Tag Archives: Extremism

A Rough Week For The English Defence League

Their leader is arrested.  Low turnouts at Norwich rally.  A hacked website.  Abu Qatada released from UK prison on bail.  Despite these shortcomings, don’t count the English Defence League out yet.

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We Are Norwich March 2012[dhr]

Life has been stressful for English Defence League supporters lately. Troubles began for them in early October when the young and charismatic poster boy for the movement, Tommy Robinson, resigned from his position as joint deputy leader of the British Freedom Party. He explained that he wished to focus his energy on the EDL, which he stated is where his true passion lies.

Just a week and a half later, Robinson was arrested in his Bedford home by the Metropolitan Police Service for attempting to use a fake passport to enter the United States in early September. Currently, he is being held in HMP Wandsworth, awaiting trial in January 2013. As expected, the EDL community has rallied behind Robinson’s cause, and are planning a rally on the 24th November outside the prison to bring awareness to his cause.

Though the month of October has been difficult for leaders of this polarising movement, the past week has stirred up additional anger, stress, and disappointment . Three demoralising events have kicked the soapbox out from under the feet of those aiming to keep Britain British.

1. The March on Norwich

A march organised by the EDL for the 10 November was meant to protest a decision made by the Norwich City Council to ban Pastor Alan Clifford, after it was discovered that he was distributing ‘hate-motivated anti-Islam pamphlets’. The Norwich community rallied around the council’s decision, and a coalition of 25 community groups organised a counter-protest called We Are Norwich, stating their goal was to fight back against fascism and racism.  Reports from 10th November state that We Are Norwich protesters outnumbered EDL protesters by about 2000 to 200. A year and a half ago, EDL protests in Blackburn drew numbers closer to 3000. While EDL leaders called the protest a success, one wonders if the sharp decrease in participants is solely due to geographical reasons, or a diminished constituency.

2.  EDL website overtaken

On 9th of November, the English Defence League’s website was hacked by an organisation entitled the Z Company Hacking Crew (ZHC). The hacked homepage now states “Fuck Zionists! Boycott Israel! Fuck the American Government! Fuck fascist organizations like the EDL”.

EDL website hacked November 2012

The ZHC posted a video in mid-October, threatening the EDL that they were planning an attack website and justifying their actions by describing the injustices of EDL ideology, entitled #Op EDL. The attack has continued since the hacking of their website. The second phase of their exposition on the EDL, called #Op Racism, includes a leaked list of male EDL financiers, released on the afternoon of the 13th November (The EDL has responded to this release, stating that the donor list is outdated). A description of ZHC’s motivations is listed on their YouTube page, stating “We Hack/Deface for a reason, our reason for defacing is to raise awareness of the issues in the world with a main focus on Kashmir & Palestine.”

3. Abu Qatada denied deportation

Despite attempts to have Muslim cleric Abu Qatada deported to Jordan, a UK court denied this request after discovering that witness evidence uncovered using torture would be allowed. On Tuesday 13th November Qatada was released from prison in  Worcestershire on bail after spending most of the last ten years in UK custody. The case has cost taxpayers more than £1 million as of 13th November, and lawyers are estimating that before the trial is officially over it will cost at least another £1 million. Facebook groups supporting the EDL and Robinson have rallied around the cause, stating the injustice of the British legal system, with followers stating:

“England’s justice system should be ashamed!”

“ its not our country anymore, they have taken over it, and the govenment have let them, they take in all the waifs and strays of the world, just what have our grandparents fought for in 2 wars, jack shit. THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED.”

“I would love to know how much of tax payers money has been wasted on him over 7 years just for him to walk free to go home and carry on claiming his benefits justice what justice it no wounded he always got a smile on his face”


Morale is low amongst EDL followers, yet they have much to look forward to. Diminished numbers at the Norwich rally give the appearance of diminished support, but a robust Facebook and Twitter community have rallied around these three recent incidents. The turnout at the rally in favour of Robinson in two weeks will be an indicator of the remaining motivation and passion for poster boy Robinson’s cause. Similarly, the results of his trial in January will have an impact on the movement, no matter the outcome. On one hand, if Robinson remains imprisoned, he might turn into martyr for their cause, creating greater unity amongst the organisation’s multiple factions. Yet one wonders who will fill the gap of the charismatic leader at local rallies and events. Robinson’s tendency to incite anger from local Muslims instills greater passions from both his followers and his critics; without his polarising presence the British public may lose interest in understanding the EDL’s beliefs.

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Photo Credit: Roger Blackwell 

Innocence of Americans: E- Reactions to the Assassination of Christopher Stevens

One month later: an analysis of reactions to Ambassador Steven’s death, and the “Innocence of Muslims” movie on English-language Islamist forums.

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ambassador stevens libya death america

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The assassinations of United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three security attaches last month has caused me to read the discussions related to these topics on reputed English-language Islamist forums.

I should begin by explaining that forums I chose, Ummah.com and IslamicAwakening.com, are reputable for their tendency to be rather conservative. While they label themselves as moderate forums for all Muslims, certain sectors of these communities (particularly those that discuss political issues) tend to stray from the norm in their ideology. Pictures or videos posted containing women with uncovered heads are often labelled with a warning for men. In fact, in one thread a user’s account was disabled for failing to warn others of an uncovered women in a video. These forums are advertised as message boards for those interested in Islam, which means that article topics vary from threads on cooking, parenting, or Quranic interpretation, to threads such as ‘America is one sick place’, with over 500 replies. In this thread users post articles that exemplify their argument that America is sick, citing cases of paedophilia, drug use, and debauchery.Levine and Brachman have alluded to the fact that the Islamic extremist forum movement has been popularized due to gamification; meaning that users now post more radical or violent statements in order to improve their rankings amongst their peers. According to them, the violent rhetoric that one views on these forums may not necessarily be sincere. It may simply be a subconscious effort by a user to increase their popularity within the forum.

When one spends time reading the day-to-day discussions that take place, you realize that maybe it wouldn’t be completely insane to label the forum as normal. I use the term ‘normal’, in the sense that, like everyone else with internet connections, users utilize these forums as a method of escape, and a tool through which one can vent their frustrations. Yet while some choose to vent their emotions through passive-aggressive comments on YouTube, turning to games such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, or posting attention-seeking statuses on Facebook, these individuals choose to focus their frustrations through a different lens; mainly, on which tends to empathise with Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda affiliated organisations. Since the assassination of United States Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens I have spent time perusing a few of the more popular English language forums, hoping to draw conclusions not only about the types of individuals who frequent these forums, but also to see if I could draw any conclusions on how users interpreted the events on September 11, 2012.

First, let me emphasise that users on these forums are not terrorists. Reading the discussions on these blogs should not be viewed as similar to reading the internal notes from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. They should, more appropriately be labelled as potential constituents and adherents to Islamist extremist ideology, and the undercurrent voice of a minority population of Muslims within the West. The individuals on these forums have varying levels of interest and faith invested in the movement and are essentially fence-sitters; while some may truly believe in the validity of the ideology, or pretend to with their virtual peers, they have not yet responded to the ‘call to arms’ and joined the mujahideen. Levels of devotion to the cause vary. Some may post every few days, yet some post multiple times every day, with the forum essentially becoming their social life. Some individuals involved heighten their responsibility and time commitment by volunteering their skills to create or edit videos, translate videos or text from Arabic to English (or other languages), or by creating original material for their peers’ enjoyment. These proactive individuals have been labelled ‘middle managers’, by Neumann, Evans, and Pantucci, and ‘jihobbyists’ by Jarret Brachman. Despite this increase in commitment, however, they are no different from their peers who devote less time. Though they are willing to donate time and energy, they have yet to make the ultimate sacrifice (these are their words, not mine).

I have spent the past month reading threads related to the death of J. Christopher Stevens and the “Innocence of Muslims” video, in order to understand the general consensus from users on the events, and, if the reaction to these occurences can indicate any broader trends within their community. My survey of these forums has left me with the following observations on the consensus opinion of forum users:

1. J. Christopher Stevens was not an innocent victim.

Leaders from around the world have spoken up against the murder of Christopher Stevens, and many Libyans have stepped forward to condemn the actions, claiming that he was well-received amongst the Libyan population. The opinion of that Steven’s death was unnecessary, and aimed at the wrong individual, does not match the opinion of a particular population of those on IslamicAwakening.com and Ummah.com. One of the first respondents to the thread that broke the news of the death stated that:

he is not a diplomat, a diplomat engages in diplomacy he does not assist rebels in overthrowing an on/off partner in the War on Terror nor does he try to commandeer the revolution or take part in OEF-TS doing so makes him a combatant not a diplomat

<User from IA>

To many of these users (or, at least the ones who wish to discuss their opinions with their virtual companions), the right of a foreign embassy to be protected by domestic law enforcement does not parallel Islamic law. As an American diplomat, Christopher Stevens was involved in controversial, polarizing issues, such as legal rights, and militaristic issues:

I have to agree, America’s ambassadors cannot be classified as “emissaries” within the Muslim world according to Shariah, they are military commanders, espionage chief officers, and propagators of corruption. All of this can be documented. US ambassadors sign off on both espionage and military operations in host Muslim countries, including Libya. And in Pakistan the US embassy sponsored a gay rights event in open defiance of the Islamic culture there.

