May 7, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Don't Neglect Domestic Terrorism

Intelligence agencies in both Britain and the United States are focusing on the foreign threat from al Qaeda -- and rightly so. The terror group is eager to strike innocent civilians and key infrastructure. But while we act against an external hazard, we cannot afford to ignore the dangers of domestic terrorists.

The threat of homegrown Islamic militancy is especially potent in a democratic society. After all, the al Qaeda training manual urges members, if captured, to exploit the many protections the American justice system provides. Surely, they'll take advantage of our other freedoms as well.

Islamic militant groups already have great influence in the United Kingdom. Growing up in an ethnic area of Birmingham, I spent plenty of time debating Muslim friends on theology and politics, and their perceptions are unnerving. Although only a handful practice radical Islam, the underlying beliefs of the Muslim community support jihadism.

Muslim youth tend to be openly anti-American and anti-Semitic. Many ideologically support Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa and consider Saddam Hussein a hero for "standing up" to the West. As late as 2002, the main mosque in Birmingham was named after Saddam, who paid most of the cost to build it in the 1980s. Local Muslims were proud of this symbol of their defiance of Western ideas.

A minority even believes in practicing jihadism. This has generated growing support for the British-based radical clerics Sheikh Omar and Abu Hamza, who incite racial hatred and encourage young Muslims to inflict jihad.

Such clerics and their growing number of followers pose a real threat. Convicted "shoe bomber" Richard Reid met Omar and Hamza at Brixton mosque in southern London and pledged allegiance to bin Laden. Later he tried to blow up a plane with explosives concealed in his shoes.

For many British Muslims, their allegiance lies more with their faith than with their country. Although may are third-generation Britons, the sense of their native roots is still strong, which explains why most prefer to live in close-knit communities, rather than fully integrate into British life.

In fact, some are actually plotting to undermine democracy in Britain. The "International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders" states its goal is to turn Britain into an "Islamic state by 2025." Group such as these treat the threat from "Christian capitalism" as a modern crusade.

Meanwhile, with the end to communism and the cold war, many Muslims believe the clash of the twenty-first century is not over political ideologies but religious ones. This surely is true of some American Muslims, who in fact may be angrier at America than at Britain.

Many Muslims resent American support for Israel, the stationing of U.S. troops in the Middle East and the vast interests of American companies in oil and other Arab commodities. American cinema and pop music are also sore points. Bin Laden's 1998 Fatwa embodies what many Muslims in Britain perceive -- the United States as a global hegemon, which is already threatening Islamic states through its support of Israel.

At a time when Britain has closely allied itself with Washington, the terrorist threat to British soil has never been higher. Public officials there are bracing for what they consider is an inevitable attack on London. That's led to the recent arrests of hundreds of British Muslims under the Terrorism Act.

All these concerns bring up the inevitable question of how the British authorities can stop a domestic attack from occurring. With our experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland in dealing with domestic terrorism, the security services (MI5) and law enforcement agencies have proven effective in cracking down on potential terrorists with the swift use of intelligence. Yet in this post Sept. 11 world, the perils of domestic militancy will not diminish easily.

Here in the United States, too, jihadist groups are in the minority, but their beliefs are potentially problematic and as we now know from experience, it only takes a small number of militants to cause a grave disaster.

Unfortunately, American security officials have even less experience with homegrown terrorists than British officials do. So there is much our countries can learn from one another in this long fight.

Dialogue between the U.S. government and the Muslim community could help to prevent acts of violence and xenophobia against peaceful members of their community, such as Sikhs, who are occasionally perceived as terrorists because of their turbans. And our Department of Homeland Security should use the full extent of the law to stop potential perpetrators, as Britain has done with its Terrorism Act.

The major threat to our nations probably remains overseas. But our attention should never drift away from the perils of domestic terrorism.

J. Singh-Sohal, a British citizen and a student at Brunel University in London, is an intern at The Heritage Foundation.

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder's youth wire, known as "KRT Campus"