26 Aug 2014

Is US more resistant to radicalisation than UK?

At least 500 Britons are thought to have taken up arms in Syria and Iraq, while only a dozen American-born nationals have been identified as Islamic State fighters. What is behind the difference?

The murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of what appears to be a British-born extremist in Syria has heightened tensions on both sides of the Atlantic.

FBI officers have arrived in Birmingham to assist police with inquiries, while the British ambassador to the US Sir Peter Westmacott was pressed by US TV news networks over how efforts to identify Mr Foley’s killer were progressing. “I cannot say more than this but I know we are close,” he said.

Some 11,000 fighters from more than 70 countries are now thought to be embroiled in war in Syria and Iraq. But there is growing evidence that British and American securities agencies view their respective domestic threat differently.

According to several estimates, UK security services believe up to 500 Britons are fighting in Syria, with at least a quarter of those having joined Islamic State (IS). US authorities, in contrast, have confidently identified fewer than 12 Isis-converted Americans.

Meanwhile, the response to a potential threat, including plans to debate new laws in Britain – with calls that UK nationals should be stripped of British passports altogether – appear more hard-headed than statements in the US. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security conversly have said IS poses “no specific or credible terror threats to the US”.

Contrasting outlooks

Why such contrast? Is the US more resistant to extremist radicalisation? Geography certainly plays a role. Counter-terrorism officials cite America’s proximity from the battlegrounds of the Middle East, not to mention tougher border controls in the wake of 9/11, as reasons why American jihadis are not joining the fight.

For the British and most Europeans, Syria is little more than a drive away, while increasingly porous borders with Turkey makes it an accessible option. It is also thought that the nature of radicalisation differs in the US, firstly, because of the country’s approach to cultural assimilation.

“The UK has experimented with multiculturalism over the last decade, which often means putting ethnic identity before nation,” Dr Alan Mendoza, the co-founder of the Henry Jackson Society, told Channel 4 News.

“The US is a nation founded by immigrants but has operated the other way: nationality first and ethnic identity afterwards.” That sense of national identity, he said, is compounded by the weight attributed to US national holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day.

‘Collective’ radicalisation

The way ideas incubate and travel also differs. While extremist ideology can travel fast on the internet, they often fail to acquire the same verbal validation. In his book Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman suggests that radicalisation is often a collective rather than an individual process in which friendship and kinship are vital.

But in a country that spans four million square miles and boats a diaspora of communities this ability to lock in to similar minds can be more difficult.

Little wonder that most incidents in the wake of radicalisation tend to be committed by terrorists acting alone, often solely in response to US foreign policy.

And for some, that is precisely where the crux of the next problem lies. Ibrahim Hooper, of the US Council for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, told Channel 4 News: “The main question to consider is why people are travelling to Syria in their droves? The west encouraged the people of Syria to rise up and overthrow Assad, and then did nothing in their hour of need.

“More than 200,000 Syrians have since been slaughtered and it only now that the west is moving. The scale of these foreign policy errors are what has created Isis. Where we go from here is a challenge for policymakers regardless of which side of the Atlantic you sit.”