<User from ummah.com>

The problem is that some of us consider this ‘ambassador’ to be an innocent person, far removed from anything that the usa does or promotes. he is also innocent of whatever the usa does to muslim countries worldwide. and that he was there to ensure peace and stability. nothing could be further from the truth. in fact the people who are chosen to be the representatives of america -specially in the muslim countries-are the worst of creation. the diplomats are there to ensure that america’s will be done.this guy was there to ensure american domination in libia and to ensure subjugation of the muslims. just because you call yourself an ambassador doesn’t make you one.

<User from IA>

Ambassador Steven’s legal endorsements and interactions with military officials apparently validate the actions of those killed him; as an ambassador of American ideals, he was deemed an enemy to Islam by those who killed him. The statement above also highlights forum users’ belief that:

2. The American government; and, by extension, its citizens are hypocrites.

Forum users strongly believe that America’s lack of action regarding Sam Bacile’s film, “Innocence of Muslims” is deceitful and reprehensible. While the First Amendment does protect citizens from legal action against certain political or religious views, users cite Tarek Mehanna and Mohamed Mohamud as examples of individuals being jailed for hate speech that goes above and beyond what the law protects. Many forum users claim that, as the United States government has censored extremist Muslims, the video should be censored. Given the violent and aggressive content of the film, it should be taken off YouTube, Bacile should be arrested, and that Islamic law justifies his murder:

Freedom of speech’ excuse by the US government seems to be viewed as hypocritical, ‘The truth is that they have arrested and imprisoned many Muslims for what they call ‘hate speech’ and yet this film was not seen to have crossed any boundaries.’

<User from IA>

If the US are concerned about casualties and security, perhaps they should censor this kind of ‘uncivilised speech’ and put the culprits behind bars for two decades, the way they put Tarek Mehenna and others behind bars for exactly the same crime, but of a reverse polarity.

<User from IA>

Not only is America’s lack of action against Bacile seen as a hypocrisy, but, on a broader scale, their condemnations of violence and destruction against embassies is viewed as ludicrous to many forum users. They cite America’s War on Terror, and the many innocent lives destroyed as a result of the military actions that have been undertaken since 2001, as instances of persecution against Muslims:

Do you think what you i.e the west do is an acceptable excuse in the name Democracy? Were the war crimes of Blair and Bush forgotten that fast?..

<User from IA>

OK, but it is a bit rich for America to expect to be treated fairly when it has been on a rape and murder spree for the last decade. If they want people to respect international conventions, then they should apologise for all they have done and then lead by example.

<User from IA>

3. American Muslims and ‘Westernized’ Muslims, are ‘sickening’

It seems that these forums either a). attract those with extremist viewpoints b.) radicalise all members into adopting extremist ideology, or c) more moderate members choose not to post on threads that appear to be more extreme. I am of the opinion that the final conclusion is the most accurate; expressions of moderation such as this:

Such killing is totally wrong without doubt and I do not say it because I love americans, but because of many reasons. First of all you do not kill a messenger or an ambassador. Secondly, if he was accepted to the country as an ambassador by muslims (it does not matter whether they were fasiqs or not), so it is enough that he was given a protection by some muslims, and you should not kill an ambassador because a jew living in US insulted the profet, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam.

<User from Ummah>

Are refuted with responses like this:

That lot is whom Sheikh Anwar Awlaki described as Rand Muslims – Muslims for the sake of the kuffar. Same lot who cried foul when Nidal Hasan killed american soldiers.

<User from IA>

The user who found the attacks wrong and unjustified was quickly told off, and was told off with one of the most offensive terms user on these forums. A RAND Muslim is a term first popularized by Anwar al-Awlaki, used to describe a Muslim who has been moderated by western politics. Many of the users posting on political threads use terminology such as ‘RAND Muslim’, ‘house negro’, ‘Quilliam‘ and ‘Uncle Tom’ as insults for users who appear to sympathize with the murder of J Christopher Stevens, or believe that “The Innocence of Muslims” cannot or should not be censored. Such terminology, which stirs up images of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement, reminds us of how closely certain users on these forums mirror their struggle to that of African Americans in the 1960s; as a matter of fact, there are many users whose avatar features popular figures within the Black Power movement. A second response to the moderate users post states:

I wish these people would die. I don’t know if I’ve felt that way about Muslims before. I don’t know if this feeling will go away.

<User from ummah.com>

This user became so angry and upset that he was willing to wish a fellow forum user dead. It appears that there is a great deal of animosity and very little respect for American Muslims, who apparently are more moderate than other western Muslims. Along with negative statements about America, and proclamations that J. Christopher Stevens was a worthy target, many users direct resentment towards American Muslims, who apparently did not react as angrily as forum users would have wished. A picture of American Muslims, standing outside of the White House and holding a prayer session in honor of the late ambassador was posted, and the consensus was general disgust. Many individuals questioned where the American Muslim voice was:

Insha Allah, the [non-Muslim] americans will now turn against him. By the way. Where are all these American muslims. Have they gone into hiding? Bunch of cowards.

<User from IA>

So, while there does appear to be a minority voice of moderation within these threads, they appear to avoid some of the more contentious topics (such as ones involving controversial current events), and, when they do post, appear to avoid getting into in-fighting with those who insult them.

4. The assassination of J. Christopher Stevens and the release of “Innocence of Muslims” may be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, for some Muslims.

Multiple users have approved of the riots, protests, and the assassination of J. Christopher Stevens as a strategic success for the global Islamic community. By strongly reacting to anti-Muslim sentiments, they are propagating the message that the global Muslim community will not tolerate such acts of aggression towards their Prophet:

Remember this year Quraan was desecrated by the US soldiers in afghanistan. Had the muslimeen over there not protested the way they did, had they remained peaceful – that would in no way have brought more converts to islam, it might have resulted in more such incidents. And the enemy is not getting aided by any means. It only shows muslims are getting stronger and more courageous.

<User from IA>

By rejecting the video’s sentiment that Islam is an intolerable, unsophisticated, and inhumane religion, they hope that the global Muslim community will grow stronger, and perhaps become a louder voice than those who are not Muslim:

I have read/heard somewhere that when the Sahabah would be attacking the enemy of Islam in their forts and the enemy would start cursing the Prophet Muhammad…the Sahabah would rejoice that victory is near. Why? Because anyone who insults the Prophet…cannot live in peace and harmony. So they would become more encouraged to fight and kill the enemy…And they charged at the enemy slicing them up and leaving no trace of those filthy creatures. A few years ago they made cartoons and look at where they stand. The black flag flies across the screens in the world. Allah u Akbar. Indeed the victory of Allah is near! May We live to see it and be a part of it and not just people on the sidelines!

<User from IA>

Along with believing that riots are an important precedent, some have expressed that the current environment may bring more Muslims to the global community, and swing their loyalties away from the western world. As previously detailed, the fence-sitting members of forums have a great deal of animosity towards Muslims with westernized sentiments, yet some users have faith that the current climate might cause some individuals to reevaluate their views on the West:

i was talking to someone tonight andwe agreed that this is the straw that will most probably break the camels back.i may be wrong as i am a mere human but dont know why my heart feels something big is near.anyway Allah knows the best.

<User from ummah.com>

[Rioters] should target parliament – the shrines to democracy next.

^ Don’t read too much into that post. It was just a suggestion; a dig at democracy and parliament. Of course we commend what the brothers are doing in smashing these shrines.

<User from IA>

As can be seen, the rhetoric and subject matter appears to be quite anti-American, including the direction of negative energy against fellow Muslims situated in Western countries. Of course, one could say that violent rhetoric is common in online platforms, that virtual communication allows individuals to be more aggressive than they could be if they were communicating face-to-face. Users on a variety of platforms have no problem becoming aggressive with each other. The internal aggression directed at peers shows the polarized nature of these forums. For those that are intent on the validity of the assassination of Stevens and the targeting of Bacile, one must wonder if and when users will feel that words within a forum are not enough. For most followers of extremist ideology, the ability to vent their frustration through discussions and remain politically active within the democratic system will allow them to feel as if their voice is valued. As one active user on the forum suggested:

I find it difficult to have sympathy for an American diplomat. However, what makes us better than the US is the fact that we lay down our lives for our values, whereas they lay down their values for their lives. If we also start laying down our values, the difference between us and them wouldn’t be much.

<User from IA>

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Photo Credit: Secretary of Defense

Author’s note: Usernames were withheld for sake of privacy; membership is needed to access certain parts of the aforementioned forums.  If anyone is intent on validating my sources, feel free to email me at [email protected]

#2: Multiculturalism & The British Dream?

In this episode of Debrief, part of a week-long series on multiculturalism, Jamiesha Majevadia is joined by David Goodhart, Director of the London-based think tank Demos.

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Brick Lane Multiculturalism

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You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

David & Jamiesha discuss issues of multiculturalism, racism and extremism in Britain. Is Britain, to use Trevor Philips’ words, sleepwalking into segregation? Is there a ‘Muslim problem’ in the UK? Is Islamophobia as rampant as we are led to believe?

