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Home grown terrorism: the threat within

The perpetrators behind Europe’s first suicide attack, on the London transport network, were British nationals thus realising the fears of those who had expressed concern that radicalisation could lead to the emergence of home grown terrorism. In response to increased counterterrorism efforts from the UK government, decentralised home grown terrorists cells have had to operate with increasing autonomy that has denied them access to specialised training and compromised the sophistication of their attacks. In spite of a number of failed and thwarted plots, the recent attack on Drummer Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks in London emphasises that this threat remains significant and represents the failure of government policy to prevent the marginalisation of sections of the Muslim community in particular. Given the global context in which Radical Violent Takfiri Jihadi (RVTJ) terrorism operates, the ability of any single government to prevent its citizens being used against it as part of a ‘ju-jitsu’ strategy is questionable, but the UK’s history of lax immigration and granting asylum suggests that adopting policies which foster greater integration would help to mitigate this threat.  

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‘What we’ve learned since 9/11 is that the threat is not something that’s simply coming from overseas into the United Kingdom. What we’ve learned, and what we’ve seen all too graphically and all too murderously is that we have a threat which is being generated here within the United Kingdom.’

DAC Peter Clark[1] (2006)

The threat of home grown terrorism manifested itself in the nation’s psyche with the simultaneous and coordinated suicide attacks in London on 7th July 2005 (Sengupta, 2005). In the wake of the attack, it was acknowledged that the threat from home grown terrorists was increasing and that the Police were frantically trying to track thousands of Britons suspected of planning, financing or encouraging attacks (Clarke, 2006). The aim of this paper, therefore, is to investigate the extent to which home grown terrorism poses a credible and enduring threat to the security of the United Kingdom. It will begin by developing an understanding of the notion of home grown terrorism and focus on Richard Reid, the Woolwich attackers and the 7/7 bombers as examples of the threat posed by home grown Islamic terrorists. It notes that this is not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon[2] but will examine the UK’s history of immigration and analyse how this may encourage home grown terrorism as a response to marginalisation. In conclusion, it will question whether the international spectre of RVTJ terrorism can really be broken down to the local, national level and suggests that attacks from home grown terrorists are indicative of the failure of government counterterrorism policy rather than a surge in domestic extremism.

For the purposes of this investigation, terrorism describes premeditated acts of violence perpetrated for political, religious and/or ideological ends, against civilian targets to inflict harm, and intimidate the public and coerce government or state compliance with the goals of the perpetrator (Hutchinson & O’Malley, p1098, 2007).


The emergence of home grown terrorism is indicative of ‘pendulum interplay’ whereby terrorists continually adapt their strategy to stay ahead of the state’s counterterrorism apparatus, which in turn adapts to tackle these new tactics (c.f. Wolf & Frankel, p272, 2007). The concerted counterterrorism campaign launched in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks forced terrorist organisations, such as al Qaeda, to adopt a more decentralised structure epitomised by home grown terrorists which are represented, in the contemporary process of radicalisation, as bottom up- grass roots movements that evolve from the determined efforts of self-starters (Mullins, 2007). Such cells are a valuable asset as they are fantastically loyal to the public orders of senior military commanders yet come at, essentially, zero cost to the organisation (Kohlman, p97, 2008).

Whilst it may be premature to claim that the emergence of home grown terrorism is proof positive that al Qaeda exists now only as an ideology rather than an organisation, it certainly represents an innovative mechanism through which such organisations have the potential to thwart the state’s counterterrorism apparatus (Kohlman, p97, 2008). The critical advantage that home grown terrorists possess is that they are often unknown ‘clean skins’ which are unlikely to elicit the attraction of the intelligence services and, therefore, such attacks maintain the element of surprise, emerging ‘out of the blue’ (Sengupta, 2005). As MI5’s own Behavioural Science Unit concluded (Travis, 2008), it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the ‘British terrorist’, rather those who do evolve into terrorists are a ‘diverse collection of individuals, filling no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism’. If terrorists merely reflect the communities in which they live and techniques such as profiling are unable to fill the intelligence vacuum, the state is confronted with a paradox: how to infiltrate suspected plots amongst its ‘law-abiding’ citizens without infringing their civil liberties? One such instrument of legislation that would facilitate this is the government’s controversial Communications Data Bill which would grant access to all Briton’s web browsing history and details of messages sent through social media (BBC, 2013).

