Notwithstanding the embarrassing denial of entry of Dutch parliamentarian and anti-jihad activist Geert Wilders to the country earlier this month, a new report by the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London and a new British government policy tackling the growing problem of Islamic extremism in the UK give evidence of major changes in understanding and addressing the roots of terrorist recruitment. These positive developments, along with new UK government policies to combat extremism — again, apart from the hypocritical banning of Wilders after admitting a long string of Islamic radicals — are important for U.S. researchers to understand terrorist network trends and what measures could be taken here.
The new study by Dr. Peter Neumann, “Joining Al-Qaeda: Jihadist Recruitment in Europe,” was released last Monday by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This study extends the findings from a previous report prepared for the European Commission published last October. Neumann contends that in the three countries observed — Britain, France, and Spain — the kinds of threats emerging in each area are largely determined by the make-up of their respective Muslim communities. For example, the UK, with large Pakistani and Bangledeshi populations, faces threats out of Pakistan, whereas France and Spain, with North African/Arabic-speaking immigrant communities, are looking at more returning jihadists from Iraq.
One of the more important revelations from Neumann’s study is the changing dimension of jihadist recruitment in the UK. As reported by Reuters earlier this week, recruitment is now being conducted outside of mosques in smaller private venues and being led by lower-profile activists, not imams. One possible reason for this shift is the belief by the vast majority of the Muslim community that mosques are under surveillance by authorities. While first contacts with potential recruits are still being made in mosques, much of the actual radicalization and recruitment has shifted away from those settings.
Another startling trend observed is recruitment in prisons, a phenomenon already seen in the U.S. Neumann estimates that 13 percent of all inmates in Britain are Muslims — a rate four times higher than the general population. Prisons are proving to be ideal breeding grounds for terrorist recruiters as candidates are already disposed to violent behavior and the gang culture in prison forces new inmates to immediately look for new social networks for protection. Thus, recruitment happens much earlier after first contact. These jailhouse networks also extend back into the community with ready-made contacts upon an inmate’s release.
The Internet, too, plays an increasing role in recruitment as an easy, cheap, and anonymous networking tool, as seen in the dedicated efforts of many Islamic terrorist groups to produce slick multimedia presentations. Neumann’s report states that online forums, videos, and sermons normalize extremist ideology and serve as an echo chamber amplifying a long list of Islamic grievances.
But even the list of those grievances is subject to change, he observes. While terrorist groups continue to reinforce the overarching jihadist narrative of Islam under attack by Western forces of occupation and globalization, recently the themes that support the grand narrative have shifted. In recent years the primary source of attention has been the presence of allied troops in Iraq, but that has changed recently with renewed focus on Afghanistan and the recent conflict in Gaza. In terms of recruitment, these changing themes have the power of connecting recruits to distant conflicts and framing events to promote escalating confrontation locally.
These findings of shifting trends in jihadist recruitment coincide with new changes in UK government policy. Where the government had previously embraced and funded many extremist but nominally non-violent organizations, in the hopes of countering terrorist activity, a new program dubbed “Contest 2” is redefining these relationships.
As reported on the BBC’s Panorama program last Monday, “Muslim First, British Second,” the government is backing away from groups that promote extremist ideology and serve as “conveyor belts” to terrorist groups. A draft of this new strategy obtained by the Telegraph outlines five ideological points that will mark an organization as “extremist”:
- They advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries.
- They promote Sharia law.
- They believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world. This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military.
- They argue that Islam bans homosexuality and that it is a sin against Allah.
- They fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.
These policy changes come none too soon as Channel 4 just reported that UK Somalis that have trained in al-Shabaab terrorist camps are now returning home and pose a new domestic terror threat. That report stated that at least one 21-year-old individual from Ealing launched a successful suicide attack in Somali. As I noted here at Pajamas Media back in December, this is a rapidly growing problem in the U.S. as well.
This awakening by UK government officials as to the problem of non-violent extremists fueling jihadist recruitment should be noted by U.S. officials. Despite the recent announcement that the FBI was distancing itself from known Muslim Brotherhood front groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Obama administration continues to embrace Saudi-backed extremists, such as the appearance of Islamic Society of North America president Ingrid Mattson as a prayer leader at the Obama inaugural prayer service. Mattson’s participation was despite her organization being named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism finance trial.
What the Brits have learned is that such associations with Islamic radicals have not served to better engage the Muslim community, but rather have empowered the extremists and effectively shut out moderate leaders. Thus, the UK experience with shifting trends in jihadist recruitment and the changes in government policy are developments that deserve immediate notice on this side of the Atlantic.