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David is the director of Demos, a London-based think tank. He is editor-at-large of Prospect magazine, which he founded in 1995 and grew into Britain’s leading current affairs monthly. An established broadcaster, author, commentator and journalist, David regularly contributes to some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and the Financial Times.

Al-Libi Meets The Business End Of A Drone

Whilst the death of an al-Qaeda strategist as brilliant as al-Libi should be celebrated, it should simultaneously be mourned: he provided us with better advice than we were able to produce ourselves at the time. 

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he death of Libyan-born Abu Yahya al-Libi, the “general manager” of al-Qaeda, has provoked a new round of debate over the use of drones by the United States. Many al-Qaeda leaders have met their end after encountering the business end of a drone (credit to John Quinn for dreaming up such a brilliant phrase), proving them a useful tool in the American military toolbox for eliminating threats in territory that they do not control.

As Andy Parsons amusingly puts it:

“We went into Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan to find al-Qaeda, now it appears that they (al-Qaeda) have left Afghanistan and gone to Pakistan. But we can’t actually go and find them in Pakistan because Pakistan is our friend and they’re still helping us look for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan has described the killing of al-Libi on Pakistani soil as “unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”. But Pakistani protests over the presence of American troops conducting assassinations on Pakistani soil would be far greater, as would the effect on anti-American sentiment (bin Laden’s departure as a case in point). If one adheres to the argument that to counter the extremist group one must destroy its leadership, drones are undoubtedly the lesser evil.

This debate is not constrained to issues of sovereignty however. Following confirmation of the success of the strike by American authorities, the dead Libyan’s brother, Abu Bakr al-Qayed, asserted that “the way the Americans killed him is heinous and inhumane”. “Regardless of my brother’s ideology, or beliefs, he was a human being and at the end of the day deserves humane treatment”. This aspect of the debate – that of human rights – is one that I shall (happily) leave to one side in the knowledge that others more capable than myself will be tackling it on these pages shortly.

Al-Libi’s fame was born out of his escape from Bagram in July 2005, subsequently proving his worth as an al-Qaeda strategist and theologian. The “explosive cocktail of youth, rage, arrogance and intellect that has made him a force” among Jihadis was demonstrated when he provided the sole remaining superpower with unsolicited advice on how to defeat the militant Sunni group (Brachman 2008).

Amusingly the neutralization of senior leaders was a key point in his suggestions: al-Libi was a self-appointed target. His further recommendations can only be regarded as brilliant. He argued that America should focus on promoting the voices of those who had renounced extremism, in much the way that certain countries use former extremists within their deradicalisation programmes: what better person to use to discredit the movement than one who has been through it and come out the other side. Further, mainstream Imams should be encouraged to issue fatwas against al-Qaeda and its followers. By using such a line of attack, al-Qaeda’s appeal to potential recruits is dramatically lessened and the West may start to win the war of ideas.

Building upon that foundation, al-Libi suggested that America make up stories about the organisation and exaggerate its mistakes. If America were to insinuate that these fictitious or embellished events were inherent to the movement, the group’s public support would undoubtedly drop significantly. He mentions the damage done to the image of the organisation by rumours that al-Qaeda had imposed a death penalty on those who renounced its violent ideology.

The most pertinent argument provided is that of encouraging and strengthening Islamic movements that favour democracy. As Brachman asserts, Jihadist thinkers are threatened by such groups (the Muslim Brotherhood as an example) as they utilize the same texts to legitimize their world-view and appeal to the same kind of person. The Muslim Brotherhood are, evidently, eminently preferable to al-Qaeda.

To close, whilst the death of an al-Qaeda strategist as brilliant as al-Libi should be celebrated, it should simultaneously be mourned: he provided us with better advice than we were able to produce ourselves at the time. Jarret M. Brachman’s 2008 work Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice should be consulted by those that wish to read more upon this subject – I strongly recommend it.

Online Radicalisation

Surfing the Jihadisphere: How the internet facilitates violent radicalisation
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his paper presents a brief exploration into the potential for the internet to facilitate radicalisation into violent extremism. By examining the processes, environments, and behavioural patterns thought to underpin this process, it explores the ardent enthusiasm of extremists to exploit communicative innovations in order to reach larger audiences quickly, cheaply, and anonymously. This paper highlights how progressive technologies and modern internet landscapes have transformed the way people engage with and disseminate information, and how such developments have created new types of social arena, promoting the effortless production, consumption, and re-distribution of extremist content. I shall argue that emergent online environments have also helped cultivate the networks, relationships, and bonds argued to be prerequisites to violent radicalisation. Not only by promoting and encouraging increasingly extremist frames, but also by potentially illustrating, validating, and reinforcing offline narratives, interactions, and experiences. Reference will be made to relevant case studies and applicable paradigms from social science, examining conceptions of online communities and social deviance. In concluding, many of the security-vs-liberty challenges this poses for policymakers, as well as the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration in formulating an integrative understanding of online radicalisation, shall be discussed. In doing so, I seek to stimulate further analytic research and debate in this field, whilst simultaneously encouraging theoretically informed, research driven, countermeasures seeking to combat radicalisation and, ultimately, reduce terrorism.

In addition to demarcating its particular remit, at this preliminary stage it is important to acknowledge this papers restrictions and limitations when approaching such expansive topics[1]. Firstly, distinguishing ‘online radicalisation’, as discussed here, from ‘cyber-terrorism’ is essential. The fundamental distinction being the former concentrates on the communicative, cognitive, function of the internet, the latter on the utility of the internet as a weapon in its own right. Similarly, this paper does not tackle the direct operational use of the internet to plan terrorist acts. Secondly, although many themes articulated here have broader validity and application, this paper’s primary focus is jihadist online radicalisation and, as such, caution should be exercised in making wider generalisations. Finally, whilst reference shall be made to ‘the internet’, in its strictest technical sense, much of what follows concerns the ‘World Wide Web’ (W3), and not the internet per se. Therefore, in order to address the question adequately, and avoid being ensnared by abstract definitional quagmires debating controversial terms, it is essential to deploy solid working definitions from the get go. This paper takes Berners-Lee’s definition of ‘W3’ as “the universe of network-accessible information, resources and users on the Internet… using Hypertext-Transfer-Protocol”, accessible via software browsers[2]. Where used, ‘cyberspace’ refers to Stevens’[3] depiction of the “total landscape of technology mediated communication”. It takes Hoffman’s[4] definition of ‘terrorism’ as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change”. It utilises Neumann’s[5] account of ‘violent extremism’ as the use of violence to realise “political ideologies that are opposed to a society’s core (constitutional) values and principles”. It takes ‘violent radicalisation’ as describing “a process in which radical ideas are accompanied by the development of a willingness to directly support or engage in violent acts”[6].

The information revolution and the exponential rise of the internet is a global phenomenon which, alongside other manifestations of globalisation and late modernity, will likely come to define our period of human history as the enlightenment or industrial revolution has previous centuries[7]. It has transformed the way people communicate, connect, work, socialise, shop, identify and place themselves in increasingly ‘glocal’ societies[8]. Technological innovations saw internet penetration increase from 16 million to 2.2 billion from 1995–2011, bringing about huge advancements in speed and accessibility, as well as the systems and virtual architecture that construct and sustain cyberspace[9]. Apart from remote regions of Africa and Asia, internet penetration is not limited to particular demographics or social movements. We should not be surprised, therefore, that terrorist groups, and especially al-Qaeda, are utilising cyberspace to reach audiences, self publicise, release propaganda, rally support, raise funds, and mobilise activists[10]. Indeed Ayman al-Zawahiri, stated over a decade ago the need to “get our messages across to the masses….through the use of the internet!”[11]

Early literature concerning terrorism online is security centric in outlook, focusing on technical target-hardening, protecting vulnerabilities, and potential cyber-warfare capabilities[12]. Despite moral panics of an inevitable “electronic pearl harbour”[13], and with the exception of the Tamil Tigers’ disruption of Sri Lankan communications, no unequivocal case of cyber-terrorism has occurred[14]. The distinctly low-tech nature of 9/11 demonstrated traditional methods of terroristic violence had altered little, and scholarly focus shifted toward non-technical analysis[15] with growing interest in how extremists communicated and interacted online “just like everyone else”[16]. Preeminent contributions in this regard, such as those from Conway[17] and Chen et al[18], have concentrated on meticulous website content-analysis. Whether dedicated to terrorist groups, theologians or ideologues, commemorating martyrs and fighters, or cataloguing the musings of radical commentators, websites remained the predominant form of extremist online representation throughout the 1990s[19].

In the last decade, the dominance the ‘official website’ has been supplemented and surpassed by an array of quasi-official, independent, message forums and chatrooms. Facilitated by forum administrators, often grassroots sympathisers themselves, members are largely responsible for topics discussed, material posted, and information shared. Reliance on the hosted locality of media as testament to its authenticity has also changed, adopting ‘packet systems’ where data concerning the origin, content, and intended destination of the parcel is integrated into each standalone media package[20]. Websites benefit from being sanctioned, direct, single channels of communication, but are vulnerable by this static nature and, if compromised, the re-establishment of contact and the re-circulation of material is difficult. Message forums are resilient, both in number and by seldom producing the content they dispense, operating as podiums for terrorist-organisations, or marketplaces for the exchange of extremist media[21].

