Wellbeing and Mental Health

Terrorists don’t kill for their religion. It’s something else entirely

Floral tributes lie on the ground after a vigil to remember the victims of the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, at Potters Field Park, in central London, Britain, June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica - RTX395SM

Floral tributes to victims of the terror attack on London Bridge and Borough Market in June 2017 Image: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Leena Al Olaimy
Co-founder and Managing Director, 3BL Associates
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Fragility, Violence and Conflict

When it comes to terrorism, military solutions abound. Meanwhile, the UN has just welcomed a partnership initiative with tech giants Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube to develop solutions to fight terrorism online.

Yet, as details continue to surface from the most recent string of terrorism attacks against the West, are we perhaps overlooking more human-centric solutions and approaches to countering violent extremism?

The latest attacks reinforce a set of characteristics shared by extremists, who see themselves as Muslim martyrs. While some analysts have widened their inquiry beyond the sphere of ideology — drawing demographic parallels, for instance, and postulating archetypes of domestic violence — one human characteristic remains largely unexplored: shame.

After shooting a police officer and careening down the motorway in a vehicle stolen at gunpoint, Ziyed Ben Belgacem made a phone call to his father. "Dad, please forgive me. I've screwed up," he pleaded. He proceeded to Orly Airport in Paris where he put a gun to a soldier’s head, declaring: "I am here to die in the name of Allah (...) There will be deaths."

Spiritual contradictions

Belgacem’s aggregate criminal history includes drug dealing, armed robbery, theft and receipt of stolen goods. Post-mortem toxicology tests revealed the presence of alcohol, cannabis and cocaine in his blood. It’s possible that Belgacem was both acutely aware of, and deeply uncomfortable with, this caustic moral incongruity.

Salman Ramadan Abedi, the recent Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was a regular party-goer who drank vodka and smoked marijuana, according to reports from his friends. You could argue that this helped him cope with a sense of cultural displacement as a disconnected, second generation, European immigrant; a feeling that he was not Libyan enough, nor British enough. You could also deduce that coming as he did from a religious family, drink and drugs paradoxically pacified and amplified his feelings of shame.

Last summer, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “answered the call of ISIS” by driving a truck through a Bastille Day parade in Nice, killing 86 people. Far from being a devoted, practising Muslim, as many might suspect, he ate pork and had a penchant for alcohol, drugs and promiscuous sex, with both men and women, according to evidence gathered by police.

These don’t sound like the lifestyle choices of suicide attackers proclaiming a holy war. A conflicted sense of identity, compounded by insufferable shame, seems to be a greater instigator of the decision to seek militant self-sacrifice.

Even in Saudi Arabia, during Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan, authorities recently thwarted a suicide attack on what is considered to be Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which attracts 15 million pilgrims annually.

So let’s go ahead and explode the stereotype of the Muslim – or even radical Muslim – terrorist. Murdering innocent people is a crime against humanity, not just religion.

'They weren't even good tippers'

The 9/11 hijackers epitomize this polarity. In his 2002 book on suicide bombing, Christoph Reuter spoke of the extremists embodying two extremes as they confronted Western culture. In an attempt to shield themselves from lustful thoughts they draped towels over the pictures of semi-nude women hanging on the walls of their Florida motel room. They also devoured pay-per-view pornographic movies.

According to Reuter, they scraped the frosting off American muffins in case they contained pork fat, yet indulged in gambling, boozing and lap dances. And, in complete dissonance with the pervasive generosity characteristic of Muslims, they weren’t even, by all accounts, good tippers. Less contradictory perhaps, is the story of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, who reportedly beat the prostitute he regularly hired in Hamburg.

Then there was the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a tattooed, one-legged, mac daddy of Al Qaeda in Iraq: he was a notorious pimp, thug, heavy drinker and junkie. With 37 criminal cases against him, he returned to Islam after a missionary group convinced him it was time to cleanse himself.

From sinner to winner

Like human traffickers preying on those seeking a better life, extremist rhetoric augments martyrdom with the promise of a better afterlife: a ticket to paradise bestowing purification, redemption and atonement, and an end to shame and self-disgust.

Presented with a choice between attaining glory and being written off as an irrelevant, even sinful, suicide statistic, it’s not hard to see why attackers are seduced by the prospect of self-validation. A miserable and conflicted existence can be cosmetically reconstructed into a more meaningful martyr’s badge of honour.

This doesn’t only apply to Islam. Darren Osborne, the Londoner who drove a van into Muslim worshippers near Finsbury Park Mosque in June this year, had attempted suicide a few weeks earlier, according to his sister. A life and death made less ordinary through a “heroic” gesture of moral outrage and the decisive stance of “doing his bit” to kill all Muslims.

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When you can’t tackle a tactic

Amid knee-jerk responses to violence, we would be wise to remember that terrorism is a tactic. It doesn’t belong to any one group of ideology and it can be used to pursue any goal. The reasons driving individuals towards violent extremism are many and complex, and each must be dealt with accordingly.

Individuals with a death wish have different motivations than those recruited to join the ranks of terrorist organizations. For the latter, the pull of groups such as Daesh (ISIS) is more likely to stem from a personal search for status, a sense of identity and belonging, and a feeling of purpose and self-validation. Given this, inclusion – social, economic or political – would seem to be a far more powerful antidote than military counter-terrorism measures.

Inclusion could also help people with a death wish, of course, but reclaiming the false narrative of martyrdom as an acceptable recourse for personal or societal grievances may prove to be more potent.

One promising example is the refusal of Muslim imams to perform traditional prayers for the deceased perpetrators of the recent London Bridge attack. They asserted that the “indefensible attackers” were not true Muslims. Making such practices mainstream could evaporate the ambiguity around the idea of a holy death and deter otherwise justifiable suicide attacks.

Equally – and perhaps more crucial – is for Muslim imams and clerics to preach greater moderation, acceptance and compassion, towards ourselves as well as others.

Terrorism is a tactic, and we are wise to recognize that we cannot wage war against it. Instead, we need to focus on the social and emotional reasons for extremist behaviour. We need a human-centred approach, one that starts from within.

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