Saturday, July 07, 2007

Understanding Islamist Terror: Radicals, Moderates, and Reformists

Islamist Free Speech
Expressing their identity crisis...
(Image from Wikipedia)

As I noted yesterday, part of the problem that we face in Islamist terrorism is understanding the preconditions and the triggering factors.

Later in the day, I happened to read an International Herald Tribune article that addresses some of these very issues. Written by Peter R. Neumann, director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College London, the article is titled "A crisis of identity and the appeal of jihad" and can be found in the Friday, July 6, 2007 issue (Seoul edition) of the IHT (or here online).

Neumann begins by noting the 'surprising' fact -- surprising, anyway, to those who haven't been paying attention -- that the recent terrorist wave in England has been undertaken by highly educated, even affluent individuals with highly respected career prospects. Everyone 'knows' that terrorism, especially suicide terror, is committed only by the dispossessed or the disturbed. Neumann isn't surprised, though, for he has been studying this phenomenon for some time and can report:
With Islamist militants, ... the sociological dynamics seem to be different. No researcher has yet been able to construct a single profile based on simple socioeconomic indicators that would accurately describe the "typical" jihadist. A senior British intelligence officer summed it up as follows: "The pattern is that there is no pattern."
In other words, the popular and oft-repeated mantra that poverty spawns terrorism does not fit the facts for Islamist terrorists. Some are poor, some are comfortable, and some are fabulously wealthy:
Indeed, social scientists are overwhelmed by the diversity of backgrounds and attributes that can be found among known Islamist terrorists.
Despite this diversity, many Islamist terrorists are (or were) well-to-do:
In fact, a fair number of them are highly educated, often holding advanced university degrees. Many seem to have trained in the sciences, with chemists, engineers and medical doctors playing a prominent role in jihadist movements across the world.

Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Hamburg cell that was responsible for the Sept. 11th attacks in the United States, had just completed his post-graduate degree in urban planning and was set to join the professional elite in his home country. And let's not forget Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, who trained as a medical doctor and whose family is among the most influential in Egypt.
Newmann directs us to a study by a Dutch intelligence agency:
So, if it's not the social and economic background, what connects the people who have become involved in jihadist terrorism? The Dutch domestic intelligence service recently published a study of jihadist recruitment in the Netherlands, which identifies three types of personalities that can be found in extremist cells.

First are the so-called new immigrants, who grew up in Middle Eastern and North African countries, came to Europe as students or refugees and had no previous involvement with jihadism before they arrived in the West. This applied to Mohammed Atta, but it could also be true for the suspects who have been arrested in recent days.

The second group are second or third generation "immigrants" whose parents or grandparents settled in European countries as "guest workers." Most are citizens of European countries and speak the language of their home country fluently.

Finally, there is a small but growing number of converts who have embraced militant Islamism shortly after they became Muslims.
This is a rather broad spectrum and, moreover, includes millions of individuals, so it doesn't have much specific predictive value, but it may help us in thinking about preconditions and triggers.

Neumann also notes the difficulties posed by these Dutch findings but introduces the work of Marc Sageman, whose writings I'm aware of through my subscription to the FPRI E-Notes, for I received an email by Sageman on this topic nearly three years ago: "Understanding Terror Networks" (November 1, 2004). According to that e-note, Sageman "was a CIA case officer in Afghanistan between 1987–89 and is now a forensic psychiatrist." I think that these two things qualify him rather well for thinking about the motivations of Islamist terrorists. I'd recommend that those interested in this issue read Sageman's work. Here's what Neumann has to say on Sageman's findings (though he seems to have interwoven Sageman's views with the Dutch study):
Marc Sageman, an American psychologist who carried out an extensive study of the profiles of Al Qaeda members, found that, indeed, there is very little that would connect these groups in terms of quantifiable socioeconomic indicators.

What they share, however, is that they have all experienced tensions in their personal lives, or were faced with deep and sustained crises of identity that they resolved by embracing jihadism.
A crisis of identity? That 'might' be useful:
The "new immigrants" felt alienated and isolated when they left their home countries, and extremist Islam not only provided them with new friends but also with a new identity and a place in the world.

The children and grandchildren of immigrants frequently experience a tension between the traditional, cultural Islam of their parents and an unaccepting Western society. Extremism gives them an identity that allows them to rebel against both.

And the converts, by definition, have gone through a personal crisis that led them to adopt a new identity.
Useful, yes, for understanding, but not for predictive purposes or for profiling:
None of this will be of much help to the security service in constructing a profile of the "typical" terrorist suspect. But it provides a glimpse into the internal tensions through which some of these people have gone before committing themselves to jihad.

