Week of 7.28.06
Muslim Extremism in Europe: The Enemy Within
More From This Week: The Prisoner | What's Next for U.S. Military Detainees? | Muslim Extremism in Europe | Chris Hogan on U.S. Detention Facilities | TranscriptFrom The Economist print edition, July 14, 2005
What turns a man into a terrorist, and what can be done about it?
The residents, both white and Asian, of certain quiet suburbs of Leeds, in northern England, were understandably confused by the news that their neighbors had caught a train to London and brought mayhem to the capital. Some described the bombers as ordinary young men whose interests did not go much beyond football and cricket. But one suspect was said by a neighbor to have found another solution to suburban boredom—a long trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a chance to be trained in the arts of terror.
Two related questions haunt Britain, and Europe, in the wake of the London attacks. First, what is it that prompts a small minority of the continent's Muslims to shift from discontent or personal frustration to active terror? And second, was the attack on London indeed an act of home-grown terror, or an atrocity initiated by people in some distant war zone who had a grudge against Britain? The Leeds arrests, while impressively swift and a credit to the police have proved there is no easy answer to these questions. In an age of globalized ideologies, globalized communications and porous borders, there is no real distinction between domestic and foreign threats.
Even if everyone involved in terrorizing London turns out to have been British-born, it is clear that the bombers had access to sophisticated explosives, not easily available in suburban Yorkshire; and, more important, that they were influenced by ideas, images and interpretations of Islam that would continue to circulate electronically, even if every extremist who tried to enter Britain were intercepted. So the best that terrorist-hunters in Britain and elsewhere in Europe can do is to trace how disaffected people from their own tranquil suburbs form connections with ideological mentors, and ultimately terrorist sponsors, who live overseas, and how those godfathers find recruits in western countries.
For a case of mentoring, consider the trial that began in Amsterdam this week of Mohammed Bouyeri, who has confessed to killing Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director who had enraged Muslims with his fiery attacks on Islam.
Mr Bouyeri, who refused at his trial to recognize the Dutch legal system and came to court clutching the Koran, is linked to the Hofstad group of Dutch youngsters, some 15 of whom are on trial separately. They began as a group of second- or third-generation Dutch Muslims, mostly male and in their late teens or early 20s, who became discontented with their country and surfed the internet for ideas. At least at first, this and other groups of disaffected Dutch Muslims were pathetically unsophisticated. One was caught in 2003 trying to make a bomb—drawing on tips from a website, but using the wrong fertilizer. At some point, however, the group found a mentor who was more sinister and sophisticated: a Syrian Jihadist-recruiter who came to the Netherlands and coached them in doctrine.
In Britain, too, security services have concluded that these days, connections between local youths and foreign godfathers are usually formed at the youths' behest. To a surprising extent, the onus is on individual zealots (or groups of them) to find mentors. Al-Qaeda does not actively seek recruits for the Jihadist cause, partly because that would attract the attention of the security services and partly because, ever since the destruction of its bases in Afghanistan, it has—in the view of well placed British observers—been too loosely organized to recruit systematically.
This highlights one of the main difficulties of the "war on terror". In 2001, when America and its allies responded to the attacks on New York and Washington by declaring war on the al-Qaeda network, it seemed an identifiable adversary, with bases, financial structures and a leadership that could be singled out and struck. Since then, it has become something much looser: not even a "franchise", as it is commonly labelled, but more an ideological community, held together above all by electronic connections, which seeks inspiration from a common source.
What prompts young British, French or Dutch Muslims to look for such mentors? Senior British insiders say that, although paths to extremism vary widely, they tend to follow certain social and psychological patterns. Frequently, a young Muslim man falls out of mainstream society, becoming alienated both from his parents and from the "stuffy" Islamic culture in which he was brought up. He may become more devout, but the reverse is more likely. He turns to drink, drugs and petty crime before seeing a "solution" to his problems—and the world's—in radical Islam.
Olivier Roy, a French writer on global Islam, has described "neo-fundamentalism" (which may or may not be violent) as a broad reaction by Muslims in western countries against their families and background, as well as against their host societies. As Mr Roy portrays them, such Muslims have abandoned the food, music and customs of the "old country" but still feel repelled by the ethos and values of the "new country". Adrift from both, they are attracted by a simple, electronically disseminated version of the faith which can readily be propagated among people of all cultures, including white Europeans.
