The so-called ‘Islamic State’ has recruited 11,000 fighters, Muslims from at least 70 different countries around the world to go and join what has quickly become the world’s most bloodthirsty terrorist group. At least 500 aspiring jihadists are thought to have travelled from the UK, and British fighters abroad have now not only killed countless innocent Syrians and Iraqis, but fellow British citizens. As a result, the UK now faces two big security challenges: to prevent more British citizens from becoming radicalised and recruited by ISIL; and, to contain the threat of fighters returning to carry out an attack on British soil.
The first challenge has brought uncomfortable questions to the surface of public consciousness about the radicalisation of British Muslims, and who – or what – is to blame. How did this group of largely educated young people end up travelling to Syria to join a group so hard line that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cut ties with it?
Since 11 September 2001 the term ‘radicalisation’ has been bandied about by academics and politicians, yet it is still a comparatively unknown entity in the study of terrorism and security. Radicalisation has been loosely defined as the process of adopting theo-political ideas – the intersection whereby theology, or a certain reading of theology, informs political ideology – that can lead to violence. Islamist radicalisation involves stirring up hatred, not just against non-Muslims, Jews, women and homosexuals, but Muslims who have abandoned their faith or believe in other strands of Islam.
In some circles, the radicalisation of young Muslims has been blamed largely on poverty and/or a lack of opportunities rather than ideology. Yet, this does not explain why some of the wealthiest Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have the highest levels of radicalisation compared with the poorest, Bangladesh. A report I co-authored in 2013, Al-Qaeda in the United States, found that most individuals to have been convicted in the US for al-Qaeda related terrorist offenses are well educated and were either in employment or some form of education at the time of charge or attack. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers has been educated up to college level or above. Therefore, while it may apply to a minority of individual cases, the poverty argument is not a helpful one in how to tackle the radicalisation of British Muslims.
It would instead be effective to turn our attentions to more well-trodden paths to radicalisation and how to counter them, such as protecting Britain’s next generation of young Muslims from exposure to perceived grievances and the legitimisation of ideology peddled by extremist groups. Targeting young people for recruitment is an age-old strategy among Islamist groups. 1970s Egypt, for example, saw the student group al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya (JI) radicalise and recruit thousands of young people to its Islamist cause, many of whom ended up turning to terrorist violence as a result.
Exposure to radicalisation has, in many cases, become embedded within mainstream academic and religious institutions in the UK. The 1980s saw the government tacitly accept the presence of extremist preachers such as Omar Bakri Muhammad and Abu Hamza al-Masri, who set about attempting to reshape the minds of young Muslims to believe in their political ideology and therefore their hostility towards non-Muslims and the West. For example, from the late-1990s Abu Hamza used the Finsbury Park mosque to radicalise young men before sending many of them abroad to train for and fight jihad, to such an extent that one source described the mosque as an “al-Qaeda guesthouse in London” to the British security services.
On-the-ground recruitment networks were not just a thing of the 90s, but still exist today. Just this month is was reported that mosques in Cardiff and Birmingham are among those being used to target, encourage and facilitate Muslims travelling to fight in Iraq and Syria. Last month, Mohammad Bashir Uddin, Imam of the Jalalia mosque in Wales, resigned in protest over radical pro-ISIL preaching taking place there.
Efforts to challenge extremism are often branded as ‘Islamophobic’ by Islamists and their sympathisers, in order to deflect any opposition to their ideas or activities. This has the effect of smothering meaningful debates and the prospect of adopting sensible security measures, not least through intimidation and at times outright thuggery.
Attempts to radicalise young Muslims should never be ignored or tolerated. The British authorities and general public should follow the example of Mohammad Bashir Uddin in standing up against Islamist extremism and its henchmen having any place in public life. As a genuinely multi-cultural and multi-faith society, we need to be tough in countering efforts to stifle open and free debate about how to do so.
Emily Dyer is a Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society where her work concentrates on security and terrorism with a particular focus on Islamist threats to the rights of women. Emily has presented her work before the British and European Parliaments, as well as the White House and US National Counterterrorism Center. She has written for Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic and the Telegraph and commented in the media for the BBC and Sky News.
Image by Wikimedia available in the public domain.