From my time in the Islamist organisation Al-Muhajiroun (now banned and referred to as “Isis UK”), I know how radicalisation works – I used to do it. I would target people, just like I was targeted, and then use a deadly combination of local grievances and rehearsed narratives to lure them deeper into a complex, insular and disturbing world. At one point, I found myself in conversations with members about how we would bomb the London Underground. It was terrible. I was concerned about my operational capability, not about the death or the misery I would inflict. This is what extremism does to you.
When I first encountered this organisation, its Islamist narrative quickly gave me a sense of purpose into which I could fuel my personal and societal grievances. Extremism is an exploitative process; religious, not religious, political or apolitical, it will find a way to give you clarity amid complexity. The feeling is powerful and all-encompassing.
The Nice killer, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, is a classic case of rapid radicalisation, where an unstable life was given purpose by the clarity of Islamism. To stop future attacks, we must focus on the ingredients of the radicalisation cocktail rather than its end product.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was reportedly a sporty womaniser who enjoyed salsa and drinking, and he was radicalised within a matter of weeks or even days. He was unknown to intelligence services and picked both his weapon and his targets at random. The process of radicalisation is getting shorter and the choice of soft targets and weapons is becoming more unpredictable. We have entered a new era of terrorism. As President Hollande termed it, the “terrorism of opportunity” is on the rise and we are likely to see more attacks of this kind. The shift away from centralised planning of attacks towards operational independence demands a nuanced counter-strategy beyond extreme state security measures.
French security forces are already stretched to the limit and have been operating around the clock across the entire country. But focusing on intelligence and sharp-end security will not do the job. It is neither feasible nor desirable to monitor all individuals at risk of radicalisation or to ban individuals from renting a lorry. However, this doesn’t mean we’re powerless – we just need a change in strategy.
People must understand that Islam is not the problem; extremism is. As Bouhlel’s example shows, it is in fact often the least devout individuals who become Islamist extremists. In Al-Muhajiroun, the narrative I absorbed was a skewed interpretation of Islam that taught me to de-humanise non-Muslims. They taught me that to question their ideology would be to question God.
Islam is not an inherently violent faith, but it has been exploited by extremists who have twisted the verses to suit their political goals. Muslims need to confront these extremist interpretations and reclaim Islam. We need our own enlightenment.
Initiatives from within Muslim communities such as the #MyIslam campaign are crucial to creating a sense of belonging for individuals who feel forgotten or excluded in our fast-moving world. Only by offering strong alternatives to the Islamist extremist interpretations of the Qu’ran will we win back the hearts and minds of vulnerable individuals. In more tactical terms, we need a complete saturation of the information sphere with counter-messaging and alternative interpretations. Only then can we stop opportunistic, low-grade terror attacks.
To starve Isis of its emotional appeal, our response needs to show more commitment to and confidence in the enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity that were under attack on Bastille Day. Otherwise, extremists will watch gleefully as we cripple our human rights policies and cut down civic liberties.
Jihadism will continue to be successful if we don’t change our approach and articulate a new vision and interpretation of Islam. Security services may not have a chance of preventing Nice-style attacks, but civil society does.
Adam Deen now works with the anti-extremism organisation Quilliam
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