Home grown terrorist cells are decentralised components of a terrorist organisation and, therefore, highly autonomous. Greater autonomy, however, means less opportunity to receive specialist training in explosives and firearms from veterans within the movement, and the group instead has to rely on their own resources and initiative to gain the prerequisite skills set (Mullins, 2007). This tends to result in a more ‘amateurish’ capability at the operational level as evidenced by Woolwich attacks reliant solely upon extreme levels of violence, and also the failed attempts of the ‘Shoe bomber’, the ‘21/7’ bombers and the ‘Christmas Day bomber’ all of whom were, ostensibly, radicalised in the United Kingdom (Malnick, 2013; Mullins, 2007; Klausen, 2007; Frankboner, 2010).


Richard Reid

Richard Reid, the aforementioned ‘Shoe bomber’, is currently incarcerated in the United States for his failed attempt to bring down a transatlantic airliner (Klausen, 2007). Whilst his case characterises the amateurish nature of home grown attacks, it is more remarkable for its illustration of how terrorist organisations can spread uncontrolled around the world like an ‘ideological virus’ (Kohlman, p97, 2008). By radicalising sympathetic British fanatics who will perpetrate acts of terrorism independently, and are already in situ and familiar with cultural idiosyncrasies, al Qaeda need not embark on far riskier and ambitious plans to infiltrate border security by inserting foreign nationals (Kohlman, p97, 2008). There are now significant numbers of al Qaeda terrorists in UK prisons and concerns that these may be acting as incubators for promulgating its ideology and grooming potential home grown terrorists (Hannah, Clutterbuck & Rubin, 2008). It was at Feltham Young Offenders Institution that Reid converted to Islam and, upon his release, he continued his interest in religion by attending the Mosque serving Brixton’s convert community at which he first became involved with extremists (BBC, 2001). As the number of al Qaeda prisoners has increased since the start of the ‘War on Terror’, the challenge for the state is to prevent this firebrand ideology continuing its growth within the confines of a bored and vulnerable prison population.

The Woolwich Attackers

Michael Adebolago, one of the Woolwich Attackers, was held in prison in Kenya in November 2010 after being arrested en route to join  extremists al-Shabaab in Somalia and towards the end of 2012 he had become of sufficient interest to the Security Service for them to attempt to recruit him as an informant (Glover et al, 2013). These attempts failed and the increasing frequency of inquiries and interviews the service conducted with family members suggests mounting concern. Fellow conspirator Michael Adebowale had also been detained by British Police two months prior to the attack on Drummer Rigby. The mechanisms through which two extremists were radicalised in the UK, whether through the internet or extremist preachers, is not immediately apparent, however their attack had very real consequences. The assault was characterised by extreme levels of violence with a small arsenal of weapons including knives and a firearm, but the lack of sophisticated explosives or technical knowledge enabled them to conduct and plan this in relative isolation without the need to branch out and contact technical experts in the wider extremist network that would risk a digital footprint attracting the attention of the authorities. Although the attack itself was relatively unsophisticated, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ was disseminated rapidly through social networks; whilst Margaret Thatcher was able to deny the IRA the ‘oxygen of publicity’ through state control of limited media outlets, blow-by-blow first hand accounts of the Woolwich attack were appearing on twitter almost before the firearms units had arrived on the scene (Wilkinson, p145, 2006; West, 2013) .

