British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised tightened counterterror laws following the deadly London Bridge attack. But that band-aid is unlikely to address the root of the problem, which goes back decades.A little over a week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, three young men jumped out of a van that had ploughed into pedestrians at London Bridge and began attacking passersby with knives shouting, “This is for Allah”.
The UK has endured a grim spate over the past three months, with the March 22 attack in London’s Westminster district, the May 22 Manchester bombing, followed by Saturday night’s London Bridge attack, which killed seven people.
The latest attack in the heart of London has once again put the spotlight on Britain’s domestic terror threat, sparking questions over how they can best be addressed.
In her Sunday morning speech outside 10 Downing Street, British Prime Minister Theresa May promised to review the country’s counter-terrorism strategy and tighten anti-terror laws, if necessary.
But barely two years ago, when May was Britain’s home secretary, a move to pass a proposed Counter-Terrorism and Safeguarding Bill “sank without a trace” due to a failure to provide a legally acceptable definition of extremism. The UK already has tight anti-terror laws, leading several experts to dismiss May’s latest promise as campaign rhetoric ahead of Thursday’s general elections.
Providing potential information to terrorists
Although UK counterterror police chief Mark Rowley has said investigators have made “significant progress” in identifying the three London Bridge attackers, authorities have released few details of the investigation results so far.
Barely 24 hours after the three young men went on a terror rampage in central London, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed the attack, according to the jihadist group’s Amaq news agency. The Amaq claim, released around 11 pm UK time Sunday, cited a "security source" as saying the attack was carried out by a "security cell" -- or sleeper cell -- of IS fighters".
The IS group claim has not been verified by UK officials or counterterror efforts.
Afghan jihad vets arrive in multicultural Britain
But while the identities and motives of the attackers are still not known, a number of security experts have noted that the British capital has long been a haven for Islamist radicals. The threat, they say, can arrive from multiple quarters since multicultural Britain, and London in particular, has for decades served as the ideal European centre for Islamists of varying stripes.
“There is no smoke without a fire. Britain is still the country, the city of London in particular, where modern Islamism developed in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Alexandre Vautravers, a security expert at the University of Geneva. “When one plays too much with fire, one can get burned. It’s now very difficult to put a lid back on this issue.”
In the 1990s, when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan saw legions of decommissioned anti-Soviet jihadists from across the Arab world seeking a place to settle, the UK was an ideal destination.
At that time, Islamist fighters from countries such as Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria discovered that local military dictators back home were not welcoming their returning Islamist war heroes.
While French security services were busy battling a jihadist threat from Algerian Afghan war veterans -- who returned to form groups such as the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) -- UK authorities were turning a blind eye to the radical Islamists fleeing to multicultural Britain.
The ‘90s ‘Londonistan’ heydays
The phenomenon came to be known as “Londonistan,” a concept popularised by right-wing British commentator Melanie Phillips’ eponymously titled book. The critique of ghettoised multiculturalism earned the wrath of liberals and left-leaning commentators, some of whom joined British-based radical Islamist Anjem Choudary in decrying author Salman Rushdie’s alleged disrespect for Islam in his book, "Satanic Verses," which earned the Booker Prize-winning author an Iranian death fatwa.
The term “Londonistan” apparently originated with a sarcastic remark by a French intelligence officer frustrated by Britain’s failure to crack down on radical Islamists in their midst.
One of the most high-profile figures of the Londonistan era was Abu Hamza, a one-eyed, hook-armed imam who preached in London’s Finsbury Park Mosque. The Egyptian cleric, who participated in the Afghan jihad, is currently serving a life sentence in the US after a New York court found him guilty of multiple terrorism charges.
Last month, the UK experienced its first blowback from Libya, when the son of a Benghazi-born British national -- who fought in Afghanistan -- conducted a terror attack in Manchester.
Ramadan Abedi, the father of Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, had fought with the Libyan Islamist Fighters Group (LIFG) in Afghanistan before moving to the UK, where his sons were born.
In an interview with the Guardian, Haras Rafiq, chief executive of the London-based anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam, wondered aloud about how a Manchester-born youth could massacre young British teenagers at a pop concert. “How has he got to this point?” asked Rafiq before answering: “By osmosis. Through his father, through his connections, through the mosque, he has been absorbing Salafi ideology and theology.”
Saudi textbooks, Sharia courts in UK
Since the Manchester bombing, which killed 22 people, officials from the Manchester Islamic Centre – commonly known as “the Didsbury mosque” – have been under the media spotlight. Three decades after Islamist returnees from the Afghan war staged a gradual takeover of many of Britain’s mosques, British audiences are finally reading reports on how the Didsbury mosque was “run by the Muslim Brotherhood”.
“I do think that in the past, there have been, if you want, ghettoes -- Muslim ghettoes -- where extremist preachers were allowed to operate,” Peter Neumann, a King’s College London professor of security studies, told the US National Public Radio (NPR) on Sunday. “And that’s the big difference [with] the United States, where you do not have these ghettoes…It is true that in these places, it was possible for extremist preachers to recruit people, for these networks to exist. And for a long time, for perhaps too long a time, security agencies and government were too reluctant to interfere and to stop that.”
The July 2005 London train attacks served as a wakeup call to British intelligence and security services. But by then, the menace had spread across London, Manchester and several UK cities.
With a community of around 3.5 million people, Britain has fewer Muslims than France. But while the British media regularly covers France’s blighted banlieues and the outraged sparked by the French ban on veils in public institutions, it often overlooks the excesses of unchecked, unregulated multiculturalism back home.
A 2010, BBC Panorama report found more than 40 Saudi Students’ Schools and Clubs in the UK and Ireland were using Saudi textbooks, many of them with anti-Semitism or homophobic messages. The Panorama team found books explaining the details of Sharia amputations for thieves.
Sharia courts continue to operate across the UK despite a 2016 government inquiry into the treatment of women by such courts. A number of British Muslim women’s rights groups have opposed the sharia courts, but they continue to operate behind closed doors.
The military operations in parts of Syria and Iraq may wrest territory from IS control, but the ideology underpinning these movements lives in ghettoes across the UK. As the IS group loses control of swathes of Syria and Iraq, the risk of jihadist attacks in West European countries have increased. Where London-based jihadists were once content to merely plot attacks in other countries, desperation -- as well as active encouragement from the IS group – is driving them to conduct attacks in the UK.