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London Attack Highlights Efforts To Combat Homegrown Terrorism


To understand how militants in Britain are being radicalized and what the British government is trying to do to stop it, I talked to Charlie Winter on Skype. He's a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London where he's analyzed hundreds of ISIS fighter profiles and operations. And I asked him what patterns he sees in how these attackers and the ones in earlier attacks in Britain become radicalized.

CHARLIE WINTER: We actually seem to keep hearing the same thing, that they were actually reported to the authorities some time ago, that there was plenty to indicate that they were adherents of an extremist ideology and that one day they could pose a security threat to the national security of the United Kingdom. So that's something that we've seen again and again over the course of the last few months. And that emerges because these individuals aren't shying away from their extremism. They wear it on their sleeves.

MCEVERS: And I do want to talk about how these militants become radicalized because I think for a long time, the narrative was that these are people who left to go fight in Syria or Iraq and then have come back home to carry out attacks. That's not necessarily the case anymore. Is that right?

WINTER: Yeah. What we're seeing now is perhaps a bit more unexpected. It doesn't seem to be an obvious path to terrorism for these individuals. They haven't been to Syria. They may have tried. We don't know. But there is more of a homegrown feel to it.


WINTER: And I think one thing which is coming up again and again in this context, the United Kingdom, but also in the wake of any terrorist operation is the Internet and what role the Internet played in it...


WINTER: ...What role social media had in these individual radicalization. I think it's very, very easy to look at this very simplistically and think, oh, they watched some propaganda online. They spoke to people in the Islamic State in Syria, were told to carry out an attack, so they carried out the attack...


WINTER: ...When in actual fact, it's much more complex than that.

MCEVERS: So if it's not just the Internet where people are being radicalized, what else is it? It's personal connections - right? - with what kinds of people? Give us an example of someone who has been involved in radicalizing people.

WINTER: Well, perhaps the most notorious of these individuals is a guy called Anjem Choudary. He is infamous over here as someone who's a very outspoken, very audacious individual who's called for extremist Islamism for a very long time. And he's always - or for a long time, he managed to stop just short of saying something that would have got him arrested, in jail. Obviously that all ended last year when he was chucked in prison.

But the fact of the matter is that this guy was on the streets, proselytizing for essentially the Islamic State bringing people into this extreme, the austere interpretation of Islamism that is eminently compatible with a group like the Islamic State.

MCEVERS: Right. As we just heard Prime Minister Theresa May say, you know, there's been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. Does that mean that someone like Anjem Choudary in your opinion should have been, you know, arrested a lot sooner than he was and will be going forward?

WINTER: Yeah. I mean it's ironic to hear the prime minister saying this. Of course she used to be the home secretary. She used to be in charge of counter-extremism policy. And under her watch, Anjem Choudary was frolicking around, recruiting people on the streets of London and not imprisoned. So yeah, I mean I think there's a certain kind of bitter irony to what she's saying there.

MCEVERS: Right. What needs to be done now? What's the best way forward?

WINTER: Well, in the short term, I think counterterrorism - so the hard end of it - understanding the network, stopping the networks from - and when I say network, it could be a tiny, little group of people. It could be, like, these three guys from London Bridge - but understanding the dynamic as well as possible. And I think if that means that more people need to be put under surveillance, then that has to happen. But of course surveillance is an extremely expensive thing. But if that's necessary, then that's necessary.

MCEVERS: Charlie Winter is a senior research fellow at King's College London. Thank you so much.

WINTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTLINES' "OUTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.