The attacks in London on Saturday are the latest in a series of terror strikes that have led to the deaths of over 30 civilians of various nationalities. British PM Theresa May has expressed the outrage of most British people, declaring that “we cannot allow this ideology the safe space that it needs to breathe” and calling for the regulation of cyberspace to prevent the internet being used so effectively by terrorist groups to disseminate their poisonous ideology.
These declarations by the British prime minister conceal a scandal. The signs of Britain’s current predicament were visible decades earlier, and successive prime ministers and cabinets proved incapable of anticipating the extent of the threat from Islamist terrorism.
A harbinger of Britain’s present problems was evident almost thirty years ago. In 1989, Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of British author Salman Rushdie for writing the supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Large numbers of militant British Muslims took to the streets in support of Khomeini’s blatant attack on freedom of speech.
In 1999, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, the infamous Imam of London’s Finsbury Park mosque, delivered a talk at the Second Conference of Islamic Revival Movements at Friends House in London, hired out from the Quakers. In his speech, he explained to a packed audience of British Muslims how to bring down airliners with bombs attached to hot air balloons. He exhorted his listeners to action, by concluding: “It will work. Invent your own ideas and never give up.” Al-Masri walked freely in the streets of London, continuing to preach for a further five-and-a-half years, until he was eventually arrested and later extradited to the U.S., where he was condemned to life imprisonment without parole in 2015.
The new millennium brought ever increasing signs of radicalism among British Muslims, with some expressions of dismay but little else from Britain’s political leadership. Following the 9/11 attacks in September 2001, some Muslim children in certain British schools were reported to celebrate the tragedy. A survey of British Muslims in November that year showed 15 percent considered the 9/11 attacks justified, with a further 25 percent stating that they would not inform authorities about people they knew were involved in or connected with terrorist activities.
In March 2004, a further survey of British Muslims showed 13 percent considered further terrorist attacks on the USA were justified. In the wake of the tragic terror strikes on the London transport system in July 2005, a survey of British Muslims showed that 5 percent considered the tube attacks justified, a figure that increased to 7 percent in a poll in December that year.
Governments came and went, with the Labour government stepping down after a Conservative victory in 2010. The new government of Prime Minister David Cameron inherited the problem of hostility toward Britain among some British Muslims but proved incapable of addressing it effectively.
A further Gallup Poll of British Muslims in 2009 asked whether use of violence for a noble cause was justifiable. Some 6 percent considered it was completely justified, with a further 31 percent considering it somewhat justifiable. An ICM survey in 2015 revealed that 4 percent of British Muslim respondents sympathized with suicide bombing to fight injustice, with a further 18 percent sympathizing with violence against anyone who “mocks the prophet.”
Throughout the period of these surveys, the British Muslim community continued to grow exponentially from 1.6 million in the 2001 British national census to more than double that number today. Meanwhile, several thousand British Muslim men and women joined the ranks of the Islamic State, according to British Muslim MP Khali Mahmood, including the infamous “Jihadi John” Mohammed Emwazi, who was responsible for the beheading of Western hostages, including journalist James Foley.
If we take figures from the 2005, 2009 and 2015 surveys mentioned above of an average 5 percent of British Muslims who sympathize with violence, including suicide bombing, the population increase in British Muslims would mean that in 2001 the number sympathizing with violent terrorist actions stood at 80,000, but, today, that figure would be closer to 200,000.
No doubt some will argue that public opinion surveys are blunt instruments and should not be taken too literally. But just last week, the Times of London stated that intelligence officers have identified 23,000 jihadist extremists living in Britain as potential terrorist attackers. These include an estimated 400 fighters who have returned from fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
However one reads the figures, the United Kingdom has a huge problem. Tragically, the writing was on the wall long ago. Equally tragic, the victims of this growing problem are the ordinary citizens who were not in positions to take the hard decisions that prime ministers and their cabinet ministers should have taken 20 or 30 years ago.
British political leadership has let the threat to Britain from radical Islamist extremists drift for a generation. Time will tell whether the British government about to be chosen in the national elections of June 8 will grasp the nettle and take the courageous decisions needed to extricate Britain from its present dire predicament.