Seminar report – Monday 25 March 2013, The Commonwealth Club

The highly charged topic of ‘Home-grown terrorism: threats from within and abroad’ was the focus of The Democracy Forum’s first seminar of 2013, held at the Commonwealth Club in London on Monday March 25. The speakers at the event – inaugurated by Peter Luff MP and chaired by Dr William Crawley – were Dr Paul Gill from the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College, London, Dr Lindsay Clutterbuck of RAND Europe, Vidhya Ramalingam from the think tank Strategic Dialogue, Scott Kleinmann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), and Dr David Rodin from the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) at the University of Oxford.

Mr Luff opened the proceedings with a brief overview of The Democracy Forum’s history and aims, saying that ‘today’s seminar really reflects our ability to learn from each other’, and that the themes of this particular event also reflected the key purposes of the organisation. He was pleased to be associated with The Democracy Forum and to be working in support of it, and he read out a short excerpt from a letter sent by the Home Office’s Siobhan Peters, in which she regretted that she could not attend the seminar but very much welcomed the Forum’s interest in the subject of home-grown terrorism.

Families can play a major role in preventing terrorist outrages because actual and potential terrorists could be identified by awareness of any grievances and their activist interests, according to a study that was the focus of Dr Gill’s talk. He said there were gaps in research literature on lone-wolf terrorism, with very little behavioural analysis, as analysis tended to be simplistic, focussing too much on strategy and pinpointing ‘one golden bullet’ reason why people turn to terrorism, such as mental health issues or losing a job. According to Dr Gill’s research, 83% of the families of terrorists were aware of their grievances and almost as big a percentage knew of their family member’s activist ideology, while 64% of the terrorist cases studied in the UK and US had actually revealed something of the plot to their families. The suspects and executioners of terrorist acts came from a broad range of ages, were likely to have a university education, and many of them were socially isolated but interacted with others on the internet.

Dr Clutterbuck’s presentation highlighted violent jihadist attacks in the UK, exploring patterns of behaviour in such attacks based on six UK case studies from 2004-2007. He considered what we understand by ‘home-grown’ and whether terrorist cells and the individuals comprising them were in fact ‘home-grown’. The main focus, said Dr Clutterbuck, was around Pakistan, as well as Iraq and India, though other nationalities were involved and so ‘home-grown’ has taken on a global flavour. He looked at different definitions of the term, such as whether those involved in attacks were born in the UK, born and bred here, or living here long- or short-term. The majority – 71% – were UK citizens and could therefore be called ‘home-grown’ in the sense that they had strong links with the UK.

Considering the ‘home-grown’ nature or otherwise of the terrorism they embarked upon, he focused on points such as group/cell leaders in regions such as Pakistan, travel and training, and the role of al-Qaeda in attacks, by which he meant ‘not necessarily al-Qaeda but numerous other groups and individuals in Pakistan with an al-Qaeda world view and ideology’. He pointing out that 44.7% of those studied were known to have received training for violent jihad in Pakistan, and most of those were then ‘convinced in their own minds that they were going to go on to Kashmir, Afghanistan or even Iraq to carry out their actions. However, while they were in Pakistan it was suggested to them that ‘that this would be a missed opportunity and that they would be better off if they returned to the UK and carried out terrorist attacks there’. Of these, nearly 40% returned to the UK and then set about recruiting and preparing for terrorist attacks.

So, the cycle of home-grown terrorism is not as straightforward as simply happening in the UK, as it goes through different phases and locations, such as radicalisation, recruitment and execution of attacks, with certain phases beginning in the UK but then shifting to other countries in subsequent phases. While the presence of radicalised individuals in the UK is necessary, foreign contribution is also vital, therefore it is crucial to counter both initial radicalisation before these individuals leave the UK, and what happens abroad.

Looking at a different kind of extremism was Vidhya Ramalingam, who warned that, with all the current focus by Western states on al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, new levels of right-wing terror must not be underestimated. She cited various examples of far-right lone wolf activity throughout Europe, including homophobic attacks and attempts to ignite race war, yet far-right extremism is still seen as an ‘easy’
problem to deal with compared to Islamic extremism.

Ramalingam also warned of tendencies to be in denial about far-right extremism, adding that such threats are constantly shifting, and highlighted the threat from counter-jihad groups such as the English Defence League, which claim to be protecting democratic rights in an increasingly ‘Islamicised’ Europe. She also considered the impact of narratives that imply race-based struggles, the importance of the internet in garnering support and the dangers of tangential violence from far-right splinter groups.

For Scott Kleinmann, the key question, when looking at Islamist terrorism aimed at the UK and US, is whether it is increasing or receding. Much of the debate surrounding the spread of terrorism could be over-hyped by politicians and the media, he said, as far more people are killed in other ways such as domestic accidents, and arrests of Islamic terrorists have declined. That said, Kleinmann argued that such statistics are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of terrorists’ aims, as their goal is not necessarily to kill but rather to instil fear and panic.

He stressed the importance of critically examining what leads individuals to commit acts of terror, noting that there is no single pathway but rather several factors such as sanctuary (places where groups can train with impunity), jihadist social networks, in which global jihad is embedded and thus sustained, and the influence of charismatic Muslim clerics, who link social and political problems with a distorted view of Islam, and emphasise the need for violence to stop the so-called Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.

So while the threat of terrorism to the US and UK has reduced overall, Kleinmann concluded, he had made that assessment based on some of the counterterrorism successes he had explained earlier in his talk, not by quantifying the number of recent attacks and arrests. ‘To do so creates a false sense of security,’ he warned. ‘It only takes one terrorist attack to create devastating psychological effects on society.’

A philosophical slant informed Dr David Rodin’s talk, which looked at the resort to terrorism within a moral context, and the response of democracies to such threats. He suggested reasons why we should look at this issue within such a context, such as the moral repugnance to terrorism, which gives it a particular status that is out of proportion to the harm it actually does, and the values that allow communities to support terrorism.

Dr Rodin also explored the definition and key aspects of terrorism, such as the way it uses violence against particular classes of victims who have a moral right or expectation not to be attacked, and the fact that it is considered a non-state activity, despite the fact that states routinely attack people who are liable not to be attacked. Counter-terrorism should respect the human rights of others even as it restrains terrorists, and Dr Rodin examined the moral ins and outs of such measures as drone strikes and torture, as well as the balance between security and freedom.

Questions and comments from the floor revolved around community-based strategies and individual responsibility as a means of countering terrorism; the impact of particular (and often inflammatory) rhetoric in describing radicalism/extremism; the difficulties of identifying terrorist groups; factors that influence individuals to become terrorists; state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan; and the increase of public belief in conspiracy theories.

Peter Luff MP closed the seminar with a few words on how ‘immensely privileged’ he felt to have listened to these learned speakers, whose knowledge combined the intensely practical with the deeply theoretical. The contextualistion of violence was very important for politicians to bear in mind, he said, and they could base their actions much more often on facts which, along with philosophy, could have a direct impact on policy decisions.