The last major terrorist incident in the UK was the Al-Qaida-inspired 7/7 bombings in 2005. It was a sophisticated, coordinated attack that resulted in 52 killed and hundreds maimed. New Labour was faced with an unfamiliar situation. It had no clear sense of what was needed except that the ‘rules had changed’.
Fast-forward to 2017, when Khalid Masood, arguably an Islamic State-inspired attacker, killed four, with many other seriously injured. It was not a technologically innovative attack. Far from it. It was a simple deed of sheer barbarity. Ramming a motor vehicle into pedestrians is uncomplicated but also brutally effective as it does the job intended. It terrorises people!
Islamic State has a habit of putting out statements every time a terrorist incident occurs. It is probably unlikely they directed it but it is quite likely that Masood was inspired by recent Islamic State terrorist attacks, namely in Nice and Berlin. Though in the immediate aftermath of the incidents, it was still not clear what exactly had just happened.
Masood was very different from the norm with the regards to the archetype terrorist. He was much older, although he was a convert, which places him among the category of 12 per cent of convicted home-grown terrorists in the UK. In 2013, two African Christian ‘converts’ were found guilty of murdering off-duty fusilier, Lee Rigby. Converts are seemingly regarded as prone to violence but it is a statistical anomaly rather than a statement of fact. Of the one-in-six Muslims in Britain who are ‘white-British’ in origin, a significantly lower number of terrorists are found. Perhaps this a case of race trumping religious identity – which makes sense give the power of race, racialisation and racism in alienating, marginalising and excluding certain groups.
It is not the British Muslim community’s fault that this terrorism goes on in the name of Islam – Muslims have no direct relationship to it – nor is there any real association between Islam and terrorism. It is only through an indirect connection through the faith of Islam that binds ordinary Muslims to these problems. Nor do these terrorists exist within these communities. Rather, they operate at the extreme fringes, if at all, as many tend to be loners. If anything, Muslims need to take a proactive approach to present positive media stories, as the media will rely on the same old tropes in the absence of an alternative message.
A case in point is in relation to the city in which Masood had been living in for a few points prior to his decision to carry out an attack. Birmingham is not a ‘hotbed’ of extremism. It is a hugely diverse city, with all the challenges of post-industrialisation and restructuring of the economy in the light of localisation and globalisation affecting post-industrial cities everywhere else in the Global North. Indeed, there is a very particular media narrative that has been built in relation to Birmingham, and this exists in the absence of positive stories from within.
The UK government has invested considerable time and resources in tackling the problems of violent extremism, introducing new legislation, strategies and working across government policing, security, intelligence and research units across Whitehall to improve understanding and knowledge. Great efforts are being made, including sharing best practices with partners in Europe and across the world. The secret to good security is good intelligence – this is gospel in the mantra of counterterrorism lexicon. A great deal has been done to break down plots that are highly sophisticated, interconnected and well-organised; however, it is almost impossible to protect against a random motor vehicle ramming into civilians, as in the case of the Westminster attack on 22 March. This could change as car hire companies may be required to share data on hires, or manufacturers will be made to think about introducing new technology to prevent their vehicles being used in this way.
No forms of violent extremism will be tolerated in Britain, whether it is radical Islamism or far right extremism. There is a problem, however, if there is a narrow fixation on identity as somehow catalysing a wider set of solutions to deal with the cultural issues behind radicalisation. There is a tremendous conflation between conservativeness among Muslims and radical Islamism leading to violence and terrorism. While Muslims need to make greater leaps in tackling conservatism if it leads to isolation from society, this is only so in the context of actively challenging the extensive negativity associated with Islam and Muslims in the current climate. As Islamophobia rages on, and while there is a temptation to ride it out among existing disempowered communities, there are tremendous risks to this strategy in the absence of support from the state, the utterances of much of dominant media and due to wider internal ideological fissures within different schools of Islamic thought. Promoting British values to solve terrorism, however, is somewhat disingenuous.
Another issue that has emerged is the power of social media to radicalise, inspire and even coordinate attacks. Private social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google are increasingly working together to co-ordinate takedowns, including introducing rigorous vetting policies. These interventions have made great progress in recent periods and can achieve further success through stronger public-private partnerships. The UK government will seek more from these companies, especially where it continues to menace under the cloak of anonymity. All of this is important, but we must also take care not to limit hard-won freedoms of speech, as this is how progress is made: by talking to each other critically about the most sensitive of matters.
Resilience is based on confidence and belief in the possibility of having a genuine stake in society, including youth empowerment based on effective education and employment opportunities. There is also a debate to be had about the nature of social and cultural cohesion in Britain, one that accepts diversity in the construction of national identity. The question of maintaining security in liberal democracies such as Britain, however, cannot be fully appreciated the importance of freedoms is understood. Giving people a greater stake in their futures will also be important, and especially among the downcast and the forgotten.