In the case of Islamist militancy, these developments have resulted in the emergence of distinct jihadist media production and distribution entities (MPDEs), such as Al-Sahab, Al-Fajr and Global Islamic Media Front, which imitate mainstream news agency templates in their attempts to portray credibility and candour. The individualised logos, styling, and branding of media packets by MPDEs allow for the immediate identification of their output by the end user, as a means of assessing the source, regional battlefront, and authenticity of material[22]. Varying degrees of credibility, authority, and status are similarly attached to forums and chatrooms, often dependent upon the presence of influential contributors or figureheads, privileged access to new content, or being used to release official statements[23].

The evolution of self-sustaining, resilient, stable infrastructures, MPDEs, and encoded, standalone propaganda packets, are products of advancing computer mediated communication (CMC) and associated with prevailing W3 trends. The sharing, swapping, and reposting of material, combined with increasing user generated content, multi-channelled communication and interaction, is termed Web 2.0 and is vital to appreciating the evolution of online social environments. Sageman[24] describes radicalisation as predominately consisting of psycho-social processes, dependent upon interaction and socialisation within small clandestine ‘cliques’. Personal attachments, networks, and relationships facilitate the introduction, internalisation, and reproduction of extremist attitudes, values and beliefs. New communicative platforms and Web 2.0, what Al-Boraq Media Institute[25] dub jihadist “media exuberance”, have direct implications for radicalisation, as they help forge these networks and spread extremist content in cyberspace.

As boundaries between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of content have begun to blur, forum members feel closer to social movements, especially when actively participating, contributing, and sharing content[26]. Brachman[27] terms such extremists ‘jihobbyists’, as they are not direct members of terrorist organisations, yet actively seek to propel an extremist agenda forward. They often participate by providing technical skills and/or facilitating narratives reaching and resonating with audiences, becoming the “base that keeps the movement afloat”. The most infamous example is Younes-Tsouli aka ‘Irhabi007’, who evolved from a harmless agitator to one of the most prolific jihobbyists, arguably becoming the central ‘eHadi’ hub in Europe[28]. Beginning as a curious dissenter with no previous association with militant Islam, Tsouli quickly became an active consumer of extremist-content online. His talent for programming and hacking online security, as well as his flair for compiling and packaging media content into bite-size files, earned him a reputation as a technical expert. Tsouli became adept at distributing videos of radical ideologues, battlefront insurgencies, beheadings, and military training. He produced instructional manuals explaining the intricacies of hacking websites, anonymous browsing, cracking software, and assembling suicide vests[29]. He emerged as a pivotal and respected online jihadist personality, eventually claiming with credibility to be the official Western spokesman for Abu al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)[30]. The case of Irhabi007 maps the evolution through curiosity, consumption, participation, and dissemination of online extremism, but also created a rubric for future jihobbyists [31]. It also illustrates the critical adhesive function al-Qaeda’s layer of middle-managers have in connecting the top echelons to the grassroots, affording ‘new’ terrorism the decentralised structure and operational reach that typifies it[32].

Understanding the social processes at the core of online radicalisation requires an appreciation of the Interactionist premise that all communication shapes and informs our everyday lives and behaviours[33]. Sanderson and Fortin[34] describe how large-scale adoption of CMC combined with Web 2.0, has dissolved boundaries of physical locality which have traditionally informed the sociological understanding of what constitutes a ‘community’. Amit[35] also observes how contemporary anthropological perspectives of community have shifted, from assuming material space and “actualised social form[s], to an emphasis on community as an idea or quality of sociality” through a shared purpose or interest. Interestingly, Neumann[36] describes ‘new terrorism’ as also increasingly de-territorialised, yet united around common ideologies. As online engagement and interaction has increased, in line with CMC innovations, isolated extremists are able to congregate, interact, and socialise in cyberspace in ways they are unable to offline. Renninger and Shumar[37] view online communities as places which: members return to over time, facilitate communication between users, and allow individuals from different real-world locations to assemble virtually. Somewhat bizarrely, terrorist message forums have come to exhibit many characteristics of online communities, albeit unified around violent extremism[38].

Such communities facilitate violent radicalisation in a number of important ways and contributions from social and behavioural sciences have significant import here[39]. Primarily, online communities allow networks of likeminded individuals to develop communicative links beyond their isolated locales. Additionally, the dissociative anonymity of W3 mitigates the risks of accountability and reduces inhibitions in the users online interactions[40]. Bessière[41] describes how virtual worlds and online communities allow for the recreation of an “idealised virtual self”, irrespective of real world constraints. Turkle[42] notes how W3 can allow users to put “fantasies-into-action”, when seemingly freed from societal checks and balances of normative behavioural conduct[43]. Analytical perspectives from psychology, criminology, and terrorism studies, afford further insights into online radicalisation. Wellman and Gullia[44] suggest that although virtual arenas, for better or worse, “foster the formation of social networks and personal communities”, such environments are distinctly insular and retreatist in nature[45]. If ones primary social contact occurs within a small, introverted, clandestine milieu, high-risk behaviours can be cultivated[46]. Janis’[47] notion of ‘groupthink’ has particular bearing here; where uncontested conformity to the majority-worldview, or prototypical group position, sidesteps critical evaluation, and groups can collectively rationalise and neutralise their actions. This expurgates dissent, but also allows a morally distorted consensus to be reached, reinforcing skewed perceptions and group polarisation[48]. Suler[49] notes how CMC can produce ‘solipsistic introjection’, assigning out-groups elaborate, imagined, traits which reinforce their own ‘reality’. Users socialising within such online echo-chambers, favourable to the articulation of extreme views, can undergo a ‘risky shift’ towards increasingly extremist positions, adopting a progressively violent prognosis[50]. Sutherland’s[51] ‘differential association’, articulates how deviant behaviours are learnt, adsorbed, propagated, and escalated within criminogenic environments, resulting in a distorted rationality. Within a Classicist paradigm, Crenshaw[52] further emphasises violent extremism as a hedonistic ‘strategic choice’, where terrorism is cognitively calculated as the only ‘logical’ option which, to the out-group, appears utterly irrational[53].

Convicted for possessing and distributing terrorist material in 2006, Irfan Raja provides an illustrative case in point. Despite the Court of Appeal overturning his conviction, due to subtle legalistic interpretations of ownership, what remains interesting is the central role the internet played[54]. Raja was never involved in an Islamist counter-culture, indeed his online extremist tendencies were unbeknown to his family and school friends[55]. His radicalisation occurred almost entirely online, amassing and exchanging a “profusion of Islamist propaganda” including; classical jihadist texts, al-Qaeda training manuals and speeches, explosives schematics, insurgency, and suicide videos[56]. Raja’s chatroom transcripts progressively justified martyrdom, expressed longing for militant training, and aspirations of becoming a mujihadeen warrior[57]. Although Raja had no real-world connections, he successfully formed strong relationships, loyalties, and commitments with an extremist milieu[58]. Communicating exclusively online, this introverted group collectively decided to attend a Pakistani training camp and join al-Qaeda.

Whilst illustrating how differential normative patterns and extremist collective-logic are perpetuated within enabling environments, such cases also demonstrate how the audiences and membership of extremist online communities has shifted. Brighton[59] notes the significance of Western foreign policy as a driver of homegrown radicalisation, and indeed jihadist message forums arose from two factors converging circa 2003/4. One has been mentioned with respect to the dialects of globalisation and technological innovations, which afforded faster broadband connections, download speeds, and the emergence of Web 2.0. The second, concerns the insatiable demand for media, news, and information from foreign battlefronts during the Iraq war. At this time, no one was more media savvy than Abu al-Zarqawi, later the Emir of AQI, who in 2004 embarked on an internet marketing and PR campaign to raise his profile and showcase his exploits amidst the mounting chaos and turmoil in Iraq. Conway[60] notes how uploading his most horrific activities to cyberspace, infamously the decapitation of Nicholas Berg, Zarqawi harnessed the internet’s multiplying effect, controlling “both the interpretation of his violent message and achiev[ing] greater impact with smaller operations”.

