Special Report - Britain's fight against militancy

BIRMINGHAM, England Tue May 24, 2011 3:01pm BST

Muslims are restrained by police officers during their protest march towards the U.S. Embassy, after an English Defence League (EDL) demonstrator attempted to attack them, in London May 6, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Muslims are restrained by police officers during their protest march towards the U.S. Embassy, after an English Defence League (EDL) demonstrator attempted to attack them, in London May 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

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BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - In a community centre in the British Midlands, 12 teenage boys -- all of south Asian descent -- watch intently as Jahan Mahmood unzips a canvas bag and pulls out the dark, angular shape of a World War Two machine gun.

He unfolds the tripod, places the unloaded weapon on a table and pulls back the cocking handle. The boys crane forward.

Mahmood pulls the trigger; a sharp snap rings out.

It's two days since the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Mahmood, a local historian, is taking his own stand against global militancy. His show comes with a dose of education: a lesson in how Muslim and British soldiers fought together to defeat the Nazis. His methods are unconventional, but Mahmood believes they help address a weakness at the core of British counter-terrorism policy.

The U.S. operation to kill bin Laden may have marked "a strike at the heart" of international terrorism, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, but in the broader fight against terror, the al Qaeda leader's death was largely irrelevant.

In deprived British inner-city districts like Alum Rock -- a huddle of redbrick homes, fabric shops, Urdu-language DVD stores and fruit stalls -- the Saudi-born militant is almost an afterthought. Young men's beliefs here are driven more by their own sense of alienation, racial abuse and what they see as a deeply anti-Muslim foreign policy.

On the frontline of the war against terrorism -- and Britain is undoubtedly a frontline -- private initiatives like Mahmood's hint at the failure of state-sponsored efforts to counter jihad. Almost six years on from a massive coordinated terror attack on London's transport system, the main nationwide programme to deter young men from extremism still hasn't moved past mistrust and suspicion. The one-year-old Conservative-led government now wants to tweak the policy. For some Muslims, the question is whether the state should even try.

"There's still a basic inability to get the idea that, actually, as government, you might not know best," says Rachel Briggs, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. "There's a very difficult balance between where government can be involved, and be effective, and where actually government involvement negates the whole process."

SHARED HISTORY

Spend a few hours in Alum Rock, and it soon becomes clear why answers aren't easy.

For Mahmood's community, the display with the belt-fed MG42 machine gun works.

The fearsome weapon -- its firing pin has been removed but armed it could shoot 1,500 rounds a minute -- was used by Nazi troops to devastating effect: the boys Mahmood shows it to are not much younger than most of the 87,000 soldiers who came from what was then Britain's Indian colony to be killed in the war.

"This is what your grandfathers faced collectively so that you could enjoy your lives in Britain today," he tells them. "This is your country, and with that comes certain responsibilities towards it."

He also speaks at length about Islamic values and how there are good and bad people of all faiths. He tells the boys: "Change your thoughts, and you will change the world."

After the September 11, 2001 World Trade Centre attacks, Britain cracked down on radical militants among the country's 2 million or so Muslims. Beyond trying to arrest their way out of the problem, security officials looked for programmes to stop young men from becoming extremist in the first place. The government's de-radicalisation initiative was called Prevent, launched in its current form in 2007 by the former Labour government of Tony Blair.

With a budget in the tens of millions of pounds, the scheme represents a fraction of Britain's total security and counter-terrorism budget of more than three billion pounds. The programme uses many arms of the state, including police and local government as well as voluntary groups and youth activists to help neighbourhoods counter al Qaeda's anti-western message. This can involve helping people find education and a job, theological discussion, mentoring or counselling.

But a string of plots have since weakened faith in Britain's ability to calm the problem. "We remain extremely busy with terrorist casework on a day-to-day basis," Jonathan Evans, the head of domestic spy agency MI5, said in a September 2010 speech. In December, a fresh wave of unease was unleashed with a suicide bombing in Stockholm, Sweden, by a man believed to have become radicalised in the English town of Luton.

What has gone wrong? In places like Alum Rock, Prevent has become ensnared in a row about British identity, racism, immigration and religious tolerance. So ingrained are the doubts, even groups who take funding from it tend to be viewed with suspicion among some Muslim communities.

After Mahmood's lesson with the machine gun, some of the boys stay to talk about bin Laden, who they say was a bad Muslim. "He is one of those big terrorists in Pakistan," says Faisal, 15. "He killed his own people. Killing other people is not part of being a Muslim."

Youth worker Mohamed Safir says this kind of comment shows Mahmood's approach is working. The boys respect him because he is one of them -- a Muslim Birmingham local of south Asian ancestry -- and he aims to give a sense of belonging to them. Even though they are third or fourth generation, the boys say they face near-daily abuse by white Britons who say they have no place in the country.

Crucially, for the people around Alum Rock, Mahmood takes no public funding for this part of his work. The fact his initiative lies outside of Prevent gives it credibility.

