In the last few years the British government has imprisoned, exiled or deported most of Britain’s most high-profile jihadist preachers such as Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri and Abdullah Faisal. In 2006, it also passed laws prohibiting the “glorification” of terrorism to prevent new preachers from gaining similar prominence. However, as a range of fresh plots and convictions show, these measures have not yet halted jihadist recruitment. Within the last two years, several groups of would-be terrorists have been convicted of planning to kidnap and behead British Muslim soldiers in Birmingham, join jihadis in Pakistan and carry out terrorist attacks in the UK. Other cases currently being heard by courts or awaiting trial include alleged plots to bomb several trans-Atlantic airliners and set off bombs in restaurants. The growing evidence that many of these plotters have often been radicalized within the last two years suggests that extremists in the UK have adapted to anti-terrorism measures rather than being silenced by them .
Extremists’ Changing Rhetoric
The 2006 Terrorism Act—arguably the most significant counter-terrorism measure taken by the British government since 2001—prohibited giving talks or producing and distributing material that might “glorify terrorism” or which could encourage others to commit acts of terrorism. This law has badly damaged extremists’ operations, leading to a number of successful prosecutions and sharply curtailing extremists’ abilities to incite violence. Many radical preachers are now so troubled by this law that they habitually begin and end talks with a (legally useless) disclaimer that they are not “inciting” violence or “glorifying” terrorism. Inevitably, however, some preachers have sought to use the new law as evidence of government plots against Muslims—and to use this to recruit fresh followers. For example, in one recorded talk entitled “Who is the terrorist?” (available on the main extremist website in the UK, Islambase.co.uk), “Abu Mujahidah,” a radical preacher apparently based in London, attacks the new law as specifically targeting Muslims, telling listeners that wearing Islamic clothing will soon be made illegal: “Laws will be passed to say anyone who is heard publicly praying for the mujahideen, they will be arrested under the terrorism law … not only will they do that, they will [next] make an issue out of clothing.”
But while the law has curbed overt jihadist rhetoric, many extremists have altered their preaching style rather than abandoning their arguments. For instance, many of the new generation of preachers, instead of explicitly calling for terrorist attacks in the UK, tell listeners that Islam is a conquering religion and that Muslims are obliged to strive for global domination. For example, a recent talk available on the sawtulislam.com website, which is apparently run by former members of al-Muhajiroun (an extremist group banned by the 2006 legislation), “Abu Othman” tells listeners that “[Muhammad] wasn’t content. His eyes, my dear Muslims, were on the whole world; his eyes, my dear Muslims, were on conquering the Roman empire, the Persian empire, America, Britain, Australia—you name it. That was the vision of the messenger.” The speaker also added that “we one day want to see in the UK the black flag of Islam over Ten Downing Street.” While extreme, however, these statements do not explicitly contravene the new Terrorism Act or call for terrorist attacks—leaving the government powerless against such rhetoric.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, extremist groups openly sought to recruit followers by holding high-profile events in central London and other major cities. The last major extremist rally took place in London in February 2006 to protest against the cartoons of Muhammad published in Denmark. Led by Yassir al-Sirri, a leading member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad group, protestors burnt the Danish flag, chanted in support of Bin Laden and called on Muslims to bomb Denmark and the United States. As a result of the protests, four of the demonstrators were convicted—many of whom were former leading members of al-Muhajiroun (BBC, July 18, 2007).
