Birmingham at the Centre of Extremism in Britain

Mahmud el-Shafey

LONDON — After every terrorist attack, there is an inquest exploring the same distressing questions: How could this have happened again? And what lessons can be learnt?
The March 22nd attack in London’s Westminster — where Khalid Masood, who was killed by an armed police officer after he drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed a police officer, killing four — is no exception.
While in some ways the attack was atypical — at 52, Masood was older than the standard jihadist — much of it was painfully familiar. Masood’s method of violence mirrors recent Palestinian attacks in which vehicles were used to run down pedestrians or in which victims have been stabbed.
His background also follows a familiar course. Born Adrian Russell Ajao, Masood was a Muslim convert who had been imprisoned twice for criminal offences not related to terrorism. Having previously been identified on the fringes of jihadism, he was known to MI5. The assailant also lived in Birmingham, where an estimated 300,000 Muslims make up one-quarter of the population.
Birmingham, the second most populous city in Britain, has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe and has often found itself at the centre of Islamist extremism and terrorism cases.
In 2014, leaked documents revealed that a small group of hard-line Muslims were attempting to seize control of a number of Birmingham schools in what became known as Britain’s Trojan Horse scandal. At the same time, many Birmingham mosques and community centres were accused of spreading extremist views.
After the Westminster attack, police carried out raids across the city, arresting several people on suspicion of involvement in the attack.
An extensive report by British think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, published just weeks before the Westminster attack, looked at the geographic background of terrorists in Britain. The report said that one-in-ten British Islamist terrorists came from just five council wards in the West Midlands city, a grouping second only to East London.
Thirty-nine out of 269 people convicted of terrorism offences or killed as suicide bombers since 1998 came from or lived in Birmingham. Two-thirds of those were from just five — Springfield, Sparkbrook, Hodge Hill, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green — of Birmingham’s 40 council wards. This exceeds the number of those convicted of similar charges from all of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire combined. With the Westminster attack, Birmingham’s tally increased again.
“Birmingham has become the country’s second major terrorism hotspot,” Henry Jackson Society Senior Research Fellow Hannah Stuart, who wrote the report, told the Express newspaper.
Speaking after the attack, Henry Jackson Society researcher Emma Webb said: “Our research has shown that Birmingham is the second hotspot for Islamist-related terror offenders, after London… We also found that 26% [of people convicted of terrorism offences] had previous convictions and that converts were disproportionately involved in Islamist-related terror offences. So, in many ways Khalid Masood fits within an established pattern.”
Masood had previously been investigated by security services as part of a loose network of Islamist extremists in Luton — a town between London and Birmingham where Muslims make up a quarter of the population — where he frequented the same gym as four people (including one Birmingham native) convicted of plotting to set off an explosion on an army base, and lived on the same street as 2010 Stockholm suicide bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly.
Luton was also home to the banned Al-Muhajiroun group that was led by hate preacher Anjem Choudary, who is serving a prison sentence for supporting the Islamic State (ISIS).
British police have since released most of those arrested in Birmingham, saying they believed Masood “acted alone on the day” and that there was no evidence suggesting he was directly linked with al-Qaeda or ISIS.
“We must all accept that there is a possibility we will never understand why he did this. That understanding may have died with him,” said Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu.
Whatever the case, extremism is a growing problem in industrial towns with significant Muslim populations, such as Birmingham and Luton, as well as Muslim enclaves like East London. Radicalisation has become an increasingly dangerous phenomenon in these areas, where extremist views are growing seemingly unchecked.
“We should be aware that the vast majority of UK-based terrorists do not act alone. This research shows that the overwhelming majority are part of wider networks, formed online and in person, with family and friends — and have been radicalised here in Britain,” warned Stuart.
What is certain is that Masood’s attack on Westminster will not be the last of its kind. With Britain’s terror threat marked at “severe” — indicating a terror threat is believed to be imminent — everybody, from the government to security services, to local mosques and community leaders, must do more to combat the radical Islamist extremism that leads to terrorism.

Mahmud el-Shafey
is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
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