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Britain in the Age of Extremism

LONDON, ENGLAND – JUNE 19: Prime Minister Theresa May and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick talk to faith leaders, including Mohammed Kozbar (third left) a, chair of the mosque, Rabbi Herschel Gluck, president of Shomrim in Stamford Hill (right) with Toufik Kacimi, chief executive of the Muslim Welfare House (second right) at Finsbury Park Mosque on June 19, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Confronting The New Face of Terrorism

by James Deneslow*

Against the backdrop of a general election and continued uncertainty as to the form and consequence of Brexit, Britain has endured three ‘terror’ attacks in the spate of 75 days this summer. Firstly, concert-going youngsters in Manchester were targeted by Salman Abedi’s suicide bombing that killed twenty two people in May. Then on a balmy Saturday June night in London Khuram Shazad Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba used a van and knives to kill eight people in Borough Market. Finally, later in June Darren Osborne drove a van into worshippers who’d just left a Mosque in Finsbury Park, killing one.

The frequency of the events meant that by the time one was being digested another was already in motion. Police figures showed that reports of Islamophobic hate crimes and incidents in Greater Manchester rose by 500% following the Manchester attack as tensions boiled over. 

The British Parliament had been attacked by a lone individual, Khalid Masood, in March and the June attackers triggered Prime Minister Theresa May to warn that she was looking to “restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court. And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.”

However, wider political events and the seemingly rolling nature of the attacks has delayed a serious understanding as to what steps the British government will take in practice to respond to this summer of terror.

The scale of the operations that have gone on in the shadows to date were revealed somewhat following the Manchester events when officials explained that there were 500 live investigations into 3,000 individuals. A more commonly known statistic of concern was that an estimated 850 British citizens had travelled to Iraq and Syria to support or fight for terrorist groups. This summer’s violence came as ISIS were being forced from Mosul, were on the retreat in Raqqa and according to the Russians had lost the nominal ‘caliph’ with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed in an airstrike. The potential for returning fighters has long been on the radar although none of this summer’s incidents were connected to Syria in that way.

Indeed, whilst ISIS claimed responsibility for the Manchester and Borough Market attacks there is currently little evidence of direct command and control from the declining entity. Instead they have been more successful in inspiring the actions of others, often people without much or any record of involvement in terrorism.

The increasingly rapid radicalisation of individuals is something that former American FBI Director James Comey warned of at a conference in London last year. It is one thing for government security agencies to disrupt centrally controlled networks of attackers, quite another to prevent an individual moving from rhetoric to action with little to no warning.

In the absence of Tom Cruise like ‘pre-crime’ abilities witnessed in the film ‘Minority Report’, governments are scrambling to come up with effective and reassuring steps in the face of this new threat. Already the number one police officer in London, Cressida Dick, has urged for improved regulation when it comes to hiring vans and a National Police Chiefs’ Council paper has sparked a debate over whether far more, or all, of Britain’s frontline police officers should be armed or not.

Behind the more reactive measures is an attempt to prevent radicalisation itself. The controversial ‘Prevent’ programme is part of the UK’s wider counter-terrorism programme but has certainly garnered the most headlines.

Seen by its defenders as a means of nipping radicalisation in the bud early on, its detractors see it as a device to wield collective punishment on Britain’s Muslim population. Over the last few years over 550,000 British public sector workers have been trained in the strategy with nurses, teachers and council staff now part of the front line on spotting radicalisation.

Prevent at its strongest sees radicalisation as a safeguarding issue, not a one that targets the Islamic faith. In this sense it is not so dissimilar to flagging the warning signs that sees peoples route into gang violence. Yet without a public buy in from civil society at large and Muslim community leaders in particular, it has struggled to be positively perceived or adopted in the ways originally conceived.

Children attend a vigil outside Finsbury Park Mosque in north London on June 20, 2017, following a van attack on pedestrians nearby on June 19.
Ten people were injured and a man also died at the scene after a van drove into a crowd of Muslim worshippers near a mosque in London in the early hours of Monday. / AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The pathways of radicalisation are often very difficult to spot. Several of the individuals involved in acts of terrorism around the globe are described as previously drug taking, heavy drinking womanisers with the conversion and adoption to radical views and then action a surprise to their family and friends. 

Online radicalisation in particular is notoriously difficult to control but internet giants like Google and YouTube are under increasingly pressure to do exactly that. What ‘virtual radicalisation’ does is force people’s activities below most conventional radars and I was struck when I listened to the parents of a pair of British teenagers who had attempted, and failed, to travel to Syria that they were completely oblivious to their views. If families can’t spot radicalisation in their own homes what hope does the British state have?

Pushing the opposite case Sajid Javid MP, the Minister responsible for local government and communities, has insisted British Muslims must do more than simply condemn terror saying they have a “unique burden” to tackle extremism.  Yet it seems that macro ISIS strategy – to divide British society on identity lines and foster an alienation of British Muslims – is not even being recognised which makes you wonder if politicians are focused too heavily on short term strategies rather than addressing the big picture. 

The spike in hate crime and the Finsbury Park attack were exactly the kind of response that ISIS strategists could have hoped for. That said, the collective public solidarity expressed in response to that attack demonstrated the mainstream revulsion of the kind of hate-filled divisive politics that radicals of all political persuasions seek to pursue.

The resilience of the United Kingdom to the attacks this summer that have targeted children listening to concerts, pub goers enjoying a night out or worshippers fresh from prayer is a test of the resilience of its society and the strategic thinking of its government. Calm heads in Westminster and responsible citizens out on the streets are what is needed, not a scrapping of individual freedoms nor a surrender to the politics of hate.

*James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a Director of the ‘New Diplomacy Platform’ (NDP). He has worked extensively in the Middle East, including research for foreign policy think tank Chatham House and has advised the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a Research Associate at the ‘Foreign Policy Centre’ (FPC) and a Fellow at the ‘Centre for Syrian Studies'(CSS).

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