Engagement with the Muslim Community and Counterterrorism: British Lessons for the West

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer Scholar - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

December 31, 2007


Historians will undoubtedly record that the events of September 11th, 2001 were a turning point for policy makers and politicians in the United States of America. America faced a new kind of security threat, the response to which would spark a series of difficult chain-reactions and challenge core national values. More than six years on, America is still grappling with the question of how to respond, both domestically and internationally, to the terrorist threat.

The nineteen perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were not American citizens; they were foreign born and held foreign passports. To Western eyes, the threat thus came from a far away place. In every sense of the word, the terrorists were ‘alien.’ Following the initial shock of the attacks, many in the West felt driven to understand “the Muslim world” (with much of that world being in, and of, the West) and the environment believed to have produced this new, very foreign, threat.

Yet the notion that this threat was solely ‘alien’ to Western society was soon challenged. The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was followed by still more terrorist attacks – this time in Spain and the UK. The latter attack, on the London Transport system in July 2005, sent shockwaves throughout Europe – not because of the scale of the atrocity but because of the nationalities of the perpetrators. They were British-born. For some in the West, this confirmed their worst fears: that Muslim communities within their very midst could pose a security threat. After 7/7, concerns surrounding integration and assimilation became intertwined with counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation agendas and took on urgent importance.

Six years after 9/11 and two years after 7/7, these issues remain important. Indeed, as the gravity of the situation became clear, America began to suspect that if 9/11 were to repeat itself, the scenario would involve violent radicals entering the country with Western passports.

This paper looks to provide policy recommendations for Western governments with significant Muslim populations. To provide useful counsel, these recommendations are based on a narrative of events in the UK surrounding the 7/7 bombing and its aftermath (with some reference to the wider European context).

Following the attacks in London, seven community-led working groups were set up under the banner of “Preventing Extremism Together” (PET) to develop practical recommendations for tackling violent extremism.1 The groups offered counsel in a number of key areas, including measures to combat radicalisation.The recommendations were delivered to the Home Office Minister, Hazel Blears, with the following advisory: “We do not yet know what we do not know.”

This advisory has not changed. Certain aspects of the extremist threat have been grasped more fully, but not all. Somewhat useful but one-dimensional answers have been put forth, identifying and amplifying one issue over others. Some argue that Western foreign policy is the overriding problem and the root of all terrorism. Others identify a neo-religious imperative, and insist that its evil is enough to cause any act of radical violence. Still others point to a lack of Muslim integration in Europe, which makes violence the most attractive method of expressing frustration.

While none of these explanations is sufficient alone, together they point to questions that must be answered if we are to respond effectively to the threat of terrorism. It is hoped that this work identifies some of those questions and provides some tentative answers. It remains a possibility that Western-born Muslims will attack the West again.

So far, the aforementioned advisory to the British Home Office Minister has not been taken with due seriousness. Worse, several initiatives and policies have been proposed (and in some cases, pursued) that may simply aggravate the situation. To a degree, this is understandable. The West felt under attack, and with good reason. But the response must be strategic and improve – not worsen – our security. Nor can we allow our enemies to win by default, which would be the case if we respond in a way not befitting our values and history.

In essence, there is a generation of Muslim youth in Europe who are extremely alienated because they, unlike their parents, expect to be integrated, but find doors closed and at the same time are not at home in their parents’ native culture. They are also offended and enraged by images of Muslims being killed or mistreated around the world as a result of Western foreign policies. They are often political idealists, but are religious neophytes who are being targeted by unorthodox, ‘takfiri’2 preachers because mainstream religious authorities have been ineffective in reaching them. By and large, such preachers are unsuccessful in exploiting their indignation—but a miniscule minority do become vulnerable.

Despite differing demographics, America could face a similar challenge if the government continues to mishandle relations with Muslim communities domestically and abroad. Western governments would be well served to follow the example of the London police, which in the interest of preserving a public order that is gravely threatened, is reaching out aggressively to the full spectrum of Muslim groups within their community as partners, save those advocating violence against the state whom they are just as aggressively imprisoning. The outreach includes using Salafis, however unpalatable their social views may be, to deradicalize radicalized youth by teaching them a more generally accepted form of Salafism, which eschews vigilante violence.

These are testing times, but they are not hopeless times. Hope is neither taken away nor given by terrorists. The West must go forward now with knowledge and a refusal to abjure justice and integrity.

Al-Qa’ida’s dream is that the West will give up on hope and choose despair. But the choice is not Al-Qa’ida’s to make.

The future will depend upon what choices and actions we in the West choose to take in addressing the threat in our midst.