ahmed and a num­ber of oth­er Somali-Amer­ic­ans.

As noted coun­terter­ror­ism ex­perts Peter Ber­gen and Bruce Hoff­man point out in their Septem­ber re­port “As­sess­ing the Ter­ror­ist Threat,” while Amer­ic­an in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have been fo­cused on Bri­tain and Europe’s Muslim di­a­spora as a po­ten­tial Achilles’ heel in U.S. de­fenses, the danger from in­di­gen­ous ex­trem­ists has came home to Amer­ica. Ac­cord­ing to Justice De­part­ment stat­ist­ics, at least 20 U.S. cit­izens have been charged with ma­jor ter­ror­ism vi­ol­a­tions just this year.

“The Amer­ic­an ‘melt­ing pot’ has not provided a fire­wall against the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and re­cruit­ment of Amer­ic­an cit­izens and res­id­ents, though it has ar­gu­ably lulled us in­to a sense of com­pla­cency that homegrown ter­ror­ism couldn’t hap­pen in the United States,” con­cluded the re­port, writ­ten for the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Pre­pared­ness Group. “Be­fore the Ju­ly 7, 2005, sui­cide at­tacks on the Lon­don trans­port­a­tion sys­tem, the Brit­ish [like­wise] be­lieved that there was per­haps a prob­lem with the Muslim com­munit­ies in Europe, but cer­tainly not with Brit­ish Muslims in the United King­dom, who were bet­ter in­teg­rated, bet­ter edu­cated, and wealth­i­er than their coun­ter­parts on the Con­tin­ent. By stub­bornly wrap­ping it­self in this same false se­cur­ity blanket, the U.S. lost five years to learn from the Brit­ish ex­per­i­ence.”

In an in­ter­view, Hoff­man ar­gued that a close study of Bri­tain’s ex­per­i­ence would high­light sev­er­al les­sons, in­clud­ing the im­port­ance of coun­ter­ing the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and re­cruit­ment of homegrown ter­ror­ists. That was the in­tent of 2007 con­gres­sion­al le­gis­la­tion call­ing for a Na­tion­al Com­mis­sion on the Pre­ven­tion of Vi­ol­ent Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and Homegrown Ter­ror­ism. The bill, HR 1955, passed the House 404-6 but stalled in the Sen­ate.

“I be­lieve we could have got­ten ahead of the curve in terms of coun­ter­ing rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of homegrown ter­ror­ists with HR 1955, and by learn­ing from the ex­per­i­ences of Bri­tain and oth­er coun­tries who de­veloped strategies to ad­dress the phe­nomen­on,” said Hoff­man, the dir­ect­or of the Se­cur­ity Stud­ies Pro­gram at Geor­getown Uni­versity. In­stead, the United States con­tin­ues to write off each new ter­ror­ist plot or at­tack by an Amer­ic­an as an ab­er­ra­tion, he con­ten­ded, even though 11 such ter­ror­ist in­cid­ents oc­curred last year and the num­ber con­tin­ues to rise.

“Of­fi­cials at the highest level of gov­ern­ment told me that the is­sues of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and re­cruit­ment don’t fit com­fort­ably in­to the port­fo­lio of any of the 15 U.S. agen­cies in­volved in coun­terter­ror­ism,” Hoff­man said in the in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al. “So no one is in charge of de­vel­op­ing a strategy to counter the threat. That has put us in a re­act­ive mode, and we con­tin­ue to ig­nore this threat at our own per­il.”

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion se­cur­ity of­fi­cials con­firm that their fo­cus has been de­tect­ing and thwart­ing ter­ror­ist plots over­seas, but they say that the gov­ern­ment has re­cently taken steps to ad­dress the grow­ing threat of ter­ror­ists who were born in the United States or have lived here for years. The do­mest­ic dy­nam­ic makes such plot­ters far harder to de­tect through tra­di­tion­al meth­ods and thus re­quires close co­oper­a­tion between loc­al law-en­force­ment agen­cies and Muslim com­munit­ies.

The Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment is at­tempt­ing to identi­fy les­sons from years of loc­al ef­forts to keep at-risk youths out of vi­ol­ent gangs or away from drugs, and to con­sider which they can ap­ply to the chal­lenge of in­ter­rupt­ing rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion. The Home­land Se­cur­ity Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee of fed­er­al, state, and loc­al po­lice forces is tak­ing the lead, work­ing with com­munity lead­ers and the private sec­tor to identi­fy suc­cess­ful tech­niques.

