The real roots of homegrown terrorism

Blaming shadowy Islamist groomers for ‘radicalising’ young Muslims ignores problems closer to home.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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In recent years, the process through which individuals come to embrace violent terrorism has increasingly been understood in terms of the idea of radicalisation. Last week’s brutal knife attack in Woolwich is no exception, with many claiming that the two attackers, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, were radicalised Islamic militants. And now UK home secretary Theresa May has warned that thousands more young people are at risk of a similar radicalisation.

The idea of radicalisation, in this telling, resembles an infectious pathogen that can mysteriously infect a multitude of angry young people. The antidote to the radicalisation disease therefore seems obvious: block extremist messages on the internet, regulate the media and ban radical groups from expressing their views.

A new type of ideological threat

Official anxiety about the spectre of radicalisation represents a radical departure from the way in which terrorism was conceptualised in the past. Until recently, terrorism was represented as a form of politically motivated violence, whose sole purpose was to foment fear in the target society. Today, terrorism is no longer understood as merely a physical threat, a capacity to wreak mass destruction. It is also endowed with moral and ideological power over significant sections of the domestic population. As the response to the Woolwich killing shows, terrorism can apparently incite others to copycat behaviour. In short, terrorism can radicalise people.

The idea that modern terrorists exercise a great influence over the minds of sections of the public, invests the terrorist threat with an unprecedented power. Sir David Omand, the former UK security and intelligence coordinator, went so far as to claim that ‘the most effective weapon of the contemporary terrorist is their ideology’ (1). The notion of the terrorist as a purveyor of ideas marks a shift from previous conceptions of terrorism. Indeed, the idea that the terrorist does not just scare people but potentially appeals to their hearts and minds is completely at odds with traditional definitions of the terrorist threat. It is only recently that terrorism has been conceptualised as an effective vehicle for ideas.

This is why, increasingly, the battle for moral authority has become an important part of the war against terrorism. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the political and cultural elites of Western societies feel less than confident about conducting a successful campaign on the battlefield of ideas. Their apprehension about the powerful attraction of radical ideas on sections of the domestic population often betrays a deeper problem: namely, that they cannot convince others of the superiority of their own way of life.

Little wonder Western analysts are intensely apprehensive about the likely outcome of the battle of ideas with terrorism. They certainly appear at a loss to explain the ‘radicalisation process’. One US intelligence survey published in April 2006 observed that ‘the radicalisation process is occurring more widely, and more anonymously in the internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint’. But blaming communication technology for promoting radicalisation cannot entirely distract attention from a far more fundamental problem: that is, America’s failure to win the propaganda war. As a National Intelligence Estimate report conceded, the jihadists are increasing in influence and numbers.

British intelligence analysts are, if anything, even more anxious about the appeal of Islamic radicalism than their American counterparts. Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner, has drawn attention to the fact that young British Muslims are ‘willing to die for an idea’. ‘This is a phenomenon’, he said, ‘we have not seen en masse since the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism’. According to Blair, it appears to be the wrong side of the conflict which has the monopoly on idealism. He even admitted that the terrorists’ ‘coherent narrative of oppressions, war and jihad’ seems ‘very potent’:

‘One of the truly shocking things… is the apparent speed with which young, reasonably affluent… reasonably well-educated British-born people were converted from what appeared to be ordinary lives – in a matter of some weeks, and months, not years – to a position where some were allegedly prepared to commit suicide and murder thousands of people at the same time.’

It is likely that Blair’s shock at the speed of radicalisation expresses a belated recognition of a problem that the British government failed to recognise for a very long time: homegrown terrorism. Until the London bombings on 7 July 2005, the government tended to act as if the problem of homegrown terrorism did not exist. Even today, however, the government has yet to face up to the fact that it may lack the intellectual and political resources to project an attractive credible alternative to the dreams of jihad.

