The Islamic State of Britain

Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network

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Michael Kenney
Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     298 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the attack on Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka less than a few months behind us, it is a fit time to consider the Islamic State in unlikely places, far from its home in the Middle East. Michael Kenney’s new book, The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network, examines an organization (sometimes) called al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants), “a network of deeply committed activists who sought to replace Great Britain’s secular democracy with a religious theocracy based on their interpretation of Salafism and Islamism” (3). Specifically, Kenney both conducts fieldwork and applies network theory to explore how and why members join and leave, and how the organization responds to threats like the departure of key leaders and the efforts of UK authorities to limit or eliminate it. The book is, in short, a study of “organizational resilience under pressure” (3).

The first chapter contrasts three forms of network structure—distributed, scale-free, and small-world. Most readers are surely familiar with the tendency of activist and terrorist groups to array themselves in relatively small, decentralized “cells,” which are closest to the small-world network model of “high local clustering and short path lengths” (38). Kenney shows that al-Muhajiroun’s organization shifted over time from a “scale-free-like” structure to a “small-world-like” one, particularly after the group’s “charismatic leader and central hub” (47), Omar Bakri Mohammed, left the country. Even in its early days, Bakri as a focal point was combined with local cells in the form of halaqah, or “neighborhood-based, invitation-only study circles” (49)—a feature also seen in many Western Christian mega-churches. After Bakri’s exit, in the absence of equally compelling leadership, the halaqahs grew in importance, resulting in a more fully small-world network style, enhancing the group’s resilience.

The remaining chapters deal with the perennial problems of group/movement formation, endurance, and collapse. The second chapter, for instance, asks who joins al-Muhajiroun, and why. As many such groups/movements have evinced, the membership tends to favor young males due to their “biographical availability”—including free time, idealism, and general search for meaning. Kenney finds the rather standard set of push/pull factors in recruitment, such as turning away from previous lives of crime and gangs, increasing political awareness, participating in prior groups, encountering al-Muhajiroun’s street activism (e.g., its dawah stalls and protests), and of course, sharing relationships with members through kinship, friendship, and marriage. The third chapter expands on what it means to join such a group of “true believers,” promoting the fertile concept of “community of practice.” In other words, this approach emphasizes not so much the doctrines and ideology of the group as it does “the practices behind their shared concerns,” and how individuals learn to know and perform those practices (99). In grasping the joining of a group like al-Muhajiroun as entering a community of practice, Kenney argues convincingly that members are “cultured in,” and that we should perceive group identification and mobilization as a sort of “deep culturing.”

Culture and enculturation explain a fair amount of the resilience of al-Muhajiroun and similar groups/movements, but as the fourth chapter illustrates, there is yet more resilience to analyze. At the level of the organization, al-Muhajiroun survived attacks on its actions and its very existence by, for instance, repeatedly changing its name; when a particular iteration was suppressed or banned, it rose again as a different iteration—such as The Saved Sect, Islam4UK, or Muslims Against Crusade. While taking its cause global (as in, for example, Shariah4Belgium and Shariah4Australia), the group also made “tactical changes” (161) in its domestic action, with less confrontational public demonstrations, and less-political-and-more-religious dawah activism. Naturally too, the group exploited the internet and social media, while retreating into—or empowering—the chalaqah study-cells.

At the level of the individual member, as the fifth and final chapter discusses, followers traced their own course through the group, and the wider Salafist/Islamist system. Some inevitably left, often a mere matter of outgrowing or “ageing out of” the organization. Others were ejected for listening to the preaching of non-al-Muhajiroun figures—which was strictly forbidden—while yet others disagreed with the adaptations in the group’s direction and leadership. And a few—a surprising, yet revealing few—graduated to higher degrees of activism and violence, participating in terrorist plots in the UK or traveling to join the ISIS struggle in Syria and Iraq; Kenney calculates that only approximately 19% of his al-Muhajiroun correspondents took this more radical path.

In his conclusion, Kenney asks whether al-Muhajiroun has succeeded or failed in the UK. He notes that the group “no longer organizes large demonstrations, public conferences, or even ‘Islamic roadshows,’” and that its remaining dawah stalls “are small and low-key” (212), suggesting its contraction or collapse. Yet this does not mean that Islamism is dead in the UK, as new leaders and new grievances may emerge; nor is the death of al-Muhajiroun and its ilk necessarily a good thing, as some English authorities see such groups as a “safety valve” (227) and catharsis that might actually diminish more serious activism. Either way, The Islamic State in Britain is an innovative and useful exercise in structural/network analysis, shedding new light on and challenging received assumptions about Islamic radicalism, and helps us to appreciate the diversity of Islamist movements as well as their similarity to general social movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Kenney is Associate Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


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