It may be tempting fate to say so, but the conviction of the ringleaders of the airliner plot last week represents the end of an era. MI5 believes that al-Qaida has no “semi-autonomous structured hierarchy” in the United Kingdom, and there have been fewer “late-stage attack plans over the last 18 months”.
Back in the 90s and even after the 9/11 attacks, Britain allowed radical preachers such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada to promote global jihad. The warnings that community leaders gave at the time largely fell on deaf ears; and we British Muslims failed to stop the growth of this radical fringe, which was galvanised by the tragedy of Bosnia.
Around 2000, the alienation of one young muslim I knew was so powerful that he felt he could only opt for the cause of global jihad – a utopian struggle divorced from the urban realities he was failing to deal with.
Since the government crackdown on the original radical preachers, we have been dealing with their disciples, who don’t have a political ideology as such but a simple metaphysical struggle, of good verses evil. We have also come to understand that these plots were loosely linked in the UK, with three-quarters of them directed by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Pakistan.
The intelligence penetration of violent extremist networks and the clampdown on their propaganda are reducing effective recruitment into terrorism, in spite of the wave of major terrorist plots directed at Britain after the invasion of Iraq. Yet, despite our relative success, al-Qaida still intends to strike this country and we should be prepared for a change in tactics.
Social division over the Muslim question in Europe is becoming more important, and our approach to preventative policies needs rethinking. After the airliner plot was foiled in 2006, the government called for a change in direction, aiming to partner Muslims who actively confronted violent extremism. But this approach has proved too wide in focus, wasteful of resources and has damaged social solidarity.
Under the Home Office’s Prevent policy, aimed at countering violent extremism, local authorities have had to prioritise counter-terrorism. Youth services, community safety and neighbourhood teams, social inclusion and regeneration teams are all being inveigled into this cause. Community workers are concerned about how to preserve relationships of trust with those they are helping, particularly with Muslim young people. One youth worker I spoke to complained of police intrusion into his work, of being pressurised to reveal details about his clients and to breach his professional code of confidentiality. Youth services, he said, were being driven towards counter-terrorism and away from drugs and criminality.
In addition, the policy has treated Muslims as an “at risk” set of communities, rather than simply citizens. The polarising dynamic between the far right and groups such as al-Muhajiroun has led to a string of anti-Muslim demos and anti-fascist counter-demos with clashes in Luton, Birmingham and north-west London. The newly formed English Defence League is planning further demos next month in Manchester and Leeds. In July, a far-right terrorist plot with a huge cache of arms and a plan to bomb British mosques was uncovered.
This weekend John Denham compared today’s far right to Oswald Mosley’s 1930s fascists, and announced a drive to counter the extremists within white working-class communities. Yet it won’t do for the government to extend its current counter-terrorist policies to treat the white working classes as another “at risk” category. It should first reflect on just how effective the policy has been.
The vast majority of Muslim institutions that have signed up to Prevent are too distant from the violent fringe – their response has always been to kick the al-Muhajirouns of this world out of the mosques. They have felt more comfortable using Prevent funds for pet projects that have little direct impact: a government-commissioned audit found that only 3% of projects targeted those “glorifying or justifying violent extremism”. Why would this blanket approach work any better in preventing far-right terrorism? We need universal reasons – not counter-terrorist ones – to tackle inequality on a basis that all British citizens can accept as equitable and fair.
Prevent must be refocused, to employ only those with the know-how and credibility to persuade alienated Britons to turn away from violence and extremism. Last week, the imam giving the Friday address at the Harrow mosque invited those outside, who were calling for no more mosques in Europe, inside for talks. That would be a good start: polemics cannot be a substitute for understanding and reconciliation.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 14th September 2009.