Analysis Brief

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Britain Braces for Worse Still

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: June 30, 2007


The worst materialized Saturday when, following the near miraculous discovery of two car bombs in London (NYT) which authorities defused without incident, an attack by a third caused mayhem (BBC) at Scotland's largest airport in Glasgow. The attack, which took no innocent lives, was deemed by British officials as a bungled attempt to drive a car bomb into an airport terminal. Nonetheless, the attacks, which police suspected to be linked to those in London, caused terrorist threat levels to rise across Britain. Selected steps took effect in the New York area (WNBC) and other U.S. airports, though American Homeland Security officials declined to raise the national "threat level" on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Glasgow attack left Britain bracing for what might be next (Guardian) a mere three days into the tenure of its new prime minister, Gordon Brown. The harrowing start to his term is traced in this Associated Press timeline. Brown, who succeed Tony Blair on Thursday, has said he would strengthen Britain's antiterror laws (Scotsman) in spite of complaints from British Muslim groups and civil libertarians.

In the two years since backpack bombs wreaked havoc on London’s mass transit system, the so-called "7-7" attacks (BBC), British police claim to have unearthed several terrorist plots in their nascent stages. In this case, however, the police appear to have gotten lucky.

Britain’s recent brushes with terrorism have followed a disturbing trend; many of the plotters have been British-born Muslims who fell under the persuasion of the radical ideology preached by al-Qaeda. These homegrown terrorists then either planned their own attacks or reached out to broader terrorist networks for support. Across the Atlantic, this pattern has caused anxiety over the risk that U.S. Muslims will succumb to the same radicalism. Already this past spring, police claim to have foiled two homegrown plots involving Muslims that targeted New Jersey’s Fort Dix (WashPost) and New York’s JFK airport (CNN).

The prospects of both homegrown terrorism and foreign terrorists on U.S. soil have sparked debate over what tools the intelligence community should have to protect the homeland. Michael McConnell, the top U.S. intelligence official, tells that monitoring domestic threats presents a new challenge for an intelligence infrastructure that historically focused exclusively outside the United States. McConnell points to Britain as the nation with the most experience in combating a domestic threat; this Online Debate weighs the pros and cons of the British system. Meanwhile, the White House and the Democratic-led Congress have locked horns (LAT) over a warrantless electronic surveillance program authorized by President Bush shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Domestic surveillance could prove a hot topic in the 2008 presidential election as well, as CFR's Issue Tracker shows.

U.S. counterterror efforts on the home front have generated mounting concerns in the Muslim community. A recent Pew Research Center poll found most of the United States’ 2.35 million Muslims believe they are “singled out” for surveillance and monitoring. Experts say some of the best intelligence on the spread of Islamic radicalism in the United States comes from moderate American Muslims, but as perceptions of unfair treatment increase, such cooperation may dwindle. As CFR terrorism expert Steven Simon cautions: “We need to think very carefully about this because this is a community … on whom we will rely for our security.”

In fact, U.S. Muslims, 65 percent of whom are foreign-born, have blended well into American society. This stands in stark contrast to much of Europe, where Muslim communities exist in isolated enclaves (TIME). But recent trends at home and abroad have spurred calls for new efforts to integrate U.S. Muslims. Congress has heard repeated testimony on radical Islam (CQ), and the House of Representatives is considering the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which would expand efforts to prevent radicalization. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently issued a task force report on the civic and political integration of Muslim Americans.

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