Islamist Terrorist Plots in Great Britain: Uncovering the Global Network

Report Europe

Islamist Terrorist Plots in Great Britain: Uncovering the Global Network

October 26, 2009 13 min read Download Report

Authors: Ted Bromund and Morgan Lorraine Roach

Revised and updated January 4, 2010

Abstract: Data on major Islamist terrorist plots in Britain reveal a physical and ideological terrorism pipeline between Britain and Pakistan. At least 27 of 87 convicted individuals were trained or sought training in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Homegrown Islamism is also a major threat: 18 individuals received terrorist training in Britain. Britain and the U.S. need to fight and win both the counterterrorism war and the broader war of ideas. This will require fighting Islamism both in Afghanistan and at home, continuing and expanding cooperation in intelligence and homeland security, and opposing the Lisbon Treaty and other European Union initiatives that would undermine Britain's ability to control its own borders.

In January 2009, the head of MI-5, Britain's domestic security service, stated that 2,000 individuals in Britain were directly connected to Islamist terrorist plots and that many more supported terrorism through fundraising or propaganda.[1] From September 11, 2001, to the end of March 2008, British authorities arrested 1,471 individuals on terrorism-related offenses.[2]

This report analyzes data on major Islamist terrorist plots in Britain and reveals that individuals who traveled in Pakistan and received terrorist training there or in Afghanistan are a central part of the challenge of Islamist terrorism in Britain. Because al-Qaeda's strategy relies partly on using European nationals to carry out attacks against the United States, the rise of Islamist terrorism in Britain and Europe poses a serious danger to the U.S. and its allies in Europe and around the world.

In a forthcoming paper, The Heritage Foundation will draw on the data presented in this report to offer long-term recommendations for breaking this terrorist connection between Britain and Pakistan. This paper presents and summarizes the data and makes closely related policy recommendations for Great Britain and the United States.

  • The central recommendation for both states is that, together with their allies, they need to recognize the existence of and seek to break the physical and ideological terrorism pipeline between Britain and Pakistan. To this end, they must continue to fight on the ground in Afghanistan and coordinate policy toward Pakistan.
  • Great Britain and the United States also need to continue and enhance their close cooperation on homeland security to prevent British Islamists from infiltrating the United States.
  • Finally, both need to recognize that further European integration will imperil Britain's ability to control its own borders, reducing security in both Britain and the United States. It is therefore not in the interest of either country to support the deepening of the European Union (EU).

The Purpose and Limitations of This Report

The purpose of this report is to draw together publicly available data on individuals who have been officially connected with a major Islamist terrorist plot in Great Britain since September 10, 2001. (For the full data set, see Appendix A.) By summarizing these data, this report draws attention to the challenges that the British and allied authorities face in defeating the terrorist threat. (For the summary data, see Appendix B.)

It is important to note that not all individuals named in this report were found guilty. Some were acquitted, some were not charged, and others were deported or convicted of lesser offenses. The status of still others cannot be determined. This report draws its conclusions based only on the collective records of individuals convicted or punished in connection with terrorist plots. Data that could not be ascertained are clearly noted. Where data have been "presumed," that is also clearly noted: All "presumptions" are that statuses and activities were or are legal and innocent.

Because data collection for this report ended on August 14, 2009, this report does not reflect developments after that date.[3] This data set is not comparable with the data released by the British government in May 2009, because it encompasses a different time period and focuses on major Islamist terrorist plots, which are defined as attempts to cause mass casualties, target political leaders, engage in recruiting, or raise funds for fighters in conflicts in other states.

Terrorist incidents connected with leftist or nationalist groups are not included in this data set. This should not be interpreted as diminishing their seriousness.

The nature of this subject means that the publicly available data are incomplete and may be inaccurate in some cases. Therefore, this report focuses on the trends revealed by the data as a whole. To this end, this report organizes the data by plot, with summary tables revealing the central trends. As developments warrant, this report and its underlying data set will be updated and revised.