CAMERAS FOR THE COMMUNITY

To understand this community's mistrust of official projects you can start, literally, on the streets. It was there that local police and government mounted what must have been one of Europe's clumsiest counter-terrorism operations.

Project Champion was a ring of more than 100 closed-circuit TV and automatic number-plate recognition cameras erected around the district and neighbouring Sparkhill in the first half of 2010. It was billed as a project to tackle drug dealing, vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour, but later that year the Guardian newspaper revealed that in reality the cameras were there for counter-terrorism surveillance.

"Trust evaporated," said a former West Midlands counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. The disclosure raised a public outcry, undermined local confidence in the police, and fostered a sense that predominantly Muslim areas were being picked on.

The authorities started dismantling the spy cameras this month, but their removal on its own will do little to build confidence.

Prevent was not actually behind this scheme, but it was already tarred with the same brush. In March 2010, a parliamentary report said the programme was failing because too many Muslims felt it was being used to snoop on them. Government officials say that fear is overblown: Charles Farr, head of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, blames the perception on what he calls misrepresentation in the media. He says Prevent is not aimed at spying.

The criticisms don't stop there. Prevent is derided by many Muslim groups for relying heavily on the police, for bureaucracy and incompetence, and for being open to exploitation by cash-hungry groups with questionable claims to community leadership.

From Luton, a short drive to the north of London where the Stockholm bomber is believed to have taken up jihad, the secretary of the Islamic Centre offers one of many criticisms of Prevent. Farasat Latif points to a Prevent-backed programme to bring groups of Muslims and non-Muslims together on weekend camps where they would play football and talk to each other about their cultures.

"No-one who is violently radical would even consider going to such a thing," he said by telephone. "For a start it's men and women mixing together, which is a no-no."

MIXED MOTIVES

Latif says he knew the Stockholm bomber, Taymour Abdulwahab. When Abdulwahab attended the local mosque he did not advocate violence. Had he done so, he would have been reported to the police. "I would have no qualms in reporting someone if I knew they were going to commit terrorist acts -- I would be sinful if I didn't report them -- it would be a crime against God not to."

Yet his community has refused to go anywhere near Prevent. Like other Muslim representatives interviewed for this article, he argues that while the state has a legitimate interest in protecting its own people, it should keep out of the "hearts and minds" work of de-radicalising young people.

That, he and others argue, is best served by expert exposition of Islamic theology -- a job for preachers, not civil servants.

"Prevent was about community cohesion which is a good thing. It was about preventing violent radicalisation, which is also a good thing," he says. "And it was about intelligence gathering -- which is necessary -- all mixed into one. And that is not going to work and that's why we didn't want to participate."

It's an opinion that illustrates reservations voiced by Briggs, the analyst, who points out that whatever the religious questions, the national security establishment -- a sector marked by state dominance, hierarchy and secrecy -- isn't adept at listening to others' views.

"Government traditionally is poor at engaging communities anyway," she says. "And it's on this very difficult territory where it needs to work in partnership, but doesn't understand how to do partnership without being in total control."

COMMON VALUES

The Conservative-led government is revamping the programme and expects to re-launch it in a month or so. It says Prevent has failed in part because it tried to fit into Labour's policies of "multi-culturalism", or the embrace of separate, co-existing communities of ethnic Britons and immigrant stock.

Alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron -- who has said multiculturalism fails to provide a vision of society to which Muslims would want to belong -- is shifting the political stance towards encouraging ethnic minorities to absorb more British ways.

The future shape of Prevent will include promoting "common" values, Pauline Neville-Jones, who resigned this month after serving a year as Security Minister, told a U.S. audience in April.

"We know in the U.K. from our own citizenship surveys ... that ... where people are segregated from the rest of society, they are more likely to accept the extremist arguments," she said. "This is then liable to become an enabling context in which the espousal of violence is made easy."

Neville-Jones and Cameron have hinted they will not deal with groups with a reputation for more hard-line interpretations of "Islamism" -- a term indicating the belief that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life.

"We need to think much harder about who it's in the public interest to work with," Cameron said in a keynote speech in Munich in February.

That may be easier said than done.

SEARCH FOR THE MAINSTREAM

Islamists are an immensely varied community and are found in many local Muslim organisations; such groups were initially welcomed as advisers by the Blair government after the attacks of 2005. But in recent years some of the groups, including the high-profile Muslim Council of Britain, have been kept increasingly at arms' length by policy-makers who appear to believe they do not represent mainstream British Muslim opinion.

Britain's multitude of Muslim groups have roots in countries across Asia, Africa and the Arab world. Finding the mainstream is a tall order, especially for a predominantly secular establishment like Britain's civil service.

Although Muslims all pray in the direction of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the faith does not recognise a theological point of authority in the way the Pope in Rome has directed global Catholicism for centuries. There are various schools of Islamic law, which leaves many questions open to dispute and interpretation.

