In the News

Mar 13, 2017

Terror map reveals danger of segregation
by Andrew Gilligan and Sian Griffiths
The Sunday Times (London)
March 5 2017

David Anderson, Britain’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that to defeat the problem, you have to understand it. A vast new study, the largest of its kind in Europe, aims to do precisely that.

The report, 18 months in the making and obtained by The Sunday Times, scours court transcripts, media reports and hundreds of other sources to bring together for the first time information on who Britain’s Islamist terrorists actually are. It covers all 269 individual convictions or suicide bombings and all the nearly 400 offences involved, from the very first in 1998 to the beginning of last year. It asks: where did the terrorists come from? What influenced them? What kind of neighbourhoods do they live in?

Some of the answers are what you would expect — terrorists are mostly young and mostly male — but the delve into the data also demolishes a great deal of conventional wisdom, and provides important new insights into one of the country’s most pressing problems.

Among the most interesting is a clear link, previously denied by many, between highly segregated Muslim areas and terrorism. Areas that are more integrated have lower rates of offending.

Nearly half of all British Muslims live in neighbourhoods where Muslims form less than a fifth of the population. However, a disproportionately low number of Islamist terrorists — 38% — come from such neighbourhoods. The city of Leicester, which has a sizeable but well-integrated Muslim population, has bred only two terrorists in the past 19 years.

Only 14% of British Muslims live in neighbourhoods that are more than 60% Muslim. However, the report finds, 24% of all Islamist terrorists come from these neighbourhoods. Birmingham, which has both a large and a highly segregated Muslim population, is perhaps the key example of the phenomenon.

Just five of Britain’s 9,500 council wards — all in Birmingham — account for 26 convicted terrorists, a tenth of the national total. The wards — Springfield, Sparkbrook, Hodge Hill, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green — contain sizeable areas where the vast majority of the population is Muslim.

Birmingham as a whole, with 234,000 Muslims across its 40 council wards, had 39 convicted terrorists. That is many more than its Muslim population would suggest, and more than West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire put together, even though their combined Muslim population is about 650,000, nearly three times that of Birmingham. There are pockets of high segregation in the north of England but they are much smaller than in Birmingham.

The greatest single number of convicted terrorists, 117, comes from London, but they are much more widely spread across the city than in Birmingham and their numbers are roughly proportionate to the capital’s million-strong Muslim community.

Another leading indicator of terrorism, it appears from the new figures, is poverty. About 38% of terrorists were unemployed, while 76% came from neighbourhoods with above-average deprivation. The report also subverts the conventional wisdom that terrorists are disproportionately educated and middle class.

The former Tory chairwoman, Baroness Warsi, among many others, is also wrong to claim that most terrorists are “radicalised in their bedrooms by being on the internet”. In fact the figures show that physical spaces are still significant factors in the development of terror.

Mosques or faith charities were places of radicalisation and facilitation for 38% of terrorists, though not always with the agreement of the management, while the internet was cited as a key source of radicalisation in only 35% of cases. The proportion radicalised online is increasing, however.

The report also dismisses the often-heard claim that terrorist attacks are commonly committed by “lone wolves” unconnected to wider extremist networks. It says that only 28 of the 269 terrorists — 10% — acted alone, although a larger number were convicted alone.

Almost 80% of UK Islamist terrorists were affiliated to, inspired by, directed by or linked to extremist networks, the report finds. The most important of these, directly linked to 66 convicted terrorists, a quarter of the total, was Anjem Choudary’s al-Muhajiroun, an organisation once defended by some Whitehall officials and Muslim groups.

The stereotype of terrorists as alienated loners is also wrong, the report says. Almost three-quarters of those whose household status could be determined lived with their families.

More than three-quarters of terrorists were known to the authorities before their arrests — MI5 was aware of 48%, usually because they were under surveillance. However, the number of terrorists known to the authorities has plunged: in the five years since 2011, the proportion known to MI5 has more than halved, from 61% to 29%.

That suggests a potentially growing problem for the authorities, a week after Max Hill — Anderson’s successor as reviewer of terrorism legislation — warned that the “intensity and potential frequency of serious plot planning” posed an “enormous ongoing risk” that was greater than the IRA campaigns of the 1970s.

Yet in the longer term, the law and police, however effective, can do only so much. Hannah Stuart, of the Henry Jackson Society, who wrote the study, said her findings raised “difficult questions about how extremism takes root in deprived communities, many of which have high levels of segregation. Much more needs to be done to challenge extremism and promote pluralism and inclusivity on the ground.”

In Birmingham, at least, many observers say that test is being failed.

“It is a really strange situation,” said Matt Bennett, the opposition spokesman for education on the council. “You have this closed community which is cut off from the rest of the city in lots of ways. The leadership of the council doesn’t particularly wish to engage directly with Asian people — what they like to do is have a conversation with one person who they think can ‘deliver’ their support.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw — the former head of Ofsted who tangled with the council over the “Trojan Horse” scandal, when Islamists tried to take over state schools — said the current “second-division” performance of the city’s schools presented “real dangers that radicalisation will arise again and regressive forces will come back”.