Every month, thousands of young British Muslims travel to Pakistan on holiday to visit family and friends. For most it is an opportunity to celebrate important religious festivals, such as the Eid feast that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, or simply to spend time in the country of their own or their family’s origin.
But in a small number of cases their reasons for leaving their adopted country are more sinister. Despite the efforts of British and Pakistani security officials monitoring the movements of the estimated 400,000 “Brit-Paks” (British passport holders of Pakistani descent) travelling between the two countries, some simply disappear the moment they arrive. Months later, and trained as terrorists, they slip back into the crowds of innocent fellow-Muslims at the airport and board a return flight to Britain.
It is a two-way traffic between Britain and Pakistan which proved deadly on 7/7 and becomes ever more worrying with growing instability in a nuclear-armed state which is earning a reputation as the world’s most dangerous country.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, revealed at the weekend that, at any given time, our security forces are having to contend with at least 20 active terror plots that originate from Pakistan, mainly involving small groups of “Brit-Paks” who have been radicalised and trained in Pakistan and managed to return undetected to Britain.
It worries the Americans, who ask why they should continue allowing a visa-waiver programme with Britain when it is possible for an Islamist terrorist with a UK passport to be in a terrorist camp in Pakistan one week, a British town the next and on a plane to the United States only days after that.
Britain, it appears, is still producing teenagers who have been through the nation’s education system but are so poorly integrated that they despise this country enough to become terrorists dedicated to causing it and its citizens harm.
The route being taken by disaffected young British Muslims is difficult to track precisely, but it is clear that some make their way to one of the thousands of Saudi-funded madrassas specialising in indoctrinating impressionable young minds in the militant brand of Islamic fundamentalism that provides the ideological framework for Islamist terror groups. Others, those who have passed what terrorism experts describe as the first phase of radicalisation, are taken to secret training camps in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the lawless region straddling the country’s porous border with Afghanistan, where the majority of al-Qaeda’s training bases are located.
It is there that they are taught how to make home-made bombs that can either be used in suicide attacks or for attacking coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan. They receive basic instruction in self-defence techniques, and how to handle themselves in the event of being captured. When the training is complete the majority return to Britain, ready and primed to carry out the next series of terror plots being conceived by al-Qaeda’s leaders.
But there are some—described by security officials as “hard core” al-Qaeda sympathisers—who travel across the border to Afghanistan to join the “jihad” against British and other coalition forces fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British forces when they first deployed to southern Afghanistan two-and-a-half-years ago, revealed that British passport holders who live in the UK were being found in Kandahar, one of the main recruitment headquarters of the Taliban’s violent insurgency against Nato forces, and that RAF Nimrod spy planes had heard militants speaking in broad Yorkshire and Midlands accents.
Another senior British Army officer who has recently returned from Afghanistan said there was mounting evidence that British Muslims were taking up arms against British soldiers. “They make their way across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan with one intention—to attack British forces. It’s almost as though we are becoming involved in fighting a civil war.”
The number of British Muslims joining the “jihad” against coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, though, still remains small. “You are talking double digit figures, rather than large numbers,” said a security official. “It is not a significant threat at present, but one that needs to be watched.”
The real threat to British security, as the Prime Minister identified, is in Britain. The presence of British-born, fully trained and operational al-Qaeda foot soldiers on the streets of Britain is the main reason the country remains on high alert.
It is also the reason that Britain and its allies in the war against terrorism are becoming increasingly frustrated at the conduct of the Pakistani government, which they believe is not doing enough to eradicate the organisational infrastructure that allows al-Qaeda to remain a potent threat against western security. Iran, Iraq and North Korea may have formed the original “Axis of Evil” after the September 11 attacks, but since then Pakistan has rapidly emerged as the country most closely associated with Islamist terror groups.
It is not only Britain that finds itself in the crosshairs of Pakistan’s Islamist militants. The recent terror attacks in Mumbai revealed yet another dimension to the threat posed by Pakistan-based Islamist militants. Most of the terrorists responsible for the attacks were impoverished and impressionable young Punjabis who had been indoctrinated and trained by radical clerics associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistani-sponsored Islamist group that is campaigning for the Indian-controlled province of Kashmir to be returned to Muslim rule.
In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan reverted to what has now become its default position when it is suspected of being the source of a major atrocity, with the government of Asif Ali Zardari promising full co-operation with the Indian government to bring the culprits to justice.
But just as Islamabad promised to work closely with Washington after the September 11 attacks, and the British government following the July 7 bombings, the Pakistani government’s ability to deliver on its promises is highly questionable, leading to some within the West’s security establishment to ask whether the Pakistanis are really serious about rooting out the terrorists.
The reason successive Pakistani governments have struggled to mount an effective campaign against Islamist terror cells is the country’s all-pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which created most of the terror groups in the first place. Al-Qaeda was the product of the ISI’s support for Islamist radicals fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, while LeT was created by ISI to pressure Delhi into relinquishing control of Kashmir. Although the Pakistani government has outlawed both groups, and has launched a number of military campaigns against the lawless FATA region, the view of the West’s security establishment is that the clampdown has been half-hearted, and that no political will exists in Islamabad to tackle the problem.
Even Islamabad’s crackdown on LeT’s activities following the Mumbai attacks, with several prominent clerics being detained and suspected training camps closed down, has raised questions about Islamabad’s commitment to curtailing the group’s activities, with many Western officials asking whether the Pakistanis are merely making token gestures to placate India.
In the past, Pakistan has escaped censure by the West because, for all its faults, it is regarded as a crucial ally in the campaign to eradicate the menace of Islamist terrorism.
But unless the Pakistani authorities start taking effective measures to tackle the monster they have allowed to develop within their midst that will change. The leaders of the world’s most dangerous country are rapidly reaching the point at which they will run out of excuses.