The path to radicalisation

1512_lindt_spA spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).

Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.

The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.

These steps are:

  • Radicalisation
  • Learning how to attack (online)
  • Learning how to attack (physical training)
  • Preparing for the attack
  • Carrying out the attack

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.

Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.

They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.

Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.

These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.

These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.

These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.

This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.

What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.

The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.

The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.

It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.

There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”

In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.1512_lindt_sp

A third way?

bn-gf451_palun1_p_20141230190425Until recently, the Palestinians have had a binary choice in their path to statehood—negotiate with Israel or fight Israel. Neither have proven successful. The policies of the international community have opened Palestinian eyes to a third way, pursuing Israel in international organisations to embarrass and weaken the Jewish state.

On 30 December, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for a Palestinian state within two years. It fell one short of the required nine yes votes. Two countries—Australia and the US—voted no and four others abstained.

The Palestinian Authority was the driving force behind this initiative. I believe that not only did the Palestinians know the resolution wouldn’t pass (even if it had have received nine yes votes, the US would have vetoed it), they wanted the resolution to fail. It is worthwhile noting that France had been working with the Palestinian delegation on a less one-sided draft—in other words, one that might have passed. But the Palestinians rejected moderate language, insisting on a draft with fewer Palestinian concessions, and maximum Israeli concessions.

Why?

Why would Palestinians want to have a Security Council vote calling for a Palestinian state voted down? The Palestinian leadership has two main objectives: to attain statehood and to retain power. The second objective is much more important for the Palestinian leadership than the first. History has shown numerous times (most recently in 2000, 2001 and 2008) that, in any situation where the Palestinian leadership faces a choice between achieving statehood and retaining power, retaining power wins out.

The dilemma is caused because achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel will involve substantial concessions for both sides. These concessions are widely known and, for the Palestinians, will result in: having a Palestinian state in 22 per cent of what it considers ‘historic Palestine’ (i.e. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza); and no ‘right of return’.

The ‘Right of Return’

While most Palestinians have grudgingly accepted the first concession, few will concede the second. The Palestinian leadership has been promising a full right of return to Israel since the founding of the national movement in the 1960s. Any Palestinian leader that agrees to a state without the right of return will be seen to have betrayed the Palestinian cause, likely resulting in an assassin’s bullet.

(Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, cannot agree to this ‘right of return’, because it would result in Jews becoming a minority in Israel, thereby creating two Palestinian states and no Jewish state. It thus argues—reasonably, in my opinion—that, following a final status peace agreement, the world’s Palestinians can immigrate to the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and the world’s Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel.)

The refugee issue is, in my opinion, the principal reason the Palestinian leadership has rejected multiple Israeli offers of statehood.

For those who don’t know: What is the ‘right of return’?

In the 1947–49 Arab–Israel war, about 750,000 Palestinians Arabs became refugees. This mostly occurred in the first half of 1948. About half were kicked out by Jewish forces, and about half fled. The Palestinian leadership demands that these refugees and their descendants (today numbering in the millions) have the right to return to their former homes in what has become the State of Israel. This is not a right afforded any other refugee population.

Israel the Scapegoat

Notwithstanding the vexed question of refugees, the Palestinian leadership has long used the Israelis as scapegoats for everything wrong in Palestinian society. Crime, unemployment, corruption and lack of infrastructure are all blamed on the Israeli occupation. Were the occupation to end and a Palestinian state be established, the Palestinian leadership could no longer duck responsibility. Of all these failures, corruption will be the hardest to fix (and this is the problem for which Israel is the least responsible). For a Palestinian leadership historically reluctant to put its people’s future ahead of its own, this in and of itself is a reason not to achieve statehood and forms, in my opinion, the second most important reason the Palestinians have rejected statehood offers.

Role of the International Community

Given that the Palestinian leadership does not want to achieve statehood if doing so will threaten its rule, the international community could and should engineer a situation where the Palestinian leadership will not feel threatened by statehood. This could be done by implementing two policies. First, by tying future aid to Palestinian good governance, it could force the Palestinian leadership to rid its ranks of corruption (since the Palestinian economy is reliant on aid). The West has threatened such action in the past, but never delivered (which has taught the Palestinians that the West is a toothless tiger). If carried out, it would be a painful process, but ultimately be healthy for both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.

