Thomas K Grose
LONDON--That Britain faces a very real risk of home-grown Islamic terrorism has long been known. But now, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has not only publicly hinted at the extent of the problem but bluntly charged that most U.K.-based extremists are linked to Pakistan, some 3,700 miles away.
According to Brown, fully three quarters of the serious radical Islamist plots under investigation in the United Kingdom have connections to the South Asian Muslim country. Published reports say they total more than 20, and the government reckons that at least 4,000 British Muslims have received training at terrorist camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan--among them, most infamously, Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London.
Islamabad's inability to keep a lid on its extremist elements was highlighted last month when a gang of Pakistani terrorists attacked a number of sites in Mumbai, killing more than 170 people.
Brown described a "chain of terror that links the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan to the streets of Britain and other countries of the world." As if to underscore Brown's point, Rangzieb Ahmed of Manchester was convicted last week of running a three-person, al Qaeda terrorist cell and arranging to send British citizens to training camps in Pakistan. Another man, Habib Ahmed, was convicted of being a member of al Qaeda.
This situation poses a delicate situation here. More than a million people of Pakistani heritage call Britain home--only Saudi Arabia has a larger Pakistani expatriate community--and clearly the vast majority are law-abiding citizens who eschew terrorism.
"However, there is a significant number who are radicalized," says Farzana Shaikh, an expert on Pakistani affairs.
One question is where they are indoctrinated by violent Islamism. Is it here in the United Kingdom or on trips to Pakistan?
"There's a lot of evidence that a lot of it takes place in the U.K.," says Gareth Price, head of the Asia Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. For instance, Britain's prison system has been called a breeding ground for budding Islamic extremists.
Then again, young British Pakistanis who fall into trouble with alcohol or drugs are sometimes sent by their parents to stay with relatives in Pakistan to straighten them out. "And they are vulnerable to brainwashing there," Price adds.
Shaikh says that "economic deprivation" and "social exclusion" among British Pakistanis may play a role in radicalizing the community's young men. Many of Britain's Pakistanis are not fully integrated into wider society. They live in low-income neighborhoods where joblessness is high and poor education rampant.
But that's also true for some of Britain's other Asian Muslim communities, such as the Bangladeshis. Though they tend to be marginalized, too, their communities are not hotbeds of radicalism. "That says something about Pakistan," Price says. "That it's not a Muslim problem in general."
One factor may be that more than half of Britain's Pakistanis have ancestral ties to Kashmir, the disputed territory that's a source of tension between Pakistan and India. So it's possible that resentment over that festering feud plays a role in turning some young British Pakistanis toward Islamism. The now banned Pakistani extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the Mumbai terrorist attack, has targeted India in the past as part of its campaign to force India to give up its claim to largely Muslim Kashmir.
But Shaikh argues that anger over Britain's role in the Iraq war has been a far more potent marketing tool for Islamic extremists: "There's no question that the war in Iraq has radicalized many [British] Muslims."
On a trip to Pakistan last week, Brown offered President Asif Ali Zardari a "pact against terror." He proposed that Britain would help train Pakistani security forces in bomb-disposal and anti-car-bomb tactics and help them work to improve airport security. The pact would also include $9 million ineducational materials to help counter antiwestern propaganda dispersed by Pakistan's militants.
The "hearts and minds" educational element of the pact is a good idea, Shaikh says, because many Pakistani children are subjected to Islamist "brainwashing" at the more radical mosque schools, or madrasahs. The problem, however, could be getting the materials and teachers to where they're most needed. Many of the worst-offending madrasahs are in the country's vast tribal areas that border Afghanistan, a mountainous, inhospitable nether world where al Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent.
Britain says it wants to help Pakistan root out and quash its terrorist camps; it also wants permission for British police to pursue terrorist suspects in Pakistan. "That's not likely to happen," Price says, because Pakistan's intelligence network probably won't cooperate.
Elements within Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency and its military are suspected of abetting some terrorist factions, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba, in the past.
Zardari has pledged that he won't allow Pakistan to become a terrorist launching pad. "But so far he's been unwilling or unable to crack down" on the extremists, Shaikh says.
And that's a home-grown problem for both Zardari and Brown.