Friday 18 January 2019

Only way to truly stop DIY jihadis is to interrupt their journey to radicalisation

An injured person is assisted on Westminster Bridge after the terror attack. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville
An injured person is assisted on Westminster Bridge after the terror attack. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville

Declan Power

Once again we have witnessed a terrorist attack on the streets of London - and once again the obsession becomes how to guard against such atrocities. So what is the right approach to take?

Arm all the police? Turn Westminster into a fortress or Iraqi-style 'Green Zone'? Or none of the above?

None of the above, not surprisingly. We need to keep in mind that while this was indeed a terror attack inspired by the ideology of Islamic extremists such as Isil, it is nowhere near the scale of indiscriminate danger produced by the IRA's bombing campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.

The battlefield here is not a hard-edged one. Of course security precautions must be taken… but then they already are. The officers of the Metropolitan Police in London acquitted themselves admirably, one of them losing his life upholding the law and protecting the public.

There is nothing that needs to be fixed at that level. In order to address this increase in DIY-Islamic terrorism that has been spawned across Europe, some deeper thinking has to be done.

The most potent weapon the London terrorist had at his disposal, indeed that any terrorist has, is the willingness to both kill and be killed for their cause.

It would be a comforting thought for us all to consider all of the assailants who engaged in attacks across Europe and now in London as mindless psychopaths.

However, they are not.

But they are radicalised individuals, and the central part of any radicalisation process is a thing called 'legitimisation'.

Terrorists do not become such overnight. Research formulated from a combination of practitioner experience and academic rigour has found that most converts to terror, whether at the level of Wednesday's attacker or indeed Osama bin Laden, ascend a 'staircase to terrorism'.

That is, they go through a number of steps of ascending importance. These steps may, but not always, include poverty or experience of cruelty. However, they always include coming from a background with a strong history of victimhood and an experience of polarisation from society.

These are the early steps towards terrorism and they are steps a lot of young European Muslims have trodden already.

Not everyone who has ascended these first steps on the staircase to terrorism makes it up the whole way. Why?

Because various things happen to the individual as they make their journey that can interrupt the ascent. Sometimes it is getting a mentor/teacher/friend who can present a different narrative on life. Whatever the reason for the 'interruption', it is this that must be studied more closely. For it is understanding how it happens and how it is created that will give our society a real chance in containing this evolution in DIY jihadi terrorism.

So what happens if there is no 'interruption' along the ascent of the staircase?

Then the individual makes it to the most dangerous point. The point of legitimisation.

Legitimisation is the most potent tool or weapon a terrorist has. It gives him or her the means to dehumanise their target and therefore allows them to carry out the heinous acts we have seen perpetrated throughout Western Europe and the Middle East over the past year or more.

As long as a terrorist has the means to legitimate their actions to themselves, that what they are doing is a necessity to strike a blow for their cause or religion, that this horrible act must be done in order to protect their 'people', then the terrorist is a living, breathing weapon.

So the battle or security effort really needs to be about attacking the means for Islamic terrorists to legitimate their actions.

To counter this requires the various strands of Islam to work in concert with the different states of Europe they inhabit to formulate a means to combat this.

Some significant things must change in what is taught in some of our mosques in Europe. Just like the way Ireland had to change how our history was taught, from one of a narrative of victimhood to a more enlightened version of history suitable for a forward-thinking nation.

The practice of the 'history of victimhood' is a key factor in being able to furnish a future terrorist with the means to legitimate his actions and to dehumanise his enemy. This is why Isil has invested so much in online communications. It is also why it is important to scrutinise the travelling Islamic preachers we allow into our State.

Changing the narrative about how Islamic families view themselves and their place in the world, and more importantly in the countries of Europe, is an essential defensive measure to stop the kinds of attacks we witnessed on Wednesday.

Make no mistake, this will not and cannot happen overnight - but to not begin the process now would be a negligent act, particularly for future generations. Thinking this can all be contained by traditional law enforcement and security means would be the biggest error to be made at this juncture.

Moving forward, a twin-track approach of prudent security measures by police and military must be coupled with a state-sponsored programme to counter violent extremist ideology from embedding in the communities at risk.

Declan Power is a security and defence analyst who has works on EU-sponsored anti-terrorism and extremism programs in Africa and the Middle East

Irish Independent

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