This is how Islamist radicalisation actually happens

This is how Islamist radicalisation actually happens
The Independent, by Katherine Brown


This attack on Manchester is part of a pattern of attacks from the nail bomber in Soho to the attacks in Bali to Paris based on this false totalitarianism that insists they cannot share the world with ‘others’.


Radicalisation is described as “everything that happens before the bomb goes off,” ICSR expert Peter Neumann said. It is an attempt to recognise that terrorists are not born but made. In radicalisation research there is a focus on an individual’s upbringing, on any trauma or discrimination they experienced, on their associations, on their social and economic status. What this leads to is a vast of array of interconnecting variables, RAND, for example, identified over 200 relevant factors, or oversimplifications like the “pyramid” or “escalator” model initially put forward by the NYPD. The former is so complex as to make it unusable for detection or prediction purposes, while the latter is so reductionist it makes us all terrorist suspects.


In contrast there are other theories that encourage us to think about the “pull factors” of radicalisation. These tend to emphasise the political and ideological goals of the groups in question. In the case of Isis and al-Qaeda, their propaganda attempts to tap into “push factors” by claiming that Muslims are emasculated in the West, unable to worship freely, and allege that their brand of ideology and politics will lead to gold, God and glory.


Sageman talks about the “band of brothers” effect in which thick bonds of trust and belonging are developed among radical individuals in an “us against the world” mentality.


My own work points to the hyper-masculine sense of adventure in jihad – “better than Call of Duty” one Isis member declared. They present a warped utopian politics that offers a critique of an individual’s problems, dramatic calls to action, and an apparent solution.


Combining the push and pull factors however doesn’t lead us to a pathway or formulae that fits all (or even the majority) of cases. So rather than focus on individuals, we can instead investigate the environments and structures that generate violent groups. For example, while we can say that societies with high levels of poverty and discrimination have higher levels of radicalisation, it is not necessarily the case that the poor and discriminated against of that society are those that become radical. The challenge here is in acknowledging that politics matters, sectarianism in Iraq is a factor for the rise of Isis, weak state structures in Afghanistan and Pakistan does lead to a dependency on al-Qaeda or the Terik-e-Taliban, and Gaddafi and his successors’ brutal regimes in Libya will be felt for generations. Recognising “root causes” like these can help us construct policies that address grievances and exclusions on a global scale and reduce terrorist violence.


Understanding why someone might hold extremist views or the underlying causes of a particular group though doesn’t fully explain why someone would attack a music concert; why murder this many people? Terrorists consider not only the potential victims, but strategically select the location for their carnage. They seek to redefine public spaces and our interactions with them. In 2014 I wrote about the targeting choices of the Terik-e-Taliban when they attacked Karachi airport. Convinced that humanity can be perfected, this group, Isis, and others like them, seek to eradicate those they deem as imperfect from the public sphere: women, homosexuals and muslims from other sects.


This attack on Manchester is part of a pattern of attacks from the Nail Bomber in Soho to the attacks in Bali to Paris based on this false totalitarianism that insists they cannot share the world with “Others”. What was clear about the Terik-e-Taliban was that they, like Isis, seek to quash public gatherings, such as street festivals, music concerts, political rallies, where we come together and express a shared humanity, our “worldliness”. They would rather limit us to a narrow conception of politics, to a narrow vision of the “good life”, one driven by fear and isolation. Their violence not only brutally kills, it tears apart our social fabric by subverting the level of trust that makes our togetherness, our resilience, our very “publicness”.


What is clear in our response is that we must not let them choke our political and social life, we must not let them take away our togetherness. Unlikely as it may seem, such public demonstrations of plurality and frivolity, such as going to music concerts, may be, in the long run, the most vigorous bulwarks against totalitarian radical ideologies.