Woolwich Attack: Overreacting To Extremism 'Could Bring Back Al Qaeda' Ex CIA Officer Warns

Plans To Tackle Extremism Are A 'Waste Of Time'

One of the world's leading terrorism experts has branded the government's proposals to muzzle Islamist hate preachers and crack down on violent extremism in the wake of the Woolwich attack as "a waste of time".

Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer who worked with the Afghan mujahedin in the late 1980s, says that "a good [counter-extremism] policy should be based on an understanding on what's happening on the ground.

"The notion that there is any serious process called 'radicalisation', or indoctrination, is really a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas - but it's a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend."

Sageman, the author of Leaderless Jihad and Understanding Terror Networks, has analysed 500 terrorist biographies and tells the Huffington Post UK that prime minister David Cameron and home secretary Theresa May'splans to counter extremism in the wake of the Woolwich murder - including the creation of a new Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Task Force (TERFOR) made up of senior ministers, MI5, police and moderate Muslim leaders - "are very much a waste of time".

Banning free speech isn't the solution, he argues. "These [extremists] need to be confronted and shown how ridiculous some of their views are; by banning them you are giving them some cache and suggesting that they're really important and dangerous."

"People focus on the 'preacher of hate'.. but often the discussion is often much more mundane. It's among the people who surround you, who you spend most time with."

Concentrating on the so-called preachers of hate, says the former CIA officer, "won't achieve much", especially as his research suggests they tend not to be "directly implicated in any of the [major] plots or attacks. They are in the business of propaganda and showing that they are important. And the government is giving them a platform to show how important they are - even though they're not really involved [in terror plots]."

According to Sageman, there is a "two-step process" in the turn towards violence: "First, you join this political protest, discursive community. These are the guys who feel they're not being listened to. That protest [achieves] nothing and they then decide to escalate; there is a process of escalation. Sometimes, they have a feeling of moral outrage about something that's happening and they'd like to do something about it. They [then] reject the political protest community."

"The guys who often turn to violence think guys like Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Mohammed are clowns. Because [the latter] just talk, talk, talk, and don't do anything."

Sageman served as a CIA case officer in Islamabad in the 1980s, working with Afghan jihadists

The forensic psychiatrist says he can't be sure what "triggered the attack" on Drummer Lee Rigby but argues that it has "almost nothing to do with mental illness". Violent extremists are "outraged, they want a sense of meaning, they want a sense of significance.. We need a much more complex and subtle view of why, at the extremes, some people turn violent within any kind of political protest movement".

"Banning the political process", as opposed to "banning the violence", according to Sageman, is the wrong move. "Political protest is the enginee of progress in liberal democracies."

In the past, David Cameron and other senior political figures have endorsed the so-called 'conveyor belt' theory of radicalisation; the prime minister told a security conference in Munich in 2011: "As evidence emerges about ... those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called 'non-violent extremists', and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence."

Sageman, who has also advised the New York Police Department and testified in front of the 9/11 Commission, describes such a view as "nonsense" and says there is little empirical evidence for such a 'conveyor belt' process. "It is the same nonsense that led governments a hundred years ago to claim that left-wing political protests led to violent anarchy."

Overall, the former CIA officer says, "the [al Qaeda] threat is fading. You don't have the kind of large plots of the [2004 fertiliser bomb plot] variety.. The movement has been degraded. These loners, or duos, aren't controlled by larger number of people who will bring them to their senses." But, as a result, "you are going to have more of these kind of [lone wolf] attacks."

He adds: "Governments, by overreacting, may actually bring back the [original al Qaeda] movement".

In recent days, senior figures from across the political spectrum have condemned attempts to link the attack in Woolwich to the the UK military's involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said on Monday that the problem of extremism couldn't be solved by entering into "some debate or discussion about British or American foreign policy".

Sageman disagrees: foreign policy is a major factor. "If you listen to the video of that guy, Michael Adebolajo, he very much says it is because of the [Afghan] war. At what point are you going to start listening to the perpetrators who tell you why they're doing this? The same applies to the videos of the 7/7 bombers. At some point you have to be grounded in reality."

Has British military action in Afghanistan heightened the terror threat to the UK?

Since the Woolwich attack, there have been calls from politicians and pundits alike for mosques to 'do more' to tackle so-called radicalisation and violent interpretations of Islam - despite strenuous and widespread condemnation of the attack by Muslim community leaders and imams. Mosques are "irrelevant" to this debate, claims Sageman. People don't acquire extreme views in mosques, he argues, and "it's not the moderate Muslims who turn to violence. They're the wrong guys to talk to. Those young kid who turn to violence hate moderate Muslims more than the EDL [English Defence League] do. The [radicals] think those [moderate] guys are total traitors."

The religion of Islam isn't what motivates terrorists, or turns them violent, argues Sageman, but Islam does give them "a sense of identity.. a vehicle for them [to use] to protest over what they feel is unjust".

As for Muslims being asked to apologise for, or condemn, terrorist acts supposedly committed 'in the name of Islam', Sageman is scathing: "Does your Conservative Party have to apologise each time the [far right] does something nasty? You're asking the same thing of the Muslim population."

The terrorism expert and author says his own research suggests extreme views are often acquired "on the internet or in face to face interactions between friends", rather than in mosques or Islamic centres. "It is much more complex" than journalists or politicians assume, he tells HuffPost UK.

So what advice would he give the British government? "The priority for the government right now is.. to study what's happening on the ground, as opposed to just giving out soundbites.. stop being brainwashed by this notion of 'radicalisation'. There is no such thing. Some people when they're young acquire extreme views; many of them just grow out of them. Do not overreact - you'll just create worse problems."

So should the state do nothing? Sageman advocates a combination of monitoring and surveillance, on the one hand, and political engagement, on the other. "You basically need to monitor these kids and make sure they move on with their lives."

But at the same time, he says, "these kids have to be brought within the system. They need to feel like they're relevant."

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