By Dr Aamir Khan
A wave of terrorist incidents in the West is causing widespread consternation at both governmental and societal levels. And yet, while the academic world splurges millions of barrels of printer ink researching mostly irrelevant topics, and security personnel squander an equivalent amount of physical effort forestalling such incidents, nobody to my knowledge has developed a model of how an Islamist terrorist’s mind works.
Which is a pity. Physical and social sciences have long insisted that without models there is no learning. In a sense, man over thousands of years has been modelling complex reality, whether through myth-making, religion or plain heuristics. But it was only recently that giants such as Bohr and Einstein in Physics, Boyle and Dalton in Chemistry, Darwin in Evolutionary Biology, Marx and Weber in Sociology, and Freud in Psychoanalysis have attempted to develop models that explain and predict phenomena.
Time to set forth my own position. I hold all kinds of terrorism in the utmost contempt. No sane person could think otherwise. All my life I have believed in respect for life and property, in the highest ideals of liberalism and democracy, in education and economic progress, and in tolerance for different opinions. I am writing this comment only because I feel some of the sharpest minds of our times are misreading and misinterpreting the vile wave of terrorism in the West that is endangering societal harmony in more than one country.
My multi-stage model is processual in nature. In this model, the would-be Islamist terrorist is either born in a Western country or lives there for a sufficiently long period. At some point, this person begins to regard himself as a misfit. He is not exactly a pauper; in fact, chances are he has some financial resources. But he is not a social success either. Alienation seeps into him and estranges him from both society and the family around him. He eventually metamorphoses his nebulous, near-mythical notions of an Islamic community into a vibrant, colourful fantasy. This community, he believes, is suffering at the hands of the West. From here, it’s but a short trip onto the path of self-radicalization or into the tentacles of a terrorist network.
Note that this model applies to Islamist terrorists in Western Europe and the US primarily. It does not necessarily apply to Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, for which a different model is needed. Also it does not guarantee that anyone who falls within the parameters of the above conditions will become a terrorist. Far from it. Further, the above model is based on secondary newspaper reports of terrorism, and not on primary data. Despite these qualifiers, I think the above model is insightful and can save the West some trillions of dollars, and much heart-burn.
Remarkably, my model is at variance from what most Western governments, security heads, and television and print analysts tell us. Just take the most recent example: British Conservative Security Minister Ben Wallace said recently “We have to be unequivocal. No amount of excuses, no amount of twisted reasoning about a foreign policy here, a foreign policy there, can be an excuse. The reality is, these people hate our values.” This is very close to what President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had said when they were at the helm of affairs. My model respectfully differs from this explanation.
The turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya is likely to give a fillip to the global wave of terrorism. In the worse instance, this wave will also de-stabilise other countries in the neighbourhood
Therefore, I was not surprised when recently the British Government de-classified assessments its intelligence agencies made in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. The report incontrovertibly asserted that the terrorist threats “will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West”. Interestingly, eminent British politician Jeremy Corbyn recently said “The war on terror is simply not working.” Partick Cockburn, one of the most respect journalists of our times, agrees.
So what can the US and UK-led West do about it? I would suggest we differentiate between “justification” and “explanation”. When the model says most Islamist terrorists believe they have grievances about the US-led West’s perceived aggression against Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen, no justification of their behaviour is implied. I would be the first one to demand the highest penalty against anyone who hurts innocent people. Period.
That said, I also think the fiascos of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya — countries that are smouldering, burning and imploding, with no end to their miseries in sight — are more, not less, likely to give a fillip to the wave of terrorism around the world. Worse, the victim countries will de-stabilize their neighbours. This will further widen the growing rift between the West and Islam. Worse, this inferno will engulf liberal Muslims and liberal Christians, who right now form a majority of Islam and the West respectively.
Now that would be a much bigger tragedy.
Dr Aamir Khan was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He has worked as a Pakistani diplomat