For more than 15 years, the United Kingdom has been widely viewed as the central hub of Islamist terrorism in the West. Since the 1990s, jihadists radicalized in the United Kingdom have been involved in many ambitious overseas terrorist plots, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the failed Stockholm suicide bombing in December 2010. Radical clerics based in “Londonistan,” such as Abu Qatada, have meanwhile incited jihadist violence in North Africa, Europe and throughout the Middle East. In addition, the United Kingdom has itself been targeted. A successful attack by a homegrown terrorist cell in July 2005 on the London transport system killed more than 50. Many other domestic plots, ranging from plans to conduct assassinations and kidnappings to the plot to blow up several trans-Atlantic airliners either failed in their execution or were disrupted by the police and security services. To date, nearly 150 individuals have been convicted of terrorism offenses in the United Kingdom since 2001.
Recently, however, there are indications that the United Kingdom may no longer be such a key center for global jihadism. During the last four years, there has been a steady decline in the number and quality of attempted terrorist attacks either in the United Kingdom or linked to the United Kingdom. During 2010, there was only one attempted Islamist terrorist attack in the United Kingdom when a 21-year old female university student, Roshonara Choudhry, stabbed Stephen Timms, a Labour Party member of parliament, for supporting the Iraq war. Similarly, UK-based plots recently foiled by police posed a much less immediate threat than in previous years. In the most recent case to come to trial, two Pakistani men based in the United Kingdom were convicted in September 2011 of attempting to recruit British volunteers to join the Taliban in 2008-2009. Significantly, they aimed to support the Taliban’s insurgency operations within Afghanistan rather than any global jihadist cause. Notably, in June 2011, MI5, the British internal security service, lowered its assessment of the “threat level” to the United Kingdom from “severe” to “substantial,” having previously lowered it from “critical” in July 2007.
This article identifies three reasons why there has been a reduction in jihadist activity in the United Kingdom. First, there has been a decline in jihadist as well as Islamist “gateway” organizations in the United Kingdom. Second, British Muslim communities are less receptive to Islamist and jihadist arguments. Third, the British government’s counterterrorism capabilities have improved.
Decline of Jihadist, Islamist and “Gateway” Organizations
During the 1990s and early 2000s, support for both global and national jihadism was entrenched in British Muslim communities and among the “Muslim spokesmen” who had appointed themselves as British Muslims’ de facto leaders. In the late 1990s, for example, Inayat Bunglawala, a leader of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), distributed Usama bin Ladin’s pro-jihadist fatawa and praised him as a “freedom fighter.” Meanwhile, key figures from MCB and other Islamist groups laid the groundwork for jihadist recruitment by first presenting “Western” and “Islamic” values as incompatible and by promoting a grievance-based Muslim identity. Second, they argued that solutions for such problems could be resolved through segregating Muslims from mainstream society, creating “Islamic states” in Muslim-majority countries or in extreme cases physically attacking perceived enemies of Islam, from individuals such as the author Salman Rushdie or countries such as the United States. In parallel with such political Islamists, global jihadists meanwhile used the United Kingdom as a center for propaganda operations, recruitment of jihadists and as a money-raising and logistical hub to support conflicts ranging from Algeria and the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan.
Today, the Islamist groups that laid the groundwork for jihadism are in retreat. Jamaat-i-Islami front-groups, such as the MCB, have today mostly moderated their rhetoric and largely stepped back from politics. Formerly prominent Muslim Brotherhood front-groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) are now all but defunct. Many Brotherhood activists have even dropped their focus on British Muslims and now concentrate solely on the Arab world. For instance, Azzam Tamimi, once a highly active MAB member who praised suicide bombings on the BBC and ceaselessly toured British university campuses, now spends all his time running an Arabic-language satellite channel, al-Hiwar, aimed at the Middle East. In consequence, there are now fewer voices in British Muslim communities promoting Islamist politics and the paranoid “us and them” mindset that helps create jihadist radicalization.
