Following the most recent Islamist terror attack in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May said the perpetrators were not linked by “common networks,” but rather were bound together by the ideology of "Islamic extremism.”
May's comments speak to the shared beliefs of jihadi terrorists and the challenge of tackling attacks that are low-tech and very difficult for the security services to prevent. The dividing line between networks and ideology is not clear cut, however. Both play an important part in the kind of violence the UK has seen since March.
Research by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has shown that Salafi-jihadi ideology is a major mobiliser of extremist activity, with ISIS and dozens of other groups globally carrying out acts of violence in dozens of countries inspired by this worldview. The ideology universalises local grievances and paints individual violent actions as part of a broader international struggle.
Many men and women have been seduced by ISIS’ utopian propaganda. The prime minister herself condemned ‘tolerance’ of extremism. However, acting upon this worldview, whether carrying out an attack or undertaking hijrah (migration) to the group’s so-called caliphate, in almost all cases requires some sort of a network to mobilise.
References to attacks by ‘lone wolves’ fail to acknowledge the networks and inspiration behind them. Meanwhile, research from ICSR has found that online radicalisation rarely occurs without a parallel offline dimension.
ISIS itself makes use of this fluidity between ‘inspiration’ and ‘direction.’ In its claims of responsibility for attacks it increasingly fails to distinguish between operations that are centrally directed, and those that are inspired by its propaganda. Both foreign fighters and home-grown attackers are labelled ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate.’
As such, when looking to understand attacks, such as the one in London Bridge, we should not be looking only for strong networks, but also loose ones. Al-Muhajiroun, the banned group which has underpinned many of the UK’s domestic terror threats and foreign fighter recruitment, has re-morphed and re-branded several times since before the 7/7 attacks. Links have already been established between the London Bridge attackers and notorious hate preacher Anjem Choudhary, the founder of the pro-caliphate organisation, who was imprisoned in 2015 after years on British security services’ radar.
Anjem Choudhary is just one of a number of ideologues with a large following in the UK, both online and offline. The videos of American preacher Ahmad Musa Jibril, who has over 40,000 followers on Twitter, were allegedly instrumental in the radicalisation of one of the London Bridge attackers. ICSR research indicated that approximately 60 per cent of people involved in Syrian fighting followed him on Twitter.
Syria has proved to be the global jihadi community’s latest major networking opportunity, certainly some of the fighters will return with ideological zeal, strong bonds, and battlefield training. Afghanistan played a similar role a generation ago, with the networks formed among the Mujahideen still reverberating around the globe today, from Somalia to the Caucasus.
Whilst a single ideology undoubtedly underpins the separate attacks in Manchester and London, jihadi networks, both loose and tight-knit, remain instrumental.