Is Britain incubating terrorism?

Questions are beginning to be asked by the US and others of Britain’s capability to contain the growing problem of extremism.

In the aftermath of the Texas synagogue siege on 15th January, when Malik Faisal Akram, a Briton of Pakistani origin from Blackburn, took Jewish worshippers hostage before being shot dead by the FBI. From the mid-2000s, there has been a growing apprehension over the rise of domestic extremism in the UK, potentially leading to anti-Semitic terrorist attacks. What are the key challenges for the British government in combating this rising threat, and how does it dovetail with existing British policy? Given the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-American sentiments espoused by these radicalised individuals and groups, these are strategic questions to which answers go well beyond British borders, potentially touching on Israeli security as well. Britain’s ability to handle this strategic threat, from its changing demographics, will be keenly watched both at home and abroad.

Self-radicalisation via the viewing and imbibing of extremist materials is an emerging problem, which is worsened by the presence of hate preachers espousing variants of the violent exclusivist Salafi ideology. There is now a danger of losing parts of the British minority generation to extremism. Individuals joining proscribed terrorist groups such as ISIS is an ever present threat. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is also particularly threatening to British security, because it borders Pakistan and it is hardly a secret that some disgruntled British Pakistanis can travel there to training camps that will spring up with Taliban blessing. Going forward, Britain needs to take extra care in initiating counter-radicalisation and containment measures.

The Texas synagogue hostage event is interesting to study from a counterterrorism angle, because it shows so many of the features and trends of recent global terrorist attacks. A lone-wolf actor, who had been referred to PREVENT, Britain’s domestic counter-extremism program and was under watch by the British Security Service MI5, managed to somehow evade surveillance and enter the United States. This was a failure of both the British and US authorities. It also shows the problems with tracking and managing radicalism when the statistical incidence of radicalisation is quite high. The motivation of the attacker, who was eventually shot dead by an FBI rapid response team shows the common security threat to the West and Israel from Pakistan. The anti-Semitic rants of Malik during the siege underline the extremist threat to Jewish communities globally.  He demanded the release of his ‘sister’, Aafia Siddiqui also known as ‘lady al-Qaeda’ in counterterrorism circles, from her 86 year sentence in a US prison for attempting to kill US soldiers and security officials in Afghanistan.

Britain is, in simple terms, incubating terrorism.  Certain not willingly and perhaps not even knowingly, but the threat is stark and growing.  A common thread among many contemporary terrorist attacks in the UK is that either the perpetrator or the planners are of Pakistani origin. The ties of the Pakistani state to global terrorism are well known to the counter extremism community. Now a minority of ordinary British Pakistanis are becoming radicalised (most of the community have nothing to with extremism), many of whom demonstrate key aspects of takfiri extremism, such as an obsessive hatred of the Jewish people and Israel and the United States.

The question then arises: is British counterterrorism strategy working? It is known that hundreds of plots to attack innocent people in the UK have been thwarted by British Counter Terrorism Police and MI5. However the security services and police need to be lucky every time, while a terrorist need only be lucky once to cause death and destruction. After the synagogue hostage crisis it will now be America asking questions of the efficacy of British operational counterterrorism capability, as well as the effectiveness of PREVENT. This program has long been criticised for either not being effective enough, or for demonising minorities. The latter criticism is certainly unfair, given that at least 25% of referrals are for far-right extremism by individuals attracted to white supremacist ideologies, as opposed to 22% for Islamist extremist beliefs.

For an individual to be referred to the PREVENT program twice and still slip through the net to conduct a major attack in Britain’s most important ally, the United States, will undoubtedly be galling. Perhaps if the sheer numbers of people that now need monitoring are the problem, then the solution may lie in expanding the scope of the program, perhaps with more intense training for professionals such as teachers, health workers and community leaders.  They will not, however, always have the time, knowledge or instincts to spot and report signs of radicalisation. Serious cases are passed on to PREVENT’S Channel stage where the individuals of concern work with counterterror police, social workers, councillors and theological mentors to try and de-radicalise them. This is conceptually sound, but requires a resource intensive integrated approach with multiple organisations working to de-radicalise the threats. As the sheer number of radicalism cases in the UK rise, there will be a stretching of the resources needed to counter it.

The other political problem facing Britain is the large Pakistani origin population, the majority of whom are not radicalised, but a small minority has the potential to cause serious social cohesion problems in the near future. The British Pakistani vote is important to UK politicians, especially to the opposition Labour Party. A future Labour government may find counter-terrorism policy harder to execute as a result.  This has the potential to cause serious strategic challenges for Britain, which could be caught between the demands of its allies such as the US and Israel to bring extremists back under control, and the need to protect domestic social cohesion. That is easier said than done with such a large number of potential radicals within the UK accelerating extremism due to internet based radicalisation, especially following the pandemic lockdowns.

The US has already begun blaming Britain for allegedly failing to share intelligence on the Texas synagogue attacker. While that may be partially Washington trying to cover up its own shortcomings in allowing a known radical into the US (and allowing him to acquire a firearm), this is a dynamic that could easily carry on into the future. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the United States intelligence agencies such as CIA could launch paramilitary action in Britain (with or without MI5’s knowledge) to eliminate or arrest Pakistani origin terrorists that they deem to be dangerous in future. If anti-Semitic attacks by British radicals continue, escalating to attacks on Israelis abroad, Israel could also begin taking action in the UK.

Unless Britain finds an answer to the problem of domestic radicalism it could find itself on the receiving end of much worse than embarrassing diplomatic dressing downs. Part of the problem is that the media prefers not to talk about radicalism, focusing on aspects such as mental illness which affect only a small minority of radicalised individuals. This is not a great strategic approach. The sheer number of radicalised individuals in the UK requires strategic change reinforcement with a more comprehensive whole-of-society approach to combating the scourge of radicalism.

Britain needs to strike a balance between community cohesion concerns and the need to contain domestic extremism going forward. How it does so will be keenly watched across the globe.

About the Author
Jeevan is a writer and political analyst. He graduated from the London School of Economics with a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies, specialising in counter-terrorism and political violence. Regular tweets can be found @jeevanvc.