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Confronting Terror in Open Society

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: July 3, 2007


Gordon Brown faced a trial by fire in his first week as Britain’s prime minister. Two days after his tenure began, Brown found himself beset by terrorism, first with the discovery of two car bombs (BBC) in central London, then later with a failed assault (Scotsman) on Glasgow’s airport. The incidents, detailed in this Telegraph timeline, draw attention to Britain’s terror response network, and more generally to how free societies interact with their Muslim citizens.

As British police pursue leads through quiet suburban neighborhoods (TIME), many argue Britain must do more to deal with the threat of homegrown terrorism in its large and varied Muslim population. Certainly domestic intelligence gathering is a critical ingredient. Michael McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, recently told that Britain’s experience with the Irish Republican Army leaves it well equipped for such an undertaking. Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, the MI5, is in some ways more effective at domestic surveillance than its U.S. counterparts, a point made repeatedly in this Online Debate.

Finding bad seeds among the law-abiding majority is a nuanced task, particularly when a community is targeted for religious or ethnic reasons. Again, Britain has extensive experience, having monitored closely during the "Troubles" the large Irish communities that exist in almost every British city. As Prime Minister Brown told the BBC in an interview, the challenge of homegrown terrorists is a “battle of hearts and minds.” Winning such a struggle, argues the Independent, requires “calm, caution, and intelligence.” According to William Rees-Mogg, a Times of London columnist, it will also require a new legal framework and a close look at Britain’s “deeply flawed” culture, which he says has alienated many British Muslims.

Britain is not alone. Europe’s failure to integrate descendents of Muslim immigrants has led to a generation of disillusioned youth (Foreign Affairs) who are increasingly susceptible to radical ideology and the kind of violence which has plagued France. The cloud of suspicion that tends to mushroom from terrorist attacks serves only to further alienate this corner of society. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for the Independent, calls on “sane, ordinary Muslims” to speak out. Writing in the Guardian, the Muslim Council of Britain’s Inayat Bunglawala suggests that a more tempered foreign policy would also help dampen the spread of radicalism at home.

In the United States, homegrown terrorism recently made headlines once again with claims that authorities broke up two plots targeting Fort Dix (WashPost) in New Jersey and New York’s JFK airport (CNN). These alleged plots surprised experts who see Muslim-Americans as less susceptible to radicalism due to their greater economic and cultural integration. Of course, the 2.35 million American Muslims represent a much smaller percentage of the overall U.S. population than the roughly two million Muslims living in Britain. Unlike Muslims in Europe, those in the United States tend not to live in isolated enclaves and hail from a broader array (TIME) of countries.

A task force report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs affirms the generally advanced integration of American Muslims, while noting that greater civic engagement yet is possible, particularly with respect to national security. A recent Pew Research Center poll points out other flaws in the integration of American Muslims, saying some feel “singled out” for surveillance and monitoring. Speaking at a recent symposium on terror threats in New York City, CFR’s Steven Simon cautioned: “We need to think very carefully about this because this is a community…on whom we will rely for our security.”

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