'Londonistan' and Britain's Homegrown Jihadists
Jul 02, 2007: STRATFOR
The United Kingdom remained on maximum alert for potential terrorist strikes on Sunday, having seen three failed attacks since June 29. Security agencies intensified the hunt for Islamist militants with raids in several cities across the country, arresting a fifth suspect. Meanwhile, newly installed Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "It is clear that we are dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with al Qaeda."
All three of the recent attacks apparently failed due to poor tradecraft on the part of the perpetrators -- part of a larger trend of inept and ill-prepared jihadists seen in recent years as al Qaeda has devolved from a tightly run organization to a loose grassroots ideological movement.
It is not surprising to see these amateurish attacks surfacing in the United Kingdom, where there is no shortage of radicalized Muslim youth who lack militant training or battle experience. This implies one of two things about the perpetrators of these attacks:
1. They are simply local actors inspired by al Qaeda who (unlike the cell that perpetrated the bombings in London on July 7, 2005) do not have organizational links with the transnational jihadist network, or
2. they are connected to al Qaeda, but the enhanced counterterrorism efforts in the United Kingdom and Pakistan are preventing al Qaeda's leadership from deploying skilled operatives there.
Option No. 2 would be a further indication that al Qaeda prime has come to a point at which its capability to stage a strike in the West has been seriously degraded. But if option No. 1 is the case, then it means jihadism has consolidated itself as a British phenomenon not necessarily in need of outside assistance. It is true that the bulk of the "Londonistani" scene constitutes radical Islamists who do not go so far as to engage in violence to pursue their objectives, but that still leaves a significant pool of potential jihadist recruits.
Either way, however, the threat to the United Kingdom is not external but homegrown; this would explain Brown's warning that the threat Britons face is "long-term and sustained" in nature. In the short term, the militants have proven themselves incapable of causing any serious damage. But bomb-making skills can be perfected -- it is only a matter of time before better-trained jihadist operatives begin to surface. From a security point of view, the United Kingdom could start to look more like a Third World state, where bombings and militant attacks happen more regularly, as opposed to a Western country where they are relatively rare.
A crackdown on the Muslim communities in the United Kingdom would likely exacerbate perceptions that the West is engaged in a war against Islam and Muslims. This view is already quite prevalent among British Muslims, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to fuel anti-Western sentiments. The recent move to knight controversial novelist Salman Rushdie and the strong Muslim response to his knighthood also could play an important role in this regard.
In this context, counterterrorism efforts will have less to do with blocking the physical means available to potential jihadists (though that will help somewhat) than with trying to bring about an intellectual defeat of jihadism -- "drying up the swamp" that produces jihadists in the first place. But this is where the British government will run into sticky issues related to freedom of expression, immigration laws and the relationship between the country's Muslim community and mainstream society.
Extremism does not necessarily lead to militancy, but given the size and the nature of the Muslim community that has not integrated into mainstream British life, and given the radical Islamist cross sections of British Muslim society, the probability of extremist elements becoming militant remains significant. Therefore, London faces the Herculean task of trying to convince mainstream Muslims to get their own house in order.