“I will wage war against the british government on this soil,” Brusthom Ziamani, who grew up in south London, wrote to his parents in the summer of 2014. “the british government will have a taste ov there own medicine they will be humiliated this is ISIB Islamic States of Ireland and Britain.”
Ziamani’s parents, migrants of Caribbean origin, had thrown him out of their home after he chose Islam over their faith, a neo-fundamentalist Christian denomination called the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe Armageddon to be imminent.
Later that year, having failed a government-sponsored programme meant to rid him of his fascination with jihadism, Ziamani appeared at an ex-girlfriend’s home, armed with a hammer and knife, declaring his intent to stage a terrorist attack.
“I was going to behead a soldier and hold his head in the air so my friend could take a photograph,” he told police as he was arrested.
Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London will without doubt reinforce the urban myths surrounding so-called “lone wolf” terrorism. In this pop narrative, fanatic jihadists embedded unseen in our societies, await orders from Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State, or an Afghan cave to launch terror.
The long-running story of the English jihad, however, also suggests another narrative that needs careful examination: of often-shambolic enterprises carried out by disturbed individuals living on the margins of society, finding in jihadism a language for psychopathic impulses.
“Londonstan”, French intelligence officers derisively called the city that was the true cradle of the global jihad that sprang up in the 1990s. From his pulpit at the Four Feathers Club in central London, the Jordanian Umar Mahmoud, better known as Abu Qatada, preached to “shoebomber” Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a transatlantic flight from Paris to Miami in 2001, and to the Frenchman Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 conspirators.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri — the Egyptian-born Bosnian jihad veteran, Brighton-trained civil engineer, one-time nightclub bouncer, and Imam of London’s Finsbury Park mosque — sent volunteers to Yemen.
Syrian-origin Omar Bakri Mohammad set up al-Muhajiroun, or The Exiles — the Salafi jihadist organisation that was implicated, expert Jytte Klausen has shown, in 19 of 56 jihadist plots linked to the UK between 1998 and 2010. The bombing of the Indian Army’s XV Corps headquarters in Srinagar in December 2000, the attack on a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003, the 9/11 anniversary plot of 2010 — all involved elements of al-Muhajiroun based in the UK.
It was in London that Dhiren Barot, son of an affluent Gujarati Hindu family, underwent the extraordinary transformation into a Kashmir jihadist and then an al-Qaeda bomb-plot operative, and London School of Economics student Syed Omar Sheikh turned into a Jaish-e-Muhammad killer.
From soon after 9/11, these jihadi networks began turning their gaze homewards. Muhammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two of the four British men who carried out the July 2005 London bombings, had travelled to a Pakistani jihad camp in 2003. But it’s hard to discern any real pattern to the radicalisation. Barot enjoyed every privilege British citizenship and parental wealth could procure.
Khan and Tanweer were impeccably middle class. However, Richard Reid, like the Nigerian-origin Michael Adebolajo, who hacked to death off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in a London street in May 2013, appears to have been a social misfit.
Indeed, even the idea that the English terrorist is a product of the well-documented economic and educational backwardness of its Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities isn’t true in all cases. Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed Member of Parliament Stephen Timms in 2010 to protest the UK’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was born in London to Shohid, a tailor, and British-born Nometha.
She was the eldest of five children, and lived out her Bangladeshi-origin parents’ immigrant dreams: having secured A-levels at Newham Sixth Form College, she was in the final year of a degree in English at King’s College, London.
The UK’s efforts to stamp out violent Islamism through expensively-funded counter-radicalisation programmes notwithstanding, some 800 of its nationals are now thought to be fighting with the Islamic State, while another 600 are reported to have been prevented from travelling to the theatres of war. There have been a steady string of plots at home, too, inspired by distant causes: Erol Incedal and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who sought to make bombs in 2013; King’s College, London student Suhaid Majeed, Tarik Hassane and Nathan Cuffy, who secured handguns hoping to shoot police officers; and Nadir Syed and his friends, who hoped to behead soldiers with kitchen knives.
In many of these cases, though, there has been no evidence of serious ideological or military training — or even of the kinds of rigour that would show a seriousness of purpose. The idiom is often gangland: in one 2016 case, a 14-year-old in Blackburn threatened to behead his schoolteachers.
For a fuller answer, we must examine the UK’s troubled politics of identity. In the late 1970s, as conflicts over race exploded in rioting and vigilante clashes, the British state manufactured its policy of official multiculturalism. The strategy was simple: the political system outsourced its engagement with ethnic minorities to a new contractor-class. In cities, the state ceded authority to so-called community leaders — often individuals linked to extremist Muslim groups like the Jama’at-e-Islami. The new generation of Islamists who rose in the 1990s in turn rebelled against these brokers by rejecting the secular-democratic order — often, ironically, with support from the Left.
Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, was appalled to find himself facing a gender-segregated audience at London’s University College. He attacked the UK’s deference to “vocal and aggressive” Islamic reactionaries who were seeking to impose their values on society.
The English jihadists’ notion of “we” and “them” stems from the intellectual secession that was engendered by state multiculturalism. Instead of a rich cultural landscape, official multiculturalism created a homogenised Muslim identity. Thus, Choudhry defended her attempt to kill Timms by pointing to his support of the Iraq war — a land she had never visited. “We must stand up for each other,” she said. “We must fight them,” said Adebolajo — “I apologise that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.”
His parents’ homeland, Nigeria, is ironically beset by hideous violence by jihadists. British scholar Kenan Malik wrote in a thoughtful essay in 2011 that young British Muslims found themselves “detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they often reject, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few are drawn inevitably to extremist Islamist groups where they discover a sense of identity and of belonging”. The collapse of the Left, Malik has noted, generated a vacuum, leaving no secular platform to address the crisis. “This”, wrote Salman Rushdie, “is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere”? For Indians, these are familiar questions with no easy answers.