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British jihadism’s familiar connections: Usman Khan, Al Muhajiroun and Pakistan

NewsBritish jihadism’s familiar connections: Usman Khan, Al Muhajiroun and Pakistan

Khan and his cohorts discussed using a pipe bomb to attack local venues serving alcohol.


London: The deadly terror attack at the northern end of London Bridge was the first fatal Islamist outrage in Britain this year. Two workers devoted to the rehabilitation of offenders, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, were stabbed to death at an event organised by the rehabilitation charity, Learning Together.

As details of the attack emerged, a sense of anger and horror became predominant. This was mitigated by a degree of pride at the response of Londoners—ex-prisoners and workers from the conference venue, alongside passersby, fought jihadist Usman Khan to a standstill, until he was shot dead by police. But there was also déjà vu—much the same happened in 2017, when three terrorists killed eight civilians after a van and knife attack at the southern end of London Bridge. Britons are no longer surprised by jihadist murders.

Usman Khan’s CV should be familiar to anyone who has studied British jihadism. Khan’s parents emigrated to the UK from the village of Kajlani in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), settling in the Staffordshire city of Stoke. Khan himself lived in PoK for several years in his teens, before returning to Britain and joining the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun. Khan was pictured in Stoke with the group’s leader, Anjem Choudary. A quarter of British jihadist plots have had connections to either Al-Muhajiroun or Choudary. The group, plus a succession of spin-offs, has been proscribed under British law since January 2010.

Stoke is a city with historically poor relations between British Muslims and the non-Muslim majority. The rise of Al-Muhajiroun in the town did little to repair such divisions. Shortly before Khan’s gang was arrested in December 2010, his friend Muhammad Shahjahan gave a BBC interview calling for the imposition of Sharia law in Britain. This was something they were willing to achieve through violent action—in secretly recorded conversations, Khan and his cohorts discussed using a pipe bomb to attack local venues serving alcohol. Having heard enough, the authorities intervened, disrupting a conspiracy with members in Stoke, London and Cardiff, some of whom had discussed bombing the London Stock Exchange. The Stoke wing had received funding to establish a jihadist training facility in PoK, to be built on land owned by the Khan family. Pakistan is more than an exporter of jihadist violence; it also serves as an importer.

Pleading guilty, Khan received an indeterminate sentence in February 2012 of Imprisonment for Public Protection with a minimum of eight years to serve. In custody, his security classification was upgraded to Category A (that of the most serious offenders) after breaches of prison discipline. Despite this, he was able to pull the wool over the eyes of the authorities and those working for the rehabilitation of offenders. Having initially refused to take part in prison de-radicalisation programmes, Khan attended them enthusiastically, saw his sentence reduced on appeal and was released automatically in December 2018 at the halfway point of his amended jail term. Freed on licence, he convinced staff at Learning Together of his positive intentions, some even taking part in sponsored runs to buy a computer for him. On 29 November, he was to repay that trust by murdering two of their staff. If we view terrorism as a form of communication, Khan’s message to society was simple if unpalatable—we are playing you for fools.

Internationally, an unexpected consequence of London Bridge was the protest against media coverage of the attacks, in Islamabad and Karachi. Pakistan’s leading daily newspaper, Dawn, has a poor relationship with the country’s elite, especially its military. Dawn’s description of Khan as a “UK national of Pakistani origin” was a bald statement of fact, but proved too much for some to tolerate. As government ministers tweeted their disapproval of the paper’s coverage, violence broke out in Karachi, accompanied by death threats to Dawn’s editor and publisher. This is a reminder of the difficulty in discussing jihadist violence in some parts of the world, and that Pakistan remains a country where norms of democratic discourse and freedom of speech are continuously squeezed. Its journalists deserve international support.

The protestors had gone home by the time it was announced Usman Khan’s body had been flown from England to PoK for burial. Whilst ostensibly a private matter for his family, the move evokes unpleasant memories for many Britons. After the deadly 7/7 attacks on London’s public transport system in 2005, the youngest of the suicide bombers, Shehzad Tanweer was buried in Samundari in Pakistani Punjab, with an annual commemorative event held in his honour. Londoners were outraged at reports he is venerated as a martyr, with salted rice distributed in his honour. Pakistan must ensure such scenes are not repeated at Usman Khan’s grave.

The second terrorist attack at London Bridge brought together familiar elements from past outrages. Al Muhajiroun, religious extremism, and the frequently poor levels of integration of second generation Britons of Pakistani heritage. Most seriously of all, Usman Khan was able to fool de-radicalisation and probation staff, a reminder Britain faces a crippling problem in dealing with jihadists—our own naiveté.

Dr Paul Stott is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, and at tutor in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London.

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