“What we’ve learned from study­ing the evol­u­tion of at-risk youth for dec­ades is that there are mul­tiple points where you can in­ter­vene and dis­suade that per­son from be­com­ing a vi­ol­ent gang mem­ber,” a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion se­cur­ity source said, speak­ing on back­ground. “Some­times we find the best per­son to in­ter­vene is a po­lice of­ficer, and oth­er times it’s fam­il­ies, teach­ers, com­munity lead­ers, coaches, and re­li­gious lead­ers. We’ve even had suc­cess us­ing as ment­ors former gang mem­bers who have found a way out of that life.”

To bet­ter un­der­stand how those strategies might ap­ply to Is­lam­ic rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion, he said, the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter and the FBI’s Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force are re­search­ing the ex­per­i­ences of oth­er na­tions that have faced sim­il­ar threats, from the Middle East to Europe. “We’re try­ing to learn what factors drive people to the point of want­ing to com­mit acts of vi­ol­ent ter­ror­ism in or­der to fur­ther an ideo­lo­gic­al agenda, and then we want to ap­ply those les­sons to the do­mest­ic threat,” the source said. “And we’re very in­ter­ested in the Brit­ish ex­per­i­ence in that re­gard, and with its ‘Pre­vent’ ini­ti­at­ives.”

Clos­ing “Lon­donistan”

Cer­tainly, Bri­tain’s ex­per­i­ence of­fers a cau­tion­ary tale about the dangers of turn­ing a blind eye to Is­lam­ist rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion. Es­pe­cially dur­ing the Le­banese civil war in the 1980s, many Is­lam­ic me­dia out­lets and in­tel­lec­tu­als sought out the re­l­at­ive safety of Lon­don, tak­ing ad­vant­age of its press and re­li­gious freedoms. The city be­came a cen­ter of in­tel­lec­tu­al thought with­in Is­lam­ist circles.

As long as Is­lam­ists didn’t make trouble loc­ally the Brit­ish au­thor­it­ies largely ad­op­ted a lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude to­ward their rad­ic­al ser­mons and pub­lic­a­tions. All the while, al-Qaida grew stronger, and its mes­sage of a vi­ol­ent glob­al ji­had to es­tab­lish an Is­lam­ic ca­liphate ruled by tra­di­tion­al sharia law gained cur­rency.

This hot­house in­cub­at­or of rad­ic­al Is­lam­ism spawned the phe­nomen­on known as “Lon­donistan,” where in­flu­en­tial preach­ers speak­ing in mosques, parks, and town halls openly in­cited fol­low­ers to ter­ror­ist vi­ol­ence.

“There’s a fam­ous video of Abu Hamza ad­dress­ing a town-hall meet­ing in Lon­don and us­ing a slide rule and il­lus­tra­tions to ex­plain to listen­ers how to bring down ci­vil­ian air­liners with homemade ex­plos­ives. So it got ab­so­lutely crazy,” said Douglas Mur­ray, dir­ect­or of the Coun­cil on So­cial Co­he­sion, a con­ser­vat­ive think tank in Lon­don fo­cused on Is­lam­ist rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion in the U.K. Mur­ray ar­gues that in the 1990s Brit­ish se­cur­ity forces em­braced a de facto cov­en­ant with ex­trem­ists. As long as the Is­lam­ists didn’t “queer the pitch” with loc­al at­tacks, the po­lice would look the oth­er way.

“That im­pun­ity for ex­trem­ists was so blatant that Bri­tain took a dec­ade to ex­tra­dite to France the ringlead­er who or­gan­ized the [1995] Par­is metro bomb­ings,” Mur­ray said. “Even after the 2001 ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the United States, the at­ti­tude of Brit­ish au­thor­it­ies was that we were im­mune, and ter­ror­ism couldn’t hap­pen here. Ob­vi­ously, that was not only an im­mor­al policy, but as we learned on 7/7, it was also a fant­ast­ic and ul­ti­mately self-de­feat­ing mis­read­ing of the threat.”

