Labelling Criminals As Terrorists Imbues Them With Undeserved Power: They Are Just Isolated, Egotistical Violent Offenders

20/06/2017 10:37
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With the 18th June attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque, we see the latest case of the low-tech murder and maiming of individuals by someone nursing disgusting racist and religious views. Unlike in the case of the killing of the MP Jo Cox a year earlier, the mass media seem willing to extend the equivalence of the label 'terrorist' to the perpetrator and the act. This is progress but - I argue - none of the recent attacks, criminal, reprehensible and unforgiveable as they are, are usefully thought of as terrorism.

It is without doubt that the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge-Borough Market and Finsbury Park murders were driven to their futile actions by beliefs. It is almost certain that they were all 'self-radicalized', given the impossibility of directing people to do things that they don't really want to do - these are all volunteers who have decided to plot, plan and undertake heinous crimes.

But, terrorism is a term whose use has become diluted such that it doesn't capture the true motivations of such individuals and small groups. These are not 'lone wolves', brigades or warriors operating on behalf of distant or underground movements. These are not individuals who have a deep and long-standing commitment to an ideological cause with significant strategic-operational-tactical plans, documents and overarching aims.

In short, the beliefs which have energised these attackers - and others, think of the bomber of the Admiral Duncan pub in 1999 - are not about trying to replace one system of government with another or of achieving a homeland, independence or some other strictly political aim. Historically, that is what the definition of terrorism has been concerned with. Terrorism is a strategic activity aimed at terrorising populations, thereby pressuring the political leaders to accede to the demands of the attackers.

But wanting to kill all Westerners, all Muslims, all Jews, or MPs, Police Officers, gays ..... these are not the acts of terrorism for a bigger cause, rather these are motivations of individuals and small groups finding common cause to hatch hate crimes. Public inquiries and other investigations find little explanation in attacker's backgrounds for their involvement in mass murder - because there is little to find. What policy is it that these attacks seek to change?

Such attackers may be inspired or confirmed in their beliefs by reading the lunacy of Hitler's Mein Kampf, the scribblings of conspiracy theorists or the glossy ramblings of militant Islamic groups: but the intent to kill for shallow beliefs was not created by others. These criminals - confident in the supremacy of their views of the world and of who deserves to live and die - have convinced themselves that they can change the world. Individuals and groups like this are hard to detect, because they do isolate themselves from debate and challenge - insulated in the echo chamber of a criminal cell as small as the inside of one person's head.

These attackers are pursuing ultimately futile acts - whilst they can destroy the lives of victims and their families, they cannot change the world. They may seek some seismic change - but they are not in the vanguard of revolutionary warfare, for that too has thought-through (if delusional) outcomes.

Attackers can have asymmetric effects by using improvised explosives or vehicles, but they are not advancing any cause. Just because they shout political slogans, have watched the furious discourses of religious and other speakers and hate all but a few categories of people - this doesn't make them terrorists. These are not lone wolves, 'self-starters', nor remote-controlled warriors: for the 7/7 bombers, the Official Account noted, for example, that the "backgrounds of the 4 men appear largely unexceptional" (p13). Bond concluded that 'the vast majority of suicide bombers, the 7/7 four included, show no sign of mental illness and have no criminal history. They are often better educated than their peers and hold respectable jobs' (Bond 2007).

And it is for this reason that all of the radicalization 'experts' have failed to provide meaningful insight into this problem. They are over-thinking the challenge. Such attackers are rare individuals who seek out justification to kill, they are not persuaded or recruited to this for, as with the rest of us, it is impossible to brainwash people into becoming killers.

These quiet criminals, likely hiding their true beliefs, drives and hatreds from those around them, or driven out of their forms of 'polite society' (think of Mair exiled from fascist organisations because of his enthusiasm for extreme violence or of the alleged London Bridge attackers ejected from their mosque) are just like any other concealed delinquent. Plotters of any crime keep their secrets close to themselves and their trusted circles, hence why there may be few or no early warning signs for family members, community organisations, law enforcement or intelligence agencies to detect.

Even when these individuals travel for training or to take up arms in conflicts in Syria, for example, they are choosing to make these decisions. They have become single-mindedly determined to act. Harbouring shallow political or religious beliefs and wildly over-estimating their ability to effect change - they are not radicalised, they have freely decided to become criminals. As well as being unsighted on the strategic objectives of Da'esh, for example, those who do go to the effort of joining them turn out to know very little about their own religion, according to a Washington Post analysis of captured documents.

Arguments about social exclusion, political disenfranchisement, lack of opportunity and so on do not explain why so few people from these demographic slices of Western countries undertake such heinous crimes. There is no contagion which afflicts people who come across videos, texts or other sources of extreme thinking and renders us mindlessly compliant to 'radicalization'. Almost everyone is immune to such efforts, except those who are searching for a mast to nail their murderous thoughts to.

Just as attackers may have shouted 'I did my bit', 'this is for Britain' or 'this is for Allah' - in all cases these criminals acted solely to satisfy their own revolting prejudices and egocentric selves. These individuals were always dangerous, we must find new ways of detecting their plots.

Dr Mils Hills is Associate Professor of Security at the University of Northampton. He has previously held posts in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence leading efforts to build national resilience and to counter asymmetric threats.