The Islamist Challenge Is Broader Than Terrorism

The focus of this report -- major plots -- should not obscure the fact that the Islamist challenge is not exclusively or even centrally a terrorist challenge. For the most extreme Islamists, violence is a means to an end: the re-establishment of the caliphate, a purely Islamic form of government. The radical Islamists challenge the legitimacy of democratic government, all the institutions of world order, and, more broadly, the international state system.

The world's democracies cannot defeat this ideological challenge by simply treating it as a terrorist threat. The move from radical Islamist sympathies to terrorism is obviously important, but it is a comparatively easy move for Islamist extremists to make, precisely because Islamism delegitimizes today's national and international order and legitimates the use of force to change it. The vital move is the initial one to radical Islamism.

The British government recognizes this fact. Its latest strategy for countering international terrorism, released in March 2009, states that one of its goals is "to challenge the ideology behind violent extremism and support mainstream voices."[4] This report does not seek to assess the overall merits of this strategy, commonly referred to as CONTEST II, but it does endorse the strategy's argument that Islamist terrorism is ultimately the result of an ideological challenge to the existing order and that focusing only on acts of terrorism neglects this broader challenge that must be confronted and defeated.

However, Islamist terrorism is a reality in Great Britain, as in many other states around the world, and the authorities have a duty to prevent terrorist attacks. Part of fulfilling this duty is to understand the trends of participation in terrorist plots. These trends will not reveal the source or target of the next plot, nor will they necessarily remain stable in the future, but the trends suggest some of the realities that British and American authorities must confront in addressing the threat of terrorism.

Summary of the Data on Major Islamist Terrorist Plots in Britain

Five patterns run through the major Islamist terrorist plots in Great Britain.

  • Pattern #1: Pakistan is central. The data show that individuals with family ties to Pakistan comprise a significant proportion, although not the majority, of those who have been publicly connected with terrorist plots. Of the 87 individuals in the data set who have been convicted or punished in some way, at least 19 had family ties to Pakistan, at least one was a Pakistani citizen, and at least 61 were affiliated with al-Qaeda. Finally, a minimum of 27 had sought or received training in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- more than in any other region of the world.
  • Pattern #2: Pakistan does not stand alone. Taken as a region, North Africa -- defined as the states of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt -- was a significant contributor to terrorist plots in Great Britain.[5] At least 13 individuals with family ties to North Africa were connected to terrorist plots. Six were Algerian citizens.
  • Pattern #3: Participation from the Middle East is comparatively insignificant. Only three individuals convicted or punished in connection with terrorist plots were born in, were citizens of, or had family ties to states in the Middle East. Taken together, the entire Middle East is less important than sub-Saharan Africa as a source of individuals who have been convicted or punished for Islamist plots in Britain.

    Instead, the terrorist threat has come notably from individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda. The Islamist threat in Britain reflects the fact that al-Qaeda, the most active Islamist terrorist organization, is based in Pakistan and has been able to influence individuals in Britain from this safe haven. In short, Islamist terrorism in Britain is another front in the war that al-Qaeda is waging now in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • Pattern #4: Homegrown Islamism is a major threat. A striking disconnect in the data is that, while at least 19 individuals with family ties to Pakistan have been convicted or punished in some way, only one Pakistani citizen has been convicted or punished. A substantial number -- at least 48 individuals -- of those punished were British citizens, of which at least 18 have family ties to Pakistan and at least 18 were born in Britain. Even more serious, at least 18 individuals received terrorist training in Britain -- more than in any other country except Pakistan.[6]

    These figures do not indicate that individuals of Pakistani origin, whether British citizens or not, are predisposed to acts of terrorism. However, they do suggest that al-Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas enables its leadership more easily to gain access to and to influence individuals with family ties to Pakistan.

  • Pattern #5: Border control and verification of legal status present serious challenges. Of the individuals punished, two entered Britain on student or work visas, one was granted asylum, three were denied asylum but given permission to remain in the country, and 15 had entered illegally. Thus, at least 21 of the individuals had entered Britain legally, but under false pretenses, or illegally.

