‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.
The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.
The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.
The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.
Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.
Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.
Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.
Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.
Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.
Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.
What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been almost as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.
And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchester, stabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.
It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.
But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right; now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have to manage rather than eradicate.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.