The refugee issue is far more problematic. However, the international community could provide political cover for the Palestinian leadership if the former were to: a) state quite plainly that the refugees and their descendants will definitely not be allowed to immigrate to Israel en masse as part of a peace agreement; and b) concurrently promise significant funds to integrate Palestinians into either their host populations, the new state of Palestine or third countries.

Although the above is possible, I don’t believe it is likely. As written about in far more detail in this post, the West blames Israel for the continuation of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. It thus places the onus on Israel to resolve problems and places diplomatic pressure on Israel to do so. And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, almost all Israeli and Palestinian actions, whether good or bad, are filtered by Western commentators through the prism of ‘Israel is to blame for the lack of peace’. Thus, Palestinian actions that undermine peace (such as corruption, violence, unachievable promises and more) are seen as unfortunate but excusable actions of an occupied people. This would be harmless except for that fact that by providing Palestinians with aid and recognition without holding Palestinians to account for bad behaviour, the West has effectively rewarded bad behaviour and thus encouraged more of it.

The Palestinian leadership largely (though incorrectly) sees the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a zero sum game. That is, it believes that whenever Israel loses, the Palestinians win. With increasing condemnation of and pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that it does not need to compromise with Israel. The world will continue pressuring Israel and will continue providing Palestinians with aid and recognition. And while the West will make statements about what it expects the Palestinians to do, it will not punish the Palestinians if they do not comply.

Palestinians Internationalise the Conflict

This leads us to the Palestinian objective in regards to the draft UN Security Council resolution.

Ahead of the vote, the Palestinians said that if the draft resolution were rejected, ‘Palestine’ would seek to join the International Criminal Court and other international organisations. Indeed, since the 30 December vote, the Palestinians have already signed the Rome Statute—the first step to acceding to the ICC.

As a member of the ICC, the Palestinians will seek to have Israel and individual Israelis prosecuted for war crimes committed on Palestinian territory. (The ICC only has jurisdiction in the territory of its members; it has no jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza until it accepts ‘Palestine’ as a member.)

Joining the ICC and other international bodies continues a trend that began a few years ago, and is the culmination of the trend cited in the opening paragraph of this post—that the Palestinian leadership has found a third way (the first being violence, the second being diplomacy—though at the cost of the leadership losing its rule) to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests without compromising.

And while this tactic has been and will continue to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests, it will not lead to a viable peace for two reasons. First, it further diminishes the little trust Israelis have that Palestinians want to live in peace with it. That doesn’t matter so much, since the Palestinians argue that the reason they are internationalising the conflict is because they have lost all trust in Israel. However, and second, pursuing Israel in the realm of ‘lawfare’ might well hurt Israel and provide the Palestinian leadership with a short-term bump in popularity (which the UN Security Council vote achieved), but it will do nothing to address the chronic obstacles blocking the path between the current reality and a viable Palestinian state. Some of these obstacles have nothing to do with Israel. Others are associated with the Israeli occupation, but will only be overcome when Israelis and Palestinians work together in good faith. (Which is not to say that Israelis are blameless—far from it. But this is clearly an example of Palestinians shooting themselves in the foot for short-term advantage.)

But let’s say I’m wrong. What if UN condemnations, ICC prosecutions and even sanctions by countries such as Australia (which is what some people are calling for) successfully pressure Israel into withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank (including those parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim)? The occupation will have ended.

But the Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. The majority of its exports and imports go to and come from Israel. Its electricity and much of its water is supplied by Israel. Many Palestinians find work in Israel or the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the West Bank has no airport and no access to the sea; it is reliant on Israel for all international imports and exports. If Israel is forced through condemnations, prosecutions and sanctions to withdraw from the West Bank, you can bet it will have nothing to do with the new State of Palestine. No goods or services will cross the Israel–Palestine border. Any product entering Gaza (which has a port on the Mediterranean) will likely not be allowed to cross into Israel and then into the West Bank. The Palestinian economy will crash. Violence and chaos will be the result. Terrorist groups will also turn their guns on Israel, which will be forced to intervene to protect its citizens.

And so on. If Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful future, they must cooperate. And while both sides continue to pursue unhelpful policies, trust (and, with it, good will) diminishes and the possibility for cooperation further evaporates. The Palestinian move to go to the Security Council, lose on purpose and then use it as a pretext to join the ICC and other international organisations is one of the most significant such unhelpful moves in the last 10 years.