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The evolution of Britain’s terror timeline

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As a corrective measure, the U.K. must refocus on policing, deal with lawbreakers freely, and listen to Muslim grievances

The terror attack last week in London by a ‘lone wolf’, Usman Khan, 28, of Pakistani origin, has rightly drawn international attention. What do we know about the attacker? Only assiduous investigation can now shed some light on why he went on the deadly offensive. The fact that he was no longer incarcerated but was enjoying more than a measure of freedom had obviously not chastened him. He had been convicted in 2012 for being part of a group that had planned an attack two years earlier on the London Stock Exchange. Originally sentenced to an indeterminate period, he was released on parole, in December 2018, on appeal. This was after several conditions had been imposed on him. These included the wearing of a GPS tag to track him and living in police approved housing. It is ironic that he went berserk inside a building, Fishmongers’ Hall, north of the London Bridge, where he was attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation run by Cambridge University.

Shadow of indoctrination

There is no report that the police had any inkling of what he was going to do that day. The judge who convicted Usman Khan and his fellow-conspirators had waxed eloquent in 2012 on the group’s dangerous potential and the need for circumspection by parole boards. Still, Usman Khan managed to come out on parole after serving half his term only to resort to wanton violence.

Facts show that he was a hardcore member of a group that had been ‘solidly indoctrinated’. He was heavily influenced by the al-Qaeda’s online propaganda. We must not forget that he was in his teens when he took part in the plot to attack the London Stock Exchange. He is said to have been inspired by two well-known Islamic ideologues, one of these was Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric of Yemeni descent. Al-Awlaki was a great online motivator and recruiter and it is not surprising that he managed to convince the then young Usman Khan that violence alone could help Islam make forays into the Christian-dominated West.

The other preacher was Anjem Choudary, the well-known British Islamist and a staunch Islamic State (IS) supporter. He was convicted for five years in 2016 for an open appeal for support to the IS, which had been banned in the country. Choudhury had also played a significant role in the formation of al-Muhajiroun, which held several anti-West demonstrations in the U.K. and was subsequently outlawed. If Usman Khan had come under the spell of two such fiery preachers, it is not very surprising that he effortlessly moved into terrorist domain.

Let’s move to July 7, 2005 when four Muslim youths detonated three home-made bombs on the London Underground system and a London double-decker bus. The explosions led to over 50 deaths.

Fallout of cuts in policing

Since the 2005 incident there have both daring attacks and attempts at sabotage. These include the March 2017 attack (ramming a car into pedestrians) near Westminster Bridge in which four persons died, and the May 2017 suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester; 22 people died. Fortunately, a few other attacks were foiled or contained using intelligence tip-offs or by alert citizens. But the U.K., like many nations, cannot depend solely on fortuitous circumstances. It needs a dedicated police force with large resources and a free hand to deal with lawbreakers. It also needs a strategy that pays greater attention to the grievances of the large Muslim segment of the population.

Successive governments have been guilty of effecting many cuts in the police budget, in turn leading to an appreciable depletion of manpower.The U.K. police is still very understaffed if one takes into account widening fissures in society.

In addition, there are fundamental sociological issues which demand introspection. It is easy to criticise the U.K. government — which is also unfair — for the repeated terrorist acts, those executed or foiled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Every terrorist attack reflects the collective failure of many agencies. The roles of the judiciary, parole boards and intelligence agencies come into focus.

Internal dynamics

The latest incident reaffirms the belief that if one country unwittingly ‘breeds terrorism’ it is the U.K. which has become a fertile ground for the growth of extremism on account of the interplay of several factors. The country is perhaps paying the price for its earlier excessively liberal and indiscriminate immigration policy. Despite a tightening of immigration and asylum rules, the impact has still to be felt on the ground.

How will this play out when Brexit becomes a reality? With fewer numbers now of ‘doubtful cases’ of attempted infiltration, there is hope that the mischief-makers among applicants (example, Pakistan), will be kept away. This is however no guarantee that there will be no future terrorist attacks from among those already entrenched in the land.

That youth of particular community and impressionable age are being shown up repeatedly as being the perpetrators of violence cannot be ignored. A majority are aggrieved that they have not been accepted by mainstream white citizens. Most of them come from very low income groups living in colonies — a euphemism for ghettos. They are also concentrated in the north of England. Unfortunately, despite the availability of easy access to education, they have chosen to stay away from schools, as Usman Khan did. To compound the situation they are exposed to the insidious propaganda, either online or in person. Whether this appalling situation is the result of governmental neglect or wilful spurning of public education facilities is debatable; but it is a matter of shame.

The incident painfully breaches our confidence in measures aimed at reforming hardened criminals. The many efforts by the U.K police to deradicalise Muslim youth do not seem to have succeeded. Incidents such as the Usman Khan one pose a dilemma to votaries of reform and rehabilitation of offenders. How far does one trust prisoners who display remorse is a tricky proposition.

Recidivism is a complex phenomenon. A prisoner on parole or remission is not always driven by reason, but he does fall victim occasionally to emotions of revenge against a system that he believes had been unfair to him. It boils down to reading the mind of a prisoner who claims he wants to keep off from crime. We know how the best of psychiatrists have failed in this exercise.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 9:22:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-evolution-of-britains-terror-timeline/article30170156.ece

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