How to spot a terrorist living in your neighbourhood
We know what kind of people are tempted by Islamic extremism – now we need to do more to stop them
Dame Stella Rimington, the former director general of MI5, has called for people to inform on neighbours they suspect of extremismPhoto: Alamy
By Alan Judd
8:21PM BST 28 May 2013
It is surely reasonable for Dame Stella Rimington, the former director general of MI5, to call for people to inform on neighbours they suspect of extremism. To a very limited extent, it happens already. But for the sake of all of us – Muslim communities in particular – it needs to happen more.
Also reasonable, on the face of it, is the Government’s desire to do more to discourage the process by which disaffected individuals turn themselves into people-butchers – the job of the proposed task force on Prevent, the counter-radicalisation strategy.
In fact, we already know all we need to know about radicalisation. What the task force needs to focus on is what to do and – equally important – what not to do.
Studies show that it can happen to anyone, that there is no single identifiable profile. That said, the great majority of terrorists, unsurprisingly, have been Muslim males aged 16-34, a third to a half of whom were unemployed and a significant portion of the rest under-employed. Most were unmarried. Where women were involved, it tended to be in a supportive role, although in Iraq and Chechnya female suicide bombers were radicalised by the deaths of relatives.
Worldwide, about 62 per cent were graduates, with those of Middle Eastern origin generally from the educated but politically frustrated middle class. British home-grown terrorists tend to be less well educated and of lower socio-economic status. One estimate is that about 31 per cent participated in some form of higher education, studying such subjects as engineering, business or science. They are not mad: levels of mental illness were roughly in line with world averages. Between a third and a quarter of those convicted in Britain and Europe had criminal records unrelated to terrorism. A fifth or more of British terrorists were immigrants, often obtaining leave to remain despite being under investigation. Throughout Europe, many extremists were and are disaffected second-generation immigrants.
Motives vary from the territorial (Chechnya) to moral outrage at what they see as a war against Islam. Afghanistan and Iraq acted as recruiting sergeants for those whose perception of worldwide Muslim victimhood chimed with their own real or imagined experiences of discrimination and disappointments. Intoxicated by the cause, they convinced themselves that they were acting on behalf of Muslims everywhere.
As for how they’re radicalised, it’s generally through other people, either directly or online. Images on mainstream news channels of Muslim casualties from Western bombs, or of ill-treated prisoners, are very influential, while film of 9/11 remains a worryingly potent inspiration. A Centre for Social Cohesion study of 212 individuals estimated that about a fifth were linked to the proscribed extremist group
al-Muhajiroun, and that Abu Hamza’s preaching at the Finsbury Park mosque had a significant worldwide impact. Yet most terrorists have only a superficial knowledge of Islam, using it as a veneer of justification for political, cultural and racial self-assertion. It is essentially an ideological rather than a religious process. As has been said, you have to be just clever enough to do it and just stupid enough to believe in it.
So how can you tell it’s happening? Can the neighbours that Dame Stella referred to really know what to look for?
Essentially, there will be changes in behaviour. A sudden ostentatious insistence on religious ritual, especially in a secular context (demands for prayer rooms where no other religion has them); a withdrawal from social interaction with women and disapproval of feminine dress. There may be a sudden obsession with physical fitness, more via Outward Bound activities than team games. Someone may adopt traditional Arab dress or abruptly abandon it (so as not to attract attention). They might forbid or avoid music, collect jihadi material, withdraw from contact with non-Muslims or Muslims who are not extremist; there may be single-issue conversation, vociferous hatred of the West and Israel, and perhaps attempted travel to troubled regions or misleading vagueness as to where they’ve been.
Of course, someone could manifest all these and more – for all manner of reasons – without becoming a terrorist. So what should the task force do?
To start with, it should not let local authorities fund groups little better than al-Muhajiroun under the guise of “community cohesion”. The answer is not money but more effective application of existing laws, especially as to what may be publicly said or broadcast. The task force should not talk of the “Muslim community” – there is no such thing – and should discourage any attempt at single identity politics.
Rather than ban extremist preachers, the Government should refute, prosecute and deport them (as the French do) with their families. It should stress that the proposed Communications Data Bill (aka the “Snoopers’ Charter”) does little more than extend to new media existing practices with the old. Above all, officials should pay more attention to “non-violent extremists”, the swamp from which the Woolwich murder emerged. The Prime Minister publicly called for this in his 2011 speech in Munich, but Whitehall largely ignored him, focusing on what one of Dame Stella’s successors called “the crocodiles nearest the boat”. It needn’t cost much – a few good desk officers here and there – but it would make a difference.