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.

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

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.

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.

A nudge rather than a push

It is, says the Home Office, a nudge rather than a push in the right direction.

But Glees says the fundamental hostility of some Muslims isn’t being addressed. “I’ve spoken to moderate clerics here who believe that the political system we have should be run by imams articulating religious law – the sharia,” he says.

British Muslims, meanwhile, are tired of being viewed through the prism of terror. There is widespread suspicion of the creep of the government into mosques and once-trusted community organizations.

“Prevent” is divisive, says Salim Mulla, chair of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, which represents nearly 70 mosques. “It is a total waste of time and money,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of mosques will not apply for funding, because its terms attribute terror to Muslims.... If the Home Office wants to help, it should have consulted the individuals and institutions that have fought extremism for years before it settled on this strategy.”

The progressive elements in Muslim communities also fear being stigmatized, argues Arun Kundnani, author of a study on Prevent titled “Spooked – how not to prevent violent extremism.”

“Every community group receiving government cash is being seen as an agent of the state. That means people who want to engage in democratic expressions of their values and beliefs, perhaps in relation to British foreign policy, may end up without a space to air their views for fear of being offered up as potential terrorists,” he says. “That boosts ... those who say that British democracy is pointless.”

There are further fears that schools, local authorities, and volunteer groups are poking around for signs of nonexistent extremism.

A suspicious Muslim community could be a boon to extremists who, armed with the Internet, have proved adept at inspiring and training people to carry out attacks. Many foiled plots were hatched beyond the influence of mosques or intelligence services.

But Prevent has had success.

Suicide arrest

In July, Muslim convert Andrew Ibrahim was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in jail for possession of a homemade suicide vest after a tip-off from sources at a Bristol mosque.

There has not been a successful attack on British soil since 2005. There is also anecdotal evidence that extremist groups and radical clerics are losing their touch.

In 2005, well before the London bombings, moderate Muslims seized control of Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, made notorious by firebrand cleric Abu Hamza. Al Qaeda operatives who had visited the mosque included Zacarias Moussaoui, charged in the United States in connection with 9/11, and Richard Reid, a British citizen serving a life sentence in the US for trying to detonate a bomb on an American flight.

Lord West, the counterterrorism minister, last month said there are 2,000 people under surveillance as a “security threat” to the country.

Ghaffar Hussain of the Quilliam Foundation, the United Kingdom’s first counterextremism think tank, says terrorists are bonded by an ideology that flourishes in Web chat rooms. “All it takes is a big issue such as Iraq to act as a recruiting sergeant,” he says. “But I don’t think those messages are coming from mosques or anyone attached to them anymore.”

Mr. Malla says: “No matter how much we speak out against terror, we are always under pressure. There are always a few rotten apples but our whole community is held responsible for them.”

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