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.”
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.”
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  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.”
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.”
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