Charlie Cook Discusses Final Six Months Before Midterm Elections

James Kitfield
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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.”

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