The importance of messages reaching and resonating with audiences is particularly acute for radicalisation processes. Wiktorowicz[61] comprehensively describes how perceived injustices make individuals more cognitively receptive to extremist narratives. Radicalisation is particularly effectual when worldviews appear representative of ones own plight, and resonate with individual experiences. This is achievable through appeals to pre-existing ‘sentiment pools’, leading to congruence or alignment between ones own beliefs and the ‘frame’ espoused by extremist ideologies. The emergence of message forums and online jihadist content in English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch not only made messages instantly accessible to wider domestic audiences, but also the issues, themes, and topics became increasingly applicable and relevant to ‘disenchanted’ Western Muslims[62]. Proliferation of Western targeted propaganda was vehemently championed by Anwar al-Awlaki who, as an American citizen, had developed a keen eye for marketing, designing, and packaging material with the Western consumer in mind[63]. His most famous brainchild, the jihadist Inspire magazine, published such articles as “I am proud to be a traitor to America”, “How to build a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” and “Message to the American People and Muslims in the West”[64]. Interestingly Inspire’s editor, Samir Khan, was also originally a message forum fan, blogger, and prolific contributor, before he made the transition to joining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula[65]. A typical appeal to Western sentiment pools could be videos which may portray Palestinian subjugation by Israel, carefully edited alongside police brutality in North London[66]. Such videos attempt to prove the West’s war against the entire Ummah (Muslim nation) by framing such narratives on the doorstep of audiences, substantiating perceived grievances and core ideological precepts through visually powerful media [67].

Less sophisticated attempts to reach English speaking sympathisers are found in the surreal musical contributions of Al Shabaab’s (AS) Omar Hammami. Alabama-born Hammami, who enjoyed an online existence before joining AS in Somalia, has crudely attempted to recruit through the production of half-a-dozen rap tracks, which extol the virtues of jihad whilst vilifying the West[68]. Although Hammami’s hip-hop may be farcical, and fairly ineffective as a recruitment tool, Inspire’s releases were eagerly anticipated, and its readership has included a number of convicted terrorists[69]. Whether such media packets have caused radicalisation is contentious, what is notable however is the capacity for video and imagery to covey, re-enforce, and magnify narratives heard in the offline domain. Pyszczynski[70] further demonstrates how media packets reflecting upon mortality and death produce a ‘mortality salience’ amongst audiences, and increased support for violence and martyrdom. The cases of Rami Makanesi and Hammaad Munshi provide illuminating examples. Makanesi, who had a history of drug abuse, converted to Islam after a Tabligh-i Jamaat workshop, and became extremely passionate about his faith which he saw as pivotal to his rehabilitation[71]. His enthusiasm prompted an online ‘religious seeking’[72], since coined ‘Sheikh Google’[73], and stumbled upon emotionally poignant jihadist content depicting the suffering of Palestinian children. Makanesi gradually became an active forum member, establishing rapport with a moderator, and regularly exchanging extremist content. Inspired by battlefront videos, speeches, sermons, books, stories, and Anwar al-Awlaki lectures on Pal-Talk[74], he eventually sought ‘links to the jihad’[75]. Munshi’s case was also one of curiosity, bolstered by mutual reinforcement[76]. A substantial part of his radicalisation took place online through watching videos and downloading recipes for napalm and explosives, but this was strengthened by the malign real-world influence of extremist associates[77].

Such cases further demonstrate how, through Web 2.0 and catering for Western audiences, extremist content has become increasingly accessible and material, hitherto buried in the depths of cyberspace, can spill-over onto mainstream websites. People may stumble across extremist content by accident, or form integrative links to clandestine organisations through conventional websites. Despite the common consensus that personal bonds and intra-group dynamics (real or virtual) are pre-requisites for radicalisation, in some extreme cases individuals have become indoctrinated in relative isolation[78]. This has resulted in instances of ‘lone wolf terrorism’, what Sageman[79] defines ‘leaderless jihad’, or, in keeping with the topic and in the words of Inspire magazine, “open source jihad”[80]. This certainly appears to be the case with Roshonara Choudhary, who stabbed Stephen Timms MP. Choudhary was certainly not a committed Islamist; she had no links to extremist forums, no history of politicised religiosity, or radical activism, she was not even a member of moderate Islamic organisations or institutions and she prayed at home. Her radicalisation seems to have occurred not through acceptance into an extremist milieu, but from social exclusion and viewing hours of Anwar al-Awlaki lectures on YouTube[81]. Chodhury’s reclusive nature, combined with increasingly extreme sermons, seems to have gradually consumed her to the point she embarked on a solo mission of vengeance for the war in Iraq[82]. Similar mainstream spill-over occurred with the ‘Virginia Five’, who attempted to attend a Pakistani training camp after exchanging comments with fellow jihadists on YouTube[83]. However, whilst homegrown self-starters have increasingly become the focus of countermeasures, and may indeed reflect the decentralised nature of contemporary terrorist organisations, cases of isolated self-radicalisation remain rare. Where radicalisation is facilitated virtually, it should be seen as part of an iterative, symbiotic-relationship with the real world, and therefore it is important to anchor policy in the offline domain[84].

In summary, the internet as a medium to socialise, congregate, discuss, and debate issues has become a major facilitator for the radicalisation of individuals in violent extremism. Online radicalisation can be seen as a complex process comprising of societal malaise, interaction and immersion within an introverted and isolated counterculture milieu, resulting in the acceptance of an extremist doctrine as representing absolute truth. Any act advancing the dominance of this ideology becomes defined as virtuous. These online communities, or jihadispheres[85], have become virtual ‘enabling environments’ which encourage intricate networks to form and act as echo-chambers for extremist narratives and morality salience[86]. Media packets illustrate and amplify messages heard in the offline domain but can, occasionally, indoctrinate and radicalise individuals with limited human contact. As part of a deliberate strategy to tailor standalone content to Western audiences, and the emergence of terrorist MPDEs, extremist content has become remarkably easy to obtain and disseminate. Resultantly, this media is finding its way into mainstream cyberspace. Such developments have been facilitated by wider technological and communicative trends in the W3 landscape, and reflect the increasingly decentralised structure of contemporary terrorist organisations.

This phenomenon has significant implications for countermeasures tackling radicalisation and recruitment[87]. The shifting dynamics of online usage and infrastructure present new challenges and dilemmas for policymakers. Nevertheless, the crux of the issue remains constant; how to protect liberal democracy, those vulnerable to malign influence, and not allow virtual recruitment grounds to flourish, without eroding the very rights, freedoms, and civil liberties one seeks to defend? This has tended to result in policy prescriptions following one of two schemata. ‘Negative measures’ centred around denial of service and restriction of access to extremist material; removal of websites, and the filtering, monitoring, censoring, and blocking of content, have been adopted by governments who have been enthusiastic about technical solutions for what are perceived as technical dilemmas[88]. However, policies advocating state censorship raise all manner of civil liberty questions and, whilst potentially effective if utilised appropriately, technical measures can also be crudely implemented and overzealous. Additionally, it has been proposed that non-violent extremist forums may offer a ‘safety valve’ for radicals to vent their frustrations, actually mitigating the likelihood of violent extremism[89]. It may even be the case that monitoring forum discussions has greater value to intelligence gathering, recognising emergent security concerns, and acknowledging community grievances, than knee-jerk negative measures[90]. Furthermore, the enormity and transnational reach of the internet means efforts to infiltrate, shutdown, or block forums, even if ethically and technically viable, are only nominally disruptive. This is due to the constant circulation of standalone, user generated content, the quantity of active online forums[91], and their exploitation of legal ambiguities, restrictive jurisdictions, and disclaimer clauses[92]. ‘Positive measures’ aim to offer alternative counter-narratives to directly challenge and neutralise extremist messages found online. Whilst conceptually solid, in reality many programmes experience problems regarding ‘audience share’, legitimacy, and credibility. Nonetheless, there are a range of alternative options beyond the false dichotomy of exclusively negative or positive choices, these include: Combining strategic, commensurate, negative measures with the effective prosecution of prolific online extremists and MPDEs, deterring the production and distribution of extremist content, and therefore its availability[93]. Empowering online communities to self-regulate through strengthening report and complaint mechanisms, as well as promoting conduct-awareness and positive normative behavioural patterns, therefore minimising state intervention and spill-over into mainstream spheres[94]. Bolstering critical media literacy through comprehensive educational programmes which strengthen abilities to gauge, evaluate, and assess online content helping reduce extremist media appeal. Finally, encouraging informed, credible, counter-messages by nurturing grassroots projects to challenge online extremist narratives, thus helping stimulate debates independent of state involvement, undermining the legitimacy claimed by extremists.

