Fire washed over Khan’s one summer night in 1992, unleashed by the swelling mob of young people who had swept up Balaclava Street in England’s Blackburn town to lay siege to the café. The exact story of that riot, like that of most riots, is opaque. In some tellings, it erupted because of a post-cricket match brawl in which ethnic Punjabi Muslims beat up an ethnic Gujarati Muslim; others allude to forbidden love between a Gujarati girl and a Punjabi boy; still others that it had something to do with gangs.
As investigators in two continents now work to piece together what led 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram to travel across the Atlantic to take hostages at a synagogue in Texas, US, the story of the riot in his home town helps understand how England’s dying industrial towns turned into the West’s largest jihad factory.
Fourteen hundred United Kingdom citizens, almost all second- and third-generation immigrants, are estimated to have served with the Islamic State alone; “British fighters have been found on almost every jihadist battlefield since Afghanistan in the 1970s,” scholar Raffaello Pantucci has recorded.
The making of the English jihad
The year after the Blackburn riot, a then-unfamiliar preacher from Pakistan arrived at the town’s Jamia Masjid, the centre of its mainly Punjabi-Pakistani community, on a winding tour which led him through London’s east end and Lancashire’s mouldering industrial towns. The exact circumstances under which the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar Alvi, was granted a visa are unclear; it’s improbable that the British intelligence in Islamabad had heard nothing of him.
In any case, Azhar left no one in doubt about his intentions. “The youth should prepare for jihad without any delay,” one tape of his speeches from that tour records. “They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our services.”
“The story of Masood Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by Muslim community leaders and security experts alike,” a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary noted. “According to them, the spread of jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques. The source of all the trouble, they say, was a bunch of Arab Islamist exiles.”
From the end of the Afghan jihad in 1979, large numbers of Arab jihadists had indeed made London their home, under the benign gaze of its intelligence services. The view among British intelligence may have been, given the Cold War context, that having these jihadists in London gave the United Kingdom useful leverage in West Asia and Pakistan.
Even more important, likely, was the idea that mosque leadership and political Islam would help control an increasingly alienated second-generation immigrant cohort.
The rise of ‘Londonistan’
French intelligence officials, weary of arguing with their British counterparts on the dangers growing up across the English Channel, coined a wry nickname for the city on the Thames: “Londonistan”. There was, however, method in the apparent madness. In the late 1970s—the time Akram’s generation was growing up—race-riots exploded across England, centred around unemployed youth, in the industrial cities where Pakistani immigrants had arrived as mill workers in the 1950s.
The riots—first Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muslims fighting each other, then Whites fighting both, and all joining together to fight the police—sparked fears that the surging White Nationalist movement and immigrant rage could spark off a race-war.
British authorities responded by seeking to engage immigrant leadership. In the case of Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants, successive governments reached out to so-called community leaders—often clerics in mosques, and individuals linked to extremist Muslim groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami.
“Government engaged primarily with extremists,” scholar Michael Whine has noted. “This was a consequence of its failure to understand Islamist strategies. The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, and the ‘roadshow’ are still dominated by Islamists.”
In the 1990s, a new generation of radicals emerging from the mosques rebelled against these brokers by arguing there could be no justice in a secular-democratic order. The new Islamist cells often represented themselves as a virtuous, yet masculine, counterpoise to gang culture. Indeed, some parents supported their children participating, hoping it would keep them off the streets.
Kenan Malik, a British scholar, noted in a 2011 essay that young British Muslims found themselves “detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they often reject, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few are drawn inevitably to extremist Islamist groups where they discover a sense of identity and of belonging”.
Chickens come home to roost
From his pulpit at the Four Feathers Club, Umar Mahmoud preached to Richard Reid, the ‘shoebomber’ who attempted to blow up a transatlantic flight in 2003, and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Bosnian jihad veteran Mustafa Kamel—a Brighton-trained civil engineer, and one-time nightclub bouncer—sent volunteers to Yemen. The bombing of the Indian Army’s headquarters in Srinagar in December 2000; the 2010 plot to mark the anniversary of 9/11: these involved elements linked to London-based Omar Bakri Muhammad.
England seemed to bring about an almost magical ideological metamorphosis: London School of Economics student Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh became a Jaish-e-Mohammed killer; Dhiren Barot, son of an affluent Gujarati Hindu family, into a Kashmir jihadist al-Qaeda bomb-plot operative; Siddhartha Dhar into the Islamic State’s murderous ‘Jihad Sid’.
Attacks like the London bombings of 7/7, which claimed 56 lives, have been preempted due to better policing and intelligence. There is, however, a steady flow of individual jihadists, like Akram: Roshonara Choudhry stabbed British Member of Parliament Stephen Timms; Michael Adebolajo, who hacked to death a British soldier on the streets of southeast London.
Like them, Akram had no known affiliation with jihadist groups, either online or physically. He was religious—serving at a local mosque, and volunteering, like millions of others, with the pietist Tablighi Jamaat—but his activities never attracted the attention of the United Kingdom’s intelligence services. The ideas that led him to take four people hostage in Texas seem to have seeped into his mind almost, as it were, by osmosis.
An English apartheid
Ever since 7/7 London bombings, the United Kingdom has sought to address its jihad problem, cracking down on terrorism suspects, and in parallel spending millions marketing purportedly moderate, anti-jihadist forms of Islam. The gains from this project are, however, unclear. In a 2006 survey, six of every 100 British Muslims were reported to support the 7/7 bombing; the following year, 25 per cent said the terrorist attack was a government plot.
Worse, British cities remain profoundly ghettoised. In a 2016 government report, Louise Casey revealed that the “people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity tend to live in more residentially segregated communities than other ethnic minority groups”. Fifty percent of school-age children from these communities, she found, studied in institutions where the majority of students were from the same ethnic groups.
“This is the question of our time,” author Salman Rushdie asked, “how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere?” Akram’s story is, in the final analysis, a parable of what happens when communities come to define themselves by their differences, and identity congeals into hatred.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)