The 7/7 bombers

The attacks on the Capital are a salient reminder that, whilst the majority of attacks from home grown cells lack the sophistication to pose a credible threat, it only needs a handful of such attacks to be successful for al Qaeda to claim progress towards its larger objectives (Kohlman, p97, 2008). Husain (p119, 2007) claims that home grown British suicide bombers are a direct result of Hizb ut-Tahrir disseminating ideas of jihad, martyrdom, confrontation and anti-Americanism, and nurturing a sense of separation amongst British Muslims, but as the perpetrators behind this attack confirm it is somewhat of a logical fallacy to conflate involvement with political extremism with involvement in political violence and terrorism. Indeed, the group’s ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan exemplified the ‘normal’ life of a young family man highly regarded by his peers, thus confirming the findings from MI5’s Behavioural Research Unit that it is, precisely, the absence of connections to political extremists that makes it hard for intelligence agencies to identify such home grown terrorists (BBC, 2005; 2007).


Every country has its unique cultural identity and profile that can influence the likelihood of home grown terrorism; consider, for instance, its history of immigration or the extent to which it has assimilated immigrants into society (Mullins, 2007). It is axiomatic that the less integrated and more socially isolated Muslims are in the West, the more likely they are to experience feelings of exclusion, disillusionment and resentment which may act as a catalyst for involvement in terrorism (Mullins, 2007). It is from this perspective that the UK appears especially vulnerable to home grown terrorism given its lax immigration policies, which allow large numbers of unskilled workers from countries such as Pakistan, and its stance on asylum (Mullins, 2007). In particular, the UK has failed to integrate the 2nd and 3rd generations of immigrants into society leaving them vulnerable to extremist influences as they confront the dichotomy between their religious heritage and a secular West (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).


The endogenous terrorist threat to the United Kingdom is manifest: the attacks on London’s transport network in 2005 and Drummer Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks in 2013 emphasise, the disconnect between sections of the British Muslim community and the wider society. Such home grown attacks which have made it to the operational phase though have, for the most part, been amateurish as the concomitant autonomous preparation necessarily eschews the expertise of those individuals elsewhere in the terrorist organisation in order reduce the likelihood of detection by the intelligence agencies. The 7/7 bombers, however, were able to cause significant damage ‘out of the blue’ in spite of this automatic stabiliser, not by developing a sophisticated device but by coordinating four relatively unsophisticated attacks simultaneously. This is indicative of the pendulum interplay between terrorist organisations and the government that will continue to evolve.

Given the globalised society and the revolution in communications, organisations such as al Qaeda have managed to extend their reach and it is likely that they will continue to find willing domestic actors in the UK, and elsewhere, to act as proxies for their campaign of violence predicated on issues that affect the global ummah[3]. The marked threat to the UK from home grown terrorism vis-à-vis other countries, such as the United States, reflects a failure of government, and to an extent society, to integrate immigrants into the community and prevent a sense of marginalisation, amongst British Muslims in particular. By facilitating more inclusive policies the government may be able to mitigate the threat from home grown terrorists, but as the Woolwich attacks demonstrate, in the absence of an Orwellian dystopia evolving from the introduction of the government’s proposed Communications Data Bill, it will never be completely eliminated.


BBC News (2001) Who is Richard Reid? 28th December. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1731568.stm

BBC News (2005) The bombers. Retrieved 30/05/13. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/uk/05/london_blasts/investigation/html/bombers.stm

BBC News (2007) Profile: Mohammad Sidique Khan. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4762209.stm

BBC News (2013) Tory-Labour pact could save data bill, says Lord Howard. Retrieved 29/05/23 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22673156

Clarke, P (2006) Homegrown terrorism on the rise in U.K., USA Today, 2nd September 2006. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2006-09-02-britain-terrorism_x.htm

The Daily Telegraph (2010) Profile: Faisal Shahzad, accused Times Square bomber Wednesday 05th May. Retrieved online 29/05/13 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/7681030/Profile-Faisal-Shahzad-accused-Times-Square-bomber.html

