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‘Kashmir on the Thames’? It doesn’t hold water

The idea that a handful of wannabe martyrs from the Home Counties and London are the ‘biggest threat to US security’ is laughable.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Forget Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, it is Great Britain – capital: Londonistan – that poses the ‘biggest threat to US security’. At least that is the claim made in an article titled ‘Kashmir on the Thames’ by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in the current issue of respected US weekly the New Republic. The article has caused a stir, even something of a stink, on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the London Times and Telegraph ran news articles claiming that our one-time American cousins now view Britain as a hotbed of fanatical anti-American jihadism rather than home of ‘cream teas, the Royal Family and Big Ben’. Others argue that, for all UK prime minister Tony Blair’s alleged ‘poodling’ to President George W Bush, this article shows that the special relationship is faltering (1).

In fact, the idea that London (or ‘Londonistan’ in the lingo of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and her supporters in conservative America) has become ‘Kashmir on the Thames’ simply doesn’t hold water. I debated one of the authors of the New Republic piece – Peter Bergen, the former CNN journalist who has met and interviewed Osama bin Laden – on BBC radio yesterday, and found his claims unconvincing. In a nutshell, Bergen and Cruickshank argue that more and more British Pakistanis are turning to terror, that they’re being radicalised by the issue of Kashmir and recruited by al-Qaeda Mr Bigs, and that America had better keep a close and wary eye on them. These arguments are not only wrong-headed; they are wrong-headed in lots of new and unusual ways. It seems that more and more people are cottoning on to the fact that contemporary Islamist terrorism tends to be made in the West rather than among ‘the rest’, as we have pointed out on spiked many times since 9/11 – but in the process they are inaccurately painting the West, and in particular Britain, as a seething pit of crazed jihadists radicalised by foreign issues and by foreign terrorist masterminds.

First the New Republic article vastly exaggerates the power and reach of British-born jihadists. It argues that, following 10/8, when British-born Pakistanis were arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up planes flying from Britain to the US, it is time we recognised that radical British Pakistanis pose ‘the biggest threat to US security’; the authors call on Bush to put pressure on Britain to round up these radicals (2). It’s worth reminding ourselves that there has only been one successful terrorist attack in the West by British-born Pakistanis since 9/11: the 7/7 bombings. And they were aimed at British citizens and workers on tube trains and a bus in London rather than against symbols of US power or security. The 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan hinted that the aim was to punish ordinary Brits in his pompous video testimony recorded before his death. ‘Your democratically elected governments continually perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. Your support makes you directly responsible’, he said, wagging his finger, al-Zawahiri-style, at the camera.

Aside from 7/7, a handful of British-born Pakistanis has successfully carried out small-scale terrorist attacks overseas. Well, I say ‘successfully’. In 2003, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a chubby 22-year-old from Hounslow, blew himself up outside a jazz bar in Tel Aviv (the bouncers wouldn’t let him inside), killing himself and three others. His accomplice, 27-year-old former public schoolboy Omar Khan Sharif, fled the scene when his suicide belt failed to go off and, after being hounded through the streets by an Israeli taxi driver who rightly suspected that Sharif was a wannabe suicide bomber, drowned himself in the sea. Omar Sheikh, another British-born Pakistani who fell in with Kashmiri militants, is alleged to have masterminded the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

These are the three terrorist attacks known to have been executed by British-born Pakistanis. Alongside these, there was also Sajid Badat, the son of a Pakistani ice-cream seller in Gloucester, who was supposed to blow up an aeroplane with a crude shoe-bomb device alongside his accomplice Richard Reid, but bottled it. He was caught by the cops after boasting to his mates: ‘Guess what? I’m in al-Qaeda.’ (3) Most of the ‘Crawley plotters’ – a group of men currently on trial for allegedly planning to blow up nightclubs and poison football fans – are also Pakistanis with British citizenship. They were caught after buying half a ton of fertiliser and telling the shop owner, somewhat unconvincingly, that they wanted it to spread on their vegetable-growing allotments. There is also the 10/8 crowd, again mostly Britons of Pakistani descent, but we still know little about their case.