Since then there have been no comparable protests and radicals have abandoned their former tactic of holding high-profile demonstrations. Instead, extremists now hold smaller-scale talks and run Islamic dawa or outreach stalls in the streets with the aim of appealing to potential recruits without attracting the attention of the security services. Similarly, whereas leading extremists such as Omar Bakri and Abu Izzadeen used to regularly appear on television and radio, the new generation of extremists deliberately shuns publicity and as a result is often successful in escaping detection for long periods of time. A typical example of this occurred when Usman Ali, a prominent former member of al-Muhajiroun, was banned from a mosque in southeast London in January 2007 by its trustees for praising the 9/11 attacks (The Times, September 21, 2007). This story was briefly reported by the BBC but Ali refused all media requests for an interview. Soon afterward, Ali was appointed as chaplain to a nearby hospital. The mosque’s trustees warned hospital staff but with no effect (BBC, September 21, 2007). Eventually Ali was suspended after Muslim patients and staff complained about his extremist sermons in the hospital’s prayer room. The BBC reported the story but Ali again dropped from public view. This case indicates how extremists who avoid the attention of the media and who air their ideas only among potentially sympathetic Muslims are able to continue preaching unhindered until their activities are reported to the authorities by their own co-religionists.
In keeping with the radicals’ decision to keep a lower profile and avoid the attention of the security services and the media, extremist activity is becoming increasingly localized. Whereas terrorist recruiters formerly operated openly in prominent mosques—such as the Finsbury Park Mosque, London’s Regents’ Park Mosque (London Central Mosque) and Birmingham Central Mosque, activity has shifted to lower-profile venues around the country. In many cases, extremists now use community centers, gyms and private homes for study circles and pro-jihadist talks, although this is by no means a new development; for example, Muhammad Siddique Khan, the leader of the 2005 London bombings, attended a gym known as the “Al-Qaeda Gym” (The Times, May 12, 2006). The recent discovery of alleged terrorist plots in Bristol, Exeter and High Wycombe also indicate how extremists are now operating not only in large towns with substantial Muslim populations, such as London, Leeds and Birmingham, but also in smaller cities with comparatively small Muslim populations. At the same time, however, such localization does not always imply that any intellectual or logistical fragmentation of extremist networks is taking place. In particular, the internet allows extremists around the UK to coordinate their activities, exchange pro-jihadist texts, videos and audio recordings. Analysis of British jihadist websites shows that the most popular writers are Muhammed al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian Salafi cleric, Yusuf al-Ayyari, a leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia killed in June 2003, and Abdullah Azzam, the Paletinian-born leader of the “Afghan-Arabs” in the 1980s. Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are comparatively rarely mentioned, cited or quoted, while recorded talks by UK-based preachers such as Abdullah Faisal, Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada and Abu Bashir al-Tartusi are notably more popular. The growing importance of the internet partly explains why attending terrorist “training camps” abroad is no longer a necessary step on the road to jihad. In addition to helping radicals distribute Islamic texts and recordings, recent terrorism trials show that many potential terrorists have also used online texts detailing weapons use and explosives manufacture as a substitute for or supplement to receiving training in camps. For example, Sohail Qureshi, convicted of seeking travel to Pakistan to join jihadist groups either there or in Afghanistan, was found to have downloaded U.S. and Canadian army training manuals on guerrilla tactics and urban warfare before attempting to travel abroad (The Times, January 8).
The British government’s counter-terrorism initiatives have done substantial damage to older terrorism networks based around veterans of jihadist conflicts in Afghanistan, Algeria and Bosnia. However, a new generation of radicals is now arising to take their place. In many cases, these men are brought up in the UK, speak fluent English and are better able to work around counter-terrorism laws and avoid conflict with the police than the older generation of largely foreign-born radicals. These new extremists are not just based in a few prominent mosques but are widely dispersed throughout Muslim communities around the country. Despite this dispersal, the internet allows extremists to remain in contact, to keep abreast of ideological, military and strategic issues affecting the worldwide jihad and to communicate with like-minded radicals around the UK and abroad. The recent arrest of two young white converts to Islam in two separate alleged bombing plots further highlights the continuing and broad appeal of these ideas (see Terrorism Focus, June 10). British jihadist networks are rapidly evolving; the British security services must now find ways to evolve to tackle this new and emerging threat.
1. This article is largely based on research carried out by the author while writing “Virtual Caliphate: Islamic Extremists and their websites,” a report published by the UK-based Centre for Social Cohesion earlier this month.