In January 2009, the head of Britain’s Security Service (also known as MI5) boasted that his agents were succeeding in cracking down on potentially violent homegrown Islamists. Although conceding that “the battle [was] not won,” Jonathan Evans told the Daily Telegraph that his agents were forcing would-be terrorists “to keep their heads down.” He went on to note that there were undoubtedly terrorists planning attacks somewhere — but probably not in Britain.
His optimism, however hedged, was understandable. His interview took place 3 1/2 years after the London terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005. During that period, the British authorities put dozens of would-be terrorists on trial and thwarted numerous attacks. In the immediate wake of 7/7, the Security Service’s public critics had taken its bosses to task for infiltrating violent groups without doing more to break them up. Needless to say, Britain’s domestic spies immediately set out to do just that, in a flurry of arrests and prosecutions.
But that, of course, was before Christmas Day 2009, when a young Nigerian — the former head of the Islamic students’ association at University College London — tried to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight and shattered the myth of Britain’s newfound imperviousness to Islamism. Though security officials in Britain insist that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab radicalized after he left the country for Yemen (Sanaa, in turn, blames everything on London), the case of the Underwear Bomber has dramatized the extent to which Britain remains a launching pad for jihad. (Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka prefers the term “cesspit” to describe London’s function as an Islamist breeding ground.)