What Britain and the U.S. Should Do

Britain and the U.S. need to take specific steps to combat Islamist terrorism at home and abroad.

  • Britain needs to control its borders.

Controlling national borders is a basic responsibility of any sovereign state. The fact that 21 of the 87 individuals punished in connection with Islamist terrorist plots in Britain entered the nation by various forms of deception demonstrates that British border controls are too easily evaded. This is not a question of immigration policy or the size or composition of immigration. It is a matter of ensuring that all entries into Britain, for whatever reason, have been effectively verified as legal.

Britain has recently embarked on a reform of its border controls. As it has announced that it intends to do, Britain needs to continue to improve these controls to prevent illegal entry, to ensure that individuals who enter on student or work visas are genuine students or workers, and to process effectively and reject asylum seekers who do not merit asylum.[7]

  • The U.S. and Britain need to break the Pakistan- Britain terrorism pipeline.

As the data in this report demonstrate, the terrorism pipeline between Pakistan and Britain poses the most important terrorist threat to Britain today. The pipeline is partly a matter of direct connections between the two nations, as illustrated by the 27 convicted individuals who were trained or sought training in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Britain and the U.S. need to recognize the importance of this issue when they consider their policies toward Pakistan and their commitment in Afghanistan. A premature U.S. and British military retreat from Afghanistan would allow that country to serve again as an international terrorist haven and would embolden al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations to expand their ambitions regionally and globally.

Furthermore, premature withdrawal from Afghanistan would reduce Pakistan's incentive to crack down on the Afghan Taliban, who would continue to serve as Pakistan's proxies in Afghanistan. This in turn would strengthen other domestic extremists in Pakistan and place Pakistan's nuclear weapons at greater risk.

However, as the importance of homegrown Islamism in Britain demonstrates, the pipeline is also a conduit for ideas that are propagated to promote radicalism. Breaking that ideological pipeline is just as important as, but far more difficult than, ending the flow of trained men from Pakistan into Britain. This ideological challenge must be acknowledged by strategies, such as Britain's CONTEST II, that seek to oppose radical Islamism.

  • American and British policy toward the EU must reflect the risks posed by North Africa.

Although Pakistan and Afghanistan are the central front for Britain and the U.S. in the battle against Islamist terrorism, neither country can afford to neglect other regions, especially North Africa. This region has played a role in Islamist terrorism in Britain that is second only to the role played by Pakistan and Afghanistan. This fact has implications not only for British and American foreign policy, but also for British and U.S. policies toward the European Union because North Africa has traditionally had close ties to Mediterranean nations, including such EU members as Spain, Italy, Malta, and France.

If the EU were given increased authority over issues related to legal and illegal migration and asylum, as proposed by the Lisbon Treaty, and if Britain conclusively acceded to this treaty and abandoned its national opt-out on these issues, the risks posed by North Africa would affect Britain directly because Britain would have surrendered the power to control its own borders. Even if Britain retains its opt-out, its control of its borders would be threatened by the treaty's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which the European Court of Justice could interpret in ways that would reduce the practical importance of the opt-out.

The EU is already mulling "immigration burden-sharing," under which all EU members would pledge to "take in a certain number of refugees each year, alleviating the burden placed on Malta, Italy and Spain."[8] Losing control of migration and asylum would constitute a direct assault on British sovereignty and security, especially given the lax attitude toward illegal immigration in much of southern Europe. Therefore, this expansion of EU authority would not serve the British interest. Nor is it in the interest of the United States to back any measure, such as the Lisbon Treaty, that would reduce the ability of Britain and other EU member states to maintain higher and more secure standards than the rest of the EU.

  • The U.S. and Britain need to continue and enhance their close cooperation in homeland security.

The number of British citizens involved in Islamist terrorist plots means that U.S. and British authorities must continue their close cooperation to ensure that al-Qaeda cannot carry out its strategy of infiltrating the U.S. with British or other European nationals. The arrests and subsequent convictions in Britain of the three Islamist "liquid bomb" plotters against transatlantic airplanes demonstrate the importance of collaboration between U.S. and British intelligence and homeland security authorities.[9]

To facilitate this cooperation, the U.S. should require long-time members of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to sign bilateral security agreements with the United States. While newer VWP members have entered into bilateral agreements to implement the 2007 security measures, several long-time members have not. (The new measures were not required when these countries first entered the program.)

