Estimating potential UK Islamist terrorism: IRA x 13

I wrote last June about the potential level for Islamist terrorism in the UK, where I used a comparison with the Northern Ireland troubles. It is a useful comparison because thanks to various polls and surveys, we know the ratio of actual active terrorist numbers there to the size of the supporter community.

The majority of people there didn’t support the violence, but quite a lot did, about 30% of the community. From the nationalist 245,000, the 30% (75,000) who supported violence resulted in only around 300 front line IRA ‘terrorists’ and another 450 in ‘support roles’ at any one time. The terrorist population churned, with people leaving and joining the IRA throughout, but around 1% of 30% of that 245,000 were IRA members at any one time.

We’ve recently had another survey on UK Muslims conducted for the BBC that included attitudes to violence. You can read the figures from the survey here:

http://comres.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/BBC-Today-Programme_British-Muslims-Poll_FINAL-Tables_Feb2015.pdf

The figures they found are a little worse than the estimates I used last year, and we have slightly higher population estimates too, so it is time to do an update. The 30% support for violence attributed to the Northern Ireland nationalist community is very similar to the 32% found for the UK Muslim community. Perhaps 30% violence support is human nature rather than peculiar to a particular community. Perhaps all that is needed is a common grievance.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, 68% of UK Muslims claimed that they didn’t think violence was justified if someone ‘publishes images of the Prophet Mohammed’. The survey didn’t specify what kind of images of the Prophet were to be hypothetically published, or even that they were insulting, it just said ‘images’. That 68% gives us a first actual figure for what is often referred to as ‘the overwhelming peaceful majority of Muslims in Britain’. 32% either said they supported violence or wouldn’t say.

(The survey also did not ask the non-Muslim population whether they would support violence in particular circumstances, and I haven’t personally found the people I know in Great Britain to be more civilized than those I knew in Northern Ireland. If the same 30% applies when a common grievance exists, then at least we can take some comfort that we are all the same when we are angry over something.)

Some other surveys around the world in the last few years have confirmed that only around 30% of Muslims support violence against those who offend Islam. Just like in Northern Ireland, almost all of those supporters would not get directly involved in violence themselves, but would simply approve of it when it happens.

Let’s translate that into an estimate of potential Islamist terrorism. There are no accurate figures for the UK Muslim population, but it is likely now to be around 3 million. Around 32% of that is around a million; there is no point aiming for higher precision than that since the data just doesn’t exist. So around a million UK Muslims would state some support for violence. From that million, only a tiny number would be potential terrorists. The IRA drew its 750 members from a violence supporter base of 75,000, so about one percent of supporters of violence were prepared to be IRA members and only 40% of those joined the equivalent of ‘active service units’, i.e. the ones that plant bombs or shoot people.

Another similarity to Northern Ireland is that the survey found that 45% of UK Muslims felt that prejudice against them made it difficult to live here, and in Northern Ireland, 45% of nationalists supported the political motives of the IRA even if only 30% condoned its violence, so the level of grievance against the rest of the population seems similar. Given that similarity and that the 32% violence support level is also similar, it is only a small leap of logic to apply the same 1% to terrorist group recruitment might also apply. Taking 1% of 1 million suggests that if Islamist violence were to achieve critical mass, a steady 10,000 UK Muslims might eventually belong to Islamist terrorist groups and 0.4% or 4000 of those in front line roles. By comparison, the IRA at its peak had 750, with 300 on the front line.

So based on this latest BBC survey, if Islamists are allowed to get a grip, the number of Islamist terrorists in the UK could be about 13 times as numerous as the IRA at the height of ‘The Troubles’. There is a further comparison to be had of an ISIS-style terrorist v an IRA-style terrorist but that is too subjective to quantify, except to note that the IRA at least used to give warnings of most of their bombs.

That is only one side of the potential conflict of course, and the figures for far right opposition groups suggest an anti-Islamist terrorist response that might not be much smaller. Around 1.25 million support far right groups, and I would guess that more than 30% of those would support violence and more would be willing to get directly involved, so with a little hand-waving the problem looks symmetrical, just as it was in Northern Ireland.

If the potential level of violence is 13 times worse than the height of the Troubles, it is clearly very important that Islamists are not allowed to get sufficient traction or we will have a large problem. We should also be conscious that violence in one region might spread to others and this could extend to a European problem. On a positive note, if our leaders and security forces do their jobs well, we may see no significant problem at all.

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