 Frankboner, W. (2010) The Educated Muslim Terrorist. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://frontpagemag.com/2010/01/20/the-educated-muslim-terrorist/

Glover, M., Brady, B., Owen, J., Cahalan, P. & Bignell, P. (2013) ‘Woolwich attach: Michael Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of being at centre of al-Qa’ida-inspired plot’. The Guardian. Retrieved 31/05/13 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/woolwich-attack-terror-suspect-michael-adebolajo-was-arrested-in-kenya-on-suspicion-of-being-at-centre-of-alqaidainspired-plot-8632398.html

The Guardian (2010) Neo-Nazi Ian Davison jailed for 10 years for making chemical weapon. Retrieved 29/05/13 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/may/14/neo-nazi-ian-davison-jailed-chemical-weapon

Hannah, G., Clutterbuck, L., & Rubin, J. (2008). Radicalization or Rehabilitation: Understanding the challenge of extremist and radicalized prisoners. Cambridge: Rand Europe. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2008/RAND_TR571.pdf

Husain, E. (2007) The Islamist.London: Penguin

Hutchinson, S. & O’Malley, P. (2007). A Crime–Terror Nexus? Thinking on Some of the Links between Terrorism and Criminality. Studies in Conflict Terrorism, Vol. 30 pp 1095-1107

Klausen, J. (2007) British Counter-Terrorism After the July 2005 Attacks. Peace Brief, February 2007. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.usip.org/resources/british-counter-terrorism-after-july-2005-attacks

Kohlman, E. F. (2008) “Homegrown” Terrorists: Theory and Cases in the War on Terror’s Newest Front. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 618 (1) pp 95-109

 Malnick, E. (2013) Woolwich attack: police urge calm following murder of Drummer Rigby. Retrieved 29/05/13 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/10086919/Woolwich-attack-police-urge-calm-following-murder-of-Drummer-Lee-Rigby.html

Mullins, S. (2007) Home-grown Terrorism: Issues and Implications. Perspectives on Terrorism Vol. 1 (3). Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php?option=com_rokzine&view=article&id=12

Sengupta, K (2005) The police’s nightmare: home-grown terrorists. The Independent, 13th July 2005. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/the-polices-nightmare-homegrown-terrorists-498611.html

Silber, M. D. & Bhatt A. (2007) Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. NYPD Intelligence Division. Retrieved 30/05/13 http://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/NYPD-2.pdf

Travis, H. (2008) MI5 report challenges views on terrorism in Britain. The Guardian, Wednesday 20th August 2008. Retrieved 29/05/13 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/aug/20/uksecurity.terrorism1

West, A. (2013) ‘Woolwich Attack: in the wake of horror like this, social media brings out our worst instincts’. The Guardian. Retrieved 31/05/13 http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/woolwich-attack-in-the-wake-of-horror-like-this-social-media-brings-out-our-worst-instincts-8629624.html

Wilkinson, P. (2006) Terrorism Versus Democrcy: The Liberal State Response Second Edition. London; Frank Cass.

Wolf, Y. & Frankel, O. (2007) Terrorism: Toward an overarched account and prevention with a special reference to pendulum interplay between both parties. Aggression & Violent Behaviour, Vol. 12 pp 259-279


[1] Head of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Squad 2002- 2007

[2] Consider 19 year old Nicky Davison convicted for violent extremism as part of a Neo-Nazi group (The Guardian, 2010)

[3] The global community of Muslims

A Royal College; towards democratic Professionalism

The concept of a Royal College of Teaching has been mooted for some time and could, arguably, have been said to exist in the shape of the now defunct General Teaching Council. There is, however, a new momentum building in the education sector within schools, Parliament[1], and think-tanks such as the Prince’s Teaching Institute[2] and The New Visions for Education Group[3] – but what is the rationale and why now?