The co­ordin­ated sui­cide-bomb­ing at­tacks on Lon­don’s pub­lic-trans­port sys­tem dur­ing rush hour on Ju­ly 7, 2005, ef­fect­ively soun­ded the death knell for the Is­lam­ist sanc­tu­ary of Lon­donistan. The four at­tack­ers were Brit­ish Muslim men, three of Pakistani des­cent and one of Ja­maic­an her­it­age. Wor­ried in part that pub­lic out­rage could lead to a gen­er­al back­lash against Bri­tain’s still sig­ni­fic­antly se­greg­ated Muslim com­munit­ies, then-Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair pushed the Ter­ror­ism Act of 2006 through Par­lia­ment.

The act cre­ated new crim­in­al of­fenses re­lated to ter­ror­ism, in­clud­ing in­dir­ect in­cite­ment to com­mit ter­ror­ist acts and the “glor­i­fic­a­tion” of ter­ror­ism. The peri­od dur­ing which ter­ror­ist sus­pects could be held without charge was ex­ten­ded from 14 to 28 days, after Par­lia­ment re­jec­ted Down­ing Street’s re­quest for a 90-day peri­od.

The law banned the rad­ic­al Is­lam­ist group al-Muhajiroun and its suc­cessors, which had been based in the U.K. Re­lated le­gis­la­tion cre­ated “Con­trol Or­ders,” re­stric­tions placed on ter­ror­ism sus­pects who can­not be pro­sec­uted be­cause evid­ence against them was gained from secret in­tel­li­gence and is in­ad­miss­ible in court, and who can­not be leg­ally de­por­ted be­cause they would face po­ten­tial tor­ture in their home­lands. Con­trol Or­der re­stric­tions in­clude house ar­rest, elec­tron­ic tag­ging, and pro­hib­i­tion against com­mu­nic­a­tion and travel.

Among the sus­pects who have been sub­jec­ted to Con­trol Or­ders is the rad­ic­al cler­ic Abu Qatada, once con­sidered the spir­itu­al lead­er of al-Qaida in Europe. Qatada was re­portedly an ad­viser to Qaida ter­ror­ist Za­cari­as Mous­saoui and at­temp­ted shoe-bomber Richard Re­id. Of­fi­cials found 19 au­di­o­tapes of his ser­mons in the apart­ment of Mo­hamed At­ta, the ringlead­er of the Septem­ber 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the World Trade Cen­ter and the Pentagon. In Novem­ber 2008, Brit­ish au­thor­it­ies re­arres­ted Qatada for break­ing his bail con­di­tions. He awaits ex­tra­di­tion to Jordan where he was con­victed in ab­sen­tia for ter­ror­ist of­fenses.

Des­pite its suc­cesses, the Ter­ror­ism Act’s lim­its on free speech and its al­low­ance for de­ten­tion without charge re­main con­tro­ver­sial in Bri­tain. The cur­rent Con­ser­vat­ive-led co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment has ordered a thor­ough re­view of the law and the coun­try’s en­tire coun­terter­ror­ism strategy, to be com­pleted by the end of the year.

“I think there is re­cog­ni­tion that all of our coun­terter­ror­ism laws were passed in an ad hoc, and in some cases knee-jerk, over­re­ac­tion to the Lon­don trans­port bomb­ings, and that they are in need of ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion,” Ink­ster of the In­ter­na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Stra­tegic Stud­ies said.

The law’s in­cite­ment clauses go well bey­ond any­thing the United States would al­low un­der the First Amend­ment. “Even though we don’t have a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, the Brit­ish people at­tach a lot of sig­ni­fic­ance to free­dom of speech,” he said. “Sub­ject­ing people to de­ten­tion without the in­ter­ven­tion of the ju­di­ciary, which is sim­il­ar to what [the United States is] con­front­ing in try­ing to close Guantanamo [de­ten­tion cen­ter], is also very con­tro­ver­sial and al­most cer­tainly con­trary to the European Con­ven­tion on Hu­man Rights.”

On the plus side of the ledger, Lon­donistan is all but gone. The Is­lam­ic com­munity in Bri­tain has largely taken back its mosques from the ex­trem­ists, ac­cord­ing to a num­ber of Brit­ish coun­terter­ror­ism ex­perts, though the threat of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion per­sists to a less­er de­gree on uni­versity cam­puses and in pris­ons.

By far the most dif­fi­cult com­pon­ent of Bri­tain’s coun­terter­ror­ism strategy to as­sess, ac­cord­ing to a num­ber of ex­perts, has been the “Pre­vent” cam­paign that at­tempts to in­ter­rupt the arc of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion that can lead from an­ger and dis­il­lu­sion­ment to vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ism.

