British-born bombers: not so shocking

From 9/11 to 7/7, nihilistic terror has its origins in the West.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Charles Clarke, the British home secretary, is ‘shocked’. According to the latest police updates, the London bombers were not some Johnny Foreigner threat to our ‘way of life’: they were four young Britons brought up in our way of life; four men aged between 19 and 30 who were born in Britain to normal, and by all accounts perfectly respectable, Pakistani families.

But why is Clarke shocked? The harsh reality is that these young Brits would appear to be pretty typical al-Qaeda types. For al-Qaeda is not, as many have claimed since 9/11, a bunch of foreigners brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo or Ramallah and hell-bent on launching war against a faraway West; they tend to be young, respectable, often middle-class and sometimes naive men, many of whom were born or educated – and even radicalised – in the West. For all the talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’, al-Qaeda is a largely Western phenomenon.

Yet there is a palpable sense of shock on the front pages of today’s papers. ‘Suicide bombers from suburbia’ says the Daily Mail, asking, above a photograph of the Beeston area of Leeds from which three of the four men reportedly hailed, how ‘these utterly British streets produced twisted young men who hated this country so much’ (1). The Mirror says, in shocked tones, ‘They were four ordinary British lads from ordinary British homes. One was 19. One played cricket. One’s parents have a chippy…’ (2). ‘THE BRIT BOMBERS’ yells the front page of the Sun, describing as ‘truly shocking’ the revelation that the ‘backpack butchers’ were young Britons (3).

The reason why everyone from the leaders of government to leader-writers in the press are shocked that the London bombers came from Leeds is because they have, for four years, been in denial about the true nature of al-Qaeda. Until recently, al-Qaeda was always discussed as a foreign threat and as some kind of structured army, as the ‘embittered few’, in the words of President George W Bush, who were being ‘harboured’ by rogue states (4). And this foreign threat reportedly required a foreign war – against Afghanistan – even though, as a subsequent study showed, not a single known member of al-Qaeda is an Afghan (5). In truth, al-Qaeda, firstly, is not some structured group with any kind of membership scheme, sending volunteers to launch attacks around the globe; rather it has become little more than a name, a banner, under which various individuals do things for various reasons. And secondly, al-Qaeda is not as foreign as officials claimed; its breeding grounds tend to be in cities in the West, in Hamburg, Paris, London, New York and Montreal, rather than ‘over there’.

Now, however, earlier official denial about the nature of al-Qaeda is giving way to something equally problematic: an official panic about the threat posed by homegrown fanatics to the fabric of society. The Sun today says there are ‘200 more Brits ready to blow themselves up’ (6). The Sunday Times leaked a Whitehall document on 10 July, which claims that a network of ‘extremist recruiters’ are circulating on British university campuses and coaxing young Muslims to become violent-minded fanatics (7). They’ve gone from denying that al-Qaeda was in anyway a Western thing to claiming that al-Qaeda representatives are running rampant in the West and warping young minds.

The peculiar end result is that our leaders now overstate the problem of homegrown terrorism and the role played by ruthless recruiters, while underestimating the depth of the crisis in Western society that has allowed something like al-Qaeda to arise.

For all the shock about the four Leeds bombers – and of course it is shocking and depressing that four young men should destroy their own and many others’ lives in such a degraded way – these are not the first Brits to carry out al-Qaeda’s, or whoever’s, dirty work. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, convicted in Pakistan of murdering the American journalist Daniel Pearl, is a posh kid from Britain: his father was a wholesale clothes merchant in Wanstead, east London, and Sheikh was educated at the prestigious fee-paying Forest School in Walthamstow and the London School of Economics. He was also a member of the British arm wrestling team, before moving to South Asia in the mid-1990s – reportedly inspired by a video showing at the LSE of Muslims’ plight in Bosnia – where he got involved in a radical Islamist group that excelled at hostage-taking (8).

