Monday, April 10, 2006

Anatomy of a Terrorist

It seems to me that the most common problem with regard to Muslim extremist terrorism is the refusal to attempt to understand how individuals arrive at the decision to participate in terrorist acts. Brian Klug tries to address this problem today in relation to the London suicide bombers. His starting point is the Observer article on leaks on an official enquiry into the attacks.

The article concludes that the four bombers were not connected to al Qaida, that they aquired the information needed to build their bombs from the internet and that "the attacks were largely motivated by concerns over foreign policy and the perception that it was deliberately anti-Muslim". They were also of the opinion that the attacks would bring them immortality.

Many people have an automatic response to the suggested link between terrorism and British foreign policy and it's demonstrated in the first comment to Dr. Krug's post.
In future, Britain should take care to make sure that any middle-eastern foreign policy decisions should meet with the approval of the sort of loons who would blow themselves up on a train if they were unhappy with it.
Most amusing. These responses, like Blair's, miss the point entirely. Mr Blair, a few days after the bomings, said:
This ideology and the violence that is inherent in it did not start a few years ago in response to a particular policy. Over the past 12 years, Al-Qaeda and its associates have attacked 26 countries, killed thousands of people, many of them Muslims.
[It is not] true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them.

They demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all Westerners from Muslim countries, irrespective of the wishes of people and government; the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations.
This again misses the point.

Before trying to explain why, it's important to challenge a misconception (or intentional smear depending on which way you look at it). Almost no-one believes that we should negotiate with the al Qaida leadership. It is, as Blair suggests, utterly futile. No-one argues that we should consult bin Laden before taking foreign policy decisions. The idea is clearly ridiculous. It is simply not an issue.

On a related note, there are those who seem to believe that there are somehow a finite number of terrorists and that defeating terrorism is simply a matter of killing or capturing these people. This is patently absurd. It is clear that the London bombers were not "terrorists" from the moment they were born. A series of events led them to the decision to commit a terrorist act in London on that day last July.

What we urgently need to do is to understand the individual motivations behind the attacks in London. In a wider sense, what is it which causes a person to strap a bomb to themselves and kill themselves along with many others? Clearly if we can understand how it happens, we have a better chance of preventing it happening more often.

There are those who would argue that this can be wholly attributed to an "evil ideology". This is the kind of gross simplification, so favoured by Bush and Blair, which makes my head hurt. There is obviously far more to it than that.

The hardcore al Qaida leaderhip, as I said, have very extreme views. The leaked information concerning the motivation of the London bombers does not suggest that the creation of a caliphate was a motivation for the attacks. It concludes that they were reacting to what they saw as an anti-Muslim foreign policy. Khan explicitly stated as much:
Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.

Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.

We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.
[my emphasis]
Khan, it seems, believed that he was acting in defence of his people. He did not say that these attacks would continue until democracy was destroyed. He did not say that these attacks would continue until the whole of humanity was brought under the control of the Ummah. He did not even call for the destruction of Israel (although it wouldn't surprise me if did believe in that on some level). What he called for was end to the "bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people".

Most people would no doubt argue that Khan's belief that the West is waging a war against Muslims is unfounded. It is not, however, difficult to see why he makes his claims. Of the four claims he makes, only the "gassing" is difficult to explain (I suspect it might be partly related to the use of napalm type weapons in Iraq). The others, bombing in Iraq and Afgfhanistan, imprisonment in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and many other places, and torture most notably in Abu Ghraib are all based on information which is publically available. Furthermore, reading many (mostly right-wing) opinions in the United States as well as some "decent left" opinions in this country (no names needed I suspect) lends credence to the idea that we are waging a war against Islam.

Let's be clear, Khan was wrong. I am quite sure that Blair is not intent on waging war against Islam. But it's not so difficult to understand why Khan believed what he did.

And that's the key. We need to understand what drives individuals to participate in terrorism. Not the top al Qaida ideologues - they, you've probably noticed, are not lining up to die a glorious death in the name of Allah - but the individuals who decide to sacrifice their lives. They, for the most part, believe they are defending their people from persecution.

That's why the Iraq war was such a key event. Many Muslims, you see, understood that Saddam and bin Laden didn't get on. Many understood that Saddam was a secular dictator who played at religion when it suited him. Many found the claim that Saddam was working closely with Osama ridiculous. And, as a result, many questioned the motives of an attack on Iraq based on such outlandish nonsense. And when it turned out that Saddam had no WMD, that just added to the doubts. It looked to some like the West had aggressively attacked a country populated by Muslims for entirely spurious reasons. It looked to some as if the West wanted to dominate Muslims and that they did not care how many innocent Muslims died as a result.

Afghanistan was different. There's no doubt that many Muslims opposed that attack too but the reasons for the attack were at least clear and undisputed. Those people who worried that the West were waging a war against Muslims could at least understand why the United States acted the way it did. In Iraq, however, the invasion was not easily explained. It was an unprovoked attack. It may have been directed against a secular dictator but it was ordinary Iraqi Muslims who bore, and still bear, the brunt of the violence.

For this reason, it was Iraq, in my view, which pushed unprecedented numbers of people like Khan into finally accepting the al Qaida propaganda which claimed that the West was waging a war against Islam.

When we get to this stage, a second misconception rears its head. The fact that the invasion of Iraq has motivated many individual Muslims to be more hostile towards the West and encouraged some to carry out terrorist acts is not reason enough to say that the war was wrong (it's not like those opposed to the war need more reasons in any event). As people rightly point out, we cannot allow extremists to hold us hostage.

The problem is that our leaders, from the start, did not appear to appreciate that it would happen at all. They told us it would have the opposite effect. They continue to deny that there is a link. It is clear, therefore, that they were not able to take suitable steps to attempt to limit and counter the "Iraq" effect. That, to my mind anyway, was yet another example of the gross negligence which has permeated so much of the Bush/Blair Iraq adventure.

To take off my strong opposition to the Iraq war far for a moment, do it if you must but for God's sake be prepared for the entirely predictable consequences of it if you do. Blair did not do that. He continues to deny that the invasion has fuelled popular support for Islamic terrorism. How can he possibly take steps to counter this effect if he refuses to acknowledge that it even exists?

The key then, is to understand what leads a person to participate in a terrorist attack. Once you have a good understanding of that, you can attempt to do something about it. It is important to distinguish between the extreme al Qaida ideologues and the individual "foot soldiers". The ideologues have clear ultra-radical goals. Most "foot soldiers" are unlikely to fully subscribe to those goals, at least initially. They are usually motivated by a real world perception that Muslims are being victimised unfairly. Some will act on this without any help from the al Qaida network (as it appears Khan and the others did in London). Others will become more involved in al Qaida ideologies and goals; al Qaida attempts to sell itself as the best way for Muslims to fight these perceived injustices against Muslims. The point is that they do not operate in a vacuum; they exploit genuine feelings and attempt to subvert them towards their own ends.

If we are ever to defeat "this terrorism" in any meaningful sense, we must challenge the perception that Muslims are being victimised unfairly. We must do this through argument and through sensible rational foreign policy. Only this will stop the steady flow of new recruits ready to participate in terrorist acts against the West. Only this will isolate the extremists of al Qaida and allow us to take them out successfully.

It all starts with good intelligence. Good intelligence allows us to prevent attacks. Good intelligence allows us to intervene early and correct the path of those who have the potential to become radicalised (with rational argument and persuasion, not with thumb screws and illegal detention). Good intelligence allows us to inflitrate and isolate. Intelligence is always the most important aspect of counter-terrorism. This is, sadly, another area in which our recent form has not exactly been exemplary.

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