Beyond bin Laden – Britain’s fight against violent Islamist radicalism
In a community centre in the British Midlands, 12 teenage boys — all of south Asian descent — watch intently as Jahan Mahmood unzips a canvas bag and pulls out the dark, angular shape of a World War Two machine gun. He unfolds the tripod, places the unloaded weapon on a table and pulls back the cocking handle. The boys crane forward. Mahmood pulls the trigger; a sharp snap rings out.
It’s two days since the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Mahmood, a local historian, is taking his own stand against global militancy. His show comes with a dose of education: a lesson in how Muslim and British soldiers fought together to defeat the Nazis. His methods are unconventional, but Mahmood believes they help address a weakness at the core of British counter-terrorism policy.
The U.S. operation to kill bin Laden may have marked “a strike at the heart” of international terrorism, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, but in the broader fight against terror, the al Qaeda leader’s death was largely irrelevant.
In deprived British inner-city districts like Alum Rock — a huddle of redbrick homes, fabric shops, Urdu-language DVD stores and fruit stalls — the Saudi-born militant is almost an afterthought. Young men’s beliefs here are driven more by their own sense of alienation, racial abuse and what they see as a deeply anti-Muslim foreign policy.
On the frontline of the war against terrorism — and Britain is undoubtedly a frontline — private initiatives like Mahmood’s hint at the failure of state-sponsored efforts to counter jihad. Almost six years on from a massive coordinated terror attack on London’s transport system, the main nationwide programme to deter young men from extremism still hasn’t moved past mistrust and suspicion. The one-year-old Conservative-led government now wants to tweak the policy. For some Muslims, the question is whether the state should even try.
“There’s still a basic inability to get the idea that, actually, as government, you might not know best,” says Rachel Briggs, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There’s a very difficult balance between where government can be involved, and be effective, and where actually government involvement negates the whole process.”