Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network

Tue, 11/30/2021 - 4:45pm

SWJ Book Review – The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network

Isaac Poritzky 

IS in Britain

Michael Kenney, The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. [ISBN 978-1108470803, Paperback, 301 pages].

One of the greatest difficulties of studying radical groups is finding members who are willing to speak about their experiences. Al-Muhajiroun, or in English, “the Emigrants,” are an anomaly.

In 2007, Michael Kenney spoke with a leading al-Muhajiroun activist and three of his young students at a park in Woolwich, South London. They were willing to speak with him initially as they saw the discussion as a form of da‘wah, obligatory preaching for which they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Three years later, those same activists rose to prominence within al-Muhajiroun and “opened their world” to him. For five subsequent years, they introduced him to other members of the groups, invited him to observe da’wah stalls (places to educate outsiders about Islam), and even allowed him to view private talks. Unlike the journalists and “think tank experts,” Kenney learned from the true “experts” of the Emigrants, the activists themselves.

In The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network, Professor Michael Kenney, Posvar Chair in International Security Studies; Director of the Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh, produced an unprecedented ethnographic study through unparalleled insight and in-depth social network analysis. “This book tells the story of 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” (p. 3). They never came close to establishing an Islamic caliphate in Great Britain, but the group provides a perfect case study on resilience and organizational adaptation under pressure.

Why study the Emigrants? They are the “extremist network [that] Britons love to hate” (p. 4). More so, they are the most notorious and effective extremist group in Britain. By 2014, “al-Muhajiroun was the last group standing that publicly called for replacing Britain’s liberal democracy with an ISIS-style caliphate.” In their long history, the British government jailed al-Muhajiroun activists, raided their houses, barred their leader, outlawed the group, yet al-Muhajiroun proved to be remarkably resistant to British pressure. The Emigrants bounced back from them to recruit new supporters, indoctrinate them in its Salafi-Islamist ideology, and mobilize them into high-risk activism. This book seeks to answer multiple questions. How did al-Muhajiroun remain strong under relentless pressure from the British authorities? Why did al-Muhajiroun not crumble after its charismatic emir, Omar Bakri Mohammed, left Britain? How did activists continue to recruit and radicalize supporters despite government repression? Was there a “conveyor belt” from al-Muhajiroun to political violence?

This book contributes to the literature on resilience and organizational adaptation because researchers have largely avoided studies of non-state actors who have been outlawed and repressed by the same governments whose authority they challenge. In the first chapter, Kenney and two other colleagues, Stephen Coulthart and Dominick Wright, conduct a quantitative analysis of the al-Muhajiroun network. They find that “the Emigrants evolved from a centralized ‘scale-free-like’ network centered around Omar Bakri to a smaller, more decentralized, ‘small-world-like’ network led by numerous activists” (p. 34). This small-world system enabled the Emigrants to evade British authorities but decreased their ability to form an Islamic State. The shift was due to the pressure from British authorities, but mainly due to the barring of Omar Bakri from Britain. Most studies of networks utilize either “thin” quantitative analysis or “thick” qualitative descriptions. Kenney combined these methods to engage in novel “ethnographic network analysis.” This comprehensive approach allowed Kenney to “leverage the measurement precision and statistical validity of social network analysis with in-depth knowledge of a specific case grounded in ethnographic field research” (p. 44). This chapter is significantly the most technical and difficult to understand chapters of the book. Kenney does place most of the technical details in the methodological appendix, but it is less accessible than other chapters. Furthermore, this study is unique as it measured relationships, but also effectiveness. I would argue that the findings of this study suggest a relationship between network structure and performance that should be further explored.

In Chapter 2, Kenney moves past formal network analysis and tells the stories of why activists joined al-Muhajiroun. He utilized firsthand insight and interviews to identify common factors in the activists' journeys. A general theme in this chapter and throughout the book, Kenney is careful not to reduce individual stories to a single theory or model. He expertly draws one's attention to the differences but does not state blanket conclusions. Rather the book is useful in the fact that it is one of the first of its kind to utilize a “ethnographic network analysis” on an extremist group, not that it explains broad trends.  In Chapter 3, Kenney uses his firsthand experience to understand the process of moving from recruit to committed insider. Al-Muhajiroun utilizes halaqahs, small study groups, where novices deepen their connections to other activists, the material, and al-Muhajiroun. Kenney concludes that while this setup has allowed them to indoctrinate hundreds of Britons, it limits their ability to respond to pressure and adapt to change.  Kenney discusses the tactical, not structural, changes that allowed al-Muhajiroun to remain relevant in the global jihadi movement, even while becoming increasingly marginalized in Britain in Chapter 4.

Kenney examines how and why activists leave in Chapter 5. As most transitioned into adulthood, they became productive British citizens. A few fled Britain “to wield the sword of jihad” in Iraq and Syria (p. 31). Kenney is careful not to draw any broad conclusions. He maintains an unbiased and more descriptive approach as to just shed light on an under researched group. He concludes with the larger implications of his research. The main theme being that one-dimensional statistical network analysis is not sufficient in fully understanding the multidimensionality of a radical group. A combination of quantitative analysis and ethnographic studies are most effective.

If only a quantitative analysis is utilized to study a radical group, Kenney proves that we should question the validity of previous counter-terrorism strategies for the Emigrants, or counter-terrorism assumptions as a whole. More specifically the effectiveness of countering violent extremism programs (CVE) and the alleged “conveyer belt” of the Emigrants to political violence. This is due to the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community heavy invest in computational analysis programs with no coupling of ethnographic study. As a precursor to this book, Kenney and Stephen Coulthart conducted a study where they utilized two of the most popular computational analysis programs, AutoMap and Organizational Risk Analyzer (ORA) to conduct a social network analysis of al-Muhajiroun.[1] Using newspaper data, the programs identified three times as many false positive relationships as hits. Kenney argues that any effort to dismantle al-Muhajiroun using this data would have been futile. Kenney conducted a second study where he used his ethnographic data to refine the concept list and it produced valid models of the dark network. The conclusion of these studies and The Islamic State in Britain is not that ethnographic studies are superior to quantitative analysis, but that they should be combined to enhance our understandings of dark networks.

The Islamic State in Britain would be most useful for terrorism and counter-terrorism studies. Kenney sheds light on the lack of multidimensional social network analysis and the resulting misunderstanding. Furthermore, Kenney proposes a “a small, community-led intervention composed of former Emigrants who come together on a volunteer basis to engage young people who are still involved in the activist network” (p. 235). This strategy is based upon his ethnographic study and could be expanded to other dark networks.  If you are looking for a book that draws large conclusions about al-Muhajiroun, and jihadism in general, look elsewhere. But, if you want an unprecedented look inside al-Muhajiroun and top-quality research that is accessible to all education levels, The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network should be next on your list.


[1] Michael Kenney and Stephen Coulthart. “The Methodological Challenges of Extracting Dark Networks,” Chapter 4 in Luke M. Gerdes, Ed., Illuminating Dark Networks: The Study of Clandestine Groups and Organizations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 52-70.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Isaac Poritzky is a senior at the College of William & Mary. He is graduating in May 2022 with a B.A in Government and a minor in Religious Studies.  Isaac’s research interests lie at the intersection of Middle East security studies, (mainly Iran and Israel), influence operations and counter-terrorism. This past year, during an internship at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command where he analyzed emerging terrorist threats and foreign influence operations to inform policy. Currently, Isaac is working for AidData, a publicly funded think tank, where he is managing a team of research assistants to assemble a novel dataset on the Chinese government's global soft power activities. Isaac is a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Intern for 2021-22.