A similar collapse has hit even more radical groups. Hizb al-Tahrir (also known as Hizb-ut-Tahrir), once a “conveyor belt” or “gateway” organization nudging British Muslims toward extremism, is now in rapid decline. In 2002 and 2003, an estimated 6,000 Muslims came to the group’s annual conference. By comparison, its 2011 conference, held in London’s most heavily Muslim district, attracted only “a few hundred” participants. HT appears to have been fatally damaged by a post-2005 onslaught against the group by high-profile former members, which accelerated the group’s ongoing discrediting among British Muslims. Their defections also helped trigger the resignation of many HT local leaders, leading to a collapse of HT’s regional branches. HT has meanwhile failed to promote any new faces and consequently its leaders are today unable to connect with ordinary young Muslims.
Similarly, the overtly pro-jihadist al-Muhajiroun group that once actively connected young British Muslims with active jihadist groups abroad has become more subdued. Although it has refreshed its membership better than HT, most recently through rebranding itself as “Islam4UK” and “Muslims Against Crusades,” it increasingly functions as what Jarret Brachman has called a “jihobbyist” group whose members make provocative statements without ever intending to translate them into action. Although al-Muhajiroun formerly acted as a gateway to terrorism, few terrorist plots in the last two to three years have been linked to the group and there is no public evidence that the group is still willing or able to connect British Muslims with militant groups abroad.
In consequence of these changes, it is harder today for British aspiring jihadists either to become radicalized to the point of committing violence or to connect with jihadists abroad. Significantly, the only attempted domestic attack in 2010, the attempted murder of an MP by Roshonara Choudhry, was a classic “lone-wolf” attack carried out by someone unconnected to any UK-based Islamists or extremists; she had been radicalized almost entirely by Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s online sermons. The only other significant UK-based plot of 2010, Rajib Karim’s embryonic plans to attack an airliner, was also a fairly decentralized plot that involved a recent immigrant who was already deeply involved in the Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh terrorist group. Simultaneously, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from Iraq (completed in early 2011) has denied radicals a powerful recruiting tool, while the death of Bin Ladin and the rise of the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East seem to have damaged jihadists’ self-confidence.
Changes in British Muslim Communities
An additional reason for the decline of both Islamist and jihadist groups is that social, economic and cultural changes in British Muslim communities have reduced demand for jihadism and extremism. For instance, recent polls also point to Islamists’ failure to popularize their isolationist, grievance-based narrative. For instance, one 2009 country-wide poll found that 77% of Muslims “identified with the UK” and that Muslims were more likely than non-Muslims to trust British courts and the police—despite intensive Islamist attempts to portray the police as anti-Muslim.
British Muslims also see the United Kingdom and its values as representing freedoms unknown in most Muslim-majority countries, while also valuing such tolerance more generally. One recent poll, for example, found that 47% of Muslims were “proud of how Britain treats gay people.” Powerful evidence of this changing mind-set came at the MCB’s 2011 annual dinner when Mehdi Hasan, the young political editor of the New Statesman magazine, criticized in his keynote speech the MCB’s longstanding boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day and told his audience that “Britain is the best place in the Europe to live as a Muslim.” This is not a fertile environment for jihadists who preach that non-Muslims are the enemy, that democracy is haram and that true justice can only exist in a totalitarian “Islamic state.”
Government Counterterrorism Work
The British state has also played an important role in reducing the Islamist terrorist threat. Several key laws have substantially reduced the space for active terrorist recruiters to operate. The 2006 Terrorism Act, which criminalized the “glorification” of terrorism, has clearly prevented jihadists from encouraging violence. Key radicalizing figures who directly incited terrorism such as Abu Hamza, Abdullah Faisal and Omar Bakri have additionally been imprisoned, deported or encouraged to relocate overseas. The security services’ mapping of radical Islamist networks has meanwhile allowed aspiring terrorists to be identified at an early stage. This has led to some aspiring terrorists being arrested while still planning attacks, while others have been steered away from violence through the police’s “Channel” program, the most successful part of the government’s larger “Prevent” counterterrorism strategy.
