How to spot a terrorist living in your neighbourhood
We know what kind of people are tempted by Islamic extremism – now we need to do more to stop them
Dame Stella Rimington, the former director general of MI5, has called for people to inform on neighbours they suspect of extremismPhoto: Alamy
By Alan Judd
8:21PM BST 28 May 2013
It is surely reasonable for Dame Stella Rimington, the former director general of MI5, to call for people to inform on neighbours they suspect of extremism. To a very limited extent, it happens already. But for the sake of all of us – Muslim communities in particular – it needs to happen more.
Also reasonable, on the face of it, is the Government’s desire to do more to discourage the process by which disaffected individuals turn themselves into people-butchers – the job of the proposed task force on Prevent, the counter-radicalisation strategy.
In fact, we already know all we need to know about radicalisation. What the task force needs to focus on is what to do and – equally important – what not to do.
Studies show that it can happen to anyone, that there is no single identifiable profile. That said, the great majority of terrorists, unsurprisingly, have been Muslim males aged 16-34, a third to a half of whom were unemployed and a significant portion of the rest under-employed. Most were unmarried. Where women were involved, it tended to be in a supportive role, although in Iraq and Chechnya female suicide bombers were radicalised by the deaths of relatives.
Worldwide, about 62 per cent were graduates, with those of Middle Eastern origin generally from the educated but politically frustrated middle class. British home-grown terrorists tend to be less well educated and of lower socio-economic status. One estimate is that about 31 per cent participated in some form of higher education, studying such subjects as engineering, business or science. They are not mad: levels of mental illness were roughly in line with world averages. Between a third and a quarter of those convicted in Britain and Europe had criminal records unrelated to terrorism. A fifth or more of British terrorists were immigrants, often obtaining leave to remain despite being under investigation. Throughout Europe, many extremists were and are disaffected second-generation immigrants.
Motives vary from the territorial (Chechnya) to moral outrage at what they see as a war against Islam. Afghanistan and Iraq acted as recruiting sergeants for those whose perception of worldwide Muslim victimhood chimed with their own real or imagined experiences of discrimination and disappointments. Intoxicated by the cause, they convinced themselves that they were acting on behalf of Muslims everywhere.
As for how they’re radicalised, it’s generally through other people, either directly or online. Images on mainstream news channels of Muslim casualties from Western bombs, or of ill-treated prisoners, are very influential, while film of 9/11 remains a worryingly potent inspiration. A Centre for Social Cohesion study of 212 individuals estimated that about a fifth were linked to the proscribed extremist group
al-Muhajiroun, and that Abu Hamza’s preaching at the Finsbury Park mosque had a significant worldwide impact. Yet most terrorists have only a superficial knowledge of Islam, using it as a veneer of justification for political, cultural and racial self-assertion. It is essentially an ideological rather than a religious process. As has been said, you have to be just clever enough to do it and just stupid enough to believe in it.
So how can you tell it’s happening? Can the neighbours that Dame Stella referred to really know what to look for?
Essentially, there will be changes in behaviour. A sudden ostentatious insistence on religious ritual, especially in a secular context (demands for prayer rooms where no other religion has them); a withdrawal from social interaction with women and disapproval of feminine dress. There may be a sudden obsession with physical fitness, more via Outward Bound activities than team games. Someone may adopt traditional Arab dress or abruptly abandon it (so as not to attract attention). They might forbid or avoid music, collect jihadi material, withdraw from contact with non-Muslims or Muslims who are not extremist; there may be single-issue conversation, vociferous hatred of the West and Israel, and perhaps attempted travel to troubled regions or misleading vagueness as to where they’ve been.
Of course, someone could manifest all these and more – for all manner of reasons – without becoming a terrorist. So what should the task force do?
To start with, it should not let local authorities fund groups little better than al-Muhajiroun under the guise of “community cohesion”. The answer is not money but more effective application of existing laws, especially as to what may be publicly said or broadcast. The task force should not talk of the “Muslim community” – there is no such thing – and should discourage any attempt at single identity politics.
