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UK approach to militant Islamists holds lessons for US

The UK says the US could learn from its counter-terrorism strategies to handle militant Islamists, which include increased cooperation between intelligence agencies and reaching out to Britain's 2.5 million Muslims.

By Aidan JonesCorrespondent / December 16, 2009

In this Nov. 17, 2009 file photo, members of the NYPD Counterterrorism unit talk outside the old federal courthouse in New York.

Mary Altaffer/AP/File

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London

A few days before Anwar al-Awlaki was to speak by video link to a fundraising event for Guantánamo Bay prisoners, officials at the London borough hosting the event were told of his militant beliefs.

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The US-born Mr. Awlaki – a preacher who urges Muslims to take up arms against his native country and a religious adviser to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5 – was promptly barred from the Aug. 30 dinner.

It was quick work by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. But his invitation underscored the difficulty of keeping tabs on who is speaking to, and for, Britain’s estimated 2.5 million Muslims.

Observers say the British experience of tackling home-grown Islamist militants is laden with pointers for US authorities. After four British Muslims carried out the July 2005 attacks on the London transit system that killed 56 people, security services set aside traditional splits between domestic and foreign intelligence work.

“Our ‘spooks’ are now coordinating and intelligence-sharing effectively,” says Anthony Glees, an intelligence and security expert at England’s University of Buckingham. “The US model is different; there are many more security agencies and a lot of conflict and competition between them. The first thing the US must do now is change its intelligence culture.”

Britain has worked to recruit moderate imams to visit jails, where Muslims – including converts – often hold sway. Professor Glees says this targets both the “useful idiots” who are often recruited to carry out attacks, and the more thoughtful would-be attackers, in the Hasan mold, who may come into contact with militant preachers like Awlaki.

The Home Office has a two-pronged counterterrorism strategy. “Contest” is aimed at rooting out violent extremists and reshaping relations between the state and British Muslims, who had not experienced significant state intrusion in their religious and community affairs. It combines beefed-up intelligence powers with “Prevent,” a hearts-and-minds approach to mosques and Muslim community groups that eschew violence.

By 2011, the government estimates it will have spent £3.5 billion ($5.8 billion) on the policy.

Results have so far been encouraging, at least where hard power is concerned.

The number of police in counterterrorism has risen from 1,700 in 2003 to 3,000; MI5, the domestic security and counterintelligence agency, has doubled. Almost 200 people have been convicted of terror offenses in the past eight years, including home-grown cells planning to blow up transatlantic jets, nightclubs, and shopping centers.

At the same time, the legal climate has shifted, with the use of “control orders” to limit unconvicted suspects’ rights and allow longer detention without charge.

Such successes have gone some way to erasing the “Londonistan” moniker. But many observers feel the “soft” power of the state has yet to find its range.

“The problem now is with ‘Prevent,’ ” says Glees. “It makes perfect sense to stop young Muslims from being seduced into extremism and violence. But the question of how we do it, and who should do it, has not been answered.”

The Home Office view is that the state should reach deep into areas with large Muslim populations – which also often suffer from high unemployment, low social mobility, and estrangement.

Around $170 million has been earmarked to attract vulnerable Muslim youths to local Muslim groups that oppose violence. Police officers have been assigned to build links with mosques, national standards have been set for imams, and citizenship classes have been established in Muslim schools. Militant activity at universities and in prisons is also on the agenda. Throughout, Muslims have been urged to report suspect behavior.

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