Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law


Since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 Islamist terrorists increasingly spread to Western countries and although they were initially focussed on overseas Muslim regimes and conflict zones, they gradually turned their sights onto the West as legitimate targets for attack. After the attacks in the US on September 11th 2001 a global ‘war on terror’ was launched, which destroyed much of the organisational infrastructure in Afghanistan and resulted in further transformation of the movement into an amorphous network. Islamist militants in the West have increasingly been described as ‘home-grown’, since they are now often long-term residents and citizens of these countries and numerous plots to carry out attacks on the domestic stage have been uncovered each year. Large-scale successful attacks were perpetrated in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Despite massive increases in national security budgets and a general fascination with Islamist terrorism there has been little in the way of systematic empirical research. This study addresses that gap by examining Islamist terrorism involving people living in, or from, two key countries in the war on terror- the United States and United Kingdom. There has been much speculation about the different experiences of Islamist terrorism in these two countries and it is has generally been accepted that the problem in the US is far less severe, but without comprehensive study such observations remain vague. In seeking to clarify this issue the following overarching research question was posed: ‘What have people living in, or from, the United States and the United Kingdom been doing to support or advance violent jihad –either at home or abroad- from 2001 to 2008, and what differences are apparent between these two countries?’ The aim was thus to offer a sound historical account of how Islamist terrorism has developed in each country and to create an empirical record of as many Islamist terrorism cases as could be found, relying on open source materials, for the US and UK from 2001-2008. Firstly, a review of the relevant literature was conducted in order to identify variables of interest (chapter 2) and to establish a solid understanding of how Islamist terrorism has developed over time and how and why individuals become involved (chapters 3, 4 and 5). Next, a more focussed review of Islamist terrorism in the US and UK was conducted in order to determine specific patterns of development (chapters 6 and 7) which may help explain contemporary differences. In particular, it is highly relevant that the UK played a more significant role in foreign terrorist operations during the 1990s. A preliminary comparison of the two countries based on existing accounts was then conducted, with the aim of clarifying the posited disparities and identifying flaws in these accounts (chapter 8). It was established that without in-depth and exhaustive examination of Islamist terrorism cases the true nature and extent of differences cannot be reliably determined. Hence -relying primarily on press reports and freely available legal documents- it was attempted to identify as many Islamist terrorism cases in the US and UK as possible, according to sampling criteria outlined in chapter 2. The US sample consists of 46 cases involving 91 individuals while the UK sample includes 51 cases (112 individuals). Chronological accounts of each case were constructed (see Appendices A and B part 2) and each individual’s data was entered into an Excel spreadsheet according to the predetermined variables of interest. Results for the US and UK are presented separately in chapters 9 and 10. Then, in accordance with George and Bennett’s method of structured, focussed, comparison, the two countries were systematically compared in order to identify similarities and differences (chapter 11). The findings confirm that the rate of Islamist terrorism cases in the UK is 1.5 times that in the US relative to Muslim population sizes (or 6.1 times relative to overall population size). Cases in the US have been more geographically dispersed while in the UK they are mainly confined within 3 hotspots of activity. Demographic profiles of the two samples are more similar than different (mostly consisting of males aged 30 or under, most of whom have citizenship or permanent residency rights). However a key difference is that the UK sample is more heavily dominated by individuals of Pakistani heritage, which has played an important role in the continued ability of British militants to make contact with terrorists in Pakistan. Although relying on relatively sparse data, it is tentatively suggested that there is also an overall difference in levels of ideological commitment- with more individuals in the US being classed as socially motivated or ‘wannabe’ terrorists. These findings are in accordance with the ‘social transmission hypothesis’ (discussed in chapters 8-11), which postulates that the presence of greater numbers of –or highly influential- terrorists in a given location increases the likelihood of terrorism in or near that location over time. Differences in behavioural patterns were also found: 63% of the US sample was found to be preparing for, or actively pursuing, violence compared to 43% in the UK and while 24% in the US were classed as ‘offering their services’ by reaching out to organised militants, 25% in the UK were involved in promoting or encouraging jihad. These findings appear to relate both to posited ideological differences and to disparate approaches by law enforcement in that promoting jihad generally involved some level of ideological commitment while fewer individuals classed as preparing for or pursuing violence in the UK is reflective of a preference for early intervention and prosecution for lesser offences (supported by the fact that the average prison term in the UK overall is less than half that of the US). The final major difference was that individuals living in or from the US maintained a much stronger focus on jihad overseas rather than at home and more often travelled abroad in relation to these aims. Hence 54% of the US sample was focussed on jihad abroad and there was a corresponding percentage that involved international operations. By contrast only 25% of the UK sample maintained a purely overseas focus and 67% were operationally based in Britain. Despite these differences, there was also general similarity on many of the other variables including offence date ranges, processes of radicalisation, group characteristics, the role of the Internet and stated motivations (as well as a shared underlying fascination with violence and sense of social bravado). Both samples were also assessed according to pre- vs. post-Iraq generations and there was also more similarity than difference in terms of changes over time. Findings lend support to observations made by Sageman, which indicate that the average age of jihadis has decreased and that educational attainment and occupational standing have declined (although differences were generally fairly small). Results here also support general observations about the nature of home-grown Islamist terrorism in that contact with foreign terrorists has become relatively less common in both countries over time. It is acknowledged that this report relies on open source material that is of questionable reliability and validity and is often lacking information. However, it is nevertheless one of the few relatively large empirical studies of terrorism and thus represents an important ‘database’ of information and a significant contribution to the field. In closing, it is emphasised that this is a snapshot of Islamist terrorism in the US and UK over a particular period in time and as new events unfold the picture will change.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.