HH: If you spent most of the last 14 hours as I did transfixed and horrified by running gun battles and bombs with jihadists in the streets of Boston, you’ll want to listen today, because I’m assembling a group of individuals who I think more than any of my guest lists can answer the question, is there any real solution to this. And there isn’t really any better place to go in the world than London, which has been coping with home grown jihadist terror for as long as the age of terror has been upon us, and no better person to speak to about than John Fisher Burns, who is of course the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, and from his long years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and around the world, he knows this problem better than most. John Burns, welcome, your reaction first to the events of this week, and especially of the last 20 hours in Boston?
JB: Well, we’ve seen once again a classic example, a miserable, tragic example of what terrorism experts call asymmetrical warfare. I mean, we’ve got a city of one million people shut down right now as we speak for a manhunt for one 19 year old kid. And it’s frightening to contemplate how we in open societies can be paralyzed in this fashion, on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s I suppose reassuring, it is reassuring to know that the FBI and the Massachusetts sate troopers and the police in Boston got onto this, got onto these two guys relatively quickly, and before they could do much more damage. After all, it was Monday that the Marathon was attacked, and it was Thursday night, Boston time, essentially, when they got onto these two guys. And that’s good police work in anybody’s language.
HH: And I tell people who despair of getting ahead of this that they need to look at London and at the United Kingdom where MI5 has been saying for years there are thousands of cells of would-be jihadists, but they stay ahead of the game there. Now is that luck? Is that police work? Are you confident that civilization can actually stay ahead of its enemies this way?
JB: Do you know, I think you’ve put your finger on something very important here. I think that we in open democratic societies, vulnerable as we are, are also much better equipped than most societies to deal with these problems. And the United Kingdom, very much supported by the United States in various ways that have to do with the intelligence that is crucial to this fight, has been extraordinarily successful since the major terrorist attack here on the 7th of July, 2005, known as the 7/7 attacks, in which 52 people were killed in multiple bomb attacks on the London Transit System. MI5, the domestic security agency, MI6, the, if you will, James Bond, external security agency, and Scotland Yard, where there’s a counterterrorism unit, SO19, have been extraordinarily, extraordinarily, successful in tracking people down. Only yesterday, there were four young men, Islamic militants, who were sent to jail for a very long time for, and apprehended, preempted plan to stage major bombing attacks in Britain. And that was, I haven’t counted, but there have been dozens of such cases since the so-called 7/7 attacks, in which the would-be terrorists have been preempted. And the same is true, of course, in the United States. Since 9/11, of course, there have been a number of attacks, this probably the most serious and worrying of them, but how many other attacks have been preempted by the joint work of state police and the federal authorities, the FBI, the CIA, and the Homeland Security people.
HH: Now John Burns, from your perch in the bureau of the New York Times, you probably have access to the best of the research being done by the people who study home grown jihadism, as opposed to the crossing of borders of terrorists and combatants, unlawful combatants. Has the UK come up, yet, with a way to reverse engineer, to predict who of an immigrant population that has apparently assimilated, then de-assimilates, and indeed not only de-assimilates, but goes radically into terror?
JB: Now that’s a very, very complicated situation. And we start with one irreducible fact, which is that our worst, a great deal, at one point, the estimate was, three-quarters of the terrorist plotting that was going on in the United Kingdom occurring in the community of people whose ancestry lies in Pakistan, principally, who have proven are rather more resistant to assimilation, cultural, social assimilation in Britain, than other immigrant groups over the last 50-100 years. But at the same time, if we took a snapshot of the situation as it existed on 9/11, and where we are now, there have been enormous advances, and not only on the part of the security agencies, which have really upped their game, upped their numbers considerably, too, the numbers, the overall employment numbers that the UK domestic security agency, MI5 have, I think I’m right in saying, more than doubled and continue to increase. The security and intelligence has increased a great deal, but there’s also been a great deal of thought given to where the United Kingdom can do better, much, much better, as it needs to in terms of assimilating these youngsters, and not allowing them to drift into the alienate state where one of the next stops down the line is terrorism. That’s the really hard nut to crack. No matter how good your security is, no matter how good the intelligence on which it’s based, in the end, this problem is not going to be solved here or in the United States until we can deal effectively with the alienation problem. And in order to do that, the authorities are going to need the compliance, the cooperation, the not just reluctant, but the enthusiastic cooperation of the Muslim community, and of the religious authorities in the Muslim community. That, too, has improved, but there’s a long way to go in that…
HH: Now much do the authorities lean into the Islamic community when it comes to radical preaching? John Updike wrote a pretty amazing novel called The Terrorist, oh, a few years after 9/11, and then it kind of dropped from sight. And the big question on many people’s minds today is when did these young men turn? When did they radicalize, because their younger friends are just astonished that they’ve become killers and terrorists. But I know for a period of time, the UK had to lean deep into the mosques and export, imprison those radical Islamist preachers who were encouraging violence. Is that program over? Is it ongoing? And did the sort of mainstream Muslim community agree to it?
JB: No, no, it’s definitely ongoing, and I should say that the pattern we appear to be seeing play out in Boston, and of course, it’s all very, very, at the moment, preliminary, but if we assume that the authorities are correct in saying that these two young men of Chechen origin were the ones responsible for the bombing, and the ones who engaged in that gunfight last night, in which one of the two of them was killed, what we are seeing, and it’s been very striking to me watching those images on television, how familiar is the story, as best we understand it at this moment, we hear of those two young Chechen men, and in the case of one of them, that he was an excellent student, that he got a scholarship, that he was on the wrestling team, the other boy, who seems to have been the older one who was killed in the shootout last night, who appears to have had a more alienated experience. But nonetheless, let’s just speak of the one who is now on the run. Everywhere that the reporters turn, we find the same story of a kid who appeared to be perfectly normal, to be on the way to full integration, and appeared to be having a happy and normal life. And now what we discover, his family discovered to their expressed astonishment, that there was another life being led. Now this is very much the pattern that we see in the United Kingdom again and again. And of course, in some cases, families are complicit. In some cases, elements of the community, including people in the local mosques, have been complicit. But the general pattern has been the young men, who appeared to have lived perfectly normal lives, to have had this second life, this second undetected life, which led them to plan or to execute these appalling, heinous crimes.
JB: That’s an extremely difficult nut to crack, but I think that the key to it, and certainly the conclusion here in the United Kingdom is, the key to it is to win the compliance, the assent, the cooperation, of the Muslim community itself, because that’s where this is going to be solved.
HH: John F. Burns of the New York Times, London Bureau Chief, thank you.
End of interview.