Richard Reid, the wannabe shoe-bomber who tried to blow up a jumbo jet over the Atlantic in December 2001, was an unemployed loner brought up in Bromley in south-east London who became radicalised at the Brixton mosque. His co-conspirator, the British-born Sajid Badat, who bottled out of his shoe-bombing mission, came from a rather more middle-class background in Gloucester: he was educated at the prestigious Crypt Grammar School for Boys, which counts the late Sir Robin Day among its alumni, and his father worked for Wall’s ice cream (9). This is the geeky British kid whom the then home secretary David Blunkett described as a ‘very real threat to the life and liberty of our country’ (10).

Other al-Qaeda associates have lived, worked and studied in the UK. Zacarias Moussaoui, the ‘twentieth hijacker’ of 9/11, was a French-born Muslim who got involved with fundamentalists at the Brixton mosque. Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, al-Qaeda’s alleged computer whiz, who was arrested in Pakistan in July last year, had attended a course in human resource management at City University in London in 2003; and apparently his role in al-Qaeda was kind of a middle-managerial one – he is said to have been a link between al-Qaeda leaders and operational cells (11).

Some of al-Qaeda’s most notorious supporters were radicalised in the West. The Cairo-born Mohammad Atta, one of the key organisers of 9/11 who piloted the jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, seems to have developed his particular brand of anti-Western terrorism while studying urban planning in Hamburg, Germany. In Cairo he had been a member of the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood but was never involved in terrorist activities. He and two of the other 9/11 pilots – Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi – were middle-class students of Arab origins who first became radicalised in Hamburg. The fourth pilot, Hani Hanjour, had been a student at the Center for English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona. At one stage in his life, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the key planner of 9/11, studied at a university in North Carolina (12).

Ahmed Ressam, a 33-year-old Algerian who was caught trying to plant a bomb at Los Angeles international airport in 1999, had drifted around the ex-pat Algerian community in France before moving to Canada – and it was in a Canadian mosque that he first got involved in Islamic extremism (13). The reported ringleader of the Madrid bombings of March 2004, Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, who subsequently blew up himself and four of his colleagues when police came to arrest them, was a Tunisian who had lived in Spain for eight years. He had left Tunisia to study economics at the prestigious Madrid University and later worked as an estate agent; he was said to have lived in a middle-class suburb of Madrid (14).

And on it goes. Some of the most notorious terrorist acts executed by al-Qaeda and its associated groups have been organised in the West, by men who lived and worked in the West. Indeed, one of the most interesting studies of the individuals who make up al-Qaeda, carried out by Professor Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania, found that a large majority of them were ‘global citizens’, young men who had been sent to Europe and the USA by usually middle-class families for education and job opportunities.

Sageman found that out of 382 members of al-Qaeda or closely related groups, over 70 per cent ‘joined the jihad’ in a foreign country, many while in the West. As he told spiked last year: ‘Basically, what we’re talking about here is the elite of the country sent abroad to study, because the schools in Germany, France, England and the USA are better.’ Sageman also found that a majority of his al-Qaeda sample were middle-class, educated to a graduate or post-graduate level, and had good jobs. He said: ‘It is comforting to think of the terrorist as “the Other”, but that isn’t quite the case. Mostly these guys are the elite of their countries; they are very much like some of us in the West.’ (See Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill.)

Indeed, movement to the West, or at least some kind of global travel, seems almost to be a precondition to becoming an al-Qaeda associate. In his seminal Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke makes a clear distinction between myopic, narrowly focused groups such as the Taliban and Kashmiri outfits, those Pashtuns and Pakistanis who are generally obsessed with local conflicts and the minutiae of religious rules, and a global group like al-Qaeda. For example, in the late 1990s, when Osama bin Laden was based in Afghanistan, the Taliban became increasingly ticked off by his love of global media attention: where the Taliban saw film and photography as backward and dangerous, al-Qaeda invited CNN and other journalists to come and film them (15). Where the Taliban was focused on the local, al-Qaeda was focused on the global; al-Qaeda’s work is generally carried out by worldly individuals, those who have become separated from these local and narrow-minded concerns of Islamism in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.

