Birmingham at the centre of extremism in Britain

39 people convicted of terrorism or killed as suicide bombers since 1998 have lived in Birmingham.

Growing problem. A police officer stands guard outside a residential building in Birmingham after a raid by anti-terror forces, on March 23rd. (AFP)

2017/04/02 Issue: 100 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Mahmud el-Shafey

London - After every terrorist at­tack, there is an inquest exploring the same dis­tressing questions: How could this have hap­pened again? And what lessons can be learnt?

The March 22nd attack in Lon­don’s Westminster — where Khalid Masood, who was killed by an armed police officer after he drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed a police of­ficer, killing four — is no exception.

While in some ways the attack was atypical — at 52, Masood was older than the standard jihadist — much of it was painfully familiar. Masood’s method of violence mir­rors recent Palestinian attacks in which vehicles were used to run down pedestrians or in which vic­tims have been stabbed.

His background also follows a fa­miliar course. Born Adrian Russell Ajao, Masood was a Muslim convert who had been imprisoned twice for criminal offences not related to terrorism. Having previously been identified on the fringes of jihad­ism, he was known to MI5. The as­sailant also lived in Birmingham, where an estimated 300,000 Mus­lims make up one-quarter of the population.

Birmingham, the second most populous city in Britain, has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe and has often found itself at the centre of Islamist extremism and terrorism cases.

In 2014, leaked documents re­vealed that a small group of hard-line Muslims were attempting to seize control of a number of Bir­mingham schools in what became known as Britain’s Trojan Horse scandal. At the same time, many Birmingham mosques and com­munity centres were accused of spreading extremist views.

After the Westminster attack, po­lice carried out raids across the city, arresting several people on suspi­cion of involvement in the attack.

An extensive report by British think-tank the Henry Jackson So­ciety, published just weeks before the Westminster attack, looked at the geographic background of ter­rorists in Britain. The report said that one-in-ten British Islamist ter­rorists came from just five council wards in the West Midlands city, a grouping second only to East Lon­don.

Thirty-nine out of 269 people convicted of terrorism offences or killed as suicide bombers since 1998 came from or lived in Birmingham. Two-thirds of those were from just five — Springfield, Sparkbrook, Hodge Hill, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green — of Birmingham’s 40 council wards. This exceeds the number of those convicted of similar charges from all of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire combined. With the Westminster attack, Birmingham’s tally increased again.

“Birmingham has become the country’s second major terrorism hotspot,” Henry Jackson Society Senior Research Fellow Hannah Stuart, who wrote the report, told the Express newspaper.

Speaking after the attack, Henry Jackson Society researcher Emma Webb said: “Our research has shown that Birmingham is the second hot­spot for Islamist-related terror of­fenders, after London… We also found that 26% [of people convict­ed of terrorism offences] had previ­ous convictions and that converts were disproportionately involved in Islamist-related terror offences. So, in many ways Khalid Masood fits within an established pattern.”

Masood had previously been in­vestigated by security services as part of a loose network of Islam­ist extremists in Luton — a town between London and Birmingham where Muslims make up a quar­ter of the population — where he frequented the same gym as four people (including one Birmingham native) convicted of plotting to set off an explosion on an army base, and lived on the same street as 2010 Stockholm suicide bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly.

Luton was also home to the banned Al-Muhajiroun group that was led by hate preacher Anjem Choudary, who is serving a prison sentence for supporting the Islamic State (ISIS).

British police have since released most of those arrested in Birming­ham, saying they believed Masood “acted alone on the day” and that there was no evidence suggesting he was directly linked with al-Qae­da or ISIS.

“We must all accept that there is a possibility we will never under­stand why he did this. That under­standing may have died with him,” said Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu.

Whatever the case, extremism is a growing problem in industrial towns with significant Muslim populations, such as Birmingham and Luton, as well as Muslim en­claves like East London. Radicali­sation has become an increasingly dangerous phenomenon in these areas, where extremist views are growing seemingly unchecked.

“We should be aware that the vast majority of UK-based terror­ists do not act alone. This research shows that the overwhelming ma­jority are part of wider networks, formed online and in person, with family and friends — and have been radicalised here in Britain,” warned Stuart.

What is certain is that Masood’s attack on Westminster will not be the last of its kind. With Britain’s terror threat marked at “severe” — indicating a terror threat is believed to be imminent — everybody, from the government to security servic­es, to local mosques and communi­ty leaders, must do more to combat the radical Islamist extremism that leads to terrorism.

Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.

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