Another French "Islamologue", Antoine Sfeir, has identified relations between the sexes as a big factor in the re-Islamization of second-generation Muslims in Europe. Because young Muslim women often do better than men at adapting to the host society (they tend to do better at school, for example), old patriarchal structures are upset and young men acquire a strong incentive to reassert the old order.
In many cases, say British specialists, groups of young, disaffected Muslims goad one another down the path to extremism. People who may be bound together by ethnicity, worship or criminal activity develop a common interest in the suffering of Muslims across the globe. Websites and satellite television channels then supply visual images and incendiary rhetoric from any place where Muslims are fighting non-Muslims. The favorite war used to be Chechnya; now it is Iraq.
As an incipient extremist group grows more obsessive, and its weaker brethren fall away, hard-core members often withdraw from the mosques. Indeed, a big recent trend in European Islam, says Roy, is the mass withdrawal by militants from mosques that are under surveillance. This has made extremism even more elusive, and the internet's influence even greater. To a large extent, "the internet has replaced Afghanistan" as a source of training and inspiration for militant Muslims, says Stephen Ulph, a scholar working for the Jamestown Foundation, an American think-tank.
Through the web, even dead al-Qaeda fighters live on, says Ulph. On one website that ceased operations last year (but has several imitators), it was possible to read the writings of senior, recently slain al-Qaeda men on everything from physical training to guerrilla tactics.
A group of young Muslims will often travel quite a long way down the road to violent jihad before meeting anybody with terrorist expertise. Some never find the contacts they seek, and resort to their own devices; only occasionally does this have deadly results for anybody besides themselves. One example of such amateurism is that of two Moroccan men from the Dutch city of Eindhoven, Ahmed el-Bakiouli and Khalid el-Hassnaoui, who tried to enter Afghanistan in December 2001 in the hope of fighting some Americans. Having failed, they went to Kashmir, where they were swiftly killed by Indian security forces. In Britain, several terrorist plots uncovered since 2001 have been striking for their incompetence and lack of outside expertise.
Things become far more dangerous, of course, when committed radicals come into contact with veterans of wars in Chechnya and Bosnia, or of the Afghan training camps where several hundred Britons are believed to have been schooled. These veterans either have the know-how to plan an atrocity, or can find somebody who does, and it is under their influence that hopeless missions can turn deadly. Whether this happens or not is often a matter of chance. Take the Egyptian Mohammed Atta and other members of the "Hamburg cell" that plotted the September 11th attacks. They were drawn into mega-terror after meeting someone who introduced them first to an al-Qaeda operative in Germany, and then to masterminds in Afghanistan. If this had not happened, the Hamburg group might have ended up as cannon-fodder in Chechnya.
Profiling the would-bes
These patterns of self-recruitment and self-radicalization are a headache for security services, who have no easy way to infiltrate close-knit, local groups that operate at first without foreign help. But in the Netherlands the intelligence services reckon they have identified three broad categories of people from which actual and would-be terrorists are drawn: recent arrivals, second-generation members of immigrant communities, and converts.
Recent arrivals are often intensely involved in—and in a few cases, protagonists of—bitter ideological and ethnic conflicts in their home countries. During the 1990s, Algeria's internal bloodbath—which pitted a secular, military regime against its armed Islamist opponents—was exported to France, culminating in bomb attacks on the Paris metro. (Some of these Islamists, to French disgust, later found refuge in London.) Among recent Muslim immigrants to Britain, many are deeply embroiled in the internal conflicts of south Asia—including intra-Muslim squabbles like that which divides the Barelvi form of Islam, followed by most Pakistanis, from the more purist Deobandi tendency which gave rise to the Taliban movement.
While most followers of the Deobandi line, which stresses the brotherhood of all Muslims over national or civic ties, are perfectly peaceful, their doctrine can inspire extremism. In the same way, violent extremists from the Arab world often share ideological roots with Saudi conservatives, or opposition-minded Egyptians, who are far from being exponents of generalized violence against soft western targets. Whether they like it or not, European security services are having to learn these fine distinctions.
The vast majority of "white" converts to Islam adhere to forms of the faith that eschew violence. But some of them turn to violent Islam in a spirit of alienation from society, or personal bitterness. Some are "rescued" from a life of petty crime; quite a few, like the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, are touched in prison. Lacking any sense of Islamic tradition, and perhaps eager to prove themselves to their new peers, they are susceptible to extremism.