Teacher Effectiveness

Teacher effectiveness: at the very core

Against an increasingly globalised backdrop in which pupils will require more complex and analytical skills to both succeed in their own careers and also provide the economy with a sufficient workforce to compete in the global knowledge economy, teachers themselves must learn in ways that develop higher-order thinking and performance[4]. This, however, is at odds with the current status quo of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in schools comprising a handful of non-teaching training days where broad spectrum and prescriptive pedagogy and policies are delivered. Given the dramatic transformations sweeping through the education landscape, especially the proliferation of academies with no statutory obligation to employ qualified teachers, surely there has never been a better time to establish a bipartisan Royal College of Teachers with the explicit mandate of facilitating teachers themselves to coordinate professional learning, beyond the artificial horizons of a particular school or college, free from undue political interference?

Since the 1960’s there have, broadly, been four phases of reform to the education system[5]:

  • Uninformed professionalism – the period prior to the 1980s, often regarded as the golden age of teacher autonomy but when teachers lacked appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes for a modern society
  • Uninformed prescription – the period following the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 and, in particular, its imposition of a National Curriculum in 1988 for political rather than educational reasons
  • Informed prescription – the period following the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997, bringing with it ‘evidence-based’ policies such as the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and Standards-based teacher training
  • Informed professionalism – a new phase, just beginning, when teachers will have appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes so that the government can grant them a greater degree of licensed autonomy to manage their own affairs.

It is this new phase in which the teaching profession currently finds itself and although, in theory, the ‘greater degree of licensed autonomy’ is an exciting prospect, it is something which, hitherto, has not been recognised within the arena of CPD. The diagram above is indicative of the considerable academic research which emphasises that it is the quality of teachers which has the biggest impact on raising student outcomes[6]. Paradoxically, given the paramount importance attached to the impact of teacher quality and the need to develop higher level teaching skills to remain globally competitive, there remains a vacuum in CPD[7]. This CPD vacuum flies in the face of research which reveals it is precisely such teacher driven development strategies, supported by the government, that establish the conditions for young pupils to achieve.

Social media and more sophisticated communications networks are now, however, empowering teachers to take professional learning into their own hands. A pioneering minority have taken to twitter to share ideas and links to research and examples of good practise. Such exchanges have led to the creation of informal TeachMeets where teachers and other education professionals meet up to present their research and ideas free of charge. Similarly, Massively Open Online Courses enable teachers to access rigorous academic research, learn more about critical reflection, and watch lectures from world experts in their field, for instance consider the ‘How to Learn Math’ course provided by Stanford University for maths teachers and designed by leading Professor of Mathematics Education Jo Boaler, again at no cost[8]. Whilst digitally tailoring professional learning in this way certainly breaks free from the prescriptive In-School Training days, it would seem appropriate to have some mechanism through which teachers can collate and demonstrate the various components of their specific professional learning. This would not only be of tremendous value to themselves, but also future employers and the teaching profession as a whole which would be able to benefit from sharing best practise more effectively.

A powerful professional organisation can be considered as one of the key features required for an occupation to be termed a profession[9], so perhaps the absence of such a body, thus far, has lead to the ambiguous position of teaching vis-à-vis more established professions such as law or medicine[7]. Suffice it to say, such a body would be uniquely equipped to act as a mechanism through which individual teachers can chart their professional learning, and through which the profession can foster the development of and share the findings of evidence based practise. Indeed, it is in the arena of evidenced based practise that teachers can take a lead from their medical counterparts and, in particular, the work of Dr Goldacre[10] who advocates that:

  • research on what works best should be a routine part of life in education
  • teachers should be empowered to participate in research
  • myths about randomised trials in education should be addressed, removing barriers to research
  • the results of research should be disseminated more efficiently
  • resources on research should be available to teachers, enabling them to be critical and thoughtful consumers of evidence
  • barriers between teachers and researchers should be removed
  • teachers should be driving the research agenda, by identifying questions that need to be answered.

