By Akshat Upadhyay
January 08, 2020
Oversimplification of factors that push an individual to engage in acts of violence will lead to poor policymaking
Whenever there are acts of violence, there is an urgency to label them as acts of terror. The basis for categorisation of violent acts as terrorist acts include the type of weapons used in the killings, the beliefs of the accused, the number of people killed, etc. Categorising violence is important, but if it is done without due thought or diligence, it could end up harming the affected state or community and lead to vastly different policy imperatives. Three attacks last year, one in the U.K. and two in the U.S.’s military facilities, illustrate this point clearly.
The stabbing at London Bridge in the U.K., and the shootings at Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam and Pensacola Naval Air Station in the U.S., were all quickly characterised by sections of the media and by analysts as ‘lone wolf’ attacks. The reality is more complex. Though all three cases are still under investigation, news reports establish the fact that Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, was not a lone wolf. Khan, a radical preacher, had been arrested earlier in a major counterterrorism operation. He had spent eight years in prison, before being released in December 2018, for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange. The attack in the Pearl Harbour military base in Hawaii was also classified as a lone wolf attack, but since the attacker’s motive seemed to have been non-political, it may be classified as homicide. Mohammad al-Shamrani, who was training to be a pilot at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, and carried out the third attack, seems to fit the profile of a lone wolf. Al-Shamrani had professed anger towards the U.S. for its policies against Muslims. His family said that he had never shown any inclination towards extremism or violence. And no group claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the first case, by labelling Khan a lone wolf, many discounted the influence of an extremist organisation’s concerted efforts at recruiting individuals to its cause. The focus of counterterrorism programmes are on individuals and do not take into consideration overarching structural factors in play; an individual who is getting radicalised because of propaganda on the Internet is simply called “self-radicalised”. A majority of programmes on counter extremism or terrorism aiming at cognitive change concentrate their efforts on a single aspect without taking into account a host of factors. There is also no statistical correlation between the number of people admitted to such programmes and the number of people who emerge ‘deradicalised’, as admitted tacitly by Khan’s supervisors at the Healthy Identity Intervention Programme at Belmarsh prison, where he was incarcerated for eight years.
Process of Radicalisation
The second issue is how the process of radicalisation is perceived by analysts and academics. Most consider radicalisation as a linear process where the individual goes through a number of stages. The most common model is the one designed by the New York Police Department, which believes that radicalisation has four steps. The first stage, pre-radicalisation, assumes an individual to be a blank slate, at best, or an eager receptor, at worst. This is followed by self-identification where he or she realises the uniqueness of his or her identity. Then comes the stage of indoctrination and, finally, Jihadisation. Conversely, a major element of a person committing murder in the pursuit of an alleged political objective is what I call ‘radicalising cumulatives’, an aggregation of factors, structural and causal, that may push him to do this. Of course, the final cognitive step of actually committing violence cannot be prejudged accurately every time.
The final issue is that of the divide between the state and the family. The state’s coercive institutions do not directly interfere into familial structures and hierarchies, where the likelihood of influencing factors is very high. A significant number of attacks have been carried out by second generation or later generations of immigrants. The patriarchal nature of the immigrants’ families may be one of the reasons behind this phenomenon and this needs to be investigated further. However, the state’s right to intrude into the family has been limited by a number of regulations that afford all citizens the right to privacy and considerable autonomy. This dilemma of finding the right balance between security and autonomy needs to be delved upon. ‘Prevent’, the U.K.’s disastrous attempt at involving civil society and local communities in its fight against terrorism, has shown that this is a major issue for civilised societies. No society can benefit by oversimplifying the factors that push an individual towards violence. Oversimplification will mean that we will be left with poor policies.
Akshat Upadhyay is a serving officer of the Indian Army and author of ‘Coercive Diplomacy against Pakistan’
Original Headline: The road to radicalisation
Source: The Hindu, India