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The Islamist terrorist threat grips Europe: is Scotland a target?

The Islamist terrorist threat grips Europe: is Scotland a target?

The recent attacks on France are yet another powerful reminder of the enduring Islamist terrorist threat that has plagued European countries for the past two decades.

With its overly-literalist readings of the Quran and warped interpretations of Islam, the latest global Islamist terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS), has exploited grievances over Western foreign policy, the socio-economic disadvantage of some European Muslims and the thrill of a ‘true’ Islamic lifestyle in the self-proclaimed Caliphate to seek to impose non-negotiable theocratic values through violence and fear.

There are certainly some universal principles that can be applied to effective counter-terrorism measures across different western jurisdictions. Richard English’s Terrorism: How to Respond convincingly illustrates the key role played, among other factors, by high-quality intelligence, the respect for the rule of law and a recognition of root causes in maximising the effectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts.

But notwithstanding what effective measures European governments and authorities put in place, some countries will remain intrinsically more vulnerable than others to the threat of Islamist terrorism.

With striking similarities to the Mumbai attacks in 2008 for planning, coordination and sophistication, the recent attacks on Paris struck at the heart of a country, France, which represents all what the IS despises: the cradle of the Enlightenment and secularism, a tradition of hostility for the public display of religious symbols and a legacy of colonialism in Muslim-majority lands.

Violent Islamists will continue to exploit Western history of imperialism to justify their own political and religious agendas and wage war against the ‘far enemy’ of so-called ‘infidels’ living in Europe. The French airstrikes hitting the Caliphate-to-be in Syria exacerbated the conflict between the IS and France, eventually leading to the deadliest terrorist attack on European soil in the past decade.

Terrorism is a highly unpredictable phenomenon. It can take various forms: from small scale attacks perpetrated by lone wolves, as in Tours in 2014 and in Copenhagen in 2015, to large-scale and well-coordinated attacks, as in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005. This amorphous and global security threat can strike anywhere, at any time.

Scotland is also a target. Publicly-known high-profile incidents include the bombings on Glasgow airport in 2007 and the more recent cases of Aqsa Mahmood, a Scottish Muslim woman who joined the IS in Syria, and ‘Betty the Bomber’, a Glaswegian jihadist who has come under the radar of the police and the security services.

Nonetheless, the peculiar Scottish environment may well serve as a prophylactic against jihadi propaganda. Muslims in Scotland have long been deemed to be more integrated than their English counterparts. Large-scale surveys conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2010 and by the Scottish Government in 2011 demonstrate that Scots consider Muslims to be part and parcel of the wider community.

The particular socio-economic background of the Scottish Muslim community plays an important role: many of the Pakistanis, who make up almost 60 per cent of the total Scottish Muslim population, originate from the relatively well-off Punjab. Moreover, the Scottish Muslim population is fairly small: it numbers around 77,000 people (about 1.4 per cent of the total Scottish population) making it easier for local authorities to address social grievances and for police and the security service to monitor risky individuals.

Lastly, ethnic segregation is not too widespread, with the exception of East Pollokshields and Govanhill in Glasgow, where ethnic clustering persists but levels are falling and remain lower than in other major cities in England and Wales, such as Bradford, Manchester and Cardiff.

Several Muslims share the civic ethos enshrined in Scottish nationalism. One in four Muslims identified as ‘Scottish only’ and four in ten Muslims expressed allegiance to Scotland in the Census 2011. Importantly, landmark research conducted by Hussain and Miller demonstrate that hostilities toward English people living in Scotland may have displaced Islamophobia, resulting in relatively lower discriminatory attitudes toward Muslims in Scotland compared to Muslims in England.

The peculiar socio-economic environment which Scottish Muslims inhabit can protect communities from terrorist propaganda that seeks to draw into its ranks alienated, disenfranchised and dissatisfied young individuals.

Historically, extremist Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun and leading preachers, such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, who radicalised a whole generation of English Muslims in the 1990s and 2000s, failed to find widespread support in Scotland.

Politically, the Scottish Government’s opposition to the Iraq War and a less aggressive stance on anti-extremism measures have resonated well within Muslim communities. Arguably, foreign policies and domestic counter-terrorism strategies need to consider wider national and geopolitical dynamics and interests rather than simply meeting the expectations of Muslim communities.

However, Scottish political astuteness could well help to starve violent Islamist recruiters of the oxygen that they necessitate to turn young Muslims against their own countries.

The relative socio-cultural cohesiveness offered by a civically oriented Scottish nationalism or, as Nasar Meer calls it, an "aspirational pluralism", ties into the relative invisibility of Scotland in the European political landscape. The stateless nature of Scotland makes its main cities less attractive political and symbolic targets than major European capitals.

With their high levels of sophistication and coordination, the attacks on London, Madrid and Paris in the past ten years have struck at the heart of Europe’s financial, political and cultural power. While Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen remain at risk of a terrorist attack, the Islamic State likely will attempt to strike against high-profile, hard and soft targets in European countries hosting radical, alienated and disenfranchised Muslim communities.

Stefano Bonino is a lecturer in the Social Sciences Department at Northumbria University and holds a PhD and an MSc from the University of Edinburgh. He has conducted extensive research on the impact of counter-terrorism measures on Muslims in the UK and on issues around identity, integration and community cohesion. His monograph Muslims in Contemporary Scotland is due to be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2017.



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