Goldacre goes on to emphasise that this research agenda is not about telling teachers what to do, rather empowering them with evidence-based, independent and informed decisions on, for instance, the factors that help to raise teacher effectiveness. He extols the huge gains made by the medical profession, having become a truly evidenced-based profession, and argues that teachers have the same opportunity to leap forward. A prospective professional body, analogous to the Royal College of Surgeons, could therefore act as a vehicle through which to coordinate, encourage and promote rigorous research and share the findings in order to help raise levels across the board.

Whilst there is a compelling rationale for a Royal College of Teaching, what would it actually look like and, as a teacher what would I see? One such suggestion is put forward by Ross Morrison McGill[11] who advocates teachers combining professional learning in a portfolio that could contain the following:

  • a video of a lesson observation.
  • a record of performance management targets.
  • classroom data.
  • CPD records over the past 5 years.
  • personal information e.g. address, next of kin etc.
  • access to references over time i.e. for each job application.
  • an honest ‘about me’ section that could contain a voxpop, a blog or twitter account that could demonstrate personality, as well as my teaching ability.
  • a collection of all social-media sources

Allied to the results of research, best practice, resources and any formal professional exams that may be introduced by a professional body to achieve a ‘Chartered Teaching Status’, this would provide a useful chronicle of professional learning for both the individual and future employers and through which the professional body would be able to draw upon to help raise the bar across the board.

A professional learning portfolio is in stark contrast with traditional prescriptive and disjointed CPD perspectives. Within the literature, professional learning is now conceptualised as dynamic, on-going, continuous, and set in teachers’ daily lives – embedded in the classroom context and constructed through experience and practice, in sustained, iterative cycles of goal setting, planning, practicing, and reflecting[4]. There are a wide array of activities that could be considered to be embraced by such a collaborative and job-embedded model of professional learning including: analysis of a school’s culture; peer observations of practice; small-scale classroom studies about students’ work; analysis of student data; lesson study groups; involvement in a development or improvement process; and case studies about patterns in students’ classroom behaviour. The roll of the Royal College then would be to promote such an individualised and collaborative approach and coordinate and disseminate key findings and best practise across the profession. In so doing, it could also help to raise the profile of the the profession vis-a-vis other occupations and encourage more graduates and career changers to consider teaching.

A collaborative culture in the broadest sense, not just within the teaching profession but also in association with all those involved in education, in conjunction with the introduction of an effective professional body could see the start of a new wave of ‘democratic professionalism’ in which teachers digitally tailor their professional learning and use evidenced-based research and widely disseminated best-practise to analyse and inform their teaching and help raise standards across the board[12]:

“There is an outstanding momentum of consensus from an incredibly broad range of interests who all agree that the time has now come for the teaching profession to look to form its own professional body”.

Charlotte Leslie MP, Education Select Committee [1]

[1] Charlotte Leslie MP, member of the Education Select Committee, interviewed by SecEd http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/news/the-royal-college-of-teaching-draws-closer

[2] The Prince’s Teaching Institute College of Teaching Consultation http://www.princes-ti.org.uk/CollegeofTeaching/

[3] The New Visions for Education Group http://www.newvisionsforeducation.org.uk/

[4] Literature review Quality in Teachers’ Continuing professional development, European Commission http://ec.europa.eu/education/school-education/doc/quality_en.pdf

[5] Barber, M. (2005) Informed Professionalism: Realising the Potential. Presentation conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, London, June 11

[6] Teachers Matter: Attracting, developing and retraining effective teachers. OECD http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/34990905.pdf

[7] It’s time to give teachers the skills the skills and respect they deserve. Tim Brighouse & Bob Moon http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/34990905.pdf

[9] Millerson, G. (1964) The Qualifying Association. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

[11] Job Applications: what I’d really like to say http://teachertoolkit.me/2013/02/09/job-applications/

[12] Whitty, G. (2006) Teacher Professionalism in a new era http://www.gtcni.org.uk/publications/uploads/document/annual%20lecture%20paper.pdf