Thoughts of a former extr
where the experts come to talk

Maajid Nawaz

Thoughts of a former extremist

Having been an active member of an Islamist organisation for 13 years – a subject I tackle at length in my newly released memoir “Radical” – I would identity four main factors that attract people towards extremist ideologies.

In my experience, these factors apply across the board, and are not restricted merely to Islamist extremism, and they can occur in any order, and with varying levels of intensity depending on the person and circumstances.

  • Grievances and lack of an outlet to express them– whether real or perceived – are essential in pushing the potential extremists to seek out alternative sub-cultures and narratives. For the purposes of understanding what motivates an individual, the mere perception of a grievance suffices here.
  • Secondly, an identity crisis is also an important factor in creating the desire to seek out a sub-culture. This pushes the individual to reject the identity, country and people of their land of birth, instead adopting a form of recalibrated transnational camaraderie with other disenchanted like-minds.
  • Into the confusion steps a charismatic recruiter, usually someone who can provide a sense of safety and security for the person experiencing a level of disillusionment from the mainstream.
  • Finally, this recruiter is usually adept at spinning an ideological narrative, helping to them make sense of the world and its ills with a catch all explanation.

The London bombers, en route to killing themselves and 52 others

These four factors, in any order, interplay with one another to send someone down the path of extremism. Human beings are not like water, they do not all boil at 100 degrees Celsius, therefore trying to find one reason that would push someone to extremism is as unhelpful as profiling a terrorist based on their ethnicity, gender or looks. It simply does not work. Anyone from any background can become an extremist, often there are high numbers of converts and people with higher than average levels of education who are attracted to such outrider narratives.

What measures can be used to tackle the problem?

We must first recognise that terrorism is a result of a long-term process that necessarily entails extremism. Measures to tackle the problem can only help if they come as part of a package that includes

  • adopting a national strategy that covers the areas of foreign counter-insurgency measures,
  • domestic counter-terrorism measures (these two areas generally cover the military and law enforcement sides to this effort),
  • disengagement from violence (usually a policy that is attempted in prisons),
  • counter-extremism initiatives in civil society,
  • integration efforts (which is necessarily a two-way street), and
  • democratic political participation.

Where there are real grievances, they should be addressed by policy changes. Where the grievances are perceived, the perception needs to be addressed by better communication and civic-engagement.

The chances of home-grown terrorism flaring up again in the UK, such as the kind that culminated in the 7/7 bombings, are very real

It follows therefore, that terrorism is not solely a military or legal phenomenon, but a wholly social one that is not restricted by borders. The solution can only be one that addresses the problem holistically.

While up-to-date laws, policing to enforce these laws, and counter-terrorism measures are essential, they must be coupled with policy, media and activism to address the social aspect of the problem.

Currently, very little of this is being formulated as a strategy across the globe. In countries where such a strategy exists, such as the UK, far more needs to be done in terms of rolling it out on the ground.

Jonathan Evans, Director General of the British Security Service

The chances of home-grown terrorism flaring up again in the UK, such as the kind that culminated in the 7/7 bombings, are very real.

One only has to look at the examples of the two British Muslims who were recently killed in Yemen fighting alongside Islamist militants - they had gone there reportedly to receive religious education - to see that the challenge of terrorism in the country is far from tackled.

This news coincided with the head of the security and intelligence services, Jonathan Evans, warning that the UK “continues to face a real threat from Al Qaeda-related terrorism” and that their activities have increased in places like Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Libya though they may have declined in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Arab uprisings are to be welcomed and it is hoped that they will usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle-East region. However, the potential for dangerous fallout must also be considered. Increased instability and a new security vacuum may allow jihadism in these countries to merge with legitimate resistance against dictators.

The perception that al-Qaeda is no longer a threat was compounded by Osama Bin Laden’s killing in May last year. However, despite US electoral pressures pushing for another ‘mission accomplished’ moment, it is prudent to remember that since Bin Laden’s death al-Qaeda has actually achieved what it could not during his lifetime. Al-Qaida affiliates now control cities in Bin Laden’s ancestral land of Yemen and the entire region of North Mali. They have allied with Somalia’s Islamist Shabab movement and they dominate the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa. This renders travel to new safe havens for training purposes relatively easy.

The Arab uprisings are to be welcomed and it is hoped that they will usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle-East region. However, the potential for dangerous fallout must also be considered. Increased instability and a new security vacuum may allow jihadism in these countries to merge with legitimate resistance against dictators. Libya and Syria being cases in point, according to Evans.

As with the global blowback from the Afghan ‘jihad’, Western Arab youth going to Syria under the cover of fighting dictators are at risk of exposure to jihadist narratives, increasing the chances of some returning to their countries’ of origin with the express purpose of exporting the ‘jihad’. Ironically, the more the international community is perceived to have failed in Yemen, Syria and (let’s not forget) Iraq next door, the more likely such ‘alternative’ narratives inside these two countries are to spread.

It is no wonder then, that Evans made the remarks he did in his first speech in two years. Saying that the threats we face are “diverse in both geography and levels of skill involved”, Evans added that “we should not underestimate the challenge of mounting the Games securely in an environment with a high terrorist threat.”

To this end it is worth remembering that the 7/7 bombings hit London the week that the Olympic bid was approved for the city. The symbolism of another attack during the Games will not be lost on extremists and should not be lost on us either. The UK will be extremely vulnerable because while focus will be on London and the Games venues, this leaves much of the country open. During such a heightened time, an attack anywhere in the UK would be just as equally headline grabbing. Anything from swords, to nail guns to homemade bombs or traditional weapons could be used, lethal and easy to conceal.

Non-Olympic related terrorism arrests were already made in London in July 2012. The question is not one of ‘if’, but when and where an attempt will be made. And our security forces and police deserve our cooperation for ensuring that the Games pass securely. This should be cause for concern for everyone, not least because of the backlash against ordinary Muslims any successful attack could create.

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About
the Author

By Maajid Nawaz and Saleha Riaz. Maajid Nawaz (@maajidnawaz) is the head of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism organisation based in London, whose staff include former leading members of Islamist organisations. Saleha Riaz works at the Quilliam Foundation.

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