What makes a terrorist?

According to a report by MI5, it is not one factor in particular. The research, "Understanding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in the UK," (no, I do not have the original report: this is based on media accounts here and here) is based on a collection of case studies of people known to be "involved in or closely associated with terrorism." It might be said that some of the most important findings are non-findings, in the sense that several popular stereotypes did not receive confirmation. To wit:
  • There is not a pattern of "illegal immigration," most of the people are nationals of the UK. Among those who are migrants, they are more likely to have come for study or economic reasons than for political reasons or as refugees.
  • To the degree that they are religious, they are relatively new to religion and not well versed in it.
  • They are no more likely than than any other part of the population to suffer from psychological disorders.
  • They are not unified by any particular national or ethnic origin.
  • While most are under the age of 30, this cannot be said to be typical of the group.
  • Among those over 30, they are more likely than not to have families.
  • No general claims can be made about whether they are likely to have completed formal education or not.
As meaningful as these findings may be as a counterpoint to stereotypes, they are probably not very surprising. Since the overwhelming majority of people in every demographic are not terrorists, it would not be reasonable to expect any particular demographic characteristics to be typical of terrorists. These are individuals who are largely self-selected and their activity involves a considerable degree of will.

Is there anything that can be said the people in the group studied? Perhaps a few things:
  • It is not sufficient to be exposed to extreme ideas or to be persuaded by them. People are recruited into groups and remain in them by means of personal contact.
  • People who have experienced marginalisation or racism or who have only held low-level jobs may be more receptive to recruitment than others.
  • The tolerance of terrorists for people with criminal records (here they refer to ordinary rather than "political" crime) may mean that people who are not accepted elsewhere in society may be accepted by terrorist groups.
  • The people recruiting members into terrorist networks are less likely to be the famous "radical clerics" as they are to be peers from the communities in which the recruits live.
  • The strongest force maintaining members in the group is a sense of belonging.
  • Perceptions of racism, anti-Muslim sterotypes in media, and other information that promotes a sense of victimhood strengthen recruitment.
Now, if we look at that list of factors above, it is easy to conclude that there are a lot more people who are influenced by several of those factors than there are terrorists. The MI5 report is sensible in pointing out that personal recruitment is essential.

There is of course another distinction to be made: between having extreme ideas and using violence to realise these ideas. Here (this is not a quotation from the report, which I have not seen, but from a summary of it by Alan Travis in the Guardian):
"The MI5 authors stress that the most pressing current threat is from Islamist extremist groups who justify the use of violence "in defence of Islam", but that there are also violent extremists involved in non-Islamist movements.

They say that they are concerned with those who use violence or actively support the use of violence and not those who simply hold politically extreme views."

If this is the way that thinking is developing among people in law enforcement about terrorism, it is a good sign. Concentrating attention on where the trouble might be rather than on where it is could have the effect of producing more terrorists.

Update: That last point is made more colourfully at SpyBlog (which also discusses the possible provenance of the document) -- "One Obvious Question not mentioned in the "Key Points" or in The Guardian's articles, is to what extent "radicalisation" is influenced by the cockups and mistakes whereby heavy handed or inept Police and Security Agency actions, which sweep up innocent or neutral or marginal terrorism supporters, and who refuse to promptly admit, publicly apologise and make generous financial compensation for their mistakes, contributes to the conversion of these people and their relatives, into more extreme supporters or into actual terrorists, exactly as used to happen in Northern Ireland."


Anonymous said...

OK, so there's no pattern of radical Islamist preachers seeking asylum in the UK from conservative Muslim regimes, maintaining contact with a wider network through figures slipping into and out of the country as reported during Abu Hamza's glory days at Finsbury Park mosque and working with young educated politically aware UK-born members of immigrant communities to provide alienated and delinquent members of the same communities with a sense of motivation and self-worth through commitment to a body of religious beliefs that direct them towards violence. That's all an illusion created by selective reporting of trials of inappropriately arrested individuals.

If you stir everybody into the mix indiscriminately you're not going to see a clear pattern but when you see a few examples of disparate elements clustering together you suspect that there may be some common features to these clusters.

Of course if it's not possible to tell who might be liable to cause trouble, then no-one can be held accountable for failing to identify and stop the potential perpetrators - or at least it's easier to make a case for additional money in order to do the job better.

Excuse me for being a little sceptical.

Eric Gordy said...

I'm not sure what you are getting at here. Is it that you think the research is offering invalid conclusions? Or that you think it was made (semi)public for cynical reasons having to do with police protecting their reputation?

Anonymous said...

I may have missed something recently but I don't think we've ever had a proper answer as to why Mohammed Siddique Khan crossed the security services' radar display during Operation Crevice and was then apparently forgotten, so thoroughly that we were told no-one knew anything or could have done anything about the July 7th bombers. Until there's a public inquiry into July 7th I reserve the right to be sceptical.

Eric Gordy said...

So you are reading this as a sort of retrospective justification -- we didnt prevent this because there is really no way of detecting it?

I was reading it a little bit differently, as developing an approach to prevention that looks for dangerous individuals more than identifying some communities as dangerous, which looked like a good thing to me. That was why I liked Spyblog's comment about NI, even though the expression is a little extreme.

There's every reason to be sceptical, of course. I could put in my two pence also, which is that the conclusions look a bit like 1950s-vintage alienation theory, which made the mistake of portraying social dissatisfaction as though it was psychological. The result of that was to miss out on causes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's my basic reaction. Everybody's into spin these days. Of course since very little in real life is actually vanilla-favoured, I'm happy to take your two-pence on board as well, and also to guess at the possibility of a stand-off behind the scenes between people committed to in-depth investigation and others more conscious of political imperatives.

Speaking without any authority other than my own mouth's, I'd query Spyblog's analysis to the extent that internment seems to have been a very significant factor in radicalisation in Northern Ireland, whereas I suspect Islamist radicalisation occurred largely before the specific local events that contributed to antagonising the Muslim community generally.

I certainly don't go along with stigmatising entire groups, but I nor do I buy the argument that you can't look at more tightly defined sub-groups within the wider community, even if you're running a risk of stereotyping. It's particularly important to be sensitive in delineating the real targets of your investigation from the innocents and marginals and that's where genuine problems arise.

The clumsiness that comes from political pressure for results (and genuine anxiety about impending risk) is going to militate against that sort of sensitivity. Another problem (taking it as read that the explosion of bombs intended to kill civilians by people known to associate with like-minded others is reasonable prima facie evidence of the existence of a group of potential terrorists) is that the guilty members of the targeted subgroup are very likely to resort to the defensive tactic of redefining the perceived target group to involve the wider community.

That's when it's important to ensure that there's a genuine alliance between that wider community and the general public (preferably not an alliance involving Hazel Blears unless I'm being equally unfair in going by impressions).

Anyhow, all that's drifting away from my main point of view, which is that until there's an effort to come reasonably clean about July 7, any apparent attempt to convince the public that it's very difficult to identify potential terrorists should be treated with caution, like you would a Jiffy-bag arriving through the letter-box from an unrecognised sender.

Apologies for the muck-up with the posts - brain and eye often don't coordinate (ie function).