Lessons from the recent Birmingham terrorist plot

Britain, with it's culture of free-speech and anti-establishment activism, is a fertile breeding ground for extremism. It will remain so until we develop a sense of national cohesion

What can these three men teach us beyond hate?
Ghaffar Hussain
On 22 February 2013 10:42

The recent convictions of three Muslim men, who were at the advanced stages of planning a spectacular terrorist attack targeting Birmingham city centre, has led to many difficult questions being asked about the radicalisation of young Muslims, and what can be done to prevent it.

These young men, who lived off social welfare, were radicalised in the UK after accessing freely available extremist literature, including books authored by an extremist group from Pakistan, Harkat ul Mujahideen, and UK-based Hizb ut Tahrir. They also accessed online lectures from the late American-Yemeni jihadist Anwar al Awlaki, who was recently killed in a drone attack.

The narrative promoted by the extremist material is one that incites hatred and enmity towards western states and their people, while portraying Muslims globally as victims of a western-led campaign to destroy Islam.

After being radicalised in the UK, and coming to despise the country that had rescued their parents from a life of poverty in South Asia, they decided to head for Pakistan. Once in Pakistan, they were easily able to locate jihadist recruiters and attend terrorist training camps, from where they gained expertise on bomb-making. Undoubtedly, they were encouraged by their handlers in Pakistan to return to the UK and carry out terrorist attacks in their homeland.

All of what has been described, thus far, sounds very familiar to those that follow terrorism cases closely. Material promoting extremist narratives is widely available in the UK and online, jihadists operate freely across Pakistan, and terrorist training camps, in spite of the US drone campaign, are still operating. With these things in place, extremist recruitment can continue unabated.

Another equally familiar yet depressing aspect of this case is the fact that some of these individuals were known for holding extremist views and members of their families knew that they were attempting to attend terrorist training camps in Pakistan. Yet no one bothered to inform the local police or other relevant authorities.

This doesn't imply complicity or even sympathy for their views and intended actions, but it does reveal a startling chasm that exists between police forces and the communities they are policing. In this case, the West-Midlands police and Muslim communities in Birmingham.

In my view, the West-Midlands police did a terrific job of monitoring the movements of these wannabe jihadists, and apprehended them at just the right time. We should also be thankful to them for keeping the public safe. However, the work of the 450-strong team, that worked around the clock to thwart this plot, would have been a lot easier if information from those that harboured strong suspicions was forthcoming. It would also have saved the taxpayer a lot of money.

But there are a number of reasons that help explain why this didn't happen. Firstly, many scare stories about the Government's attempts to tackle the terrorist and extremist threat have been put out by Islamist organisations and their sympathisers on the far-left.

Secondly, the conspiratorial nature of some Muslim activists in communities, that peddle a victim-hood narrative, helps to foster an us vs. them mentality and discourages a positive working relationship between the police and communities.

Thirdly, no-one wants to appear alarmist and many Muslims are hypersensitive about the image of Muslim communities, thus they prefer not to air concerns that should be aired.

Finally, family members feel they can handle such problems in-house which, as this case proves, they often can't.

This case really does point to a failure of community cohesion in Birmingham. The lack of trust that exists between certain sections within Muslim communities and the authorities is worrying and needs to be addressed. The fact that cynical political commentators also seek to exploit mutual mistrust and fears for narrow political ends, is also sad and indicative of a greater malaise that infects British society.

Unfortunately, such terrorist plots will continue to be hatched. Britain, with it's culture of free-speech combined with anti-establishment activism, is a very fertile breeding ground for extremist groups. Things are likely to remain that way until we learn to develop a greater sense of national cohesion and get better at tackling narratives that seek to divide communities and those that peddle them. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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