And it also explains why doctors and engineers are as vulnerable to jihadism as petty thieves and the unemployed. After all, personal crisis -- a sense of being isolated and the search for identity -- is not a privilege of the poor and uneducated.
The biggest problem that I see with this finding about the significant role of identity crisis is that, in principle, it includes just about everybody in our postmodern times. Who doesn't undergo an identity crisis? If it serves as a trigger -- but a trigger that gets pulled for everybody -- then what explains the Islamist terrorist?

I don't claim to know specifically, but we should consider Irshad Manji's point that "For Muslim extremists, religion matters" (The New Republic, July 6, 2007):
[A] former jihadist from Manchester wrote that the "real engine of our violence" is "Islamic theology." Months ago, this young man informed me that as a militant he raised most of his war chest not from obscenely rich Saudis, but from middle-class Muslim dentists living in the United Kingdom.
These are well-to-do professionals, a point noted by Neumann above. Manji observes:
In short, it's not what the material world fails to deliver that drives suicide bombers. It's something else. And, time and again, the very people committing these acts have articulated what that something else is: their religion.

Consider Mohammad Sidique Khan, the teaching assistant who masterminded the July 7, 2005 transit bombings in London. In a taped testimony, Khan railed against British foreign policy. But before bringing up Western imperialism, he emphasized that "Islam is our religion" and "the Prophet is our role model." Khan gave priority to God, not to Iraq.

Now take Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born Moroccan Muslim who murdered Amsterdam film director Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri pumped several bullets into van Gogh's body. Knowing that multiple shots would finish off his victim, why didn't Bouyeri stop there? Why did he pull out a blade to decapitate van Gogh?

Again, we must confront religious symbolism. The blade is an implement associated with seventh-century tribal conflict. Wielding it as a sword becomes a tribute to the founding moment of Islam. Even the note stabbed into van Gogh's corpse, although written in Dutch, had the unmistakable rhythms of Arabic poetry. Let's credit Bouyeri with honesty: At his trial he proudly acknowledged acting from "religious conviction."
Manji doesn't analyze. She's more activist than thinker. But if we think about this, then we can see that the problem lies in very extreme forms of Islam that look to the past as a model for the present. And extremist Islam seems rather widespread, for we find it preached in mosques, promulgated on the internet, and propounded by political leaders, sometimes even heads of state. There exist, then, widespread, extreme forms of Islam easily available to the millions of young men (and sometimes women) undergoing crises of identity.

Not very encouraging news, that.

But Manji makes an interesting suggestion about one way to deal with the problem:
While the vast majority of Muslims aren't extremists, a more important distinction must start being made -- the distinction between moderate Muslims and reform-minded ones.

Moderate Muslims denounce violence in the name of Islam but deny that Islam has anything to do with it. By their denial, moderates abandon the ground of theological interpretation to those with malignant intentions -- effectively telling would-be terrorists that they can get away with abuses of power because mainstream Muslims won't challenge the fanatics with bold, competing interpretations. To do so would be admit that religion is a factor. Moderate Muslims can't go there.

Reform-minded Muslims say it's time to admit that Islam's scripture and history are being exploited. They argue for re-interpretation precisely to put the would-be terrorists on notice that their monopoly is over. Re-interpreting doesn't mean re-writing. It means re-thinking words and practices that already exist -- removing them from a seventh-century tribal time warp and introducing them to a twenty first-century pluralistic context.
The distinction between "moderates" and "reformists" is useful, in my opinion, for it acknowledges that Islam is at least partly the problem and that something has to be done to transform Islam itself. Moderates cannot be depended upon to do anything other than be moderate. Reformists understand that Islam has to change.

Change won't come easily.

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At 7:44 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Reminds me of the sixties. Its just that the violence didn't escalate. It may be because there were too many paths, not a single unifying ideology.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The identity crisis, you mean?

I guess that the unifying 'ideology' at the time was 'anti-war-ism', which tends to put a damper on any unified, violent uprising, doesn't it?

If your analogy is right, then we can pass through this ... maybe.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are the triggers all on the side of the Muslims? Might a decrease in support for Israel help, or getting U.S. military bases out of the Middle East? Does that have nothing at all to do with any of this?

I can understand why ideologically such a suggestion would be a non-starter among certain crowds, for many Americans, to point towards the United States as a key factor in the ferocity of the engendered response is the height of political incorrectness. However, from the sort of scientific standpoint you seem to be going after here, it seems to be an important independent variable to keep in mind. That is, you take away U.S. support for Israel, occupation of Iraq, and military bases in the Middle East out of the equation, and you just might see a lessening of terrorism.

It seems more important to get to the question of: which Muslims believe they are at war with the US/West? Once that question is answered, the peculiarities of tactics can be demystified. That is, it seems clear that they use "terror" because they feel they have no other means within an asymmetrical war.

At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“That is, you take away U.S. support for Israel, occupation of Iraq, and military bases in the Middle East out of the equation, and you just might see a lessening of terrorism.”