These are losers and fantasists, incompetent aspiring martyrs incapable even of getting inside a jazz bar much less into any American institution or security facility. A minority of the British-born Pakistanis may have been successful in carrying out horrible attacks – seven individuals in total, including the four men in the 7/7 cell, the two idiots who went to Tel Aviv, and Omar Sheikh – but they, too, are ultimately fantasists, who imagine that killing civilians has some profound purpose or meaning and represents a strike against Western civilisation. In all, it seems that one American citizen, Daniel Pearl, has been killed by the ‘biggest threat to US security’: British-born Pakistanis. The idea that a few embittered individuals from Britain, who have never managed to attack America or any group of American citizens, is a terrible threat to US interests reveals far more about the frail and fragile contemporary American mindset than it does about the reality of Brit-born terrorism. Those two weird schoolkids at Columbine killed more American citizens than British jihadists have (4).

Indeed, Hamburg would appear to be a far bigger threat to American security than Londonistan. The 9/11 hijackers were radicalised there and they plotted their terrorist outrage there; they went on to kill nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Are American officials leaning on the German authorities to monitor all its Muslim immigrants and inhabitants?

As well as exaggerating the threat of British jihadism, the New Republic piece massively simplifies its causes and origins. The article asks: ‘Why are British Pakistanis so angry? In a word, Kashmir.’ So perhaps the emergence of British-Pakistani terrorism is a response to Indian repression in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and America and Britain’s failure to do anything about it. ‘A disproportionate number of Pakistanis living in Great Britain trace their lineage back to Kashmir. Though conventional wisdom holds that anger towards US foreign policy is most responsible for creating new terrorists, among British Pakistanis, Kashmir is probably just as important’, says the article (5). This could be one of the strangest explanations I’ve heard for the emergence of small sects of fantasist-jihadists in Britain. It typifies the attempt to find a simple, one-size-fits-all – and, importantly, foreign – explanation for what is in fact a quite complex phenomenon moulded and shaped by British politics rather than anything like Kashmiri radicalism.

Bergen and Cruickshank cite Omar Sheikh as evidence of their Kashmir theory. The article opens with a reference to Sheikh’s imprisonment in the Nineties for being part of a Kashmiri militant outfit and ends by discussing his orchestration of the murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002. It is true that Sheikh, brought up in London, educated in Walthamstow and formerly a student at the London School of Economics (LSE), joined and fought with Kashmiri militants. But the article fails to mention that it was not Kashmir that radicalised him, but Bosnia. Sheikh reportedly became interested in jihad during the LSE Islamic Society’s ‘Bosnia Week’ in 1992, when he saw a video – produced by a mainstream British charity, not Islamic militants – showing Bosnian Muslims being persecuted by Serbs. Sheikh travelled to Bosnia and fought with the Arab Mujahideen there against Bosnian Serb forces; it was there that he met Kashmiri militants and decided to sign up with them.

How does this fit into Bergen and Cruickshank’s theory about British Pakistanis turning angry because of Kashmir? Sheikh, the clearest case of a Brit who turned to Kashmiri militancy, was radicalised by mainstream coverage of the Bosnian war and first fought in the name of Bosnian Muslims, a white and largely secularised community in Europe who, as it happens, came to despise these foreign Mujahideen who had come to ‘save them’ (6). Even Sheikh’s experience suggests that things are far more complicated than Bergen and Cruickshank would have us believe.

Was Asif Mohammed Hanif, who blew himself up in Tel Aviv, also motivated by Kashmir? In his martyrdom video, delivered in an Ali G-style London accent and during which he giggles constantly, he said, ‘I am doing this for the sake of those people who would like to distribute this among the Arabs to show how sick, fed up, we really are’ (at this point in the video his speech was interrupted by the ringing of a mobile phone in the background). So Hanif did it for the Arabs, not Pakistanis or Kashmiris. He also said he wanted to have a pop at ‘the real terrorists, the Israelis – they’re really sickos’ (7). That sounds like the kind of thing you could read on any cranky anti-Israel, anti-Bush blog, or hear in more degenerate debates among student unions in Britain, rather than stemming from any real knowledge of the Middle East or, er, Kashmir. In his video testimony, 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer said he blew himself up for Iraq and Afghanistan; he didn’t mention Kashmir.

