No Template for Terrorists

Posted: September 2, 2008 in New Statesman
Tags: ,

My latest for the NS – am breaking my usual position of writing for them only on American politics, but this seemed like a good outlet for this piece which examines the recently leaked MI5 report that didn’t exactly shock those looking at these issues. Some of the ideas are feeding a bigger project which we are currently pursuing. Any thoughts or reactions welcome! 

No template for terrorists

Extremist ideas have taken a much deeper hold in our broader society than we might like to admit, argues Raffaello Pantucci


The leaking of an MI5 report on violent extremism in the UK provided official confirmation of a conclusion that may have been all too obvious to someone studying the evolution of Britain’s terrorist threat: there is no “one size fits all” template that can be applied to the homegrown Islamist danger the UK faces.

On the conspiratorial side, people will claim the leaked document is the ultimate ratcheting up of the terror danger by the security service, leaving the door open to essentially limitless police powers for the protection of our democracy.

A less paranoid conclusion would be that the report highlights the degree to which extremist ideas have taken root among a constituency that can only be defined by the broadest of parameters.

It is mostly men in their 20s and 30s – but women and those older and younger have also been involved. It is not even necessarily only born Muslims or non-white first or second generation immigrants who are involved – converts and Caucasians appear regularly, though a running theme is their relative religious illiteracy.

This suggests that the extremist ideology has taken a much deeper hold in our broader society than we might like to admit, and is able to feed off a pool of social disaffection that reaches far wider than previously thought.

One interpretation of this “democratisation” of sorts is that extremism, in some quarters, has become the new counter-cultural and anti-establishment thing to do. Individuals get angry at society and its perceived injustices and decide that they must do something about it.

Where they used to latch on to leftist factions now they may find an extremist Islamist agenda appealing as an outlet for their rage.

Another interpretation is that the element of adventure that is implicit within joining an underground terrorist group has a great deal of appeal in an essentially stable and increasingly middle class society.

While life as a celebrity seems easier than ever to achieve, most of us are stuck in relatively humdrum lives with little prospect of fame, fortune or adventure. How much more appealing than an average life in some British city is the notion that you are part of an international community of people who are being oppressed?

Underlying and reinforcing all of this is a sense of rejection from society that many of the individuals embroiled in terrorist plots seem to display. While many of us will be able to empathise with some of the different elements or emotions presented here, most will have moved on from them. The threat comes from those individuals in our society who feel as though these feelings of detachment or alienation can only be expressed through violent action.

Theoretically for the security services this poses a real problem, since it gives them an almost limitless pool of possible suspects. In reality though they are helped by the fact that those who pose an actual threat will usually still seek some connection to an active terrorist group.

The globalist rhetoric employed by al Qaeda and affiliated groups has an appeal to those individuals for whom some tangible connection to the global jihad remains an important motivating factor.

There is evidence that “lone wolf” figures exist: for instance, the information in the public domain on the recently imprisoned bomb maker Hassan Tabbakh seemed to indicate he was acting alone. But they seem, at the moment, to be the exception rather than the rule, and the report highlights the important role of charismatic individuals in persuading people to become active participants.

It is this overall understanding that underpins the government’s statements about this being a “generational struggle.” There are some underlying social problems that seem to lead to people needing to seek an outlet in terrorist activity, and the job of government is to ensure that we do not continue to incubate these problems for future generations, while at the same time clamping down on those who have already gone down this path and are plotting against us.

However, this definition also implies a longer-term problem: if what we are talking about is merely the latest incarnation of an expression of alienation, then theoretically even if we stamp out this particular enunciation, it will evolve to find a new ideology to rest in. By extension of that argument, this is a problem that we will always be faced with in one form or another.

What is disturbing for the UK, however, is that this current strain of the ideology has been appealing to young Britons for quite a while now (since at least the 90s and the conflict in Bosnia) and appears to be succeeding in spreading its tentacles among an ever growing constituency.

The security services have been working hard and effectively to counter the threat we actually face, but we still appear to be no closer to completely eradicating or understanding the problem.

Raffaello Pantucci is a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.(/em

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s