Sacrificing Israel (lets all be honest and admit that is exactly what would happen w/o U.S. support – perhaps they would go down after nuking Tehran, though) and any hope of a moderate government in Iraq seems like a high price to pay for such an experiment that can only reinforce the already prevalent notion that terrorism works.

At 3:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous (a pseudonym, by the way, would be helpful), I agree that Islamists don't like American foreign policy, but I think that this is usually overemphasized as a trigger and tends to portray them as merely reacting rather than taking action.

Islamists are active agents in history who have a long-term ideological aim, namely, the worldwide hegemony of Islam in an Islamist caliphate ruled through shariah.

They've been quite explicit about their ultimate goals, and this -- rather than opposition to US foreign policy -- explains jihadist attacks throughout the world, very many of which are attacks on non-Muslims who have nothing to do with American policies or upon Muslims whom jihadists consider insufficiently Islamic.

Now, in theory, these Islamists might be suffering from false consciousness and lack insight into what accounts for their actions, and if so, then perhaps they'd instantly lose interest in jihad if America were suddenly to alter all of its foreign policies to meet Islamist demands, but I suspect that the Islamists would simply be emboldened.

I suppose that we also have to be careful about what we mean by a "trigger." Are we talking about what triggers individuals to become Islamists or about what triggers Islamists to acts of terror?

Anyway, thanks for the comment, which has turned my focus again upon the issue of US policy, which is a factor even if I think that it's usually overemphasized.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Richardson, I think that we probably agree that the Islamists would make further demands if their terrorism worked because their ultimate aims go far beyond US foreign policy.

For instance, they have no interest in a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, they want Spain handed back to the Caliphate, and they want all of the world under Islamic rule.

For Islamists, there would always be something to 'trigger' another bout of terror.

(Parenthetically, my interest in this post was more toward understanding why certain individuals turn to Islamism in the first place.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with that entirely.

As we had the Cold War, I wonder what this will be called in a few decades or a century, but I guess that depends on who wins.

As for why individuals choose the path of radical/militant/violent Islam over other less malignant alternatives, I suppose there are many reasons. One might simply be excitement. Some children soldiers in Africa have reported getting hooked on the excitement of fighting, and yes, killing. Some people might get it from shoplifting, bar fights, extreme sports, infidelity, etc. I know I miss the excitement – and danger – associated with some of the deep wreck diving I did for about three years. Just one area to consider.

BTW, I’ve a related post (Islamic turmoil rather than excitement) at Area Studies (a blog for non-DPRK related posts):
“As noted in above, “Change won’t come easily.” One theory – sorry, I don’t recall whose – discussed in a grad school class (Islam in Asia) is that unrest throughout the Islamic world is related to increasing literacy, which bring access to information and beliefs systems that tend to disrupt the old patterns. That is, education has increased access to competing notions of what everything is all about, and Islamic radicalism could be seen as a reactionary attempt to “set things right.”
This can be compared to the rising literacy and centuries of religious turmoil in the post-Renaissance period in Europe. Except in the current era there nearly a billion Muslims, mass communications, and weapons of mass destruction; not encouraging.”

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jihadists do admit to getting hooked on the excitement of killing infidels, but I don't suppose that this would explain the suicide bomber. How exciting can one's own death be?

But I guess that those 'martyrs' have 72 compelling reasons to trigger their actions...

Thanks for the link, by the way. I'll take a look at your area studies post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess if you really believed in the 72 virgins bit, that’d help the medicine go down. And it would probably be a tense and exciting last few minutes. . .

In this context, there are the suicide bombers I understand, and those I don’t. Blowing up random people in a market, for example, just seems a stupid waste (unless the 72 factor is at play, or some notion of being immortalized as a martyr). It should also be noted that some small percentage are not willing participants, but are drugged, handcuffed or otherwise fixed to a vehicle, blackmailed, etc. GI Korea has written on that aspect.

But there are those I understand – those with a personal ax to grind who go after those who did them harm.

If my family had been killed by X in a brutal fashion, and I had no real prospect of justice in some protracted conflict, the asymmetric way might seem a bit better. Being driven by grief, despair, hate, and the desire for vengeance I can understand. I’d prefer some sort of targeted and meaningful group, and to not hit those not involved, the innocent. If I could blow the people who did whatever to my family, and other members of their combatant group, it might be worth it.

That’s obviously a more discriminating view of what a viable target is than what the majority of suicide bombers go for, though.

Clearly poverty is not the overarching reason for what they do, and I tend to believe it’s a reactionary desire for the return of and Islamic controlled state without corrupting Western influence, something that attracts the uneducated and PhD alike. No amount of logic and dealing will change those people, we kill them or they kill us.

