If a Muslim carried out an attack on a funeral home in the United States, killing 140 mourners, the public discourse that would inevitably follow is by now all too predictable: blame would be apportioned to the attacker's faith and culture.
A 2012 FBI report into homegrown extremism found that grievances over US military action far outrank any other factor – including religious ideology
But if the 15 years since 9/11 have made one thing clear, it’s that public discourse does not flow the opposite way.
For instance, last Sunday, an attack on a funeral home in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, by US ally Saudi Arabia left at least 140 mourners dead and no one here in the US, which has provided it with $115bn worth of weapons since 2009, asked, “So, what’s wrong with our culture?”
From the moment 19 hijackers carried out the first major terrorist attack against the West in the 21st century, public discourse has fixated on the culture and faith of 1.6 billion Muslims rather than the individuals and organisations that have carried out acts of political violence against Western targets.
Influenced by political and cultural entrepreneurs who gain much by casting a long and dark shadow over Muslims, theories of radicalization that claim to predict why and how young Muslims become terrorists are not only rooted in unfounded assumptions that Islamic culture or Islamist ideology is the prime or dominant driver, but also ignore an array of complex psychological and social forces.
In other words, public discourse as it relates to terrorism in the post-9/11 era has given our privileged and dominant Western culture a huge pass while it scrutinises and fixates on the culture of the other.
While news headlines drive public discourse, it is public discourse that drives policy, and policy is where we win, lose or die in the fight to defeat terrorism.
While news headlines drive public discourse, it is public discourse that drives policy, and policy is where we win, lose or die
But given that the US has spent nearly $5 trillion to fight terrorism since 9/11, and given the terrorist threat is quantifiably larger and more dispersed, it’s safe to assume many of our counter-terrorism efforts are misguided and wrongheaded. None more so than radicalization theories that ignore how our actions and culture might be the dominant driver for those who seek to express their grievances through an Islamic State (IS) group-inspired jihad.
With that said, a great many academics and counter-terrorism agencies have done their very best to make the case that radicalization leading to violence is rooted less in ideology and the celestial, and more in how people experience the world in which they live.
But when a 2004 study, commissioned by the US Defense Department, found that “Muslims do not hate our freedoms” but “hate our policies” and with “the overwhelming majority voicing their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States” – we ignored it. Instead, we assumed their culture to be at the heart of homegrown radicalization.
We were wrong. In many ways, it’s our culture that needs closer examination. And now we must change the headlines, so that we can change counter-terrorism policy.
This week, The Intercept published the results of a secret FBI study in 2012, which delved into the backgrounds of more than 200 “homegrown violent extremists,” and found, like every other counter-terrorism agency sponsored study that has come before it, that grievances over US military action far outrank any other factor – including religious ideology.
The FBI observes that homegrown terrorists “frequently believe the US military is committing atrocities in Muslim countries, thereby justifying their violent aspirations".
In all seriousness, the debate over whether it’s their culture or our actions that are most responsible for terrorist attacks committed against us is now so ridiculous, it hardly warrants further comment. But here we are.
We know with absolute certainty that homegrown violent extremism is not rooted in Islam or “radical Islam” or whatever branch or sect of Islam you've heard on Fox News. We know this because the terrorists themselves tell us.
Explain how seized documents reveal that 70 percent of IS recruits have an understanding of Islam that can only be described as “basic”? You can’t!
Time and time again, the terrorists tell us it’s because they believe the West has declared war on Islam; or that they’re avenging Western transgressions in the Middle East, Africa, or Central Asia.
I mean if radicalization were rooted in Islamic scripture, explain why studies conducted by MI5, the FBI, the US Defense Department, and an array of counter-terrorism professionals and academics have all come to conclusions that report the contrary? You can’t!
Moreover, explain how a trove of seized IS documents reveal that 70 percent of IS recruits have an understanding of Islam that can only be described as “basic”? You can’t! Explain why MI5 and even former jihadists themselves have explained that the more one has a better understanding of Islam, the more one is actually protected against falling into violent radicalization? Again, you can’t!
Like climate change, the debate surrounding homegrown radicalization is over. It’s now time for action, and counter-radicalization professionals are telling us that we must first fix ourselves in order to fix the problem.
Ditch the conveyor belt
A report published this week by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King's College London finds that nearly two-thirds of jihadists who have travelled from Europe to join Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq have criminal pasts.
Many of the fighters found radicalization while in prison or through charismatic terrorist group recruiters. Criminals and jihadists, the report finds, are "recruited from the same demographics – and often in the same places".
The authors of the report conclude that we need a radicalization rethink: “The emergence of the new crime-terror nexus and its associated dynamics should compel researchers, analysts and policymakers to re-think long-held ideas about how terror, crime and radicalization have to be understood,” the authors recommend.
These long-held, but erroneous radicalization theories posit or suggest that Muslims are riding a “conveyer belt” to radicalization. While some will successfully keep from moving forward and falling off, others will not be able to resist calls from within their faith.
It is this conveyer belt thesis that is at the heart of racist, dangerous and anti-democratic counter-radicalization programmes, such as the UK’s Prevent, which has now been debunked in an open letter signed by 140 academics and experts, including Noam Chomsky and leading terrorism scholar Marc Sageman.
On the science-free radicalization theories that underpin Prevent, and many other counter-terrorism policies on which radicalization theories are based, David Miller, a sociology professor at the University of Bath, told the Guardian: “This is secret research, and we can’t interrogate what the process was that led to the material in the original report. It’s not academic research, it’s not social science – it’s an internal report and not in any way a sound basis for making any kind of policy.”
Others have observed that counter-terrorism policies that are rooted in “conveyer belt” radicalization theories have only served to alienate Muslim communities from not only law enforcement but also from the broader community, further aiding IS recruitment efforts by making Muslims feel unwanted in the West.
Clearly, we need to re-think counter-terrorism policy, but such a re-think means changing public discourse as it relates to terrorism and radicalization. Hopefully, the revelations of this FBI study into what most radicalizes homegrown violent extremists marks the end of pretending the problem is Islam, and the start of accepting terrorism as a complex psychosocial phenomena that requires reexamining our own actions.