This post originally appeared in VICE UK
High Wycombe is just another dead end town, the ninth crappest town in the UK in fact. But, since 2009, when eight local Islamic extremists were arrested at their homes for a terrorist plot to blow up seven transatlantic passenger jets, it has gained a grim sort of notoriety.
Earlier this year, 27-year-old Omar Hussain, who grew up in the town in a semi-detached house in Castlefield—a rundown estate on the east side of town—and worked as a security guard in the local Morrisons supermarket, travelled to Syria to become an ISIS fighter and has since threatened to "bomb the UK".
Not long after this, 18-year-old Shabazz Suleman left the RGS Grammar School and fled to Syria to join jIhadists, as did Thomas Evans, who converted to Islam aged 19, and travelled to Somalia to become a suicide bomber.
Germaine Lindsay, who killed 26 people when he detonated a bomb on the Piccadilly Line in the 7/7 attacks, also had links to the town and lived nearby with his wife, Samantha Lewthwaite.
And, just last week, three more terraced homes in the Desborough area, close to the town center, were raided over an alleged plot to kill the queen at the centenary ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day.
So, yeah, Wycombe has a terrorist problem. But why? It might be a simple matter of geography, in particular its proximity to the capital. The Buckinghamshire town lies just 30 miles from London, a 40-minute drive or a 20-minute train journey to Marylebone, close to the streets where Lindsay exploded his bomb.
Experts are increasingly aware of a pronounced "London-centric" dynamic to much of Britain's terrorist activity. Hannah Stuart, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society who has written reports on extremism, terrorism and jihadist ideology, said, "There is a very striking pattern to terrorist offenses—just under half [46 percent] have been committed by someone based in the capital. London will always be at the centre of things because students are coming through and radical preachers are often based there, but the problem has now spread to commuter belt towns like High Wycombe."
This may be one factor, but for some local people, including the families of Evans and Hussain, the problem lies in the town's Muslim community. They allege that young and vulnerable men are being radicalized by a group of hardline Muslims at a mosque in the Totteridge area run by the Wycombe Islamic Society (WISE).
But, according to Zahid Jawed, a spokesman for WISE, whilst some of these men did worship at the mosque, it cannot be held responsible for radicalising them and this is a convenient way for others to pass the buck. "We're right in the middle of town, we wouldn't be able to be like that. These people may have these views but they don't express them in public. It's very difficult to be aware of them—I mean, their families and friends didn't even know."
In this regard, Portsmouth and its "Pompey Lads"—the six friends who travelled to fight for ISIS and of whom four are now dead and one is in jail—is a case in point. They all attended mosques in the naval city without leaving any trace of their fundamental leanings.
Extremist literature is being sold in pop-up book stores. They say they can't control this kind of behavior, but they can.
However, Jawed does think that now—perhaps as a reaction to the on-going conveyor belt of home-grown terrorists—Muslims in the town are rediscovering their religion and embracing their faith. Young girls and women are increasingly wearing the hijab and the mosques are busier than ever. "Certainly, when I was young, people here weren't as aware of their religion as they are today. People are looking to have more identity and when they see comments about Islam, they're more likely to read around it and try and understand it. This is leading them to become more into it."
Although Jawed denies that the mosque is failing to tackle extremism, pointing out that when attendance is large is can be very difficult to keep track of everyone, others think individual mosques with reputations like this should be doing more to root out the problem.
Stuart thinks that some mosques are willing to turn a blind eye and invite extremist speakers. "It's very obvious when people are going to these places, holding court, pulling regular Muslims aside and radicalizing them. Extremist literature is being sold in pop-up book stores. They say they can't control this kind of behavior, but they can."
However, in other circumstances, when people are flying below the radar and being radicalized online, everyone agrees it can be much harder to spot.
In a bid to hone in on problem areas, the government launched its prevention agenda, with the aim of identifying at risk boroughs. In crude terms, this meant anywhere with a high proportion of Muslims in its population was considered a risk. Under this logic, Wycombe is an obvious target. Asian people in the town represent almost 20 percent of the population and 34 percent of school pupils in the area don't speak English as a first language—19 percent speak Punjabi and 6 percent Urdu.
Social deprivation and exclusion is also said to be a factor. Of the 133 people convicted for Islamism related terrorist offenses in the UK between 1999 and 2001, 36 percent were unemployed, and of those arrested in Wycombe, nearly all have been referred to as "loners" or "weird, social outcasts."
Despite being a Tory town in the heart of the leafy home counties with an increasing number of UKIP councillors, Wycombe contains some considerably deprived areas and has a reputation for crime and drug-related problems. What was once a picturesque market town known for its chair manufacturing and hilly countryside has become a dreary backdrop of Tory Britain.
During the late 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, when the terrorists were growing up, the town centre gradually became a soulless concrete jungle, home to trading estates, multi-story car parks and the dank and dreary dictatorship of Wycombe bus station. Kids loitered on estates in extreme boredom, skinheads roamed the streets and ravers partied in cowsheds.
More recently, it has undergone a major redevelopment. Much of the centre has been demolished and out of its ruins came a new shopping center, located next to the old one, which still sits there, mostly empty. There is a new super size Sainsbury's store and another multi-story car park to sit alongside the chain stores, betting shops and fast food takeaways.
The town has a bad reputation, and these latest arrests are only making the mood worse. As one guy recently joked on Twitter, "ISIS guy from High Wycombe is making the news, banging on about how much he hates the UK. Mate, I'm from Wycombe too, I f*ckin hear ya."
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