Flushing Out Terror, From Molenbeek to Birmingham

The authorities know where extremists lurk. That doesn't mean it's easy to stop them.

Scene of the crime.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Belgian terrorist attack a year ago, the world learned of the Brussels district of Molenbeek. After Wednesday's attack in the heart of London, we may hear more about Birmingham.

QuickTake Lone-Wolf Terrorism

The London attacker, identified by U.K. police as a 52-year-old career petty criminal named Khalid Masood (but apparently born Adrian Russell Ajao), rented a Hyundai in Birmingham, where he apparently resided, and then used it to mow down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. The Birmingham connection isn't a big surprise. A report released this month called it  one of Britain's terrorist capitals. Between 1998 and 2015, there were 269 people convicted of offenses related to Islamic terrorism or killed in suicide bomb attacks in the U.K. Nearly a fifth came from the West Midlands, which includes Birmingham, and 39 came from Birmingham itself. The city's Hall Green area is well-known to police and counter-terrorism officials.

Birmingham isn't Molenbeek. The Belgian district is a down-at-the-heels neighborhood with an unemployment rate of around 40 percent. Birmingham is a major British city that contributes billions of pounds to the national economy. But both contain well-known centers of Islamic radicalism, and a year from the Brussels attacks, local media report that the number of radicalized young people in Molenbeek is rising. Police have identified 51 organizations in Molenbeek with suspected terrorist ties.

All governments endorse strategies to counter extremism, of course, but actual tactics vary widely. Some amount to little beyond talk, while others involve comprehensive multi-agency cooperation with strong local leadership. Because it's difficult to measure effectiveness, there is often a fair amount of skepticism. Quality control is also a challenge. Community-based programs are only as good as the people who run them and their local relationships. They face a fleet-footed opponent, with established networks and the ability to recruit quickly. Some aren't up to the challenge or don't have the resources. The most enlightened use forums such as the Strong Cities Network to share experiences and get ideas.

Britain's counter-terrorism efforts have received a lot of criticism, some of it valid. But after more than a decade of programming and experimentation they are further advanced than those in France or Belgium, two countries that have experienced larger-scale terrorist attacks. It's clear that the multi-layered, multi-agency approach that has taken hold in the U.K. makes sense. In Birmingham, officials have praised the work of community groups that go to mosques to hand out booklets challenging radical propaganda and provide support to vulnerable groups.

"There is a granularity of engagement at the local level that you see in Britain, which is nowhere near as well-funded or evolved on the continent," says Sasha Havlicek, chief executive officer of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. And, of course the U.K. has better control of its borders. However, where the country's capabilities remain meager, she says, is in the ability to construct counter-extremist narratives online.

The local approach is born of necessity. There is no way that national-government security services can keep tabs on thousands of potential offenders, or even those on their radar screen. More than three-quarters of those convicted of terrorism-related offenses in the U.K. were already known to the authorities, and more than a quarter had previous criminal convictions, according to the March report. (Britain's internal intelligence service was aware of the London attacker, too.)

"When we think about people on the security radar, the public imagines these people are under surveillance," Havlicek says. "They are not. It's an elaborate dance that happens around who to prioritize." The U.K. has been on "severe" threat alert for two years now -- which means a terrorist attack is considered "highly likely." Earlier this month, Britain's top cop Mark Rowley revealed that 13 potential terrorist attacks had been thwarted in less than four years; and that at any given time there are more than 500 counter-terrorism investigations underway.

The fact that the U.K. hadn't had a major terrorist attack in over a decade before Wednesday's perhaps says something about the measures that have been put in place since Sept. 11, 2001 and especially after the 2005 London attacks. But that's small comfort. The threat is still at severe, so the clock has simply been reset.

There are many questions that need answering about Wednesday's attacker. How was he radicalized? What was the state of his mental health (often an issue with lone-wolf attacks)? What Internet sites did he visit? What did family or friends and acquaintances know about him? The answers should help the authorities resist future attacks. For now, there's more security in London and, as a Londoner, I'm grateful for that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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