top of page

Explaining terrorism is not a zero-sum game

Image credit: Israel Defense Forces (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In the aftermath of the recent Brighton siege and terror attacks across Europe, left and right wing commentators have engaged a series of polarising false dichotomies.

Predictably, the right has taken to focusing squarely on the “Islam element”. Writing in The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen enjoins the public in to ‘get angry about Islamist terror. Similarly, other right-wing pundits have been quick to point out that ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, and that during the Brighton siege, the perpetrator explicitly called Channel 7 newsroom stating ‘this is for IS’ and ‘this is for Al-Qaeda’. Others have noted the ‘uncanny similarity’ to the suggestion in the 4 May edition of Islamic State's magazine, Rumiyah, that ‘a “Lion of the caliphate” should take hostages in an enclosed space then lure others in and kill them’.

According to right-wing commentator Douglas Murray, the ‘Islamists are ­amazingly clear about what they want and the reasons why they act accordingly’.

By contrast, the left has been quick to deny any religious motivations behind the attacks. Instead, left-wing commentators point to Khayre’s ‘irreligious activities: drug and alcohol abuse, burglaries and assaults, brushes with social and mental health services, and a penchant for large knives’. Likewise, others point to Khayre’s ‘serious mental health issues’ and ice addiction.

Instead, left-wing commentators often blame the West’s foreign policy as the key motivator for terrorism. During his election campaign, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn cited the ‘connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home’.

As for the possible involvement of ISIS, left-wing commentators argue that the attacks are the work of lone and ‘deranged’ actors, who ‘never mixed with the community’. As one author lamented, ‘white’ terrorists are often labelled ‘mentally ill’, while brown terrorists are labelled ‘just evil’. Although ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, left-wing commentators argue that little evidence has been provided to support these claims. Moreover, Khayre claimed to be acting for both ISIS and al-Qaeda, two rival groups that reject each other.

But as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

For starters, the idea of a lone-wolf attacker is murky at best. A Vox article following the recent London attacks warned readers about the ‘nightmare’ of ‘lone wolf terrorists’, citing a 2011 article by Edwin Bakker and Beatrice Graaf, terrorism scholars at the University of Leiden.

However, Edwin Bakker himself has also stated that many cases that first appear as lone-wolf attacks later emerge as involving ISIS. And, ‘many of the soldiers of IS are in fact, in one way or another, connected to IS. With that knowledge, if we look at lone acts of terrorism, we see that very few cases are really cases of people who act totally on their own’.

Bakker also cites an article in The Guardian by terrorism scholar Jason Burke titled The myth of the lone wolf terrorist. In that piece, Burke writes that in many cases ‘the label of lone wolf is plainly incorrect’, and that ‘there are other, more subtle cases where it is still highly misleading. Another category of attackers, for instance, are those who strike alone, without guidance from formal terrorist organisations, but who have had face-to-face contact with loose networks of people who share extremist beliefs’.

Additionally, Burke argues that ‘the lone-wolf paradigm can be helpful for security services and policymakers, too, since the public assumes that lone wolves are difficult to catch’. However, ‘the reason that many attacks are not prevented is not because it was impossible to anticipate the perpetrator’s actions, but because someone screwed up’. In the case of Khayre, questions are now being asked as to why the parole board were never informed that he was on a terror watch list.

As for the role of foreign policy, Jonathan Freedland argues that terrorism cannot be reduced to the West’s actions for two reasons. First, “most of jihadism’s victims are other Muslims, in the Arab world or in Africa.” Second, terrorists may be just as likely to act in response to the West’s inaction as they are to its interventions abroad.

However, this does not mean that religion is entirely to blame either. Consider the testimony of Jomana Abedi, sister of the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi: ‘He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge’. Rather, as Freedland argues, ‘foreign policy often plays the role of a hook on which jihadis can hang a much larger set of ideological, and theological, motives’. In other words, terrorism is the result of a number of factors that work together.

The same argument can also be made regarding Khayre’s history of mental illness and psychosocial instability. It is true that research has shown a clear correlation between psychosocial issues and radicalisation. But research has also shown that ‘the decision to carry out a violent terror attack requires both a motivational ideology to act as “fuel” and a specific psychological event or state to serve as the “trigger”’. Ultimately, it’s a confluence of factors working together which generates terrorism.

Reducing terrorism to narrow causes may help to sell newspapers and win polls. But if the aim is to address the issue, then the entire picture needs to be considered.

Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

bottom of page