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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

What comes before jihad

A message placed among flowers on Westminster Bridge in London after the terror attack on March 22. Andy Rain/EPA

“All terrorists are politely reminded that

THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us

We will drink tea

And jolly well carry on

Thank you.”

It was hard not to smile at the signs like this one that appeared in numerous Tube stations in the wake of Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage through Westminster, was it not? How ineffably British. The stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on.

Yet I found myself increasingly uneasy on Friday, as details of Masood’s life began to come out. Adrian Elms was his real name. A former neighbor recalled a “polite, shy” and “quite portly man” who liked gardening and playing with his children. Then we read of the racism he suffered in “the quiet Sussex village of Northiam.”


Wait. First, the guy was a violent criminal, who was jailed twice for knife attacks. Second, his path from crime to jihad was a familiar one: the conversion to Islam in jail, the spell in Saudi Arabia, the relocation to Luton, headquarters of the preacher Anjem Choudary, currently doing time for terrorism offences. Third, another familiar story: known to the authorities for “violent extremism,” but no longer under surveillance.

Yes, I know, the victims of Islamist terrorism in Britain have been far fewer than the victims of Irish republican terrorism. And yet there have been 135 terrorism-related cases in Britain since 1998, resulting in 264 convictions. The frequency of terrorism offenses has roughly doubled since 2010.

Let’s not be parochial. The world is in the grip of an epidemic of Islamist terror. Of the last 16 years, the worst year was 2014, with 93 countries experiencing attacks and close to 33,000 people killed. The second worst was 2015, with over 29,000 victims. In that year, four radical Islamic groups were responsible for three quarters of all deaths from terrorism: Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.


Although Muslim-majority countries suffer the most from jihadist violence, the West is increasingly under attack. There were 64 ISIS-affiliated attacks in Western countries in 2015, including the massacres in Paris (137 dead) and Orlando (50 dead). Thus far, Britain has got off lightly.

No doubt there will whining about security lapses in the Masood case. But the reality is that only the constant vigilance of the UK security services has stopped many more people from being killed in the past dozen years. In 2014 and 2015, there were more terrorism-related arrests than in any year since 2000. What we must face is that even this intensified effort cannot pre-empt every jihadist.

The term “lone wolf” is a misleading one. No one becomes a jihadist all by himself, just by watching beheading videos. As my wife Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues in a powerful new report, jihad is always preceded by dawa — the process of non-violent but toxic radicalization that transforms the petty criminal into a zealot.

The network of dawa takes many different forms. In the UK a key role was played by the organization Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants), to which Anjem Choudary belonged before his arrest. But there are many less visible organizations busily spreading the mind-poison.

To see how this poison works, read the recent Policy Exchange study of Britain’s Muslim communities, “Unsettled Belonging.” At first sight, the news is good. Altogether, 90 percent of those surveyed condemned terrorism. Only 7 percent said they did not feel a strong sense of belonging to the UK.


But read on. Asked whether they would support the introduction of sharia law, 43 percent said “yes.” One in 10 British Muslims opposes the prohibition of tutoring that “promotes extreme views or is deemed incompatible with fundamental British values.”

Worst of all, nearly a third (31 percent) of those surveyed believe that the American government was responsible for 9/11. Get this: “More people claimed that the Jews were behind these attacks (7 percent), than said it was the work of al-Qaeda (4 percent).”

After 7/7, the 2005 bombings in London, the UK government’s anti-terrorism strategy was designed to “prevent” people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This policy has been denounced by the usual suspects, notably the Muslim Council of Britain. But the reality is that “prevent’’ has not prevented enough.

The problem is that it’s very hard to stop a network like this one from flourishing when it can operate even in jails. Figures published in February showed the number of Muslims in British prison (for all types of offenses) more than doubled to 12,255 between 2004 and 2014. One in seven inmates in England and Wales is Muslim.

This problem isn’t going away. Ask the French. At least 8 percent of the French population is Muslim, which is roughly what the Pew Research Center projects the share will be in Britain by 2030. The French authorities estimate that they have 11,400 radical Islamists, far more than they can keep tabs on. And around a third of the French prison population is Muslim.


Dear fellow Brits, if you haven’t read Michel Houellebecq’s “Soumission,’’ now might be a good time. Alternatively, you can “drink tea and jolly well carry on” — though it’s rather hard to do that when your head’s in the sand.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.