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Thursday, August 21, 2008 

Understanding radicalisation.

The MI5 report "leaked" to the Guardian, titled Understanding radicalisation and violent extremism in the UK, does the reassuring job of telling you little which you didn't already know while confirming just that which you did.

Firstly, it makes clear the idea that there are a number of extremist preachers doing most of the radicalising, or even brainwashing is completely out of date, if it ever was the case. Rather, it's what a number of individuals have been arguing for quite some time: that those who become radicalised are often first exposed to extremist material online, become engaged in those communities, but also often have to have some sort of real world link to either a charismatic or popular local figure also versed in radical Islam. Once inside such small autonomous groupings, the emotional reward of belonging comes into play, giving meaning to a life which might have been up till then wholly lacking in it, with the other members almost becoming like an extended family, similar to criminal gangs.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this in action could be the 7/7 bombers. Whilst the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, has since been portrayed as an angry self-obsessed sexually frustrated, even constipated psychopath, almost the opposite is the case when you consider Mohammad Sidique Khan, the alleged 7/7 ringleader. On the face of it, MSK had everything to live for: his daughter had only just past her 1st birthday, he had previously worked as a teaching assistant and youth worker, and very few people generally had a bad word to say about him. He appears to have been conscientious, charismatic and well-liked; everything which ultimately led to those around him deciding to end their lives whilst murdering others around them.

The idea that MSK was after the promised 72 virgins for martyrs doesn't seem convincing when he was so clearly devoted both to his child and his wife; he was not, perhaps unlike the other bombers, stuck in dead-end, unrewarding jobs and so frustrated with his lot in life; and whilst he didn't talk about his religious beliefs to many people, he was certainly devout without being overbearing. He played the role of the gatherer, the charismatic leader which those around him looked up to and enjoyed the company of. The abiding image we have of him, outside of the few other video clips, including the one where he says goodbye, movingly, to his daughter, is the "martyrdom video" he recorded which was subsequently released by As-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arm. His self-serving justifications, now all too familiar, belie the man that he clearly was in private.

Also noted in the report that by no means are those who become radicalised well versed in Islam in its totality. Indeed, few are probably anywhere near as versed as this Islamist blogger suggests for training recruits, and that is mostly a collection of the familiar radical preachers. Probably closer would be the suggestions made by this forum inhabitant, both courtesy of the excellent Jihadica blog. While opinion is divided over whether Islam is inherently violent, and neither side should be dismissed out of hand, it's probably telling that those who have emerged from radical groups have done so only after they have properly assessed a far wider spectrum of theological thought, Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz et al. Rachel North, who has more reason than most for wanting to get to the very bottom of what motivates radicalisation and subsequently terrorism, has reported that Atila Ahmet, one of those recently jailed as part of the "paintball jihad" had to be segregated from other extremists, due to his studies into Islam and renunication of his past beliefs.

Additionally left on the myth heap is the idea that all of those radicalised or involved in extremism are asylum seekers, when half of those evaluated by MI5 were born here, with the other half mostly immigrating here mainly for economic reasons, that poverty is not an issue, as shown by the amount of those stuck in "McJobs" despite in many cases having decent qualifications, and that only those who are "pure" in their past behaviour are eligible, is if that wasn't laughable enough considering the criminal schemes which those who have carried out attacks have indulged in. Also doubtful is the claim by one group which suggested that those raided often didn't have any pornography on their computers when they were searched; the report suggests that despite it being generally being considered haram to consume alcohol in Islam, some were drinkers, drug-takers and even used prostitutes, although again the 9/11 example of some of the attackers visiting a strip club the night before also should have put paid to that one. Some of this could perhaps be a result of the jihadis adopting the ideology of extremist groups such as Takfir wal-Hirja, whose members "blended in" by shaving their beards, drinking, etc, although again, it might just be that like everyone else, jihadis can't live up to their own moral standards and so can be seen as hypocrites.

There are a couple of things that do appear to be missing from the report however. There doesn't seem to be any mention, for example, of the role that foreign policy plays in the radicalisation progress. Whilst we should never fall into the trap of dismissing terrorism as being purely down to our own actions in countries considered Muslim states, it would be equally naive to dismiss the idea that it has no role whatsoever. Yet nowhere, at least in the Guardian report of the document, does it allude to our actions in either Afghanistan or Iraq, which seems strange, especially when you consider that the security services themselves warned that action in the latter would lead directly to an increase in attacks. Also, perhaps less suprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any reference to the security services' own role in helping radicalisation along. Only today we learn indisputably that MI5 were involved in the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed, currently languishing in Guantanamo and potentially facing execution, which led to his horrendous torture in both Pakistan and Morocco. Yesterday I mentioned the role of MI5 in the rendition of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna, both of whom had had direct relations with the service. This is without also mentioning the unsubtle actions of the police, for instance in the raid on Forest Gate, which contributes to the victimhood mentality which most certainly is a part of radicalisation. The report also makes clear that this is not just a mentality or illusion; racism, discrimination, inequality, "mainstream UK media coverage that perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims", all play a role which is heightened and repeated again and again until the only response is to strike back physically, with the religious ideology as the justification.

If all this suggests that the fight against terrorism and radicalisation is as infinitely complex as the process itself is, then it doesn't necessarily need to be so. What is clear is that the heavy-handed government approach is still at the moment part of the problem rather than the solution. Also unhelpful is the continuing demonisation of Islam as a whole, as shown recently by Peter Oborne (PDF). Instead, as if it wasn't already obvious, the fight has to be led from inside and within rather than from above. Organisations like the Quilliam Foundation are almost certainly part of the mix, although they could do with turning down the rhetoric a shade, or at least Ed Husain could. The security services need to end their complicity in torture and rendition, if they have not already. Subtlety, rather than constant new big initiatives and huge police operations, especially when accompanied by egregious exaggeration are also key.

If we exclude the apparent failed attempt by the convert in Exeter, then there hasn't been a major foiled plot or failed, serious attempt at a terrorist attack in this country now for over a year. The vast majority of those who do become radicalised in any case are mostly not interested in attacking Britain; their concerns are more with either fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other current jihadi hot spots. The real worry might well be when those who have graduated from those "universities of terrorism" potentially return, and we can hardly say then that we were not in any way responsible for the blow-back.

Related:
Spy Blog - Whistleblower leak or propaganda briefing?

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Really bloody good piece.

Thank you

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