Murderers in the Making

Posted: August 9, 2019 in Literary Review
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More belated posting, this time another book review for Literary Review. It looks at Joan Smith’s thought-provoking Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. Very pleased to be contributing regularly to this publication and look forward to doing more of it.

Murderers in the Making

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists

By Joan Smith

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While the process by which a person becomes part of a terrorist group is different in every case, there are patterns and similarities in the ways people are radicalised. Identifying them is a big part of what our security services do nowadays, looking at individual behaviour to try to understand who may end up taking a path towards violence. Joan Smith’s new book, Home Grown, seeks to identify one set of indicators, focusing on misogyny and domestic violence. It is not based on data-driven research. Rather, it relies on anecdotal evidence, drawing on a somewhat random set of case studies from Western societies in recent years. But that does not stop it from being a very stimulating meditation on a topic on which gallons of ink have already been spilled. 

Understanding the ‘close link between private and public violence’, Smith suggests, can provide a ‘new way’ of identifying potential terrorists. Her main point is that if you dig into the backgrounds of those who commit terrorist acts, you will find life stories littered with abuse at home – angry men beating their wives and children – and a litany of misogynistic behaviours. She cites as an example the case of the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the January 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Their sister Aicha told the police after the massacre, ‘My father used to beat us, my mother neglected us.’ Both men were openly misogynistic too. While on trial a few years earlier for suspected terrorism-related offences, one of them refused to stand up in court because the judge was a woman. Smith also cites the case of Darren Osborne, who drove a truck into congregants outside the Finsbury Park mosque in 2017. Osborne was a repeated abuser of women and at the time of the attack was effectively homeless, having been thrown out of his house by his long-suffering partner. 

There is now an awareness in the security establishment of the importance of studying the inner lives of the people who become involved in terrorism. In the past few years there has been a growth in the number of psychologists and social scientists working on countering terrorism. MI5 has had a dedicated behavioural sciences unit for some time. The part played by broken homes and abusive fathers in radicalisation has certainly been noticed by the security services. What is more interesting and thought-provoking is the question of where misogyny and violence against women fit into the picture. This is the question that most animates Smith, who is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and co-chair of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. For her, the underlying problem of misogyny in societies contributes to an environment in which terrorism can germinate. She refers to Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, who belonged to a social group in which misogyny was commonplace. After the attack, one of his contemporaries at college told the authorities that ‘he would hang around with other lads who would smoke weed and harass girls. They’d say really inappropriate things, he just had no respect for women.’ In 2012 he assaulted a young woman at his college.

There is surely some truth to Smith’s claim of a connection between misogyny and terrorism – societies in which the victimisation and abuse of one half of the population is a daily occurrence are likely to create a range of problems for themselves. Violent Islamism and right-wing extremism, the two terrorist ideologies that most bother us today, are both fundamentally male-supremacist, and Smith reminds us that forced marriages, rape and sex slavery are widespread within ISIS. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some women are drawn towards such organisations. For them, joining an extremist group that advocates the subordination of women can, paradoxically, foster a feeling of agency over the future.

Even more complicated is the question of whether the phenomena Smith describes have long been present and under-observed or are new developments. Here Home Grown is frustrating, as the case studies Smith offers are all relatively recent – she draws particularly heavily on the explosion of violence in the West that began with ISIS’s proclamation of a caliphate in 2014. The other frustration with this book is that it is hard to know what practical conclusions to draw from it, aside from the need to pay more attention to people who come from abusive homes. The recommendations Smith offers at the end of the book are for the most part about improving the reporting of abuse of women in general. Only two out of twelve of them relate specifically to terrorism or radicalisation. And this in some ways captures the essence of Smith’s book. While it uses the topic of terrorism as a way of approaching these subjects, it is in fact more about misogyny and domestic abuse in society as a whole.

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