Home » Global Perspectives » Home grown terrorism: the threat within

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

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