The making of Islamic terrorists

Though officials worry that the number of jihadis is on the rise, the vast number of Muslims in Europe oppose terrorism. (Changeist / Creative Commons)

Though officials worry that the number of jihadis is on the rise, the vast number of Muslims in Europe oppose terrorism. (Changeist / Creative Commons)

Maajid Nawaz, a radical-turned-moderate British Muslim who now runs the Quilliam Foundation, believes that Islamism is at the root of extremism. (Courtesy the Quillium Foundation)

Maajid Nawaz, a radical-turned-moderate British Muslim who now runs the Quilliam Foundation, believes that Islamism is at the root of extremism. (Courtesy the Quillium Foundation)


BRADFORD, England (JTA) — Ishtiaq Ahmed, who works as a spokesman for the Bradford Council for Mosques, lives with three generations of his family in a luxurious British home built by his father, a successful Pakistani-born businessman.

After the July 7, 2005 public transit bombings in London, which killed 52 people, Ahmed woke up, looked around his neighborhood and was troubled by what he saw. Three of the four bombers were from nearby Leeds and, like him, they had Pakistani backgrounds.

“There is a growing section of Muslim young people 16 to 25 who are increasingly becoming alienated, disillusioned and angry about a host of issues, such as unemployment, racism and British foreign policy,” Ahmed said.

Many of these young people, he said, feel that the British government is against them.

“They see the government is willing to spend millions of dollars fighting Muslims in Iraq, but not help them with their problems at home,” Ahmed said.

That can make them ripe for recruitment by Islamic extremists.

“People with a pan-Islamic agenda tell these young people: All your problems are because you are Muslim” — living in a non-Muslim country — “so we should all unite and assert ourselves and restore the glory of Islam,” he said.

Even if only an estimated 3 percent to 4 percent of Muslim youth become extremists, Ahmed said, “that is still far, far too many.”

The London bombings, like the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 and foiled terrorist plots elsewhere in Europe since, have forced Europe to focus on homegrown Islamic radicalism. Beyond implementing security measures needed to prevent terrorist attacks, Europe is trying to understand the sense of fury and alienation many Muslims feel and that, in a few rare cases, might lead them to try to murder their neighbors.

“The number of individuals in Europe who have joined violent jihadi movements has increased,” said Alexander Ritzmann, an expert on Islamic terrorism from the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy and a former member of Germany’s parliament. Based on terrorist incidents and intelligence dossiers, he said, “there has been an increase of planned attacks over the last five years.”

To be sure, the number of European Muslims engaged in terrorism is minuscule compared with their overall numbers. Of the roughly 17 million Muslims living in the 27-country European Union, a total of 242 were charged with terrorism-related crimes from 2001 to 2006, according to a study by the Netherlands Institute for International Relations.

But support for terrorist attacks appears to be far more widespread.

Roughly one in seven Muslims in France, Spain and Britain believe suicide bombings against civilian targets can be justified at times to defend Islam against its enemies, a 2006 Pew Research Center survey showed. And with the Iraq war, the Afghanistan campaign and Israel’s recent war in Gaza, experts say al-Qaida’s notion that Islam is under attack by the West is gaining currency among Muslims in Europe.

Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and militant Islamists have tried to tap into Muslim fury in Europe, with some success. Foreign policy often is cited as a key motivating factor by terrorists.

One of the 2005 London suicide bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, left behind a video in which he justified his attack, saying, “Your democratically elected governments continually perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. Your support makes you directly responsible.”

The 29 bombers who carried out the 2004 Madrid attacks, which left 191 dead and 1,755 wounded, were inspired by al-Qaida’s 2003 call for action against countries supportive of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, court documents show.

But the picture of Muslim fury is complicated, and it is easy to confuse the anger of European Muslims over their treatment as a disenfranchised minority in Europe — such as the riots that rocked Paris’ heavily Muslim immigrant suburbs in the autumn of 2005 — with sympathy for anti-Western terrorism.

In the 1960s and ’70s, European governments recruited manual laborers from poor, rural, mostly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and Algeria without paying much attention to how they might fit into European societies. Governments assumed these workers eventually would return to their countries of origin.

Instead they remained, struggling against problems such as discrimination and poverty. Many lived in substandard housing, frequently were denied jobs and homes due to their ethnic background, and scored considerably lower than native Europeans on school tests.

After the terrorist attacks this decade, European governments finally woke up and began promoting integration and equal opportunities. But the measures are so recent, it will be years before their impact can be gauged and, in some cases, felt.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to attribute support for Islamic terrorism to Europe’s failure to integrate Muslim immigrants. Nearly half the convicted terrorists in the study by the Netherlands Institute hailed from middle-class families that appeared to be successful models of integration. So were the men who committed the London bombings in 2005.

Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, says an identity crisis is at the crux of sympathy for and involvement in Islamic terrorism.