“A lot of work has been done in that re­gard, and quite a lot of money has been spent,” Ink­ster noted. “As tends to hap­pen, however, the ‘Pre­vent’ ap­proach has turned in­to a kind of cot­tage in­dustry, and no one is quite sure what im­pact all the money and ef­fort has had on sta­bil­iz­ing opin­ion with­in Muslim com­munit­ies.”

Pre­vent­ing Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion

The dif­fi­culties of reach­ing out to mod­er­ate re­li­gious lead­ers and in­flu­en­tial voices in Bri­tain’s agit­ated Is­lam­ic com­munity be­came evid­ent in the wake of the 7/7 at­tacks. “After the bomb­ings, we were search­ing for people who were well re­spec­ted in the Muslim com­munity, who had jobs, pro­spects, and am­bi­tions, maybe a wife and kids,” a Brit­ish se­cur­ity source said. “The idea was to present a counter-rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion mes­sage to people of in­flu­ence in the Muslim com­munity.”

That search led Brit­ish of­fi­cials to Mo­hammad Sidique Khan, a Brit­ish man of Pakistani des­cent who ment­ored chil­dren at a loc­al primary school and vo­lun­teered to help the poor at a gov­ern­ment-fun­ded char­ity called the Hama­ra Healthy Liv­ing Cen­ter. Khan had a de­gree in busi­ness stud­ies from Leeds Met­ro­pol­it­an Uni­versity.

“Khan was our man, just the kind of re­spec­ted mem­ber of so­ci­ety we were look­ing for,” the Brit­ish of­fi­cial said. The prob­lem was that Khan turned out to be the lead­er of the 7/7 ter­ror­ist cell, and he had killed him­self and six in­no­cent bystand­ers on the Lon­don Un­der­ground near Edg­ware Road. “The guy who fit our pro­file of someone of in­flu­ence who could help spread our mes­sage turned out to be a sui­cide bomber.”

For de­tract­ors, such para­doxes are reas­on enough to aban­don ef­forts to pre­vent Is­lam­ic rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion.

“I think that kind of out­reach to the Muslim com­munity is a ter­rible idea, be­cause it puts the gov­ern­ment on ter­rain where it can­not win,” said Mur­ray of the Cen­ter for So­cial Co­he­sion. “There are lots of things gov­ern­ments can’t say that are nev­er­the­less true. So you get in­to this ab­surd situ­ation where gov­ern­ments pre­tend Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ist vi­ol­ence has noth­ing to do with re­li­gion, yet they nev­er­the­less con­sult with ‘mod­er­ate’ Is­lam­ic re­li­gious lead­ers after each at­tack. Then it will be re­vealed that those mod­er­ates have an un­for­tu­nate tend­ency of say­ing nice things about some really nasty people like bin Laden. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials will then get drawn in­to a de­bate about Is­lam­ic ideo­logy which they are uniquely bad at ar­guing. The Brit­ish gov­ern­ment made all of those mis­takes after 7/7, and it looks to me like Amer­ica is go­ing to make the same mis­takes in roughly the same or­der.”

Des­pite the ob­vi­ous dif­fi­culties of scal­ing the cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers sur­round­ing its Is­lam­ic com­munit­ies, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment has per­sisted with its “Pre­vent” ini­ti­at­ives. Largely through the Com­munit­ies and Loc­al Gov­ern­ments De­part­ment and loc­al po­lice forces, of­fi­cials have trained Is­lam­ic com­munity lead­ers to re­cog­nize early signs of rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion. Gov­ern­ment fund­ing has also helped sup­port “counter-ex­trem­ism” groups such as the Quil­li­am Found­a­tion, which was foun­ded by two former mem­bers of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Is­lam­ist group. Seni­or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are also routinely dis­patched to speak at mosques and Is­lam­ic com­munity cen­ters.