This paper neither alleges to identify static social truths, nor makes Positivist claims towards the conclusive. There is no archetypal radicalisation guide waiting to be discovered because there is no generalisable terrorist-typology. There is a real call for sober, outcome-driven, research within this field, which needs to remain as fluid and adaptive as the subject it investigates. Although actor-centric, content-focused methodologies add to a comprehensive appreciation of online extremism, they are not tangible frameworks for understanding social radicalisation processes. Equally, violent-radicalisation viewed through a single theoretical lens can be misleading, and drawing upon several conceptual tools is essential when exploring how cultures, settings, and interactions inform and shape our normative behaviours and world-views. Therefore, the synthesis and application of multi-disciplinary, ideal-typical discourses is required to better appreciate the subtleties of several concurrent social phenomena[95]. This paper seeks to contribute towards a sophisticated understanding of online violent radicalisation, attempting to ‘bridge the gap’96 between academia and rigorous, yet commensurate, counterterrorism and de-radicalisation policy.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

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2 Berners-Lee,.(2001)
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7 Bauman,.(2000)
8 Roudometof,.(2005);Appadurai,.(1990);Giddens,.(1991)
9 IWS,.(2012);Knight,.(2003:15);Ahlgren,.(2005);Edensor,.(2001)
10 Stevens &.Neumann,.(2009:5)
11 Al-Zawahiri,.(2001)
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15 Stephens-&.Baker,.(2006);Weimann,.(2006);Conway,.(2004);Thomas,.(2003;2005)
16 New,.(2004)
17 Conway,.(2005)
18 Chen.et.al.,(2005;2006)
19 Musawi,.(2010:4-6)
20 Ramsay,.(2008:7)
21 ibid.,(2008:7-8)
22 Kimmage,.(2008:2-6)
23 Musawi,.(2010:8-12
24 Sageman,.(2004;2008)
25 Al-Boraq,.(2006)
26 Haddon,.(2004);Change-Institute,.(2008)
27 Brachman,.(2008)
28 Cutler,.(2007)
29 Labi,.(2006)
30 Swann,.(2008)
31 Cutler,.(2007)
32 Neumann.et.al.,(2011)
33 Wessels,.(2009)
34 Sanderson-&.Fortin,.(2001)
35 Amit,.(2002:3)
36 Neumann,.(2009)
37 Renninger-&.Shumar,.(2002)
38 Feather,.(2004)
39 Stevens-&.Neumann,.(2009)
40 Suler,.(2004)
41 Bessière.et.al.,(2007:10)
42 Turkle,.(1995:226)
43 Jones,.(2006:104)
44 cited-in-Steinkuehler,.(2006:1)
45 Jenny,.(2008)
46 Wiktorowicz,.(2002)
47 Janis,.(1972)
48 Sia-et-al.,(2002)
49 Suler,.(2004)
50 ibid.;-Shaw,.(1976)
51 Sutherland,.(1947)
52 Crenshaw,.(1998)
53 Sageman,.(2004;2008)
54 Philips,.(2008)
55 Neumann-&.Rogers,.(2007:89)
56 Gardman,.(2007)
57 Casciani,.(2007)
58 Neumann-&.Rogers,.(2007)
59 Brighton,.(2007)
60 Conway,.(2012:5)
61 Wiktorowicz,.(2005)
62 Bell,.(1997)
63 Meleagrou-Hitchens,.(2011)
64 Al-Awlaki,.(2010)
65 Temple-Raston,.(2010)
66 Poulos,.(2010)
67 Awan,.(2007)
68 Ryan,.(2011)
69 Miller-&.Samuels,(2010)
70 Pyszczynski-et.al.,(2006)
71 Flade,.(2011)
72 Wiktorowicz,.(2005)
73 Birt,.(2008)
74 Holtmann,.(2011:4-6)
75 Kirby,.(2007)
76 AVID,.(2012)
77 Sturcke,.(2008)
78 Sageman,.(2004)
79 Sageman,.(2008)
80 Al-Awlaki,.(2010
81 Dodd,.(2010)
82 Githens-Mazerhttp,.(2010)
83 Gillani-&.Tavernise,.(2010)
84 Stevens-&.Neumann,.(2009:3-6)
85 Ducol,.(2012)
86 Richardson,.(2006:21-36)
87 AIVD,.(2012);Post.et.al.,(2000);Webb,.(2006)
88 Stevens-&.Neumann,.(2009:3-6)
89 Leiken,.(2007)
90 Musawi,.(2010:69-75)
91 Ramsay,.(2008);Kimmage,.(2008)
92 Stevens-&.Neumann,.(2009:15-21)
93 ibid.
94 Ryan,.(2007)
95 Poggi,.(2006)
96 George,.(1993)

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Case Study: Richard Reid

The Shoe Bomber Richard Reid: contextualizing theory and ‘bridging the gap’
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his paper presents an exploration into the concept of homegrown Islamist terrorism, examining the features, processes, and environments which facilitate violent radicalisation. Particular reference will be given to those frameworks and theories which have sought to shed light on the socialisation processes behind mobilisation, as well as exploring the strains and world-views often argued to be preconditions for radicalisation. In order to ground sometimes conceptually abstract discourses, this paper will examine the specific case of Richard Reid aka ‘The Shoe Bomber’. Contextualising analytic theories in this manner not only generates important debates within terrorism studies; establishing, revising, and advancing the discipline, but also has direct practical value by helping to develop effective counter-terrorism strategy. This paper shall focus on three specific areas of analysis: after briefly outlining the timeline of events which took Reid from small-time crook to would-be suicide bomber of Paris to Miami Flight 63, a summary of some relevant theories potentially illuminating or pertinent to his radicalisation will be presented. The essay will conclude with a synopsis of his particular case and a review of the potential implications for theoretically informed counter-terrorism policy in this sphere.

Given this remit, at a preliminary stage it is essential to acknowledge the limitations of this paper[1]. Attempts have been made to avoid in-depth definitional discussions as abstract tangents debating contentious terms will likely detract from this papers focus. Thus, when approaching particularly controversial terminology within such wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary literature, it is necessary to assume practical working definitions: This paper takes Hoffman’s[2] definition of ‘terrorism’ as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change”. The term ‘homegrown’ is taken from Precht’s[3] analysis as one who experiences their “formative phase, upbringing and cultural influence….in the Western world” and, where used, the phrase ‘violent extremism’ refers to the use of violent methods to achieve “political ideologies that are opposed to a society’s core (constitutional) values and principles”[4]. The term ‘Islamist’ is taken to be the “strict, literalist practice of Islam with a revolutionary political ideology…. [seeking] to be liberated and/or united under Islamic rule” [5] and distinct from ‘Islam’ as a world religion. Where the expression ‘violent radicalisation’ is utilised it describes “a process in which radical ideas are accompanied by the development of a willingness to directly support or engage in violent acts”[6]. As such, theories summarised here should be viewed as more akin to Weberian concepts of ideal typical discourses than indisputable conclusions, or static social truths[7].

Richard Colvin Reid was born in Bromley, South London, in 1973. His mother was a librarian of white British decent and his father, a railway worker and career criminal, was from Jamaica. At the time of Reid’s birth his father was serving a sentence for vehicle theft and spent the majority of Reid’s childhood in prison. By Reid’s third birthday his parents had separated and he was to have little further contact with father[8]. As a child Reid was described as a reclusive, introverted and socially inept individual who found it particularly difficult to form relationships and make friends. At school he was considered of below-average ability and displayed little academic prowess, failing his 11+ and regularly playing truant. At sixteen he left school and began to follow in his father’s footsteps as a petty thief, a career he proved equally incompetent at, and was jailed for robbery within a year[9].

Reid was in and out of prison regularly throughout his teens, eventually accumulating over 10 convictions for personal and property crimes[10]. Upon release, a chance encounter with his father saw Reid profess how desperately depressed and disillusioned he had become. Unemployed and unpopular, Reid claimed to have suffered severe racism in prison and expressed feeling his life was worthless and empty. His father, who had converted to Islam, spoke warmly of the egalitarian nature of Muslim communities, the better quality of halal meat in prison, and the personal peace he had found from his faith[11]. When Reid was next imprisoned for theft in 1995 he converted and on his release in 1996, aged 22, he began attending Brixton Mosque and the Islamic Cultural Centre in South London, well-known for assisting ex-offenders reintegrate into society. Quiet but anxious to learn, Reid initially became a model convert, actively familiarising himself with the workings of the mosque, reading the Koran daily, and enthusiastically learning Arabic – even adopting the name Abdel Rahim[12]. The Mosque’s Imam, Abdul Haqq Baker, first recalls notable changes in Reid shortly after he met Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan and outspoken radical who would eventually go on to be convicted of conspiracy over 9/11[13]. Reid began to observe the orthodox, literalist, and, arguably, puritanical Salafist Islam, spending the majority of his time with Moussaoui and attending his externally run classes. Baker, who described Reid as eager and willing but also gullible and impressionable, remembers how Reid started to grow his beard and dress in traditional shalwar kameez clothing combined with army fatigues[14]. The once quiet Reid became increasingly confrontational and argumentative, questioning the moderate teachings of the Imam and regularly quarrelling with him over religious justifications for violence[15].

When Moussaoui and his associates were expelled from Brixton Mosque, for attempting to impose extremist views on younger members, Reid left also. They began to attend Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, notorious for both the extreme ideological message it endorsed and the number of subsequently convicted terrorists that have worshiped there. At this particular time the Imam in charge was Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was eventually jailed for inciting murder and racial hatred, and is currently fighting deportation to the US to face further terrorism charges[16]. According to Reda Hussaine, an Algerian journalist and MI5 informant, Reid, Moussaoui and Spanish al-Qaeda member Barakat Yarkas attended prayers together[17]. It is believed that through his affiliation with Finsbury Park Mosque, Reid first met Nizar Trabelsi, who would later be convicted of plotting to attack a Belgium NATO base, and Saajid Badat, who would become Reid’s accomplice[18]. It is further believed that these introductions were facilitated by Djamel Beghal, an Algerian Islamist described as an al-Qaeda middleman and ‘talent spotter’. Beghal is understood to have established numerous domestic and international terrorist connections. Whilst Reid’s movements during this time remain obscure, it is believed with Beghal’s assistance, Reid sought an audience with Abu-Qatada al-Filistini[19]. Regarded as the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in Europe and a member of their ‘Fatwa Committee’, Abu-Qatada is currently detained pending deportation to Jordan on terrorism charges[20]. [Editor’s note: this paper was written before the latest developments in Abu-Qatada’s case].

