On Trials and Political Statements

Posted: April 14, 2010 in Free Rad!cals
Tags: , , , ,

A new post (actually mine this time) over at Free Rad!cals, this time emerging from something that occurred to me as I was reading the Stefan Aust book about the Baader-Meinhof group. For those who don’t have the patience for the book (which is quite chunky, but at the same time, is a very quick read: he is a journalist and it is made up of lots of short chapters), I really rather enjoyed the recent movie, though I can see it skips over some details.

On Trials and Political Statements

Filed under: Europe, Terrorism

I have been re-reading Stefan Aust’s excellent book The Baader Meinhof Complex and have just finished trudging through the part which looks at the Stammheim trials period when four of the main Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction, RAF) members, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Mienhof, and Jan-Carl Raspe were held in the high security Stammheim Prison while they were on trial for a series of RAF attacks.

What is interesting about the Baader-Meinhof story is that in many ways there are parallels to be drawn with the current wave of extreme Islamist terrorism in the West. A small group of individuals, mostly young, educated and from middle class families, become persuaded that the system that they were born into and live in is fatally broken and the only way to fix it is through the use of purgative violence. Of course, it is equally easy to pull holes in the comparison, but that is not the focus of my train of thought here.

The Stammheim part highlights the differences to me. For the RAF group the trial was an opportunity to grandstand for the media and an attendant audience. They disrupted the trial to the point that they were not even present to hear the conclusion. This has manifestly not been the case with the ever increasing roster of Islamist terrorist cases in the West, where instead the defendants have chosen, for the most part, to use the trials as an opportunity to plead innocence while they remain silent about any connections to other terrorists.

Olivier Roy, in his paper, “Al Qaeda in the West as a Youth Movement: The Power of a Narrative,”describes the phenomenon thus:

“most of AQ suspects keep silent or deny any involvement during their trial, a very unusual attitude for political militants, who traditionally transform their trial into a political tribune.”

This is one of the fascinating elements of the movement which has found appeal amongst a specific community of young Muslims in the West. These individuals appear committed enough to go and train in camps in dangerous corners of the world and then come back home to plot, but they do not appear willing to try to stand up for their convictions in court or to publish voluminous texts to support their activities. At the same time they are also remarkably resilient in terms of caving to pressure and giving each other or their superiors up. To paraphrase what I recall hearing a former senior copper saying, the halls of Paddington Green police station (where most terror suspects are taken in the UK), are not “ringing” with the sounds of confessions.

On the one hand, this could be explained away by the fact that they genuinely are innocent and are merely sticking to their guns. But in counter to this, in cases where there is a pretty heavy burden of evidence against them (for example, Bilal Abdulla who was literally caught sitting on his bomb outside Glasgow airport), we have still had them denying culpability and offering pretty thin political statements to defend their actions. Nowhere have there been the sort of detailed political writing and haranguing that we find during the RAF trials: the RAF prisoners used to send letters between each other arguing about their political beliefs and published books and statements about their cause. The closest I have seen to this is the odd letter that leaks out from the prison system which is claimed to be written by incarcerated extremists, but these mostly complain about their treatment inside rather than going into the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence.

But the question remains as to whether this is a sign of a lack of seriousness and thus weakness of the central motivating ideology, or whether it is a sign of strength. Weakness since they do not appear to be able to back their convictions with stirring rhetoric, or strength since they are willing to take their punishment and silently sit it out to prepare to return to the fight when they are released. Given the control order regime which can continue to hinder activity once released, there is a benefit to staying quiet and acting calm. After all, hatred is patient.

For the RAF the Stammheim trials marked the end of the first generation of fighters. Ulrike Meinhof killed herself long before the trial ended, while the other three killed themselves a few months after the verdicts were handed down (a fourth member, Irmgard Moller, also attempted suicide, but survived the attempt and claimed it was all a government plot). The group continued on until it officially disbanded in 1998 – giving it a total lifespan of 28 years. I am unsure how far we are along in the current lifespan.

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