Insofar as there is a hint of government strategy over the problem of radicalisation, it retains a fantasy-like character. Too often the official discourse on radicalisation sounds like an infantilised version of child-protection rhetoric. Hence the authorities repeatedly warn of the threat posed by cynical operators to ‘vulnerable’ and ‘impressionable’ young people on internet sites, university campuses and social venues. Back in November 2007, it was reported that the UK government’s Research, Information and Communication Unit would draw up ‘counter-narratives’ to the anti-Western messages on websites ‘designed to influence vulnerable and impressionable audiences here’. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, had reached a similar conclusion a year earlier, when she observed that ‘it is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalised and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow UK citizens’.

It is a symptom of the political disorientation of the security establishment that it uses the language of child protection to discuss the process through which young people turn to extreme violence to kill their fellow citizens. The fantasy of grooming vulnerable youngsters is bad enough when it comes to accounting for the behaviour of sex predators. The adoption of a similar narrative in relation to the perpetration of physical violence serves as testimony to the confusion of official thinking.

Unfortunately, the dramatic framing of the threat – ‘sudden radicalisation’ – allows extremism to be seen as a kind of psychological virus that suddenly afflicts the vulnerable and damaged. Yet the depiction of radicalisation as a symptom of vulnerability overlooks the fact that the radicalised individuals frequently express confidence and self-belief. Indeed, as Blair pointed out above, what is striking is the idealism of these so-called vulnerable individuals. Moreover, the evidence indicates that the people who embrace radicalism are rarely brainwashed by manipulative operatives. Rather, they have often sought out jihadist websites and online networks. In other words, they have made a self-conscious and active choice (2).

So, what’s going on?

What security officials characterise as radicalisation can be more accurately expressed through terms like ‘alienation’ and ‘estrangement’. The sense of estrangement from, and resentment towards, society is logically prior to any radicalising message that individuals internalise. In Europe, the embrace of a radical Islamist ideology is preceded by a rejection of Western culture. Invariably, such a rejection also bears the hallmark of a generational reaction against the behaviour and way of life of the parents.

This double alienation – from parent and society – is not unconnected to normal forms of generational estrangement. What we see in the embrace of radical Islamism is a variation of this ‘generation gap’, except in this instance it has unusual and potentially very destructive consequences.

The embrace of radical Islam has to be understood both in terms of the appeal of new ideas and alternatives and a rejection of the status quo. This is why the radicalisation thesis is so lacking in explanatory power. It one-sidedly emphasises the power the Islamist ‘groomers’ exercise over their vulnerable prey. From this standpoint, the problem of homegrown terrorism is reduced to the threat posed by radical groups lurking in the shadowy world of the internet and secret prayer meetings. This ignores the real problem that a significant section of young Muslims have already rejected the cultural values and norms of the society in which they live. It is their rejection of European societies that motivates people to search for alternatives.

Press reports following recent terrorist acts, from the London bombings onwards, frequently draw attention to the manner in which apparently Westernised young people have been suddenly turned into bitter enemies of their country. Take the following account of the life of Hasib Hussain, one of the suicide bombers responsible for the London bombings: ‘He liked playing cricket and hockey, then one day he came into school and had undergone a complete transformation almost overnight… He started wearing a topi hat from the mosque, grew a beard and wore robes. Before that he was always in jeans.’

Here is a young man who is seemingly just like us. But, then, for some incomprehensible reason, he has a sudden transformation and turns against his neighbours and country. Just like Michael Adebolajo, one of the suspected Woolwich killers.

It is tempting to blame the mysterious power of radicalisation for the sudden transformation of ordinary young men into violent killers. But this ignores a far more pertinent and difficult question: why do they hate the society in which they live?

The public evasion of this question is entirely understandable. It is a question that serves as a painful reminder of the difficulty British society has in giving a positive account of itself. The silence on this subject stands in sharp contrast to the shrill rhetoric surrounding the perils posed by jihadist websites. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what we need is not rhetoric about the forces of radicalisation, but a more scrupulous attention to what constitutes a way of life worth defending.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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