Shortly after this meeting, between 1998 and 2000, Reid embarked on an extensive period of travel visiting Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Pakistan. He was purportedly testing the security of different airlines and casing potential targets[21]. It is believed that whilst in Pakistan, Reid crossed into Afghanistan where he was identified by terrorist-turned-informant Yacine Akhnouche who claimed Reid, Badat, Moussaoui and Ahmed Ressam, who was later convicted of the attempted Los Angeles Airport ‘Millennium Plot’, were all graduates of Khalden training camp[22]. Returning to Europe in 2001, Reid briefly stayed with Trabelsi in Belgium before finally heading to Paris[23]. Moussaoui, Beghal and Trabelsi were all subsequently arrested in relation to various terrorist plots and Badat pulled out of his own mission to simultaneously blow up a second transatlantic American flight[24].

On the 21st December 2001 Reid attempted to board a flight to Miami but his dishevelled appearance, lack of luggage and $1800 cash payment for a ticket raised suspicions and security checks eventually caused him to miss his flight. The following day Reid successfully boarded Flight 63 bound for Miami but failed to ignite the explosives hidden in his shoe and was subdued by flight attendants and passengers[25]. It is believed that being forced to wear the explosive shoes for an extra 24 hours in the rainy Parisian weather caused the fuse to become sodden[26]. Reid was taken into custody, charged, and tried in Boston. Defiant and unrepentant, in 2003 Reid was sentenced to serve three life sentences consecutively plus an additional 110 years for a string of related offences. Today Reid resides at Florence supermax penitentiary in Colorado[27].

Individual psycho-pathological explanations for violent extremism are widely contested and one should be careful of assuming innate mental imbalances and ‘fundamental attribution error’[28]. Therefore psycho-social contributions and group dynamics may provide greater insights into understanding radicalisation, allowing us to see beyond public stereotypes and the ‘insane terrorist’ myth[29]. Indeed terrorists are striking by their normality and are often more mentally stable than comparable violent criminals and on par with society at large – even suicide bombers display few suicidal tendencies and are often strategically logical[30]. One way to consider Reid is within the classicist paradigm; as a hedonistic, free thinking actor, cognitively choosing to self-radicalise and pursue terrorist activity after a “rational calculation which balance[s] the benefits against the cost”[31]. Certainly, Reid’s actions appear logical and calculated: Whether through engagement with radicals, seeking out extreme locales, or the choice to attend a terrorist training camp, Reid seems to have made apparently reasoned decisions motivated by utilitarian principles[32]. However, any explanation reduced to purely psycho-pathology or self-gratification is over simplistic and fails to account for environmental influences. Whilst Reid’s hedonist motivations are crucial, of equal significance are the relationships, loyalties, and social processes associated with interactionist philosophy combined with external factors associated with sociological positivism[33].

Although Reid should be considered a ‘footsoldier’ rather than a ‘leader’, his socio-economic origins distinguish him from the majority of terrorists in that he was not highly educated, nor was he from a privileged background[34]. Reid hailed from a deprived council-estate and realised low educational attainment, his social ineptitude and resultant marginalisation was reinforced further by his imprisonment. He suffered racism as a result of being mixed race, yet had almost no contact with his absentee father or his Jamaican heritage. His isolation, discrimination and cultural ambiguity, or “double sense of non-belonging”[35], may have led Reid to seek out an identity, meaning, and community – something alluded to during his chance encounter with his father[36]. If one takes the quantifiable social exclusion and inequality indicators used by the Rowntree Foundation[37] as an index for social deprivation, Reid was a heavily disadvantaged individual who resided on society’s periphery for most, if not all, of his life. Interestingly, many of the social exclusion markers he displayed are also notable within the British Muslim population more generally. Perhaps then it is unsurprising that Reid gravitated towards a religion he was able to relate to in his search for dignity, respect and identity[38]. His evolution into violent Islamism potentially provided a fixed value system which allowed him to externalise his own discrimination and failures as the consequence of a hostile Western world[39]. Through Miller’s frustration-aggression paradigm, Reid’s aggression can be viewed as consequence of his frustration with society, whilst concurrently his real, and perceived, social deficit and alienation created solidarity with the Ummah (Muslim nation) through a sense of mutual grievance[40].

However, socio-economic explanations of radicalisation create a number of issues, primarily as the vast majority of Muslims, and indeed disadvantaged minorities in general, do not adopt extremist viewpoints and even fewer pursue acts of terrorism. Therefore rather than asking ‘why do some people radicalise?’ perhaps one should ask ‘why doesn’t everyone radicalise?’. This is the fundamental principle of sociological control theories, and specifically Hirschi’s[41] social bond theory, which starts from this starkly different premise and asks what prevents or ‘insulates’ individuals from adopting deviant and/or extreme behaviours. Reckless[42] explains how internal controls are self imposed, learnt through the process of socialisation from parents, relatives and peers. Whereas external constraints arise from ‘institutions of informal social control’, such as schools and religious establishments, and provide secondary insulation should internal constraints fail. In this sense, Reid displayed very weak societal bonds and held almost no ‘stakes in conformity’ which may have buffered him against radicalisation. Indeed, as we shall see, the absence of internal social controls and perversion of external societal institutions can be seen to have actually bolstered and aided his radicalisation.

Taken in isolation then structural strains cannot adequately explain Reid’s case and no direct linear relationship between underlying socio-economic conditions and terrorism exists[43]. However, relative deprivation theory, or the ‘anomie’ created between societal goals and an individual’s inability to achieve these may be of relevance here[44]. A dynamic perspective is articulated in framing theory, a branch of social movement theory, in which Wiktorowicz[45] contends that the indirect consequences of root causes combined with social relationships are of most significance. Reid’s grievances allowed for a ‘cognitive opening’ where radical narratives resonated with his experiences, and he became more receptive to the diagnosis presented by extremist world-views. Noticing his enthusiasm for seeking prognostic religious answers, individuals like Moussaoui and later Beghal were able to appeal to a pre-existing ‘sentiment pool’ which, in turn, eventually led to ‘frame alignment’ or congruence between Reid’s own beliefs and the ideology and rhetoric of al-Qaeda. Reid’s full socialisation and internalisation of extremist dogma occurred after his transition to Finsbury Park Mosque, where these views were strengthened and reinforced by the guidance of Abu Hamza and later Abu-Qatada.

By this stage, Reid’s disenchantment with wider society was matched only by his isolation from it, associating almost entirely with a very small, introverted group of extremists. Here, the influential importance and the inter-group dynamics of his immediate peer group become increasingly clear, and contributions by social network theorists become invaluable in assessing Reid’s journey[46]. Sageman[47] highlights the centrality of personal bonds and interaction within small ‘cliques’ during the radicalisation process, suggesting al-Qaeda no longer need to actively recruit in a top-down fashion, but rather that previously socialised Islamists seek out terrorist networks once they have already decided upon violent extremism as a course of action. Similar observations by Kirby[48] certainly seem to correlate with Reid, who appears to only have proactively sought direct communicative links with al-Qaeda after he had already become an activist. Reid’s progression to this point can be understood as having progressed from a sense of anger at the perceived discrimination of the Ummah and the framing of his own grievances and disappointments as reflective of an overarching theme of Western intolerance and aggression towards Islam. The isolated and insular nature of his polarised peer group saw moderation shunned and jihadist rhetoric promoted, perpetuated, and allowed to escalate to the point this ‘bunch of guys’ decided to pursue terrorist acts[49].

Commonality can be found here with Sutherland’s[50] criminological concept of ‘differential association’, where deviant attitudes and values can be learnt, adopted, and reproduced by social environments favourable to the commission of such outlooks. The pressure to conform, the censorship of dissent, the collective rationalisation and the neutralisation of amoral views, and the arrival at a skewed consensus also feature in Janis’[51] concept of ‘groupthink’, where the unquestionable acceptance and conformity to the majority view bypasses alternative ideas, critical evaluation, or possible consequences. Within this group dynamic, Reid can be seen as having undergone a ‘risky shift’, gradually adopting more extreme positions and advocating progressively violent action, observable by his increasingly recurrent arguments with Abdul Haqq Baker[52].

If one considers Reid’s fatherless childhood, and his struggle to form lasting relationships, the importance of this tight-knit group and the solidarity he felt with his likeminded comrades should not be underestimated. This was comprehensibly articulated by Reid’s aunt who explained that “he was so lonely, his life was so empty….[and] he found solace with his Muslim brothers. With him, it became much more than a religion, they became his family….he believed he owed them loyalty”[53]. Indeed suicide bombing itself can be viewed as a “murderous form of what Durkheim calls altruistic suicide”[54]. The sense of belonging, community, mission and the social bonds Reid formed, depict radicalisation as a far more horizontal and acephalous process than a transcendent recruitment drive by al-Qaeda[55].

