European Eye on Radicalization
The backgrounds of the terrorists of yesteryear were all the more troubling because they often seemed to make little sense.
Start with Osama bin Laden, born to a wealthy family. Like his peers, he could have chosen an easy and gilded course. Enjoying life’s pleasures, he would have been barely brushed by the troubles so many less fortunate people endure.
Yet bin Laden threw it all away and chose the hardships of the jihadi cause in the mountains of Afghanistan, with all the might of the American war machine ranged against him after September 11.
This very story of “sacrifice” inspired others to follow. From the top echelons down to the ranks of fighters and attackers, many al-Qaeda terrorists hailed from seemingly decent or at least functional families. But they were prepared to trade good life chances for the harshest of conditions in the training camps and great peril on the front lines. At worst, or at best in the warped al-Qaeda view, the peril was embraced as a path to glorious “martyrdom”.
Today’s terrorists, by contrast, are often no more than troubled “losers” with pitiful backgrounds. Jihad is just another milepost on a long trail of crime, violence, and destruction. The head of the trail is deeply dysfunctional families and the desperate neighborhoods some call “no go zones” .
The story of Abdelkader Merah makes for a revealing case study of the phenomenon. He is the brother of Mohammed Merah, the Tolouse man who went on a terrorist rampage in southern France in 2012, taking the lives of three French soldiers and four Jews at a Jewish school, including three children.
Abdelkader was brought to trial in connection with his brother’s attacks and Scott Sayare has now written an interesting review of the court proceedings and the bitter social roots of the Merah family for The New Republic.
One passage in particular is likely to sound familiar to terrorism analysts across Europe. Sayare discusses the findings of Ariel Planeix, a French anthropologist who has studied youth radicalization for the French Ministry of Justice:
The upheaval and trauma of the Merahs’ lives were essentially average among the cases he’d seen, he said. He viewed Mohammed as a template for the generation of jihadists that has emerged since his killings. “He’s the new face of a sort of reactive violence,” he told me, violence that is politicized but that is hardly rooted in politics. The minors Planeix studied had all been abused, abandoned, or raped, and sometimes all three; if they remained in contact with their families, their families systematically denied the existence of any such problems. Their childhoods, like the Merahs’, were an almost absurd cumulation of horrors. A growing body of research suggests that, among this new generation of jihadis, this is indeed the norm. This is not to suggest that jihadism is merely a social problem, but rather that “radicalization” is much more than a matter of ideology and its transmission.
One may draw some cold comfort from this trend, Sayare observes:
This ought to be a source of reassurance. Radicalization is not the vast crisis it has often been made out to be in the West, and certainly not an existential threat; it seems to operate upon a very particular population, and that population is small, damaged, and profoundly marginal.
Yet the recruiters know they are in luck, he continues, and not just because they have a gloomy pool at their service. Really, reassurance is rare, and their work hits society hard:
It is the great luck of the Salafi-jihadis that their Islamic mythology should hold appeal for these men at the terrible margins; it is their great luck, too, that European societies should be so confounded by these men, torn between their loathing for them and a buried guilt for the outrages to which they, in their marginal lives, are exposed. Beneath the anger and horror at every jihadist attack in Europe is, like a shameful, postcolonial secret, an unsung note of self-reproach. Shame, like fear, is only very rarely a spur to sober evaluation of the problems at hand. But it is easier to overcome.
Security systems are catching up. Terrorism is now widely seen as a problem with many dimensions, drawing in social workers just as much as elite special forces teams and intelligence officers. For example, this “bigger picture” approach is a hallmark of the UK’s new counter-terrorism strategy.
There is a political sting in the tail here. Why, outraged citizens may ask, should troublesome people get even more attention and assistance from the state? Surely, they can say, many other people have lives that are just as hard or even worse and they do not turn to terror. How about a simply brutal hard line, dispensing with every weak liberal “root cause” analysis?
Well, one can respond, do you want our states to be like Syria’s? That’s what a hard line at its worst can look like. It may “win” on the ground in the shorter term, but the cost is atrocious, the line itself has generated even more violence, and blowback seems to be a certainty, possibly for many years to come.
Assad’s regime is of course at the extremes of bloody civil war. A powerful and uncompromising police state is another option. But it would almost surely be drawn into “thought crime” thickets. There it would tussle with people on the steadily hardening right as well as Islamists, or face incendiary charges of hypocrisy if it did not. This is a blueprint for more trouble and strife, not less.
The angry and despondent margins of society do need attention. It is the right thing to do at the broad social level, especially as European politics descend ever further into angry tribal confrontations and widening divisions. If there is a security dividend from better social work and policies, we should rejoice. It is a matter of common sense, where the aim is to avoid more Merahs in our world, or at least to reduce their numbers, and not to reward them for being troublemakers.
Getting it right is crucial, though. As reports here at European Eye on Radicalization and elsewhere have long shown, broader social and political efforts can be co-opted by Islamists who gain gatekeeper status and influence they do not merit and will abuse. A solution that creates more problems is no solution.