Though the “Pre­vent” cam­paign is hardly a pan­acea, Brit­ish of­fi­cials and many coun­terter­ror­ism ex­perts be­lieve that it has opened a crit­ic­al dia­logue with the Is­lam­ic com­munity and has paid tan­gible di­vidends. Dav­id Liv­ing­ston, an as­so­ci­ate fel­low and coun­terter­ror­ism ana­lyst at the Chath­am House think tank in Lon­don, said, “When you con­front the threat of homegrown ter­ror­ism, pre­ven­tion be­comes par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant in terms of identi­fy­ing young people who may be on the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion slope but who can be nudged in­to the realm of more ac­cept­able be­ha­vi­or by the right per­son at the right time.” Get­ting that in­ter­ven­tion right, he said, re­quires the ef­forts of not just gov­ern­ment and po­lice forces, but also re­li­gious and com­munity lead­ers, re­spec­ted eld­ers, teach­ers, and coaches.

“There are al­ways go­ing to be rad­ic­als, and some­time in the fu­ture they will in­ev­it­ably suc­ceed again in con­duct­ing a ter­ror­ist at­tack,” Liv­ing­ston said. Pre­ven­tion is just a mod­est up­front in­vest­ment to weed out as many people as pos­sible at an early stage and mit­ig­ate the risk. “The al­tern­at­ive,” he said, “is to rely just on your pro­tec­tion meas­ures like sur­veil­lance, in­tel­li­gence, and po­lice in­vest­ig­a­tions to try and in­ter­cept ter­ror­ists on their fi­nal bomb­ing runs. That strategy not only im­pinges on civil rights but it’s hugely ex­pens­ive, es­pe­cially when you in­clude the po­ten­tial costs of hav­ing to clean up after an­oth­er Lon­don metro bomb­ing.”

Such fa­tal­ism is an­oth­er habit of mind that the Brit­ish have ad­op­ted after strug­gling with the threat of homegrown ter­ror­ism for many years. When the danger comes from with­in, many Bri­tons say, hopes that it can be kept per­petu­ally at bay be­gin to fade.

“With­in Europe, there is a gen­er­al ac­cept­ance among the pub­lic that at some point the ter­ror­ists will suc­ceed again,” Ink­ster said. “By con­trast, U.S. poli­cy­makers nev­er seem will­ing to con­cede that fact, which means your coun­terter­ror­ism policy is de­signed around the pro­pos­i­tion that any ter­ror­ist at­tack is in­tol­er­able. In Bri­tain, that strikes us as some­what un­real­ist­ic.”

What We're Following See More »
House Freedom Caucus Endorses Obamacare Replacement
31 minutes ago

After more than a month of back and forth, a failed bill, and GOP embarrassment, the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus has announced that it will support the Obamacare replacement legislation in its most recent iteration. Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the caucus, said the roughly 30 members of the caucus view this compromise as the best option short of a full repeal. A recent amendment, authored by Meadows and Rep. Tom McArthur, co-chair of the more moderate Tuesday Group, would allow states to apply for waivers exempting them from provisions forbidding insurers from charging higher prices to those with pre-existing conditions if the state set up a high-risk pool. The plan's passage in the House is not a done deal though, as a number of moderate lawmakers have resisted supporting the amendment.

White House Working On Order To Leave NATO
1 hours ago
U.S. Navy Vessel Fired Flare at Iranian Boat on Monday
2 hours ago

"A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer fired a warning flare toward an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel coming near it in the Persian Gulf. The incident happened Monday as the vessel closed to within 1,000 meters of the USS Mahan, "despite the destroyer trying to turn away from it." After attempting to contact the Iranian vessel and sounding its whistle, it deployed the flare. After that, the ship had had enough and turned away.

White House Attacks Judge Who Suspended Executive Order
2 hours ago

U.S. District Judge William Orrick Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing part of an executive order calling for the end of federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities. The decision was followed by a scathing rebuke from the White House, a precedent-breaking activity which with this White House has had no qualms. A White House statement called the decision an "egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge." The statement was followed by an inaccurate Wednesday morning tweetstorm from Trump, which railed against the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. While Judge Orrick's district falls within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit, Orrick himself does not serve on the Ninth Circuit.

House GOP Circulates Amendment on Preexisting Conditions
6 hours ago

"House Republicans are circulating the text of an amendment to their ObamaCare replacement bill that they believe could bring many conservatives on board. According to legislative text of the amendment," drafted by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), "the measure would allow states to apply for waivers to repeal one of ObamaCare’s core protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Conservatives argue the provision drives up premiums for healthy people, but Democrats—and many more moderate Republicans—warn it would spark a return to the days when insurance companies could charge sick people exorbitantly high premiums."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.