Tempted by terror

To lose a few citizens to radical Islam is unfortunate. To lose as many as 1,600 (according to the MI5 boss) could be considered careless.

Let us assume, just for a minute, that Eliza Manningham-Buller’s headline-grabbing figures about the number of terrorists who threaten Britain are accurate. The head of Britain’s security service, MI5, claimed at the end of last week that there have been five intercepted terror plots since the attacks in London on 7 July 2005 and 30 more alleged conspiracies, and that there are 200 active groups or networks and at least 1,600 individuals under surveillance in the UK.

These figures seem to have been issued in good faith – and we all have an interest in the security services ensuring that anyone who is actually planning to harm the public is stopped in his or her tracks. But, to paraphrase and abuse the words of Oscar Wilde, we might also say that, ‘To lose a few citizens to becoming terrorists is unfortunate; but to lose this many must surely count as careless.’ The MI5 boss’s revelation of scary numbers was effectively a pitch for more resources, but she also unwittingly revealed that Britain should spend as much time addressing its broader cultural problems as it does its security threat. And we could start by asking why, according to MI5, so many Britons are turning to, or at least professing to support terrorism.

Take the case of Dhiren Barot for example. This convert to Islam was, according to those who put him away for 40 years last week for plotting various terrorist attacks in London and beyond, ‘the most significant al-Qaeda terrorist captured in Britain’. If that is true, then it would seem we don’t have as much reason to fear al-Qaeda as we thought. Despite keeping copious notes about radioactive substances and filling limousines with gas cylinders, Barot had yet to acquire any actual materials. He was more like a self-styled al-Qaeda agent, and a deluded fantasist to boot.

Barot and various others, including those radical imams who sometimes hit the headlines by screaming and shouting and threatening beheadings, are all shirt and no trousers. Their barks or actions are unlikely to bring civilisation to its knees. And yet as politicians and journalists obsess over such individuals, a much bigger point is being missed: the extent to which these individuals’ views about Western civilisation being corrupt and decadent have a broader popular resonance, and not only among the Muslim community.

For instance, rather than worrying about the radicalisation of a few individuals in schools and universities – as many have been doing recently, following claims that ‘al-Qaeda’ is recruiting among these influential constituencies – we would do far better to ask what exactly we want schools to teach in the first place. Is the curriculum so uninspiring that, to some kids, radical Islamists look like an attractive alternative? Surely it is the state’s inability to provide young, bright, energetic and ambitious individuals with any clear sense of purpose and direction that is the real problem here. And yet, how much easier it is to blame the odd guy with a beard for leading young people astray.

Many of the individuals caught up in contemporary terror plots have little if any connection to people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, or anywhere much beyond Luton, Burnley and Leeds. Islam is their motif rather than their motive. It is a brand name for sticking two fingers up to what they perceive to be a degenerate Western culture. But then, the assumption that Western societies are decadent and corrupt is a common one, not limited to the ranks of radical Islam.

Some people were surprised over the summer to hear that one of those arrested in relation to an alleged plot to blow up planes leaving Heathrow was the son of a Conservative Party agent. And yet, if you read the words of various firebrand Islamists, they sometimes sound quite similar to those expressed by disgruntled Conservatives, especially in the right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail: both sides seem concerned about wayward youth, chavs, drunkenness, lack of respect, moral decline and so on. Of course one side chooses (allegedly, in many instances) to react violently against this perceived rottenness of contemporary society, while the other side merely writes irate newspaper columns about it. But both seem to share a kind of cultural self-loathing.

It is this broader cultural problem that needs to be addressed. Eliza Manningham-Buller almost reached that conclusion herself towards the end of her talk last week, when she said there are aspects to this problem that cannot be solved through her service. If we fail to engage in the bigger social debate about what we are for (rather than just against), then we will continue to scare ourselves by highlighting the potential plans of a few freaks and ignoring the wider social forces that sometimes nurture these freaks’ ideas.

Bill Durodie is a senior lecturer in risk and security at Cranfield University Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

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