In 2006, the trenchant British political commentator Melanie Phillips published a volume that quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Titled Londonistan, it was the first major attempt to explain how and why the UK had become what Phillips termed “the epicenter of Islamic militancy in Europe” – a hub for recruiting, financing and promoting Islamic terror and extremism.
The incentive behind the book, and the urgent need Phillips felt to arouse the public’s awareness to the major problem it faced, was probably the London bombings on July 7, 2005, the worst terrorist attack to take place on British soil.
At 8:50 that morning, explosions tore through three trains on the London Underground, killing 39 people. An hour later, 13 people were killed when a bomb detonated on the upper deck of a bus in central London. In addition, more than 700 people were injured.
It was subsequently established that the attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives. The investigation characterized the four as “ordinary British citizens,” but the British public was forced to recognize that these relatively unassuming young men, living what appeared to be quite normal lives, had been radicalized by extremists living freely in Britain and operating from institutions functioning legally on British soil.
For decades Britain’s laissez-faire attitude towards immigration had meant that centers of extremist Muslim thought had been established across the UK without any effective system of control.
Prof. Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University, an expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, has explained in detail how, since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organized network of mosques, charities and Islamic organizations.”
By way of an often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity, the Brotherhood now has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria and numerous other European countries.
Before becoming the leaders of ISIS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda) all belonged to the Brotherhood. Its basic principles lie at the heart of both ISIS and al-Qaeda. In founding the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, Hassan al-Banna declared, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its strategy, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which shari’a law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. “The presumption,” said Prof. Bernard Lewis in his book The Crisis of Islam, “is that the duty of jihad will continue… until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”
This ruthless obsession with imposing its version of Islam on the entire globe is, in the view of its adherents, of such paramount importance that its achievement justifies the use of any means, however excessive. The more confusion, dissension and terror created, the better. Those willing to sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of these ends are martyrs.
These were the teachings promulgated by radical Muslim preachers in Britain beginning in the 1980s to willing or vulnerable young Muslims. In November 1999, a UK newspaper reported that Muslims were receiving weapons training at secret locations in the UK. The report identified Anjem Choudary as a key figure in recruiting for these training centers. Choudary was convicted of soliciting support for a proscribed organization, namely Islamic State, and was imprisoned in 2016.
Finsbury Park is a district in the north-east of London. In 1994, a new five-story mosque was officially opened in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who had contributed funds for the building. Three years later a fanatically radical cleric named Abu Hamza al-Masri became its imam, and soon the mosque was being described as “the heart of the extremist Islamic culture” in Britain.
One of his disciples was Richard Reid, born in London in 1973, a young criminal who had been in and out of prison from the age of 16. During his incarceration in 1992 for various street robberies, he converted to Islam, and on his release in 1995 began attending the Finsbury Park Mosque. Here he fell under the sway of terrorist talent spotters and handlers allied with al-Qaeda including Djamal Beghal, one of the leaders of the foiled plan for a 2001 suicide bombing of the American embassy in Paris, and then Abu Hamza.
On December 22, 2001, Reid boarded an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he tried unsuccessfully to detonate. Passengers subdued him on the plane, and in 2002 he plead guilty in US federal court to eight counts of terrorism, and was sentenced to three life terms plus 110 years without parole.
By the end of 2014, Islamic State had reached its physical apogee. Spread across Syria and Iraq, it covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. At the same time it was claiming responsibility for a succession of horrific terrorist attacks across the world, causing the deaths of thousands. At its high point, ISIS was attracting thousands of young Muslim recruits, both male and female.
Britain was an especially fruitful recruiting ground. In November 2014, Labour MP Khalid Mahmoud told the media that he believed as many as 2,000 British citizens were fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.
One such UK citizen who achieved worldwide prominence was a young man described by a former schoolfriend as “a typical northwest London boy.” Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but moved with his parents to the UK at age six. He attended a good school, and went on to university where he graduated in computing. In late 2013, he joined ISIS on the Turkey-Syrian border.
In August 2014, ISIS issued a video showing the beheading of US journalist James Foley. Just before the gruesome murder, a man standing beside Foley, dressed in black, wielding a blade and speaking in a British accent, delivered a warning to the US government. He then appeared to start cutting at his captive’s neck before the video faded to black. The next screen showed James Foley’s body on the ground.
Over the following months, a series of similar videos were issued showing further beheadings. In at least two of them, the masked figure himself appeared to kill his victim. The man in black with the British accent was later positively identified as Mohammed Emwazi.
On November 12, 2015, US officials reported that Emwazi had been hit by a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria. His death was confirmed by ISIS in January 2016.
Bethnal Green is a district in east London. It sprang into sudden prominence in February 2015, when three schoolgirls attending the Bethnal Green Academy suddenly disappeared. CCTV equipment at Gatwick Airport caught the three – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana – leaving the country. Another image showed them several hours later at a bus station in western Istanbul.
The three were following their friend – Sharmeena Begum, no relation – who had fled to join Islamic State the previous December. Media reports suggested that Sharmeena had been targeted for recruitment by a group known as the Sisters Forum, affiliated with the Islamic Forum of Europe that met at an east London mosque.
When the three teenagers reached the Syrian border, they were picked up by smugglers working for ISIS and taken into the group’s territory in northern Syria. Once there, they were each married off as “jihadi brides” to foreign fighters, three of the thousands who had flooded in from across the world. In Nazi fashion, Islamic State aimed to raise a new generation of children supporting its so-called caliphate, and grooming young women to the cause was key to that plan. A month later, five other girls from Bethnal Green Academy, all aged 15 or 16, were barred by the High Court from traveling abroad.
In February 2019, a heavily pregnant Shamima Begum resurfaced at the al-Hawl refugee camp, along with 1,555 other women and children who had traveled from abroad to join ISIS. Her two Bethnal Green companions were believed to be dead. Shamima and her Dutch-born husband had retreated with ISIS to their final stronghold of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and when the caliphate faced final defeat by US-backed Kurdish-led forces, they fled.
In interviews with British media, Shamima begged to be allowed to return to the UK, but when questioned she said she did not regret joining ISIS, and that she was “OK” with the beheadings she had witnessed.
Shamima’s story initially was that she had been nothing but a Muslim housewife, but later, after she had given birth and this baby had died like her previous two, reports emerged that Shamima had played an active role in the caliphate’s reign of terror. It was claimed that she had been a member of the hisba, the ISIS morality police, a feared group which enforced the organization’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. There were also allegations that she had stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating.
As a result, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped Shamima of her British citizenship, and barred her from returning to the country – a decision currently being appealed in the British courts, which in a typically British gesture of tolerance, have granted Shamima and her supporters legal aid with which to pursue their case. Londonistan is living up to its reputation.