Homegrown terrorism is not new, argues Marc Sageman. It is as old as political struggle. But it does have new elements in it – not least being the Internet.
A new trend in terrorism research is to speak about “homegrown terrorism” as if it were a new phenomenon. However, a review of “terrorism” – defined most comprehensively as non-state political violence – in the Western world since the French Revolution clearly demonstrates that the vast majority has always been homegrown in the sense that the perpetrators were born, raised, and radicalised in the target country and committed acts of violence for local reasons.
Terrorism never emerges from a vacuum; rather it develops within splinter groups of larger political protest social movements. This was true of the conspiracy of Babeuf during the French Revolution; the Carbonaris in Italy and France in early nineteenth century; the various republican/terrorist groups in France before the Revolution of 1848; the abolitionists in the U.S.; the events culminating in the Paris Commune; the anarchists in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and United States in the second half of the nineteenth century; the very violent labor movement in the US; the various anarchists and terrorist groups in Russia at the turn of last century; the Galleani group in the US; the Frei Corps in Germany; the white supremacist groups; the various leftist groups in the Western world after World War II; the separatist groups in ethnically divided nations; and now violent religious extremist groups, including Muslims and Christians. The history of the Western world is indeed thoroughly peppered with political violence.
In reviewing this evidence, one understands that political violence is a two-step process: the first involves joining a political protest movement, an act that has progressively become legal and legitimate throughout most of the Western world since the French Revolution.
To the question of how terror networks recruit in the target land, the answer is that they don’t
Secondly, although such political movements are nearly always non-violent, their ideological infrastructure may allow some adherents to justify a turn to violence. Within these movements, especially those that lack internal discipline, there are usually some malcontents who grow impatient with the long process of reform. These individuals argue that non-violent dissent and protest do not work and advocate stronger forms of protest. This rejection of non-violent tactics preached by the larger protest community and the turn to political violence are often triggered by actions of the state or its proxies, such as pro-state militias that try to suppress political protest. Such actions generate a sense of moral outrage in usually young dissenters and convince them that violence is the only path to political change.
The same ideology of dissent inspires both violent and non-violent protest actions. Only contrasting beliefs about strategy and tactics separate legal and legitimate from outlawed actions. People intent on violence find each other within the dissenting community and conspire individually or in small groups to carry out terrorist acts. Larger, more formal and disciplined organisations that coordinate terrorist activity – like the IRA in Ireland, ETA in Spain or the OAS in France – have been relatively rare in the West. So has been the alleged phenomenon of a “fifth column” of traitors undermining a society on behalf of foreign enemies, like Nazi or Communist conspiracies, but this does not stop supporters of the State from accusing dissenters of treason and betrayal of society.
Most terrorist activities in the West over the past 200 years were spontaneously self-generated, self-organised and self-financed. At the end of the nineteenth century, the epidemic of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks called la reprise individuelle (individual revenge) was not sanctioned by the leaders of protest movements. Indeed, the larger movement often recognised that the harm done by these individual attacks turned off rather than mobilised the population at large, and the loner attacks faded over time.
This historical frame helps explain some of the apparent puzzles that emerge from a narrower focus on this “new” wave of neo-Jihadi terrorism in the West.
To the question of how terror networks recruit in the target land, the answer is that they don’t. Young people who perpetrate terrorism on behalf of global neo-Jihadi terrorism are mostly self-recruited; they sometimes try to travel abroad to connect with more formal organisations, such as the various al-Qaeda affiliates. They are essentially volunteers who have already decided to join the violent global movement.
If they fail to link up with terrorist organisations, they may still act on their own, on behalf of the violent global movement. Once they have attempted a terrorist act, whether successful or not, they provide a model for other like-minded young people who reject traditional protest and become ‘copy-cat’ actors without any central coordination from a formal conspiratorial organisation.
For example, the 2009 Fort Hood mass murder committed by Nidal Hasan inspired Naser Abdo to try to duplicate the incident two years later. Attacks against a designated target, like Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had intentionally provoked moral outrage among militant Muslims, may not be a copycat phenomenon, but responses to general calls on the Internet to punish him for his blasphemy. At least four serious attempts on his life in the past five years show that young militants can spontaneously and independently respond to such calls without any central coordination.
Some believe that there is something new in this terrorist wave because the current socio-economic landscape in the West provides better conditions for homegrown terrorist actors. However, the history of the West has been a history of political violence or terrorism.
Terrorism, like all political phenomena, is local in nature. Terrorism in the West has been almost exclusively homegrown. The 9/11 attack on the United States has been an exception, but the fact that it was the largest terrorist attack in the West should not obscure its uniqueness.
The nativist reaction against a different religious immigrant group in the West is very similar to the reception Irish Catholics encountered in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century
At various times in the evolution of Western liberal democracies, different issues have dominated internal political conflict. These range from universal suffrage to abolitionism, labour conflicts, civil rights, and nativist reactions to large-scale immigration. Each of these protest political movements has spawned homegrown splinter groups that turned to violence.
The nativist reaction against a different religious immigrant group in the West is very similar to the reception Irish Catholics encountered in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, the fear that unskilled, starving Catholic immigrants were the legions of the Pope attempting to undermine the Anglo-Protestant basis of society generated a nativist backlash that resulted in widespread riots and discrimination. The short-lived but aptly named nativist Know-Nothing movement became a political force until the issues that led to the Civil War eclipsed it in importance. The widespread fear against immigrants in Western Europe will eventually fade as the newcomers become better integrated into the fabric of Western society.
Even though the concept of terrorism is not new, there is one important aspect of this new wave. And that is the Internet.
The Internet is revolutionising communication and integrating the world at a rapid pace. Events happening in obscure regions of the world can have a worldwide impact and generate moral outrage in those feeling an affinity to victims overseas.
Before the Internet, militants might have felt isolated and unsupported in their turn to violence. With it, they can easily find validation from others for their extremist views. The global discussions taking place in a myriad of extremist websites may encourage them to take action without guidance or control, as in the case of Roshonara Chowdhry, who tried to stab and kill a British Member of Parliament in 2010.
The ClearGuidance Website and chat-room spawned terrorist activities spanning half a dozen Western countries and generated at least three terrorist plots in Canada, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the United States respectively
Through these websites, young militants scattered around the West can find and encourage each other to take action, and even physically meet in order to conspire. The ClearGuidance Website and chat-room spawned terrorist activities spanning half a dozen Western countries and generated at least three terrorist plots in Canada, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the United States respectively.
Western liberal democracies have evolved, with the consent of the people, to guarantee some form of legal political dissent. Frequently, a subset of dissenters, impatient with the pace of reform or unhappy with the political reaction to their demands, turns to terrorism to promote their goals. Thus, terrorism has become part of the fabric of Western civilization.
It will never be completely eliminated and total security will never be achieved within the hard won liberties that define a liberal democracy. The challenge is to contain political violence and minimise it so as not to undermine the essential freedoms of Western liberal democracies.