WASHINGTON – As the shock waves from Thursday’s terrorist attacks in London reverberate across the Atlantic, a grim truth should become increasingly clear: One of the greatest terrorist threats emanates not from the graduates of Middle Eastern madrasas, but from some of the citizens of Britain.
Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who tried to blow up a jet flying between Paris and Miami in 2001, is British. So is Saajid Badat, who pleaded guilty in London four months ago to plotting to use a shoe bomb to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in late 2001. And Ahmed Omar Sheik, who orchestrated the 2002 kidnapping-murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, is a British citizen of Pakistani descent.
In 2004 British police arrested 12 terrorist suspects, many of them British citizens (including Qaeda operative Abu Issa al-Hindi), who were allegedly plotting attacks both in Britain and the United States.
American law enforcement officials accuse Hindi of leading the surveillance of financial targets in New York and Washington between August 2000 and April 2001. Those targets included the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Prudential building in Newark and the New York Stock Exchange.
And two years ago, British citizens engaged in a highly unusual suicide attack outside the country. On April 30, 2003, two Britons of Pakistani descent walked into Mike’s Place, a jazz club near the American Embassy in Israel. Once inside, the younger of the two men succeeded in detonating a bomb, killing himself and three bystanders, while the other man fled the scene.
Why have so many of these terrorists come from Britain? Many British Muslims are young and poorly integrated into society and therefore vulnerable to extremism. In fact, Muslims have the youngest age profile of any religious group in Britain; around a third are under the age of 16. The unemployment rate among British Muslims runs almost 10 percentage points above the national average of about 5 percent. In the case of 16- to 24-year-old Muslim men, the unemployment rate is 22 percent.
Not surprisingly, polls of British Muslims show a considerable sense of anger. Eight out of 10 believe that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam, while a poll conducted last year, under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper, found a surprising 13 percent who said that further attacks by Al Qaeda or a similar organization on the United States would be justified. One rap video that surfaced in Britain last year called “Dirty Kuffar” had lyrics that included the following verse: “O.B.L. (bin Laden) pulled me like a shining star! Like the way we destroyed them two towers, ha-ha!”
Last year a British government report estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 British Muslims are supporters of Al Qaeda or related groups. The estimate was based on intelligence, opinion polls and a report that 10,000 Muslims attended a 2003 conference held by Hizb ut-Tahrir, described by the Home Office as a “structured extremist organization.”
British authorities believe that between 300 and 600 British citizens were trained in Qaeda and Taliban camps in Afghanistan. For this reason, and because of Britain’s relatively permissive asylum laws, Arab militants in London sometimes jokingly refer to their hometown as Londonistan.
Here’s the problem for the United States: Under its Visa Waiver Program, residents of London who hold a valid British passport can board a plane for the United States without an interview by an American consular official.
This program also applies to more than a score of other European countries, like France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, that meet the criteria for visa-free travel to the United States. Unfortunately, many of these countries have also had a hard time integrating their growing Muslim populations.
As declining populations in Europe are replaced in part by rising Muslim emigration from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, economic resentment and sectarian strife seem likely to grow.
Tinkering with immigration and visa regulations might help, but it is unlikely to change the reality that Islamic militant groups in Britain, as in several other major European countries, represent a growing threat that will continue for many years to come.
Peter Bergen is a fellow of the New America Foundation and the author of ”Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.”