The Institute of Race Relations, a British educational charity that researches race relations throughout the world, suggested in a 2009 report that the UK government was favouring Muslim organisations on theological grounds. Sufis, members of a contemplative, mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, were being preferred because they were viewed as more moderate than Salafis, it said.

To an outsider, that might seem sensible enough. Salafism is an ultra-conservative brand of Islam that emphasises religious purity; its adherents act out the daily rituals of Islam's earliest followers. They do not seek overt political influence, partly because their beliefs forbid it, but they do seek to make society more Islamic.

But the same report went on to chide Prevent for creating an atmosphere where people who radically criticised government risked losing funding and being labelled "extremist". To attempt to depoliticise young people and restrict dissent was counterproductive, it argued: it gave weight to the extremist argument that democracy was pointless.

In Luton, Latif, for one, echoes this view. He believes Salafis are best placed to de-radicalise vulnerable youths, since violent jihadists tend to refer to the same scholars and sources as Salafis to justify their extremist beliefs. "I don't think the state can do much really, because the whole thing is a theological issue."

But he goes on to highlight how radicalised youth are driven by broader concerns, particularly a foreign policy which since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been seen by many Muslims as anti-Islamic.

"We believe the onus is on us Muslims to tackle violent radicalisation, because the British government has no credibility whatsoever amongst even fairly moderate Muslims, because they, like they Americans, are state-sponsors of terrorism," he says.

WIDER INFLUENCE

People don't have to be part of any group to embrace jihad, of course. The tiny community of dangerously radicalised British Muslims is also influenced from abroad, in the privacy of their homes. Counter-terrorism chiefs got an unpleasant reminder of this in May 2010 when a British woman of south Asian descent stabbed and wounded senior lawmaker Stephen Timms at his constituency offices. Prosecutors said she had been radicalised solely online by extremist propaganda.

"In a matter of months she had turned from this hardworking student into a potential terrorist murderer," Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the country's top counter-terrorism officer, told a security conference in April. "This appalling crime illustrates just how asymmetric the current threat is, how difficult it is to pre-empt and counter."

The parliamentary committee that criticised Prevent also pointed out that the issues go far wider than theology. "In our view a persistent preoccupation with the theological basis of radicalisation is misplaced because the evidence suggests that foreign policy, deprivation and alienation are also important factors," it said in its March 2010 report, "Preventing Violent Extremism". Prevent's single focus on Muslims had been unhelpful, it said.

ENTER THE RADICALISER

Whatever path it takes, the new version of Prevent is unlikely to work with Abu Izzadeen. Dressed in traditional white Muslim attire with a shaved head and bushy beard, the Londoner, of Jamaican ancestry, is a self-proclaimed radical Muslim preacher who spent two and a half years in jail for terrorist fund-raising and inciting terrorism overseas.

"I'm a radicaliser. I see myself as a radicaliser and I've tried to radicalise in prison and I've tried to radicalise outside," he tells Reuters. Asked if he has succeeded, he replies "I believe I have."

Izzadeen dismisses any Muslim who would cooperate with schemes such as Prevent: "Prevent has been in reality a cache or money bag which has been offered to those who have a weakness in their belief that they are willing to sell their own standing, their own place in Islam for a price to, in effect, do the government's bidding."

Blaming Britain's foreign policy for the rise of extremism, he asks why the country picks Islamic targets -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- but ignores others. "Any rational human being will say to himself, 'because there's a connection with what they're doing on their foreign policy and what we're doing.'"

At the same time, he does not see any problem being a British citizen. "Britishness -- what does it mean? I have a British passport so on a national level I have an identity which is a travel document. But if you're talking about if my allegiance lies to the UK or the Queen or to (her grandchildren) Harry and William or Kate now, that's completely laughable."

In Alum Rock, the historian Mahmood believes radicals on the Islamist fringe incite hatred between communities just as white supremacists do.

But even he agrees that Britain's foreign policy hurts its attempts at dealing with home grown radicals. He also feels that less extreme Islamists, including Salafists, should have a role in de-radicalisation.

It would be a "bad mistake" to try to prevent Islamists from convincing young men to abjure violence, he argues. "You couldn't get a Protestant head of clergy to convince a Catholic. It's the same model you would apply here.

"The first rule of negotiations is really about understanding who it is you are dealing with. If you are talking to someone who is radical and there is nothing you have in common with them, then the chances of you overcoming their view and interpretation is very slim."

Still, he believes the state has a role to play in dealing with radicalised youths.

"If everything is entirely left to the community, what about the intelligence-gathering?" he says. "How are community members going to know if someone is at the point of carrying out an attack? If something goes boom, and you hadn't informed them, the authorities are going to hit you from every angle. They are going to ask, 'What makes you think you have all the correct skills to deal with this? Why didn't you alert us?'

"That's what's going to happen."

(Michael Holden and Stefan Ambrogi reported from London, William Maclean reported from Birmingham; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson)

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