Azeem Ibrahim: The changing nature of terror

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IT’S always once they get to the back of the police station that they realise what they’ve done.

Once the arrests have been made, the paperwork completed and the police cell door bangs shut, it all becomes horribly real for them. That’s when they normally break down and cry like children. That’s what a lawyer friend of mine who has some experience with terror attacks like the one that happened this week in Woolwich told me.

It is exactly the opposite of the kind of reaction you would expect from hardened terrorists. But there is a good reason for that: most of those who perpetrate deadly attacks like this week’s are not hardened terrorists. They are, these days, more likely to be self-starters, closer in spirit to gang members and the young men we read about all too often in the States who sink into a noxious subculture of violence and vengeance and whose stories end the day they take a gun into the cinema or school.

Since 9/11, the nature of terrorism has changed, and last week’s barbaric attack reflects that change. The typical terrorist attack used to be planned by a cell which was a subsidiary of a larger global group or network which financed the attack and trained the attackers. This was roughly what al Qaeda looked like in the late nineties - a shadowy organisation working on the ‘corporation’ model with Osama bin Laden at its head.

In the face of military attacks and financial restrictions, al Qaeda withered as an organisation, and the kind of hardened and trained terrorist operatives who might have remained cool and defiant in the back of a police station is no longer typical. Instead, the organisation focused on things it could do cheaply, remotely, and at lower risk to itself: inspiring new radicals and passing on instructions on how to cause damage and mayhem. In 2010 the group even set up an English language magazine which runs articles such as ‘how to make a bomb in your mom’s kitchen’ or how to to mow down victims with cars. The result has been a series of ‘self-starting’ attacks like the Fort Hood murderer, the Times Square bomber and the 7/7 bombers. Before last Wednesday’s attackers stabbed their victim, they mowed him down with a car.

What does this trend towards self-starting groups mean for the future? Firstly, it means that future attacks are likely to be equally unsophisticated. Secondly, it means that they are likely to come from men (and it is almost always men) without a history of terrorism, which makes the attacks harder to prevent.

Third, it means that you cannot assume that the perpetrators have been trained in terrorist training camps or even have any formal connection with Islam. In fact, the opposite is likely to be the case. Almost all terrorists turn out not to actually be religious. My lawyer friend informs me that many drink alcohol (which Islam forbids), take drugs (ditto), have a criminal history, and that when the police investigate their computers, they often find stashes of porn. None of the 9/11 attackers or the 7/7 bombers had any formal Islamic education and from early reports it seems that the perpetrator of this week’s attack had not either. This should come as no surprise: their acts are the antithesis of Islam. These are not religious men. They are thugs who abuse the language of Islam. As a Muslim, that sickens me to my core.

But if the nature of the threat today is different, today’s solutions are also different. The solutions of the war on terror era - fighting force with force and restricting international financial flows - do not go to the heart of the new problem. Today, preventing new terrorists from radicalising is more important. And the evidence is that most were radicalised by adopting a black and white moral view of the world combined with a resentment against their society fuelled by bad personal experiences such as discrimination, inequality, or just an inability to get on. That means that institutions and organisations which provide experiences which bind us together as a society, experiences where our differences melt away rather than come to the foreground, are more important than ever.

And the irony of the murder of a soldier is that it is the army which provides just such an experience. As a British Muslim who has served as a reservist in the army, I am disgusted that this has happened to a fellow soldier in the name of Islam. The army does an excellent job of integrating people from different backgrounds. As a former paratrooper in the reserve regiment, I passed through a gruelling selection process in which your religion, colour or background are immaterial. When I went to Sandhurst, there were people there for officer selection of all colours and all background, including a surprising number of female Muslims. Everyone is accepted into the armed forces equally.

This experience reinforced my faith that shared experiences - whether through a youth club, a sports team, a well-motivated company or startup, or through social action - breeds the integration which will be a big part of defeating the particularism, extremism and radicalism which left a soldier dying on the streets of London this week.

• Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a founding member of the SOLAS Foundation.