However, whilst self-starters may be more reflective of contemporary homegrown terrorism, it is undeniable that at this time certain ‘safe havens’ for extremism did exist and had become hubs for the fund raising, recruitment, and logistical planning of al-Qaeda related terrorist plots[56]. The most notable example is the very Finsbury Park Mosque that Reid attended, at the time considered the heart of extreme Islamist culture in Britain[57]. Nonetheless, sensationalist media reporting has created an image in the public consciousness of al-Qaeda operatives lurking in the shadows of mosques and brainwashing innocent victims. As we have seen, the radicalisation process is far more complex, associated with social malaise combined with a particular counter-culture milieu and facilitative networks operating within ‘enabling environments’[58].

Finsbury Park Mosque acted as magnet to an already radicalised Reid who switched his place of worship to follow his peers and establish ‘links to the jihad’, in this sense it was a gateway to terrorism[59]. Recognition must also be given here to the role Brixton Mosque played in this process. Although it promoted a peaceful philosophy, due to its active contribution to the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders, it advocated a ‘no questions asked’ policy which provided the setting, albeit unwittingly, for the initial genesis of an extremist milieu. Parallels can be found here with criminological routine-activity theories which view deviant behaviour as relating to everyday patterns and opportunism[60]. However, whilst radical mosques may have lost influence in the recruitment of Islamist militants, as Snow[61] point’s out, radical ideologues often affiliated with religious institutions can still play vital roles as propagandists and religious authorities in the radicalisation process – often acting as both important frame articulators and ‘central nodal points’ for seeking activists. Reid’s self-recruitment was enabled by the guidance of Abu Hamza and Abu-Qatada who acted as gate-keepers to the networks’ resources, demonstrating that the disposition, charisma, and credibility of Imams can still be significant[62].

If one were to describe Reid within the personality typologies put forward by Nesser[63] he would best be expressed as a vulnerable, disadvantaged, easily manipulated ‘misfit’, whose troubled past and societal disenchantment culminated in a search for a prescriptive identity as a means to frame his real and perceived grievances. These motivations made him more receptive to the radical narratives of an extreme counterculture and were conducive to his slow immersion and socialisation into an introverted, self-affirming, clique. This group was in turn influenced and eventually mobilised into a ‘guided cell’ by credible and convincing frame articulators, operating within enabling environments and a facilitative network[64]. Despite remaining an under researched field, the synthesis of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factor analysis is essential in the formation of effective counter initiatives aimed at both preventing initial involvement and promoting disengagement. The real-world application and scrutiny of theories through empirical case studies allow us realise this relationship and may help us ‘bridge the gap’ between academia and policy[65].

In an operational, strategic, sense there is little that can be done to instantaneously relieve the structural conditions that produce alienation. Nonetheless, Left Realist calls for wider social justice, the acknowledgement of discrimination, and greater societal equality remain important and should be encouraged[66]. Additionally, there must be proactive policies to ensure no form of violent extremism is allowed to flourish in communities or environments that may place vulnerable people at risk. This being said, it is also imperative to avoid Draconian knee-jerk reactions that criminalise and alienate entire minority demographics. One positive step towards education and community focused initiatives, which attempts to avoid stigmatising whilst challenging extremism is ‘Project Safe Space’ of The British Youth Parliament. This scheme encourages vigorous debate between young people, academics, religious figures, politicians and practitioners on controversial topics like ‘racial hatred’ and ‘suicide attacks’, but within appropriately controlled forums[67]. Nevertheless, the plurality of homegrown terrorism must be better appreciated, and such programmes should not be seen as universal blueprints but as elements of wider, phase-specific, locally grounded, counter-terrorism strategies. Therefore de-radicalisation policies must recognise the mediums that will credibly communicate counter narratives, and in this sense those communities and institutions disproportionately affected by violent extremism will be the long-term solution[68]. However it is vital that communities be empowered to “grow into this role organically” or risk further societal divisions, and even being viewed as agents of the state themselves[69]. However, in the wake of the London Riots and following the latest series of spending cuts, one cannot help but question how genuinely effective policies discouraging deviant behaviour and encouraging social development are likely to be.

In summary, given the restrictive parameters of this analysis it is important to recognise that violent extremism is not the inevitable end product of an inescapable sequence termed ‘radicalisation’. Holding radical or fundamentalist views no more automatically equates to terrorist acts than risk factors identify every terrorist. One should be as careful of sweeping pejorative labels as of false positives, which criminalise minority groups, and have potentially negative consequences for social cohesion[70]. Policy makers must be mindful that ill conceived counter-terrorist strategy may reinforce the image of an anti-Islamic West painted by extremists, and could unintentionally catalyse further radicalisation[71] . Furthermore, a general critique of terrorism studies can also be made of this paper in that, despite careful screening to ensure credibility and reliability of sources, primary data is limited and/or some intelligence regarding Reid is not in the public domain, resulting in a reliance on secondary or open source information[72]. Given the very specific case of Reid, this paper makes no claims towards the conclusive nor does it purport to be representative of all homegrown terrorism. Rather it should be viewed as an exercise into the utility of theoretical tools within one particular context.

One can see then that the nexus and interplay between psychological, sociological, and ideological factors is central to a sophisticated understanding of Reid’s radicalisation and mobilisation[73]. An appreciation of the socio-economic strains and alienation he experienced also allow for an understanding of the drivers behind his search for identity and inclusion, suggesting their potential worth as indicators for radicalisation[74]. The analytic tools considered here, whilst by no means an exhaustive list, represent the real-world application of academic frameworks. This offers valuable empirical insights into the relationships, loyalties, and environments which nurture and reinforce radicalisation, and may contribute to a contextualised understanding of these themes in policy attempts to effectively predict, recognise and, ultimately, combat homegrown radicalisation.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Shipman,.(1997)
[2] Hoffman,.(2006:40)
[3] Precht,.(2007:15)
[4] Neumann &.Rogers,.(2007:12-13)
[5] ibid.
[6] Dalgard &.Neilson,.(2010:178)
[7] Poggi,.(2006)
[8] Elliot,.(2002)
[9] Craig,.(2001)
[10] CNN,.(2001)
[11] Elliot,.(2002)
[12] Gibson,.(2002);.BBC,.(2001)
[13] Steele,.(2001)
[14] Craig,.(2001)
[15] BBC,.(2001)
[16] O’Neill &.McGrory,.(2006:133 )
[17] Dovkants,.(2005)
[18] O’Neill &.McGrory,.(2006:225)
[19] ibid; BBC(2007);.Dovkants,.(2005)
[20] Rabasa et al.(2006:27)
[21] Elliot,.(2002)
[22] Ibid
[23] O’Neill &.McGrory,.(2006:228-233)
[24] Ibid.
[25] ibid.
[26] Elliot,.(2002)
[27] Parkinson,.(2003);.CNN.(2003)
[28] Sabini,.(1995:3-15)
[29] Heghammer,.(2006:50);.Silke,.(2008:118-119)
[30] Ibid.; Pape,.(2005:179)
[31] Jones,.(2006:104)
[32] Adams,.(1976)
[33] Downes,.(2003)
[34] Khosrokhavar,.(2005:25)
[35] ibid..(pg185); Roy,.(2004:193)
[36] Kepel,.(2004);.Slootman &.Tillie,.(2006)
[37] JRF,.(1997;1999;2010)
[38] Ziauddin Sardar, cited in Elliot,.(2002);.Rousseau,.(2005)
[39] Dalgard &.Neilson,.(2010:810)
[40] Miller,.(1941); Smelser,.(1962)
[41] Hirchi,.(1969:16-24)
[42] Reckless,.(1961:19-27)
[43] Krueger &.Malečková,.(2002;2003)
[44] Merton,.(1938)
[45] Wiktorowcz,.(2005)
[46] Porta,.(1996:23–28)
[47] Sageman,.(2004;2007)
[48] Kirby,.(2007)
[49] Sageman,.(2004;2007
[50] Sutherland,.(1947)
[51] Janis,.(1972)
[52] Silke,.(2008:111)
[53] Madeline Reid, cited in Craig,.(2001)
[54] Pape,.(2005:179)
[55] Neumann &.Rogers,.(2007:63)
[56] AIVD,.(2004:12-14)
[57] Gibson,.(2010:para1)
[58] Richardson,.(2006b:21-36)
[59] AIVD,.(2004:13)
[60] Clarke &.Felson,.(1993)
[61] Benford &.Snow,.(2000:611-639)
[62] Sageman,.(2004:ch3)
[63] Nesser,.(2004:10)
[64] Neumann &.Rogers,.(2007:24-26)
[65] George,.(1993)
[66] Horgan,.(2008:92-93)
[67] Thomas,.(2010)
[68] Nawaz,.(2011)
[69] Briggs,.(2010:981)
[70] Scraton,.(2007:63)
[71] Sageman &.Hoffman,.(2008); Change Institute,.(2008);.Bakker,.(2006: 36-53)
[72] Schmid &.Jongman,.(1988);.Silke,.(2001)
[73] Neumann &.Rogers,.(2007)
[74] Richardson,.(2006:2)

 

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