So for all the talk of a terrible foreign threat to our Western way of life, in fact al-Qaeda largely comes from the West. It is made up of individuals who were born here, alienated young Muslims from London, Paris and now Leeds, or middle-class immigrants from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere, ‘the elite of their countries’, who came to Western cities to study. Suddenly, the fact that the bombs in London were detonated by four Brits does not seem so shocking. But what leads these otherwise respectable young men to execute such terrible acts? To align themselves with a cranky and murderous terrorist outfit? To blow up themselves and scores more on a sunny Thursday morning in London?

Apparently it is all the fault of those ruthless al-Qaeda recruiters mentioned in the Whitehall document, or those fundamentalist mosques in south London, Paris, Hamburg and elsewhere that are turning our young Muslim men into crazed lunatics. If that is the case, then why is it happening now? There have long been mad mullahs in Western cities but they were generally avoided by most sensible young people, and nihilist terrorism, certainly in the West, has only become a problem over the past five to 10 years. Blaming the recruiters is the easy way out. The finger is pointed at fanatical individuals, and the solution is said to lie in reining these individuals in. The denial about al-Qaeda being a Western phenomenon in the first place has given way to a denial about the deep problems in a Western society that can give rise to something like al-Qaeda.

The drift of young Muslims, whether Western-born or middle-class foreigners, to radical mosques and fundamentalism also surely says something about a malaise at the heart of Western society. Many of these terrorists are not made in Kabul, Cairo or Tehran, but in London, Hamburg and Montreal. Such terrorism, it seems, is less a consequence of far-away fanaticism infiltrating the West, but rather suggests a failure on the part of mainstream institutions in the West to cohere society or to provide individuals with any meaningful sense of identity.

There is a growing sense of atomisation and alienation in the West, not only among immigrants but across society. Homesick Arabs and British-born Muslims in West Yorkshire might feel it more acutely, but it affects everyone in British, American and European societies, in the growth of disillusionment with public institutions and disenfranchisement from the political process. Could it be that the new terrorism, which we consider so awful and alien, is in fact a product of the same corrosive forces that impact on the rest of us? Could it be that those four alienated Asian kids from Leeds were expressing the same angst and disillusionment, in a much more violent way, as anti-globalist campaigners express when they smash up a McDonald’s and others of us express in our pissed-off-ness with political and public life?

These are the questions we need to ask, rather than coming up with easy, pat solutions about shutting down mosques and banging up certain imams. When four young men from Leeds who were born, raised and educated here, and who days before the attacks were playing cricket and hanging out with their mates, can head down to London and kill themselves and 60 others, something has clearly gone horribly amiss. Al-Qaeda’s ‘war’ does not represent a clash of civilisations, but rather points to a crisis within Western civilisation itself.

Read on:

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(1) ‘Suicide bombers from suburbia’, Daily Mail, 13 July 2005

(2) ‘The suicide murderers’, Mirror, 13 July 2005

(3) ‘The Brit bombers’, Sun, 13 July 2005

(4) National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, September 2002

(5) See ‘Meet the al-Qaeda archetype’, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) ‘200 more Brits ready to blow themselves up’, Sun, 15 July 2005

(7) Leaked No.10 dossier reveals al-Qaeda’s British recruits, The Sunday Times, 10 July 2005

(8) Profile: Omar Sheikh, Guardian, 15 July 2002

(9) Al-Qaeda is a conspiracy of alienated middle-class kids, Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 2 April 2005

(10) Al-Qaeda is a conspiracy of alienated middle-class kids, Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 2 April 2005

(11) Al-Qaeda’s computer expert, BBC News, 6 August 2004

(12) Executive summary, The 9/11 Commission Report, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, 2004

(13) Ahmed Ressam: terrorist within,, August 2002

(14) Piecing together Madrid bombers’ past, BBC News, 5 April 2004

(15) Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, IB Tauris, 2003

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Topics Politics


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