“Lone wolf” terrorists aren’t a myth

Picture of the MP David Amess in 1997, holding a yellow disc-shaped box in his left hand and reading from a piece of paper in his right hand. He is wearing a beige suit with a white shirt and a blue and yellow tie.
MP David Amess, raising awareness of a drug called ‘Cake’ in a spoof documentary in 1997 (clip on YouTube)

Last week, the anti-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali (notorious for whipping up hatred towards Muslims in the Netherlands where she’d lived after making a false claim for asylum, before fleeing to the US where she received a sympathetic welcome during the Bush years) wrote an article for the British right-wing website Unherd, claiming that the notion of the “lone-wolf terrorist”, in the context of the murder of the MP David Amess (right) a little over a week ago, is an ‘appealing’ myth when in fact such attackers “still emerge out of communities or networks of like-minded individuals, whether in-person or online” and go undetected because the community they come from, having noticed the ‘signs’ of radicalisation, keeps quiet. This is nothing but baseless suspicion-mongering and displays ignorance of how actual recent terrorist attackers behaved.

To take the matter of language first, a “lone wolf” is an attacker that is not part of any organisation and was not acting, as far as can be told, on orders from anyone. It doesn’t mean they weren’t inspired by someone or other, just that nobody else was involved. After the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, it was revealed that the attackers had been inspired by speeches by Anjem Choudary, the leader of al-Muhajiroun (which used various names after the original group and then its successors were banned), and leaders of that group praised the murder in videos that were available online, yet the then assistant commissioner for specialist operations (i.e. counter-terrorism) Cressida Dick (since promoted to Metropolitan Police Commissioner) said in a TV interview that she did not believe they were even aware of the two men’s plans. While there have been terrorist attacks in the UK inspired by ISIS by people who had given allegiance to them, the weapons used in most of them (Manchester Arena excepted) reveal that they acted alone: knives and vehicles, which anyone can get hold of. You need connections to get hold of guns or bombs, or at least the know-how to make the latter, and these men had neither.

Ayaan tells us that Somali families all live together and are involved in each other’s business and that keeping secrets is impossible; they should surely notice “signs of radicalisation” which include “a shift in language, withdrawal from society, increased frequency of praying and attending mosque”, any or all of which could have perfectly innocent explanations and in any case, a shift to a more politicised interpretation of Islam does not indicate that someone is preparing a terrorist attack (actual terrorists have been known to do things known to be sinful in Islam, such as going to nightclubs, drinking alcohol and having sexual relationships outside marriage). She then suggests that family members fail to alert the authorities because they fear it is a sin or a betrayal of their family:

Imagine, for example, that you are a family member of a potentially radicalised individual from a highly tight-knit community. You notice something of concern — but might it be best to keep quiet? Are you a sinner if you report your brother to a programme led by non-Muslims? What does it mean for your relationship with God and the afterlife? What kind of traitor would report their own blood to the authorities?

Meanwhile, non-Muslim colleagues and friends stay quiet for fear of being labelled racists or Islamophobes, a favourite trope of actual racists and Islamophobes. She tells us that the alleged murderer’s father, a Somali diplomat, whom she claims has been presented as a model of integration, has in fact posted a tweet which was disparaging about Britain’s colonial history in Somalia. This kind of sentiment is common amongst people whose lands were colonised by European powers, which includes all Africans — not just Muslims — even when they have settled in the former colonising country. Also not a sign of terrorist intent at all. She quotes an anti-terrorist senior police officer as saying that his profession requires people who realise “how significant the seemingly insignificant might be”, but these things only seem significant in hindsight and are not always. To assume that everyone who starts praying regularly and expresses anger at something going on in Palestine or in his parents’ or grandparents’ home country is a terrorist would be to turn the country into a police state.

Of course, it’s possible that there are people who knew about his plans but kept quiet because they approved or because of misguided loyalty. There will, obviously, be a police investigation and these things will become apparent in time. But her claims imply that terrorism emerges out of whole communities, that these communities harbour them and that if you knew the attacker, you must have known something. This was all nonsense when it was said about the Irish in London during the Troubles and it’s nonsense about ISIS-inspired terrorist attackers now. To assume any of this is a surefire way to ensure serious miscarriages of justice.

Finally, she takes comfort in the fact that “al-Qaeda is a skeleton of what it was two decades ago, while the spectre of ISIS continues to serve as a real-life deterrent to what living under a caliphate requires” and that “even the Muslim Brotherhood narrative is stale and petering out”. All this may be true as far as these particular organisations are concerned, though the Muslim Brotherhood still has a considerable influence over some diaspora Muslim organisations. However, the Arab world in particular has seen a series of revolutions betrayed with corrupt and oppressive old guards seizing back power in coups, most recently the self-coup in Tunisia and the military coup this week in Sudan, or continuing to fight their own people with the help of foreign powers such as Russia. Many of these regimes were previously backed by western powers but are increasingly in the pocket of China, a country with a recent record of explicit persecution and even genocide against Muslim minorities. The old regimes had a history of controlling religious practice, harassing people (mostly but not always men) who wore traditional dress and who were seen as “too religious” (e.g. attending dawn prayer) as well as censorship of the media and publishing industries; the revolutions sought both religious and political freedom.

Whether she sees this as something to celebrate I am not sure, but it stands to reason that people will not tolerate oppression and impoverishment forever and that there will be further uprisings down the line and that they may well be bloodier than before as people have learned that peaceful protest gains only temporarily and easily-reversible results.

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