So it will be protracted struggle where their society will either overcome the reactionaries, or the reactionaries will attain supremacy there and continue the fight with the West.

At 4:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The random killing committed by blowing up people in a market fits the jihadist method advocated by Abu Bakr Naji in his tome, The Management of Savagery.

Summarized: make chaos, then take control.

One thing that troubles me is the vast amount of indoctrination of children going on in the madrassas. The jihadists are thinking long-term and trying to build up an enormous 'army' of young men (and some women, it seems). We need to deal with this problem as well, for these madrassas produce the sort of misfits who will never learn to fit in within a modern society. They might not be very competent terrorists, but they'll fill certain needs in the jihad...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with richardson, when he says that "there are the suicide bombers I understand, and those I don’t."

I feel the same way. Why do they act so inefficiently? If and when you are prepared to martyr yourself anyway, why not make the most of it, like the 9/11 or Madrid guys did, or those that blew up the Kerbala mosque? Even a targeted one-on-one attack, like the van-Gogh case, can make strategical sense.

I can understand that planning and executing something like that is exciting, and even somehow "worth it", in an investment-return way. But why would a rational person volunteer to become the 1789th person to blow up a desert roadblock manned by one or two police? Either they have low standards, or it's more about the dying part than the killing part.

Of course the masterminds of these attacks have an ample supply of volunteers and can afford to be tactically wasteful with their human raw material, but why not try harder? If they were serious about the caliphate or anti-West thing, why do they put so little thought toward achieving it by acting more efficiently?

I found this Glasgow airport attack totally baffling. Half a dozen people involved, and the only one who'll end up dead in the end is that guy who set himself on fire with petrol. Is that crass incompetence? Or was it a case of "look how desperate we are, we could have caused mass caualties, but chose not to"? If so, was that strategic thought, maybe to avoid too harsh a backlash? But how does that square with the many wasted desert checkpoint suicide attacks? Maybe it really was about the dying being the more important part, after all?

We've heard the "you love Pepsi-Cola, we love death" thing more than once from high placed spokesmen. The Adonis interview you linked to a while ago also agreed that it is a symptom of a dying, or already dead, society. So maybe this is really the core of it? As a strategy toward a caliphte, it doesn't look terribly promising and certainly hasn't any meaningful historical precedent - past caliphates were establishied in the conventional way, be killing its opponents.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I have the impression that what we're seeing is a lot of freelance suicide bombings by folks with little strategic sense and even less technical know-how.

They're generally motivated by the aim of the Caliphate but more specifically motivated by other grievances (e.g., Palestine), I suppose, plus the hope for 72 pure, eternally re-hymenated celestial houris.

For the strategists with a larger vision, it all makes sense. The more unpredictable the bombings, the more terrorized the infidel. They'll realize, "It can happen even here!"

And if a bombing fails, it will still make infidels feel unsafe. They'll worry, "The next one might succeed."

And if even doctors are trying to blow themselves up, infidels will conclude, "No Muslim can be trusted."

This might seem like overplaying the jihadists' hand if the infidels' reaction turns to mass expulsions of Muslims, but it all fits the overall plan of radicalizing every Muslim everywhere.

See ... it all makes sense.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:29 PM, Blogger Mark Russell said...

I wonder why more people are not comparing Islamic extremist violence today with Northern Ireland or (especially) the anarchist violence of the early 20th century. Seems to me there would be more than a few clues in previous waves of terrorism that have come and gone in the West.

Anyhow, as for my 2 cents on motivations... I think the root motivation is resistance to mechanist natural philosophy. Going from a spiritual-based worldview to a religious one is one of the most profound and difficult shifts for a society to make. Europe went through multiple wars over this over the centuries (and I would include Marxism as the last intellectual gasp or spiritiualism... trying to put an overarching order into mechanistic philosophy).

For almost everyone in the West, at heart we believe in a mechanical, science-based system. Even for the superstitious or those with a large amount of religion covering them, deep inside most Western people believe in a Newtonian universe.

For those people with spirit (God, whatever) at the center of their psyches, the thought of a science-centred world is blasphemy, empty, and basically death itself. In such a struggle, any means are viable options.

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mark, thanks for the comment.

On religious violence, some people are comparing Islamist violence to Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland. But even the IRA gave advance warnings of its terrorist attacks, and note that the IRA was more secular, even Marxist, than Catholic.

I'd look more to the great religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries for parallels.

As for worldviews, I'd call our age secular rather than Newtonian -- although 'secular' America is quite religious, and Newton himself was a very religious fellow.

At any rate, it's the secular threat that seems to bother Islamists, but they dislike other religions, too.

I don't quite follow your conclusion, for the means of struggle employed by those who believe in spiritual things will be limited by the moral teachings of the spiritual things that they believe in.

Jeffery Hodges

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