In January 2009, the head of Britain's Security Service (also known as MI5) boasted that his agents were succeeding in cracking down on potentially violent homegrown Islamists. Although conceding that "the battle [was] not won," Jonathan Evans told the Daily Telegraph that his agents were forcing would-be terrorists "to keep their heads down." He went on to note that there were undoubtedly terrorists planning attacks somewhere -- but probably not in Britain.
His optimism, however hedged, was understandable. His interview took place 3 1/2 years after the London terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005. During that period, the British authorities put dozens of would-be terrorists on trial and thwarted numerous attacks. In the immediate wake of 7/7, the Security Service's public critics had taken its bosses to task for infiltrating violent groups without doing more to break them up. Needless to say, Britain's domestic spies immediately set out to do just that, in a flurry of arrests and prosecutions.
But that, of course, was before Christmas Day 2009, when a young Nigerian -- the former head of the Islamic students' association at University College London -- tried to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight and shattered the myth of Britain's newfound imperviousness to Islamism. Though security officials in Britain insist that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab radicalized after he left the country for Yemen (Sanaa, in turn, blames everything on London), the case of the Underwear Bomber has dramatized the extent to which Britain remains a launching pad for jihad. (Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka prefers the term "cesspit" to describe London's function as an Islamist breeding ground.)
Just in case the Brits hadn't figured that out, the usual anonymous U.S. State Department official was happy to do it for them. Last month, an official told the Daily Telegraph that their country "has the greatest concentration of active al Qaeda supporters [in the West]," posing a threat to Britain and "the rest of the world." The same article cited a fresh and ominous finding from the director of MI5. He estimated his service was aware of some 2,000 "radicalized Muslims" who might be involved in terrorist plots. That figure, of course, doesn't include the population of plotters who have escaped MI5 scrutiny, like Abdulmutallab. As if to underline the threat, on Jan. 12, the British government banned two of the country's most notorious Islamist organizations, Islam4UK and Al Muhajiroun, under a 2000 anti-terrorism law.
So why is this particular front in the war on terrorism proving such a challenge? Haras Rafiq, a British Muslim who founded a think tank to combat Islamic extremism, worries that a big share of the blame goes to his own government. For decades, he says, Britain tolerated plotting by domestic Islamic radicals as long as they targeted other countries, often ones in the Middle East. "We gave them freedom to preach violence and extremism -- [as long as] they were preaching it abroad and not in the U.K. They used that freedom to take over community organizations, mosques, TV stations," he says. "They've been building capacity for their viewpoint." He describes the radicals' techniques as strikingly reminiscent of those of 20th-century communists and fascists. The Islamists have also mimicked the Irish Republican movement by using ostensibly non-violent political groups to covertly radical ends.
It's a strategy that the government has abetted with its well-meaning embrace of multiculturalism, some critics contend. In the 1990s, policymakers desperate to address the concerns of the nation's Muslims decided to foster the creation of Islamic umbrella groups. They also unwittingly fostered radical ones. For instance, Abdulmutallab invited extremists to speak to his college student group -- but doesn't seem to have done anything in London in contravention of British law. And he is not the only vivid illustration of how the institutions of democracy can dangerously blend with the institutions of jihadism.
Last fall, the Taxpayers' Alliance, a watchdog group, published a report assailing the "insufficient monitoring" of government funds disbursed to community organizations through a program to combat Islamist extremism. The report found that Britain had granted more than $60,000 to the Cordoba Foundation -- which, for instance, reportedly once hosted Anwar al-Awlaki, whose radical preaching inspired Abdulmutallab and Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter.
Then, there's the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella organization of more than 500 British Islamic groups that received $1.35 million in government funds. Among the MCB's more notorious members is Daud Abdullah, its deputy secretary general, who last spring signed the "Istanbul Declaration." The document essentially declares war on any country that supports Israel (known in the declaration as the "Zionist Entity") and thus seems to legitimize jihadist attacks on British troops. Since then, the MCB has issued a string of press releases expressing support for the British armed forces and stressing the patriotism of British Muslims. It has not, however, disavowed Abdullah.
So what's the right policy toward the MCB -- rejection, recognition, or qualified support? Its critics say it has no legitimacy and deserves no funds. Its defenders say it represents the wide range of authentic opinions held by British Muslims. The present Labour government initially treated it with kid gloves, but now seems to regard it as a worthy interlocutor.
Despite Abdullah's questionable politics, one columnist at the conservative magazine The Spectator, Rod Liddle, gives key members of the MCB credit for moving toward moderate positions, such as support for Holocaust Day and rejection of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie:
You might well argue that both of these issues are so fundamental to our notions of democracy, freedom and decency that nobody should be afforded credit for supporting them. But this is to ignore (as the government does consistently, pretending not to notice) the enormous, profound ideological differences between Islam and the west. For all its faults, the MCB does seem to be changing, to be moving in the right direction. And at a time when the government is lashing out at individual Muslims it does not like and organizations with which it does not agree, it may be that we need a voice to support a minority which is coming under increasing attack.
That sums up the dilemma facing British society in the years to come about as well as anything else I've read. Let's just hope that they can work something out before the next young Londoner emerges into the headlines thanks to a bomb plot.