SWJ Book Review – The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network

SWJ Book Review – The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network

Isaac poritzky

Michael Kenney, The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in a Militant Network. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. [ISBN 978-1108470803, Paperback, 301 pages].

One of the biggest challenges in studying radical groups is finding members who are willing to talk about their experiences. Al-Muhajiroun, or in English, “the Emigrants”, are an anomaly.

In 2007, Michael Kenney spoke to a prominent al-Muhajiroun activist and three of his young students in a park in Woolwich, south London. They were willing to talk to him at first because they viewed the discussion as a form of da’wah, obligatory preaching for which they would be rewarded in the Hereafter. Three years later, these same activists rose to prominence within al-Muhajiroun and “opened their world” to him. For five years, they introduced him to other members of the groups, invited him to observe da’wah stalls (places to educate foreigners about Islam), and even allowed him to see private talks. Unlike journalists and “think tank experts,” Kenney learned from the real “experts” of emigrants, the activists themselves.

In The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in a Militant NetworkProfessor Michael Kenney, Posvar Chair in International Security Studies; The director of the Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh, has carried out an unprecedented ethnographic study through unparalleled insight and in-depth analysis of social media. “This book tells the story of a network of deeply committed activists who sought to replace Britain’s secular democracy with a religious theocracy based on their interpretation of Salafism and Islamism” (p. 3). They never came close to establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Britain, but the group provides a perfect case study of resilience and organizational adjustment under pressure.

Why study emigrants? They are the ‘extremist network [that] The British love to hate ”(p. 4). Most importantly, they are Britain’s most notorious and effective extremist group. In 2014, “al-Muhajiroun was the last group to publicly call for the replacement of British liberal democracy with an ISIS-type caliphate.” Throughout its long history, the British government has jailed al-Muhajiroun militants, raided their homes, banned their leader, banned the group, but al-Muhajiroun has been remarkably resistant to British pressure. The Emigrants bounced on them to recruit new supporters, indoctrinate them into his Salafist-Islamist ideology and mobilize them into high-risk activism. This book seeks to answer several questions. How did al-Muhajiroun stay strong under relentless pressure from the British authorities? Why didn’t al-Muhajiroun collapse after his charismatic emir, Omar Bakri Mohammed, left Britain? How did activists continue to recruit and radicalize their supporters despite government repression? Has there been an al-Muhajiroun “conveyor belt” of political violence?

This book contributes to the literature on resilience and organizational adaptation because researchers have largely avoided studies of non-state actors who have been outlawed and suppressed by the same governments whose authority they challenge. In the first chapter, Kenney and two other colleagues, Stephen Coulthart and Dominick Wright, conduct a quantitative analysis of the al-Muhajiroun network. They find that “the emigrants have moved from a centralized ‘ladderless’ type network centered around Omar Bakri to a smaller and more decentralized ‘small world’ type network run by many militants” (p. 34). ). This small world system allowed emigrants to escape British authorities, but diminished their ability to form an Islamic state. The change was due to pressure from the British authorities, but mainly due to the ban of Omar Bakri from Britain. Most network studies use either “fine” quantitative analysis or “thick” qualitative descriptions. Kenney combined these methods to engage in a new “ethnographic network analysis”. This holistic approach allowed Kenney to “leverage the measurement accuracy and statistical validity of social media analysis with in-depth knowledge of a specific case based on ethnographic field research” (p. 44) ). This chapter is by far the most technical and difficult to understand of the chapters in the book. Kenney places most of the technical details in the Methodological Annex, but it is less accessible than the other chapters. In addition, this study is unique because it measures relationships, but also effectiveness. I would say that the results of this study suggest a relationship between network structure and performance that should be explored further.

In Chapter 2, Kenney goes beyond the formal analysis of the network and recounts the reasons why activists joined al-Muhajiroun. He used first-hand information and interviews to identify common factors in activists’ journeys. The general theme of this chapter and throughout the book, Kenney is careful not to reduce individual stories to a single theory or model. He skillfully draws attention to the differences, but does not formulate general conclusions. On the contrary, the book is useful in that it is one of the first of its kind to use an “ethnographic network analysis” on an extremist group, not that it explains the main trends. In Chapter 3, Kenney uses his first-hand experience to understand the process of moving from rookie to hired insider. Al-Muhajiroun uses halakahs, small study groups, where novices deepen their links with other activists, materials, and al-Muhajiroun. Kenney concludes that while this setup has allowed them to indoctrinate hundreds of Britons, it limits their ability to respond to pressure and adapt to change. Kenney discusses the tactical, not structural, changes that have allowed al-Muhajiroun to remain relevant in the global jihadist movement, even though he is increasingly marginalized in Britain in Chapter 4.

Kenney examines how and why activists start in Chapter 5. As they transition into adulthood, they have become productive British citizens. A few have fled Britain “to wield the sword of jihad” in Iraq and Syria (p. 31). Kenney is careful not to draw general conclusions. He maintains an unbiased and more descriptive approach to simply shedding light on an under-researched group. He concludes with the broader implications of his research. The main theme being that one-dimensional statistical network analysis is not sufficient to fully understand the multidimensionality of a radical group. A combination of quantitative analysis and ethnographic studies is most effective.

If only quantitative analysis is used to study a radical group, Kenney proves that we should question the validity of previous counterterrorism strategies for emigrants, or counterterrorism assumptions as a whole. Specifically the effectiveness of the fight against violent extremism programs (CVE) and the alleged “conveyor belt” of Emigrants to political violence. This is because the Ministry of Defense and Intelligence community invests heavily in computer analysis programs without coupling ethnographic studies. As a forerunner of this book, Kenney and Stephen Coulthart conducted a study in which they used two of the most popular computer analysis programs, Automatic card and Organizational risk analyzer (ORA) to conduct an analysis of al-Muhajiroun’s social networks.[1] Using newspaper data, the programs identified three times as many false positive relationships as successful ones. Kenney argues that any effort to dismantle al-Muhajiroun using this data would have been in vain. Kenney conducted a second study where he used his ethnographic data to refine the list of concepts and produced valid models of the dark network. The conclusion of these studies and Islamic State in Britain is not that ethnographic studies are superior to quantitative analysis, but that they should be combined to improve our understanding of dark networks.

Islamic State in Britain would be very useful for studies on terrorism and the fight against terrorism. Kenney highlights the lack of multidimensional analysis of social media and the resulting misunderstanding. In addition, Kenney offers a “small community-led intervention made up of former emigrants who volunteer together to engage young people who are still involved in the activist network” (p. 235). This strategy is based on his ethnographic study and could be extended to other dark networks. If you’re looking for a book that draws big conclusions about al-Muhajiroun and jihadism in general, look elsewhere. But, if you want an unprecedented look at al-Muhajiroun and top quality research accessible to all levels of education, The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in a Militant Network should be next on your list.

End Notes

[1] Michael Kenney and Stephen Coulthart. “The Methodological Challenges of Extracting Dark Networks”, Chapter 4 in Luke M. Gerdes, ed., Illuminating Dark Networks: The Study of Underground Groups and Organizations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 52-70.


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