Rather than ban extremist preachers, the Government should refute, prosecute and deport them (as the French do) with their families. It should stress that the proposed Communications Data Bill (aka the “Snoopers’ Charter”) does little more than extend to new media existing practices with the old. Above all, officials should pay more attention to “non-violent extremists”, the swamp from which the Woolwich murder emerged. The Prime Minister publicly called for this in his 2011 speech in Munich, but Whitehall largely ignored him, focusing on what one of Dame Stella’s successors called “the crocodiles nearest the boat”. It needn’t cost much – a few good desk officers here and there – but it would make a difference.
Many others have already written about the tragic and brutal murder of Lee Rigby last week, the aftermath that we have witnessed, and what this signifies. You can read some brilliantly on point blog posts as follows:
The above 4, between them, have probably already said a lot of what I feel. But here goes anyway.
There have been moments when I found myself shaking in reaction to events at the EDL/counter-demo this afternoon. And I’m not even in london. Reports from those attending the antifascist march are terrifying.
From up here, it's easy to be relatively unaware of the level of fear that is inspired by what is going on right now. This may be especially so if you've never been the victim of racial abuse, racial profiling or any of the other forms of bigotry that range from outright violence to the way certain ideas are perpetuated as being ok to believe, and as such are becoming more and more mainstream.
It may be hard to understand why I should have spent the past few days contacting friends and family, checking they are staying safe. Why, when I first heard the news of the murder last week, whilst being horrified for the victim and his family, my heart immediately sank when I heard that it was being linked to 'Muslims' and the word 'terrorist' cropped up.
I have seen people tell others on twitter that they are 'giving the EDL what they want by showing them fear'. Um...I think the violence and abuse that has been happening is reason enough for fear. I think the fact that a journalist can use "of muslim appearance' on national tv should ring a few bells.
The following are a few examples of what life becomes like if you are muslim/non-white, some following events such as these and others with no direct link to any particular event at the time:
- hijabi'd me being followed through a shopping area by three guys calling me things like 'paki' and 'nigger' and telling me to go back where i came from;
- my (hijabi'd) aunt being asked on the bus 'are you embarrassed about the murder that happened in Woolwich last week?'
- non-Muslim, non-white friends and white muslim friends fearing leaving their homes alone for fear of physical attack
- attempts to fire-bomb our local mosque twice in the past few years
- a friend removing her hijab after 9/11 after hearing of attacks on other hijabis
- my anxiety being alone in Liverpool post 7/7, noting the hostility that seemed to appear overnight
- a bearded-muslim friend being pulled over by the police, and when he asked why, told ‘you look like a terrorist’
Despite my anxiety, my fear of the very real risk of attack posed by simply being what I am - black and muslim - I've still wanted to be down in London today. I don’t want to be down there due to safety in numbers - I feel safer up here. While this may simply be a false sense of security,
I did get a sense of hope from the action against Farage the other week (worth having a look at this Ceasefire article on that incident).
But my reasons for wanting to be down there aren't linked to short-term feelings of safety.
I want to be there to add my voice to the total rejection of fascism.
To show the fascists on the street the solidarity that exists among the communities they are attempting to divide.
To show the fascists in the government the solidarity that exists among the communities they are trying to divide
and this latter is an important one to note
In my opinion, the edl are simply the crude, clumsily overtly dangerous tip of the iceberg of racism and bigotry that exists in the UK right now. The mass of that, which somehow manages to be less apparent and appear less dangerous to many, is the spread of this far-right ideology to mainstream politics, and via the mainstream media (which could really be renamed the PPC - Politicians’ Propaganda Collective). As someone put it on Twitter:
And that's it, really - this is not just a problem of a minority of bigoted fools who want 'their' country back. Far-right is swiftly becoming the new mainstream. To the extent that significant numbers of people really do think that UKIP and the Tories have a point when it comes to their foreign policies.
The threat of the spread of fascism is a very real one, and not just happening at an openly violent, street level. There is a massive need for solidarity, and awareness - I know many many people, good, intelligent people, who just aren't aware of this as a problem. There is a very real reason for feeling the fear. And a very real need to reverse the right-wing trend that's growing.
ps - In my clumsiness and tiredness, I may have said something that isn’t accurate - if you spot any such thing, happy to have it pointed out, in a non-shouty manner.