Congress should require all members to meet the new requirements and sign bilateral agreements with the United States. The VWP should not have two sets of security standards -- one for new members and one for old. The same standards should apply to all VWP countries, regardless of when they joined the program.[10]

A Joint Effort Needed

British authorities have acknowledged that Islamist terrorism poses a serious challenge. The British intention to fight and win both the counterterrorism war and the broader war of ideas is correct. The U.S. should support this approach. As both nations fight in Afghanistan to sustain pressure on al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, the U.S. should work with Britain, Pakistan, and other states to reduce the ability of terrorists to reach Britain and other friendly democracies.

Ted Bromund, is Senior Research Fellow and Morgan L. Roach is a Research Assistant in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. The authors would like to thank John Fleming, Senior Data Graphics Editor at The Heritage Foundation, for his assistance with this paper.

Appendix A (PDF)

Appendix B (PDF)

Citations for Appendix A and B (PDF)


The legal statuses of the following individuals were incorrectly categorized in this Backgrounder. The corrected legal statuses are noted below. Please take account of these corrections when citing the Backgrounder or the tables contained in its appendices. The authors regret the errors.

Ricin Plot, 2002-2003

No. 27, Appendix A. Sidaly Feddag. Noted herein as "Convicted." Corrected legal status: "Cleared of Charges." Source: David Leppard and Nick Fielding "Ricin defendants to claim asylum," The Sunday Times, April 17, 2005, at /news/uk/article382068.ece (December 14, 2009).

July 21, 2005 London Bombings or 7/21 Bombings

No. 78, Appendix A. Mohammed al-Ghabra. Noted herein as "Pleaded guilty." Corrected legal status: "Not Charged." Source: David Williams, "The Al Qaeda Money Man," Daily Mail, September 8, 2009, at -terror-attacks-Britain-Bin-Ladens-Holy-Warrior.html (December 14, 2009), and Frances Gibb, "'Terrorist financier' suspect named in Supreme Court's first ruling," The Times, October 6, 2009, at 862386.ece (December 14, 2009).

[1]David Stringer, "MI5 Chief: Terror Plots Against UK Have Fallen," ABC News, January 7, 2009, at
(June 15 2009).

[2]U.K. Home Office, "Statistics on Terrorism Arrests and Outcomes Great Britain, 11 September 2001 to 31 March 2008," Home Office Statistical Bulletin, May 13, 2009, at
(June 15, 2009).

[3]On September 7, 2009, three individuals were convicted in the "liquid bomb" plot of conspiring to detonate explosive devices on transatlantic airplane flights. These individuals had already been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in a previous trial related to the same plot. This report deals only with the verdicts from the first trial. See BBC News, "Three Guilty of Airline Bomb Plot," September 7, 2009, at
(September 21, 2009).

[4]Government of the United Kingdom, "The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism," March 2009, p. 12, at
(June 15, 2009).

[5]Olivier Guitta, "United Against Islamists?" Middle East Times, February 9, 2009.

[6]While these groups of 18 overlap to some degree, they are not the same 18 individuals.

[7]U.K. Border Agency, "E-Borders," at
(September 21, 2009).

[8]EurActiv, "EU Mulls Immigration Burden-Sharing," September 1, 2009, at
(September 10, 2009).

[9]Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam, "Britain Convicts Three in Plot to Rival 9/11," The Washington Post, September 8, 2009, at
(September 10, 2009).

[10]Jena Baker McNeill, James Jay Carafano, James Dean, and Nathan Alexander Sales, "Visa Waiver Program: A Plan to Build on Success," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2282, June 12, 2009, p. 9, at


Theodore R. Bromund
Ted Bromund

Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Morgan Lorraine Roach

Senior Research Fellow