On the other hand, because the path to extremism so often involves the renunciation of everything in one's own background, material comfort and a liberal upbringing seem to be no bar to the development of a terrorist. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a young Briton of Pakistani origin who is believed to have masterminded the kidnapping and murder in Pakistan of an American journalist, Daniel Pearl, was privately educated and studied at the London School of Economics. At least one of the London bombers identified this week seems to have come from a middle-class background. Whatever motivated the two Britons who became suicide-bombers in Israel in 2003, it was not material want.
Nor does the story of the Dutch Islamist, Bouyeri, suggest any easy correlation between suffering and the impulse to crime. The killer had suffered setbacks at university, and had been unsuccessfully involved in trying to set up a youth club. In 2002 his mother died, his father remarrying soon afterwards. But as one specialist on the Netherlands points out, if such problems were enough to turn a youngster into an assassin, most young Dutch Muslims would be loading their guns.
On the evidence of most European countries, adequate material and social conditions do not always stop people becoming terrorists. But the reverse may hold good: if people are economically deprived or socially excluded, the pool of potential killers and bombers will grow.
In the highest levels of the British government, the dominant thinking is that economics does matter. If this is right, Europe's problem is obvious. Even in Britain, where anti-discrimination laws are relatively stringent, Muslims tend to be poor. Of all religious groups, they are the least likely to own their own homes. They are also the least likely to hold professional jobs and the most likely to be out of work. Just 48 percent of British Muslims reported that they were economically active in 2001, compared with 65 percent of Christians, 67 percent of Hindus and 75 percent of those who professed no religion.
Lack of jobs in the areas where Muslims have settled is part of the problem, but another reason is that women are less likely to do paid work. Four out of ten look after home and family, compared with little more than one in ten women in Britain as a whole. In a sense, the Muslim household is resilient—many fewer children are brought up in one-parent families than is the case among non-Muslims—but there is, literally, a price to be paid.
Britain's approach to tackling domestic extremism has sought to mix vigilance with openness, on the principle that militants are least dangerous in places where they and their followers can be closely watched. The domestic intelligence service, MI5, has expanded and moved its lens away from Irish terrorism; these days, about half its attention is directed at Islamist activities. But nobody, not even the spooks, believes wiretaps and infiltrators alone are enough to defeat Islamist extremism. To achieve that end, Muslims must learn to police themselves.
The perils of co-operating
An official outreach campaign accelerated in 2001, a year that saw not only attacks on America but also riots involving South Asian Muslims in northern English towns. After a tentative start, meetings between mosque committees and local police officers have become routine. Muslims do not like to admit it, but an implicit quid pro quo is involved: heightened protection in return for information and good publicity. The trade-off was illustrated on July 7th, the day of the London bombings, when the Metropolitan Police deployed scarce officers to defend mosques. Police in Leeds, who had to close a mosque on July 12th as they combed the bombers' neighbourhood, helped people find alternative arrangements for worship.
Muslim clerics did their part by denouncing the London bombings, and by reminding co-religionists of prohibitions against the taking of innocent lives and of the importance of co-operating with the police. The point, according to Mohamed Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, was to inform misguided members of the Muslim community of the correct religious teaching. As for those who choose to ignore it, says Naseem, "they are on their own."
That is, of course, the problem with expecting mosques to police Muslims. Extremists may be denounced from the pulpits, but that does not prevent them meeting like-minded folk in living rooms. Similar problems dog the British government's outreach efforts. It has chosen to deal mostly with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella-group with which most significant Muslim organizations—including some radical ones—are affiliated. The government has allowed the MCB to influence, or at least comment upon, policies both domestic and foreign. Consequently, however, the MCB looks to some like a toady of the government.
The authorities in Paris have, if anything, gone even further than those in London in trying to co-opt and co-operate with the mainstream of their country's Muslim community. At the risk of compromising France's secular traditions, the government has groomed the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), elected via mosques rather than by ordinary Muslims, as a privileged interlocutor.
As both Britain and France have found, such tactics can involve hard trade-offs. As liberal French Muslims see things, their government, in its haste to find Muslim friends, has needlessly given some crypto-fundamentalists a bigger say in the nation's affairs than their numbers warrant. In Britain, too, the government has found that offering sops to the MCB ties them to policies (such as the bill to outlaw religious hatred that is going through Parliament) to which other citizens object.
But these days, European governments have few higher priorities than draining the waters in which incorrigible Muslim extremists can so easily swim. If wooing moderate European Muslims and, in the process, offending others is the necessary price, they will gladly pay it.
© 2006 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Further reproduction prohibited.