The rise of the British Jihad

September 2008 / Granta, 103

Since the London bombings of July 7, 2005, in which fifty-two people were murdered in suicide attacks by Islamic terrorists, Britain has become a more troubled, less confident and harmonious country. We have witnessed an increase in Islamophobia. A generation of politically engaged writers and novelists has abandoned the liberalism of their earlier years to become, among other things, robust supporters of President Bush’s war on terror. The Labour government has introduced a series of draconian counterterrorism measures, including most recently extending the right of the police to hold terror suspects without charge for forty-two days. Meanwhile, some moderate Muslim leaders refuse to accept that the various bomb plots in which young British Muslim men have been arrested for scheming to blow up airlines, shopping centres and nightclubs are in fact real.

Does all this mean the terrorists are winning? Certainly spectacular acts of terrorism have succeeded in altering the consciousness of our age; in changing the way we think, act and dream. ‘Terror,’ wrote Don DeLillo in his novel Mao II, ‘makes the new future possible’.

What of that future? If the recent past is anything to go by, it will be profoundly unstable; nor is there any doubt that before too long there will be another murderous attack on Britain from within Britain. For the record, there are at least 200 indigenous active terrorist cells being monitored by the Security Service MI5, with 4,000 British Muslims considered to be a threat to national security.

The story of the rise of the British jihad is one of labyrinthine complexity and as yet it naturally has no ending. (More information may emerge about the relationships of the various Islamist plotters over the months ahead as several important trials come to an end.) But it has a beginning – at least in the story told by Richard Watson in this issue of Granta – and it is in the early-to-mid-1990s when a small group of radical clerics first arrived to live and work in Britain. Among them were Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Qatada, who had both been expelled from countries in the Middle East, and yet once settled in London they were, without restriction from the state, free to set up networks, to preach violent jihad and to radicalize a generation of disaffected Muslim men. Many of these young men were, and still are, suspended unhappily between the country of their birth to which they feel no loyalty or natural affinity, and their ancestral homelands, which their fathers and grandfathers had left in the decades after the Second World War in search of security and a new life at the heart of the old imperial power.

Today Omar Bakri Mohammed is living in Lebanon and is banned from returning to Britain; Abu Qatada continues to live in London, but although he has never been convicted of terrorist offences he wears an electronic tag and a court order forces him to remain at home for twenty-two hours of each day. But even though neither man is free to operate as he once did in Britain, he might feel that his best work has been done. After all, there is an entire generation of British Muslims, influenced or radicalized by the clerics and their followers, who are at large in the country and determined to carry on the struggle for violent jihad in the name of the one true God, Allah.

This is my last issue as editor of Granta; at the end of September I will become editor of the New Statesman. I joined Granta on September 1, 2007 and since then we have relaunched and redesigned the magazine and developed a new website and online magazine, It has been a thrilling, often exhausting, but always happily absorbing period. My successor will be my present deputy, Alex Clark, the first woman to edit the magazine. I wish her well in the role and would like to thank all those who read, contributed to or worked on the magazine during my time as editor.