Britain’s long struggle with jihadism is not over. Radicalization remains a serious problem on some university campuses and in prisons. Furthermore, many Muslim communities in impoverished towns in northern England remain isolated from mainstream society, and in some of these areas conservative Islam is growing in popularity. In some larger urban areas, such as parts of Birmingham, London and Luton, where Islamist groups have deliberately entrenched themselves in the local political and religious fabric of society, radicalization remains a clear threat. In East London, for instance, Jamaat-i-Islami sympathizers have used their control over East London Mosque, a multimillion dollar complex, to spread intolerant and paranoid Islamist thinking into local Muslim communities. There are also scattered reports of young British Muslims traveling to Somalia to join al-Shabab, a group aligned with al-Qa`ida, or to join the Taliban in Afghanistan. Online radicalization, and the associated threat of lone wolf attackers, is also a danger, as shown by the Roshonara Choudhry case.
Terrorist movements rarely disappear overnight. The United Kingdom itself still battles with Irish Republican terrorism more than a decade after Tony Blair signed a peace deal with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Islamist terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom remain possible. As recently as mid-September 2011, British police arrested and charged six men and a woman in Birmingham on suspicion of preparing terrorist attacks. It is also likely that some future jihadist attacks overseas will have connections to the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, such events, however dramatic, should not obscure the fact that key social, political and economic trends are slowly but powerfully undercutting jihadism’s raison d’etre in the United Kingdom. Indeed, a powerful feedback cycle is arguably starting to develop in which the declining influence of Islamist and jihadist groups accelerates and facilitates the integration of British Muslims, which in turn reduces the grassroots demand for such grievance-based groups further. One can hope that the bloody “golden age” of British jihadism may be drawing to a close.
James Brandon is Director of Research and Communications at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank based in London.
 It is worth noting that the bar for conviction is set considerably higher in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Wiretap evidence, for example, cannot be used in court and all forms of “entrapment” are illegal.
 “Former Taliban Jailed for Recruiting Young Men,” Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2011.
 “Threat Levels,” MI5 Security Service, available at www.mi5.gov.uk/output/threat-levels.html#history.
 “Top Job Fighting Extremism for Muslim who Praised Bomber,” Daily Telegraph, August 21, 2005.
 Tamimi’s activities nonetheless remain controversial. In 2009, al-Hiwar was found in breach of British broadcasting regulations after the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, used the channel to praise Hamas’ use of Qassam rockets against Israel. See “Broadcast Bulletin 12/10/09,” Ofcom, available at http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/enforcement/broadcast-bulletins/obb143/.
 “6,000 Muslims Debate ‘Islam and the West,’” Press Association, September 15, 2002; “Thousands Attend Muslim Conference,” BBC, August 24, 2003.
 Personal interview, anti-extremism activist who picketed the conference, London, October 2011.
 The three principle defectors are Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher, and Maajid Nawaz.
 An irreverent analysis of this trend is provided by Shiraz Maher at the United Kingdom’s “Harry’s Place” blog. See Shiraz Maher, “Hizb-ut-Tahrir Implodes,” HurryUpHarry.org, June 19, 2011.
 Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2009).
 For further details on al-Muhajiroun’s links to terrorism, see Raffaello Pantucci, “The Tottenham Ayatollah and the Hook-Handed Cleric: An Examination of All Their Jihadi Children,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33:3 (2010).
 Raffaello Pantucci, “Al-Awlaki Recruits Bangladeshi Militants for Strike on the United States,” Terrorism Monitor 9:7 (2011).
 “British Muslims Most Patriotic in Europe,” Daily Telegraph, December 13, 2009.
 To review the YouGov survey results, visit http://today.yougov.co.uk/sites/today.yougov.co.uk/files/yg-archives-pol-demos-patriotism-ge_280611.pdf.
 A video of this speech can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=IADNZNvkuZA, accessed October 31, 2011.
 According to the latest review of the “Prevent” strategy, 1,120 individuals (including right-wing extremists) have been referred to Channel. For details, see “Prevent Strategy,” UK Home Office, 2011. p. 59.
 “Radicalisation on British University Campuses,” Quilliam Foundation, 2010.
 For British radicals in Somalia, see “My Brother and the Deadly Lure of al-Shabab Jihad,” BBC, November 2, 2010. In September 2011, three UK-based men were convicted of helping British Muslims travel to fight in Afghanistan. For details, see “Former Taliban Jailed for Recruiting Young Men on Streets of Britain,” Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2011.
 “Birmingham Terror Arrests: Seventh Man to Face Charges,” BBC, September 29, 2011.