Terrorism,  Your View

Al-Qa’ida Cool?

This is a guest post by George Readings

Jamie Bartlett, leader of Demos’s violent radicalism project “From Threat To Opportunity”, has a piece in Prospect Magazine this month. In it he makes some interesting observations:

[M]embers of terrorist cells tend to be young men with little religious knowledge other than a few cut-and-paste lines from the rockstars of jihadi literature, like radical Egyptian cleric Sayed Qutb. In comparison to such founding fathers of modern Islamic terrorism, this generation has suffered no serious repression.

He also argues, on the back of research from McGill University, that:

Ultimately it is not the ideas of al Qaeda that need dismantling; it is the idea of al Qaeda. This is tough. As has been proved by counterproductive anti-drug warnings, anything government proscribes can become more exciting for young people. The key is to strip al Qaeda of its mystique, and show that the average day of an Islamic extremist is more like that of a petty criminal than a secret agent. (This happens to be true: seven out of ten European militants in al Qaeda training camps return home because of tough training and being treated like skivvies.)

Another route is to poke fun, an idea touched on in Michael Waller’s underappreciated 2007 book Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War. After all, the Ku Klux Klan lost members when a children’s magazine mocked it. Instead of describing violent extremists as “operatives”; let’s drop the Bondisms and focus on the blunders that permeate terrorism plots. Surveillance of the “Toronto 18” cell in Canada revealed that the plotters could not even name the prime minister they were planning to attack. Sharp-eyed British satirist Chris Morris is said to be planning a feature film on Islamic extremism. He could well achieve more than the hawks and the doves combined.

Bartlett has a point about the Bondisms, remember this interview:

And mocking your enemies is a tried and tested strategy, its transposition to the war on terror could be interesting. Maybe Chris Morris has something like this planned?

It’s not like there’s a lack of material. There have been “chapati bombs“, bombers forgetting essential kit and even a bomb plot defeated by London’s traffic wardens and their efficiency.

But Bartlett is making a more serious point. He is suggesting, as he has before, that to defeat terrorism we need to reduce its “glamour.”

In April 2008 he wrote that we shouldn’t necessarily jail people who incite terrorism:

[W]e should think carefully before locking people like this up, and recognise that a balance needs to be struck between punishing those who transgress what we as a society feel is acceptable, without unnecessarily adding to the glamour and legitimacy of the ideas they put forward. On this occasion, we might be better off publicising widely what they’ve said, and let them be ridiculed and treated with the contempt they deserve.

A little later that year he wrote this:

Al Qaeda is no longer a religious terrorist network, it’s a brand – and the suicide bomber video, guaranteed a million hits on YouTube, provides a handy shortcut on the arduous path from anonymity to stardom.

He has expanded on these views in “Wicked Jihad“, a publication available on the Demos website. In it he proposes three “often overlooked” explanations for the appeal of violent extremism:

– it offers a sense of adventure
– it gives a sense of personal agency
– it wins street credibility

Bartlett provides an original perspective, but I’m also reminded somewhat of one of Jon Stewart’s finer moments:

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Yes, some who turn to terrorism are seeking glamour, a sense of personal agency and street credibility but, as Stewart asks, aren’t all youth?

The ideas Bartlett expresses in these articles are an interesting starting point for research, but some fairly fundamental questions remain unanswered. Like why have some Muslim youths gone to Afghanistan to seek adventure when most youths, Muslim and not, have sought it by going to casinos, theme parks or nightclubs? Why have some Muslim youth sought glamour in violent extremism when most other youth take drugs or start a band? And isn’t carrying a knife or learning judo an easier way to acquire “a sense of personal agency” and win “street credibility” than joining a terror network?

Not that I’m endorsing knife crime as a way to combat terrorism, it’s just that there must be a few other factors which govern why common desires and emotions have provoked wildly different responses amongst British youth. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Bartlett hasn’t developed upon this idea yet.

I would also like to see a little more evidence before I agree to equate the psychological circumstances of somebody who threatens me with a knife and steals my mobile phone with those of somebody who blows himself up on a tube train along with dozens of other people. And is it really possible that a desire for “adventure” is a satisfactory explanation both for why I used to go pot-holing in Yorkshire and for why a lad from Leeds went for arms-training in Afghanistan?

Whilst the concept of “dismantling […] the idea of al Qaeda” is attractive, I remain unconvinced that this can or should occur without attempting to dismantle its ideas. If seven out of ten Europeans who travelled to al-Qa’ida camps in Afghanistan returned home because of their disenchantment with the reality of life as a trainee terrorist then this still left three out of ten who were happy to bear the deprivations for the sake of their “studies”. This is not an acceptable situation.

Bartlett has some interesting proposals which should be researched further, but what he suggests should surely complement, rather than replace, combating the violent and Islamist ideas which lie at the core of al-Qa’ida’s ideology? Once these have been defeated then questions of “glamour” and “adventure” will be immaterial.

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