For a few painful hours, the fear was that a brutal stabbing in Russell Square in the heart of London last week was possibly an ISIS-inspired attack. That it appears not to be so, as stated by the police, will be of no relief to the family and friends of Darlene Horton, an American tourist who was killed, or the others injured.
Yet this incident highlights the jumpy, worrisome states of affairs in Britain. The newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, flew back from his holiday early. The sheer scale, breadth and effectiveness of such attacks in Europe and elsewhere by those claiming to act in the name of ISIS has the security services on permanent alert. Since the start of 2015, in Europe there have been attacks in Paris, Nice, Magnaville, Brussels, Ansbach, and a church near Rouen. Such attacks are also occurring, as the attack near Rouen on July 26 and July 24 Ansbach attack in Germany showed, away from the main cities creating a palpable sense that nowhere is safe anymore. The apparent random nature is designed of course to terrify.
Why has no attack attributed to ISIS occurred in the UK? It is a mix of factors. Top class security services and the fortunate natural shield of being an island help. Lady Luck may have had a hand. Politically it is a surprise given that Britain has joined so many interventions detested by ISIS and its like, in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Yet so far, France, Belgium and more recently Germany have presented more alluring targets to these extremists. France is particularly hated by ISIS and its North African legacy remains a bitter one. Five million French Muslims suffer hugely from marginalization.
Britain certainly has no shortage of potential attackers. Official sources estimate that around 800 British Muslims have gone to fight for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Online recruitment is rampant, perhaps the most worrying trend for those tasked with preventing attacks. Exclusion and marginalisation are also a huge grievance but perhaps less so than in areas of France and Belgium.
Why has no attack attributed to ISIS occurred in the UK? It is a mix of factors. Top class security services and the fortunate natural shield of being an island help. Lady Luck may have had a handChris Doyle
‘A question of when, not if’
Is the threat hyped? Many argue it is, others argue that it is not taken seriously enough. The head of the Metropolitan police in London, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, says an attack is a question of “when, not if.” The government has no choice but to treat this as real, potent and imminent. The reaction in France where two-thirds of the population have no trust in their government to protect them demonstrates how fast faith in authority can vanish. Much as it goes against traditional British political culture that is uneasy with weapons on the streets, armed police are being deployed in greater numbers, an extra 600 after the attack in London as part of a new elite force. After an attack on a church in France, British churches are having to step up security.
Nervousness is one outcome but increased racist and anti-Muslim hostility is another. In Britain, such attitudes have been present lurking often under the surface or uncovered by the media, but in the post-EU referendum era, racism hit new heights and Muslims are one of many targets. The police reported a 400 per cent increase in hate crimes (331 incidents as opposed to an average of 63 per week) in the week after the referendum especially in areas that voted to leave. Much of this was directed at anyone who was deemed to be an immigrant but also a significant portion was specifically anti-Muslim. Bomb threats and attacks against mosques, an arson attack against an hallal butchers and an increase on overall harassment are just some of the incidents.
None of this is helped by general ignorant attitudes on Islam and Muslims, and the continued trend of blaming all Muslims for the crimes of the few.
A new nadir was reached when south Yorkshire police interrogated a Muslim woman, Faiza Shaheen, just for reading a book on Syria on a flight, “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline” edited by Malu Halasa, such a hardline Islamist author that her last book on Syria was called “The Secret life of Syrian lingerie.” This one story encapsulates the hatred, fear and incompetence that undermines European and American efforts to engage mainstream Muslim opinion.
The British government has launched a new action plan to tackle hate crime but details are thin and success may prove elusive. Above all too many politicians not least in the pro-leave referendum campaign and in other elections notably for the mayor of London have been only too willing to blow dog whistles.
A couple of ISIS attacks in Britain and that much fabled tolerance shown after the London bombings in 2005 may not be much in evidence. As ISIS struggles to maintain territorial control in Iraq and Syria, many fighters are returning or dispersing.
As ever, the British authorities are far better at the defensive and preventative measures than solutions, better at ramping up conflicts in the Middle East than calming them. Extra police on the streets might make some feel safer but until the British government and its British Muslim communities understand each other better and build real and genuine relations, luck may be their best friend.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.