The Kashmir theory is an attempt to impose a neat and convenient explanation on to a peculiar phenomenon, even to explain contemporary terrorism with reference to the ‘ethnic’ make-up and historical ‘lineage’ of its practitioners, as if these young Pakistanis brought up in pretty privileged conditions in modern Britain are blowing themselves up on the London Underground or in Tel Aviv in answer to some ancient sense of grievance over Kashmir. In fact, none of these actions can be understood as traditional political or radical responses to oppression in Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq or anywhere else. Rather, as the author Faisal Devji has pointed out, these various, disparate conflicts have become little more than symbols – part of a ‘litany of complaints’ – among young Western radical Islamists looking for something to kick against. These jihadists are not interested in local situations (and most of them probably could not even point to Palestine or Kashmir on a map); rather they see all Muslims everywhere as archetypal victims to be pitied. ‘[T]he Muslim ummah exists only as a victim for these movements, because the more victimised the Muslim is, the more human he is’, argues Devji (8). This looks more like a product of contemporary victim culture than Kashmiri militancy.

Finally, the New Republic piece gets it wrong on the recruitment and radicalisation of today’s British-born jihadists. It claims that al-Qaeda is recruiting young ‘ethnic Pakistanis living in the United Kingdom’ because they are ‘perfect recruits, since they speak English and can travel on British passports’ (9). In fact, as American professor Marc Sageman has pointed out, in one of the most thorough studies yet of individuals in or associated with al-Qaeda, most of these individuals are not recruited in a ‘top-down’ fashion by Mr Bigs; rather they seem actively to seek out terrorist networks or sects that they might join (10). This was certainly the case with the 7/7 sect: the evidence suggests that they radicalised themselves – ‘away from places with known links to extremism’, according to the UK government’s report on 7/7 – and subsequently sought out sanction for their planned actions from individuals they allegedly met during a trip to Pakistan. That Western-born jihadists tend to seek out radicalism suggests that the real problem is not the lure of nasty bin Ladenite recruiters but rather a sense that something is missing in the lives of the aspiring jihadists themselves.

Bergen and Cruickshank argue that one contributing factor to British-Pakistani radicalisation is that these young people are pissed off with ‘a British society that won’t quite accept them’ (11). This has become a common argument – that those who end up as terrorists or aspiring terrorists feel isolated and let down by British society. Again, it’s way too simple. Most of these young men are fully integrated into British society, certainly far more than their immigrant parents were: many of them received a good education, have cushy jobs, and have English friends and take part in English pastimes and sports, such as visiting the gym or playing cricket. As Devji argues, ‘the [jihadists] are completely integrated in ways such as speaking English and participating in wider British society’ (12). This, of course, is a more difficult reality to face: there would appear to be something in British society itself that nurtures a sense of victimhood and grievance among certain individuals. They did not develop this outlook in isolation from mainstream society, but in the thick of it.

The New Republic article that so rattled American and British readers highlights a problem with the focus on ‘homegrown terrorism’ today: it both exaggerates the threat of such terrorism, while underestimating the extent to which it really is homegrown. Too many commentators and officials continue to view even homegrown terrorism as essentially a foreign infiltration, something facilitated by foreign imams, or foreign terrorist warlords, or perhaps even by a sense of ethnic duty among Britain’s communities that have foreign origins. That sense of foreignness can be glimpsed in phrases such as ‘Kashmir on the Thames’ and ‘Londonistan’, creating an idea of Otherness seeping into an apparently otherwise ship-shape country like Britain. In fact, as I argue in an essay published today in the online journal Rising East, this kind of terrorism is not only made in Britain; it is also made by Britain, shaped and formed by contemporary Western political trends and outlooks rather than by bizarre foreign beliefs and practices (see 7/7: a very British bombing, by Brendan O’Neill).

Five years after 9/11, and more than a year since 7/7, we are still avoiding having the hard debates about our own societies and futures in favour of fantasising that an army of Johnny Foreigners threatens our existence.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Immigrants keep Britons in idleness, Telegraph, 20 August 2006

(2) Kashmir on the Thames, New Republic, 25 August 2006

(3) See Does al-Qaeda exist?, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Understanding Britain’s 7/7 attacks, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 5 June 2006

(5) Kashmir on the Thames, New Republic, 25 August 2006

(6) See Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, Evan Kohlmann, Berg, 2004

(7) Israelis are ‘sickos’, say gloating bombers, Telegraph, 9 March 2004

(8) See Osama as the Oprah of the Muslim world?, an interview with Faisal Devji

(9) Kashmir on the Thames, New Republic, 25 August 2006

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

(11) Kashmir on the Thames, New Republic, 25 August 2006

(12) A Muslim militancy born in modernity, not mosques, Financial Times, 27 August 2006

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