“European Muslims feel torn between the culture of their parents they do not identify with and Western culture that does not really accept them,” he said. “This is true for all immigrants, but the key difference is that there is no ideology for Hindus, for instance, saying that the West is at war with your religion and that there are Zionists and crusaders who want to kill you.”

What emerges from interviews with former Islamic extremists is that years of alienation can give rise to radicalism, even among the middle class.

Maajid Nawaz, a former British Islamist who now runs one of Europe’s leading counter-radicalism organizations, the Quilliam Foundation, talked to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last July about how as a young man he felt torn, like so many second-generation Pakistani immigrants, between British culture and that of his parents.

“Despite my liberal British upbringing, I was subject to an appalling level of racist violence by a minority of thugs,” he said. “Many of my white friends were stabbed before my eyes simply for associating with me.”

“Whilst such a crisis of identity initially concerned only racial and ethnic dimensions, the tragic slaughter of white Muslims that was to eventually play out in Bosnia-Herzegovina brought to the fore of my mind Europe’s Muslim question,” he told the committee. “Through this rude awakening, and for the first time in my life, I became critically aware of a Muslim identity.”

Beware the caliphate

The path to violent extremism can be found in political Islam, which views Islam not just as a religion but as a political system under which all Muslims one day will be united, Nawaz says. Al-Qaida and its offshoots preach violence as a means to this goal, while more moderate groups believe political Islam should be achieved through nonviolent means.

Britain’s most successful Islamist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, known by the acronym HT and whose name means Party of Liberation, is banned in the Middle East and in Germany. HT holds that Muslims, if convinced by ideology, will rise up and engage in peaceful coup d’etats in Muslim countries to restore the Islamic caliphate the group claims was destroyed when Turkey became secular a century ago. HT’s biennial meetings in Britain draw an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people.

Officially, HT condemns terrorism and maintains it opposes violence of any kind in the name of Islam.

“In the West, Hizb ut-Tahrir works to cultivate a Muslim community that lives by Islam in thought and deed, whereby adhering to the rules of Islam and preserving a strong Islamic identity,” says the movement’s Web site. “The party does not work in the West to change the system of government, but works to project a positive image of Islam to Western society and engages in dialogue with Western thinkers, policymakers and academics.”

HT officials did not return JTA’s calls seeking comment.

Ishtiaq Hussain, a former member of HT who now works with the Quilliam Foundation, says the key to successful recruitment of radicals is exploiting whatever grievances extremists can find among young Muslims.

“Recruiters will say that the war in Iraq shows that Americans want to kill Muslims and we have to unite against this,” Hussain said. “They will basically take any problem you have and turn it into a Muslims vs. the West issue.”

HT recruits primarily at universities, where its leaders run prayer services and other events but do not necessarily identify themselves as HT members. Recruiters keep their eyes out for those who seem most receptive to their message, befriending and encouraging them to attend more and more events.

A former recruiter himself, Hussain recalls luring students away from more moderate Muslim groups by discrediting them as government stooges and enforcing the idea that only HT represents true Islam.

“All the books you read, the people you talk to,” are HT, Hussain said. They “tell you not to listen to your friends or family.”

Like any other cult — or, perhaps, college fraternity — HT gives members a sense of empowerment through belonging to a tight-knit, elite group. But unlike a fraternity, HT also sometimes encourages recruits to turn against those closest to them.

“There was that feeling of being on the cusp of a new world order which would revive the glory days of Islam,” wrote another former HT member and co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, Ed Hussein, in Britain’s Independent newspaper last April. “For a 17-year-old who felt out of place in the U.K., it was very attractive. Everywhere we went, we were the brothers to be respected. It was intoxicating.”

Moderate Muslims say groups such as HT distort true Islam in recruiting young people to the cause of extremism. While HT does not promote terrorism, Hussain describes it as a conveyor belt to violence.

“They never tell you to go blow yourself up, but they do not condemn it either; they leave it up to the individual,” he said. “And we believe their kind of thinking can lead some people to violent acts.”

An engineer and doctor who tried to blow up the Scottish airport in Glasgow in 2007 attended HT meetings. So did Omar Sharif, a Briton who tried but failed to blow himself up in Tel Aviv in 2003.

To be sure, there is no sure recipe for transforming an alienated Muslim into a terrorist.

Across Europe, there has been a resurgence in religiosity among Muslims since the launch of the so-called war on terror. Many have turned to faith in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment, and devout Muslims insist Islam is a force for good, not ill.

Activists like Ishtiaq Ahmed say Muslim leaders must make a greater effort to convey to young people that being a politically involved British citizen is compatible with being a religious Muslim.

“Islamic faith institutions have a duty to protect the young Muslim population from dangerous and violent propaganda,” he said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend this is not a problem.”

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