The terror timebomb

The headlines have concentrated on the arrest of nine men and the discovery of bomb materials. But intelligence sources have told the IoS that the hunt is on for a hard core aiming to recruit a 'second generation' of disaffected young Muslims
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Britain's security services, already working overtime to contain a host of terrorist threats, face a new nightmare. Islamist extremists with links to al-Qa'ida are seeking to recruit a "second generation" of terrorists among young, disaffected British Muslims.

Their targets are second- or third-generation Muslims, born and educated in Britain, who feel a crisis of identity - a crisis that has worsened since the September 2001 attacks. In the words of Dr Tahir Abbas, director of the University of Birmingham's Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture, they are desperate for status and to prove their masculinity.

In the 1990s, hundreds of young British Muslim men who felt the same way sought military training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some simply thought it would be an adventure. Others dreamt of liberating Kashmir, the region of origin for most Britons of Pakistani descent, who make up half the Muslim community in this country.

For most of these would-be jihadis, security sources say, it was a sobering experience: they discovered they were more British than they imagined, and were repelled by the extremism they encountered. In nine cases out of 10, they returned to Britain, vowing to stay out of trouble. But the same training camps were being used by Arabs, Afghans, Chechens, Turks, Uzbeks and Filipino Muslims, and one of the main doctrines being taught was that the jihad was not just about one country, but wherever Muslims were deemed to be oppressed.

A handful of British Muslims absorbed the message of global Islamist revolution and fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan, where some were killed. The security services believe a hard core of perhaps one or two dozen, imbued with the spirit of al-Qa'ida, have returned to this country with the aim of enlisting their younger selves.

Fears that British Muslims are being targeted for terrorist recruitment led the Muslim Council of Britain to write to more than 1,000 mosques last week, urging greater co-operation with the authorities in the campaign against terror. The council was, in turn, attacked by radicals who claimed it reinforced the association of Islam with terrorism.

But Dr Abbas, author of several books on Islamic culture, including the situation of British Muslims after 9/11, felt both sides might be missing the point. "The young people don't go to mosques," he said. "The language used there doesn't engage them. They read leaflets they find lying around and they look on websites. It's a complete misconception that the mosques are part of this."

According to another source, however, it is suspected that some British Muslims have been recruited by al-Qa'ida sympathisers after "having expressed anti-Western views in a religious environment". The recruiters are thought to be avoiding inner-city mosques, such as those in London's Finsbury Park and Brixton, where Muslims convicted of terrorist offences are known to have worshipped and surveillance is heavy. Instead, they are said to be seeking out mosques in more out of the way areas.

"Talent spotters" are also focusing on followers of groups that espouse extreme interpretations of the Koran, notably al-Muhajiroun, led by Sheikh Omar Bakri. While al-Muhajiroun promotes controversial views, it has never been directly linked to terrorism. But it is thought to provide fertile ground for those seeking recruits who can be persuaded to take violent action in support of their beliefs.

The emergence of radical British Muslims as potential terrorists adds to the burden of the security services. Up to now, the threat of terrorism seemed to come mainly from known al-Qa'ida operatives - or North African émigrés.

According to Dr Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St Andrews University, the security services have been well aware of the danger that British citizens would become involved in terror. "They know that long before 9/11 British citizens had gone out to fight with jihadis in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan," he said. "There have also been Brits like Richard Reid, who have been involved in terrorist attacks."

The security services are still struggling to understand the process of radicalisation that has caused a small but significant number of young Muslim men who have been born or grew up in Britain to reject British culture and become drawn to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. This creates many problems for MI5, since home-grown extremists are harder to identify and watch than much smaller émigré groups. "There have been examples of British Muslims involved in terrorism in the past, but not in these numbers," said a Whitehall source.

How would they identify potential terrorists? "MI5 is not in the business of profiling for potential terrorists," said the Whitehall source. "Monitoring on that basis would involve social engineering on a whole sector of society. The Security Service is lead-driven - pursuing suspects on the basis of leads has always been a more reliable method."

The sheer scale of monitoring such a large group is part of the reason why MI5 has just had a 50 per cent increase in funding. MI5 and the Metropolitan Police are both increasing the number of officers assigned to counter-terrorism. Over the past year, nearly 700 more police officers have been drafted in to assist the anti-terror operation in London alone, and the Met is expected to get an additional £52m for this purpose over the next 12 months.

"It's an absolute minority who take it to this extreme level," said Dr Abbas, talking of young men who found the mainstream Islam preached in the mosques to be watered down and who sought a stricter form. Often they are British Muslims of Pakistani origin. "The regions they come from are very poor and then they come to poor regions over here," he said. "You either break out, disassociate yourself and become Westernised, or go the other way, which is radicalism. The wider problem is that they are very cut off, with a very negative view of the outside world.

"We are talking about a marginalised, fragmented community. There are huge problems of leadership. I'm very critical of the way the Muslim community organises itself. But I'm also very angry with the hard-line way of dealing with this ... The people who carry out these suicide bombings are middle-class. It's usually the intellectual class who leads. It takes that type of individual to kick-start it."

Tony Blair's "unrelenting" support of George Bush, and the refusal of young Muslims to tolerate racism, are other factors behind the rise of fundamentalism, according to Dr Abbas. "The young people don't want to face up to the same racism as their parents," he said. "Religion is a major fault line. The kowtowing is over."

In his opinion, it will take a generation before the Muslim community in Britain feels accepted. "People are coming out of universities and the public will realise they are not fundamentalists," he said. "Once the young settle themselves, once the international terror movements get out of the way, we are talking 10 to 15 years before [the community] settles down."