Understanding terror in the West

21 June 2017
Dr Chris Wilson
Dr Chris Wilson

We need to be careful about how we talk about terrorism and who we blame, writes the University of Auckland's Dr Chris Wilson.

Isis-inspired jihadists carried out their latest act of barbarism on June 3, using a vehicle and knives to kill eight civilians in bars and streets near London Bridge on a Saturday night. This followed a similar attack at Westminster and the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. At the same time the United Kingdom is seeing a surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes culminating in the brutal attack on the Finsbury Mosque. Who are these people and how can we understand these atrocities?

It has so far proved difficult to draw a profile of the average jihadist terrorist. Some are educated, others have not completed school. Many are from very marginalised backgrounds, others employed and otherwise from average economic circumstances. Some have long been devout Muslims, others have come to the religion late after a life of crime or not come to it at all in any meaningful sense. Some have had military training or been radicalised in prison, while others have led much more mundane lives. Some, particularly so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists (few terrorists act completely alone), have struggled with mental illness but many others have not. Despite this diversity, some common patterns can be identified.

A surprising number have demonstrated a propensity for sexual or other violence towards women (the vast majority of attackers are men). Man Haron Monis, who carried out the Lindt Café siege in Sydney, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, and Omar Marteen, who attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, had all previously been accused of or charged with assaulting their partners. This characteristic is not unique to jihadist terrorists: Anders Behring Breivik who set off a bomb in Oslo and then shot and killed 69 young Labour Party members had drafted a long manifesto which included a particularly misogynistic chapter about killing women on the battlefield.

The perpetrators tend to hold a combination of political agendas and personal grievances. Indeed, as the terrorism scholar Jessica Stern points out, the two things are often intertwined. Regular rejection by women can become a hatred of the West where women have equal status to men. The loss of employment and a sense of failure can morph into a belief that the Muslim community is under threat or anger over Western adventurism in the Middle East. It is often difficult to separate ‘private demons’, as the radicalisation expert Clark McCauley calls them, from political ideology. For many with violent and criminal pasts, terrorism in the name of religion appeals as a path to redemption. Similar processes are at work in the radicalisation of far right extremists.

There are also identifiable differences between terrorists depending on whether they join a large organisation like Isis or are simply inspired by it and act alone. So-called ‘lone wolves’ are more likely to suffer from mental illness, to be less ‘networked’ into society and more poorly educated than those who join terrorist entities. Personal issues are more paramount for autonomous actors while political ideologies and issues – Western intervention in the Middle East for example – are more important to those who join terrorist groups. Lone actors are more likely to have criminal convictions while organisations prefer so-called ‘cleanskins’ who can better avoid security services.

The attacks themselves often follow patterns. Many are copycat events, with terrorists observing the repertoires which have worked in the past – the use of vehicles to run down victims in the street for example – and using them again in a new location. Even dates appear to hold significance: the most famous example being from non-Islamist terrorism, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building on the two-year anniversary of the Waco siege.

Finally, many terrorists signal their intent before carrying out attacks. All terrorists want fame. This is partly to make up for what they perceive as group and individual humiliation and to let everyone know they act for the community as a whole. Radicalisation is often a long process meaning that there are opportunities to identify and stop people before they put their plan into action. The Orlando nightclub shooter made clear before the attack that he intended to kill. One study of lone actor terrorists found that in 64 percent of cases, family or friends were aware of the perpetrator’s intent simply because they had told them what they planned to do. Members of the Muslim community reported the London terrorists to police numerous times before the eventual attack, and this pattern has been repeated in many other cases in which attacks have been prevented.

In many cases therefore, the best opportunity to prevent attackers comes via forewarning by friends and family members. This ‘human intelligence’ will become increasingly important with the availability of difficult-to-trace encrypted online communications. We should therefore be wary of any approach which stigmatises or differentiates the broader Muslim community from the rest of society. Two proposals often advocated – curtailing human rights and reasserting ‘Western values’ – will likely only serve to make the problem worse. Both will reinforce an ‘us – them’ mentality while deterring those with the best knowledge of an individual’s growing radicalisation from reporting it to the authorities.

New Zealand currently faces a much lower (although not absent) threat from jihadist terrorism. We are geographically removed from the turmoil of the Middle East and have no flow of foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq radicalised and trained in violence. An additional risk involves a potential rise in Islamophobia and an upsurge in hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities. All societies possess an undercurrent of racism and it can be easy to unleash. All of us need to be careful about how we talk about terrorism and who we blame.

 

Understanding terror in the West was published on June 21 2017 on the Newsroom website and is reproduced here with permission.