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I Was An Islamist Extremist. A Counter Narrative Is Essential To Stop Terrorism

22/12/2016 14:48 | Updated 23 December 2016
goir via Getty Images

Earlier this week, we witnessed two horrific acts of violence. In Berlin, a lorry ploughed through a crowd at a busy Christmas market killing 12 and injuring many more. In Ankara, we witnessed the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a riot police officer.

Monday's event in Berlin was reminiscent of the lorry attack in Nice, which killed 86 people in July. As demonstrated with both events, terrorists do not need sophisticated command, control or resources to still carry out what they deem 'effective' attacks.

Earlier this month in Munich a terror attack, similar to the one in Berlin, was foiled by German intelligence. They found the (potential) attacker to be a 12-year-old boy, a German citizen of Iraqi heritage. The boy was radicalised online by an ISIS member and carried out the instruction to place a backpack with a homemade bomb in a Munich Christmas market. Had the suspicious behaviour not been reported, we would be seeing horrifying scenes similar to Berlin today. A nail bomb is not a difficult task to construct, nor is placing a bomb in a crowded place.

ISIS, and groups like it, have long-called for the deployment of low grade weaponry and tactics which are both ubiquitous and can avoid the trip wires of our intelligence efforts. So much so a 12-year-old almost successfully carried out an attack - a person as young as this is rarely detected by intelligence services and is much easier to influence due to their impressionable nature.

The perpetrators are nearly always young men citing political reasons for their motivation behind the attack. The killing of the Russian ambassador echoed that of Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo. Adebolajo hacked soldier Lee Rigby to death on a busy street in broad daylight. Eye-witness accounts recall his words after the murder when asked why he did it: "The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one, he is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth".

Mevlut Mert Altintas was filmed moments after the assassination shouting: "We die in Aleppo, you die here" as well as "Allahu Akbar, we are descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammed, for jihad". Whilst political grievances are arguably the most cited reason behind terrorist attacks, it is important not to overlook the Islamist ideology that performs as the ultimate justification for violence.

The attacks in Berlin and Ankara, particularly Ankara, are the manifestations of an echo chamber for that extremist ideology I once held. As a reformed extremist, I can identify better than most the Islamist platform from which these young men operate from. From my time in Al Muhajiroun, now a banned UK terrorist group, I remember well the exploitative nature of marrying religious ideology with geo-political events. Our political grievances were given justification through the nature of the violent Islamist ideology and thus led to our hostile reconnaissance of potential terror plots in London.

The process of radicalisation is getting shorter and the choice of soft targets and weapons is becoming more unpredictable. We have entered a new era of terrorism. What we are dealing with a transnational community of violence underpinned by a pernicious reading of Islam that sees violence such as these acts as legitimate whilst serving God.

We need to reassess our approach to preventing extremism through a comprehensive understanding of the radicalisation process these men have undergone to commit these acts of terror. We must counter Islamist ideology as much as the active prevention of violent acts through a counter narrative of reform and reclaiming Islam for the moderate.

Only by offering strong alternatives to the Islamist extremist interpretations of the Qu'ran will we win back the hearts and minds of vulnerable individuals susceptible to the trap of extremist narratives. In more tactical terms, we need a complete monopoly of the information sphere with counter-messaging and more authentic, tolerant interpretations. Preventing low grade attacks like the ones in Berlin and Ankara are extremely difficult. The best chance we have of reducing them is starving potential terrorists of the ideological hype of various extremist groups which ultimately connect the two tragic events of this week.

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