Going to Extremes

Why Muslim fundamentalists may be our best hope for stopping terror.


In 1996, Richard Reid, a petty criminal recently released from prison, found his way to an unassuming mosque in the rough-edged south London neighborhood of Brixton. The majority of worshippers were converts to Islam: some of them ex-convicts who had taken up the faith in prison, some immigrants. Most of the women wore the full niqab and abaya, showing only their eyes in accordance with the mosque’s strictly conservative bent.

The mosque’s demographics fit Reid, who had grown up in a mixed-race suburban London household and converted to Islam while in prison. They also suited a fellow Brixton worshipper Reid might or might not have met: Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-born son of Moroccan immigrants who had attended university in London. Neither man stayed long. Moussaoui was kicked out in 1997 for his aggressively extremist views, and Reid drifted away the following year. Both found their way first into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then, in 2001, into the headlines. Moussaoui, al Qaeda’s so-called 20th hijacker, was arrested in the United States and later charged with playing a role in the 9/11 plot; Reid was captured several months later for attempting to blow up a transatlantic flight with a bomb hidden in his shoe.

Although Brixton Mosque was scrupulously anti-violence, Britons began to worry that the mosque had become, in the words of Time magazine, "an ideal hunting ground for terrorist talent spotters." But some of Britain’s front-line experts on Islamist radicalism soon came to believe that this cloud hanging over the mosque had a silver lining — that the same fundamentalist Muslim community that had been a departure point for Britain’s most notorious terrorists could be used to persuade other alienated young Muslim men not to make the same decision. "The Brixton Mosque is not a center of violent extremism — it is a center of resistance to violent extremism," says Robert Lambert, a former counterterrorism operative with London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

Nearly a decade after 9/11, this thinking has evolved into one of Britain’s most promising counterterrorism strategies — and perhaps its most controversial. The government is, in effect, betting that the ideology that so many Islamist radicals claim to believe in can be employed to keep them from becoming terrorists in the first place.

The man at the center of this idea is Abdul Haqq Baker, a Londoner who converted to Islam as a young man and served as Brixton Mosque’s chairman for 15 years. Born Anthony Baker to Nigerian and Guyanese parents, he adopted a Muslim name when he embraced Salafism, the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam preached at the Brixton Mosque. Hard-line mosques like Brixton have often been the last stop before radicalism for people like Moussaoui and Reid. But mosques generally don’t know what to do with such young men, especially if they stop short of openly advocating violence. The usual response is to expel them. But once they’re out the door, they may be gone for good.

In this dilemma, Baker saw an opportunity. In March 2007, he launched the Strategy to Reach, Empower and Educate Teenagers (STREET), a center near the Brixton Mosque aimed at young Muslims. Operating on a shoestring budget, STREET offers mentoring for thousands of drop-ins and recently released Muslim convicts, helping with schooling, job training, and anti-violence counseling. If a STREET drop-in mentions an al Qaeda propaganda video he has seen, counselors watch it with him, pointing out the fallacies in its interpretation of Islam. STREET’s mostly Salafi staff members are credible to their audience because they are like them — indeed, several were once in their shoes. "If they cannot relate to you," says Baker, "if your lifestyle doesn’t resonate, they will not accept anything from you."

Baker’s model for countering extremism echoes the findings of Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer who has found in his research that ideologies matter less than relationships in creating terrorists. The 9/11 plotters, who started as a militant study group at the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, Germany, were typical of the hundreds of radicals Sageman examined: outsiders, often expatriates sent abroad to study, and radicalized within that expat clique, an intellectual cocoon with ever-escalating views that would have been impossible to maintain in their home countries. "The only people who count are the members of your group," Sageman told me. "You discount the outsiders."

This is straight out of what social scientists call group dynamics theory — it explains not only why people become terrorists, but also why they join gangs or cults. Sageman named the phenomenon after a term the Canadian police had used to label a Montreal group that later turned out to be a terrorist cell: BOG, or "bunch of guys." It is the bunch-of-guys theory of terrorism — and by building his STREET community, Baker is creating a bunch-of-guys strategy for preventing it.

Mixing fundamentalist Islam and counterterrorism, however, has proved to be controversial with just about everyone. Baker has received threats from Islamist extremists, serious enough that in 2002 he moved his family to Saudi Arabia, where he now lives most of the time. But many in mainstream Britain are also wary. One influential critic is the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank that promotes a liberal, pro-Western Muslim identity. "The Brixton Mosque subscribes to an austere, conservative Saudi brand of Islam. Without that ideology, you can’t promote terrorist acts," says Ghaffar Hussain, director of training and consultancy for Quilliam. "It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, I oppose terrorism, but I still embrace a harsh Islam.’"

Others go further, arguing that Baker’s theology is necessarily part of the support structure of terrorism. The conservative think tank Policy Exchange called working with Baker one of the big mistakes of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy. Melanie Phillips, a right-wing journalist and author of Londonistan, has written that Baker’s ideology is the "sea in which violence swims."

Call it the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim debate. Why should the British government give money and support to groups that share much of the ideology and grievances of terrorists? Baker has an answer: A would-be terrorist is unlikely ever to walk into an event sponsored by a group like Quilliam. But he might very well stop by STREET. "We are the ones who have credibility with these young people, and we’re the ones addressing their concerns," says Baker.

Baker is far from alone in claiming that his approach is working. "The feedback that we get from offenders and probation officers is that STREET is very successful," says Simon Cornwall, a senior probation officer with the London Probation Trust’s Central Extremism Unit. Security officials as far afield as Vancouver and Los Angeles have contacted Baker about the STREET model, with an eye to starting something similar. But as paranoia over Islam has hit new heights in Europe and the United States — where even the decidedly moderate Park51 community center proposed for Lower Manhattan provoked weeks of outrage — such projects are certain to be a tough sell. STREET has had to lay off half its staff since the new cost-cutting Conservative-led government took over. With a wholesale review of Britain’s anti-terrorism programs under way, Baker says his project will almost certainly lose financing for its drop-in center and remain open only to referrals from agencies such as the probation service.

Western governments may well prefer working only with Muslims who share basic liberal values, teach English and civics, and try to convince angry young men that reports of their oppression are greatly exaggerated. But they will be talking to the wrong men. Grievances aren’t the real problem; after all, millions of people who never take up violence are irate over the Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the banning of full head coverings in France. There are many angry Muslims and very few terrorists. And it may be that you need the first to stop the second.

<p> Tina Rosenberg is co-writer of the Fixes column on NYTimes.com and author, most recently, of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. </p>