Tag Archives: Islamism

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Mali Islamist Militants


Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

#4: Shiraz Maher on Islamists, al Qaeda & the Arab Spring

In this episode of Debrief, Tom Hashemi is joined by Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).


Shiraz Maher and Tom Hashemi


You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

Shiraz & Tom discuss the effect that the uprisings across the Middle East have had on Islamism, and in particular on al Qaeda’s recruitment ability. The conflict in Syria is considered, and Shiraz affirms his belief that military intervention offers the best solution to the destruction that is currently pervasive in the Arab nation.


Shiraz Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). He is currently writing an intellectual history of al-Qaeda, exploring the development of its political thought by drawing on hitherto unexamined material. Prior to joining ICSR, Shiraz was a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange where he worked on Foreign Policy and Security.

Follow Shiraz (@shirazmaher) and theriskyshift.com (@theriskyshift).


Photo credit: Katie Rothman / theriskyshift.com

Sleepwalking Into Segregation?

As part of our series on multiculturalism, Patrick McGhee questions Trevor Phillips’ statement that we are ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. 


trevor philips. sleepwalking into segregation[dhr]

In 2005, the now outgoing Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips (pictured), responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London by suggesting that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into segregation,’ adding that ‘we are becoming strangers to each other and leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream’. Phillips’ warnings about the dangers of segregation were met with scepticism by academics citing a lack of evidence behind his claims, but his arguments have unfortunately been more broadly undermined by the wider preferential views he has expressed towards religion over secularism.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last year, Phillips expressed concerns about growing criticism of religion, commenting that ‘faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view’. He later added that religion is ‘an essential element of being a fulfilled human being’. The statements overtly suggested a superiority of faith over non-faith, not only as a means to live an individual life, but to excel as a society. These views have prompted condemnation from the British Humanist Association, and are disappointing given Phillips’ supposed commitment to equality. Crucially, the comments are also symptomatic of a wider imbalance between religion and the state. As Phillips himself has since suggested, far from facilitating improvement, the prioritisation of religion in society can often have dangerous consequences for both societies and the individuals within them.

There are numerous instances of religious interests denying important medical treatment to those most in need. Just this week, doctors have argued that faith in miraculous solutions is directly undermining efforts to ease the suffering of terminally ill children. Meanwhile in Russia, the trial of three punk band members over a protest at Moscow’s central Orthodox church has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to often farcical spiritual testimony at the expense of a fair trial. Both healthcare and the judicial process are aspects of society that have repeatedly been undermined by religious interference, frequently with the support of a close relationship between church and state. Perhaps most relevant to Britain and the debate around multiculturalism, however, is the issue of faith schools.

A piece for The Guardian by the chief executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson makes the case against faith-based schools, citing exclusivity and fraudulent teachings as evidence that they are detrimental rather than conducive to human fulfillment. In this sense, educational institutions formed around religious traditions are directly and necessarily responsible for the segregation Trevor Phillips talked about. Separating young people into religious categories can promote lasting division and undermines the idea of real community. Instead, only a series of insular units are offered, and young people are often required to accept the tag they are given. More broadly, this system suggests that religion serves some special moral or intellectual function that cannot be performed adequately by schools unsupported by religious doctrine.

It is this notion of the moral superiority of religion that individuals such as Trevor Phillips have openly supported. It is claimed that societies are better or worse depending on how spiritual they can be, and that attempts to critique religion or its doctrines must be an attack on society itself. In reality, placing a protective shield around religion hinders our understanding of different faiths because it prevents open discussion around the merits of each tradition and its role in society. Institutions requiring objectivity, such as medical care, justice and education do not benefit from the intrusions of any special interest. If we are unable to make responsible judgements about how spirituality and faith affect these institutions, we risk failure in the pursuit of human well-being.

Just as political opinions should be open to scrutiny and criticism, so too should religious traditions, and while we are bold to desire diversity, we should not assume that faith is off limits to debate. If this assumption is not dispelled, we may yet become strangers to one another: Trevor Phillips’ preference for religion is contributing to our communal sleepwalk into segregation.

Could There Be Another Iranian Revolution? (Part 2)

Will the Green Movement pull off a second Iranian revolution? The second of a two part series examining the feasibility and probability of such an occurrence taking place.

[dhr]Iranian Green Revolution


You can read the first part of this series here.

The dynamics of the Republic’s politics are another advantage to the regime. Under the monarchy, the Shah was the regime and the regime was the Shah. His micromanagement of the state meant that he was ultimately responsible for every decision made, which bred a culture of decision-making deference that worked toward his downfall in the times of his indecision during the revolution. As a consequence, every mismanagement eventually became the fault of Reza Shah’s autocracy and made him an easy target for the opposition. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s fragmented politics diffuse frustration and anger, as it is never really clear who is involved in the decision-making. If you were to look at an Iranian news agency’s websites, their home pages are filled with seemingly insignificant politicians making various seemingly insignificant statements. This doesn’t exist in autocracies or dictatorships, in which the only politician that counts is the ruler. It simply comes to this: when the opposition rallies, whose caricature do they draw on their placards? Who do they direct their slogans against? Rallying against a system is far more difficult than rallying against a person, as everyone will disagree as to who is the source of the country’s problems.

The important point to remember is that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is primarily based on two pillars: anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. The cronyism that emerged in the 1990s during the post-war reconstruction has made a small Islamic elite very, very rich (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is reportedly the richest man in Iran). The regime has had to wean the population off state handouts and the pillar of anti-capitalism is wavering. Despite this, the regime’s championing of anti-imperialism could not be stronger. For a country that has been invaded by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Russians and the British, Iranians are not likely to open itself to foreign influences dictating the future of their country – which includes ideology. Khomeini’s vision may be based upon a foreign religion, however its Shi‘a identity allows Iranians to distance themselves from the rest of the Islamic world. It may not be perfect, but it is the line of best fit.

Could there be another revolution? With the above points in mind, it seems highly unlikely that any sort of revolution could occur that would recreate as profound a change as 1979. Any hope of total regime change should be shelved next to those of the England football team winning an international competition. People may be frustrated and angry with the government, but there are no indications the IRI is anywhere near as unpopular as the Shah. However, it is hard to imagine that the continuous pressure of the sanctions will not deepen the fissures in Iranian society.

In the wake of the elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the fear of a neo-Islamic Empire sans Caliphate under Islamist parties in nation-states is appearing to be unfounded. What the people of the Middle East want for their future is far more nuanced and could be the next step for Islam and governance. Whilst many want some sort of general Islamic direction, most are far too consumerist to want something like Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s model of an Islamic state. The notion of replacing secular state penetration of their daily lives with an Islamic one cannot be an appealing prospect, nor can the international isolation and condemnation that accompanies Iran’s system. Within this context, should a reform movement really develop in Iran it could very well be in the Arab Spring’s image – a ‘yes’ to Khomeini but a ‘no’ to the current system. How Velayat-e Faqih would fit into this concept is difficult to imagine, but it would certainly be subject to serious re-interpretation to reconcile Khomeini’s vision with a more democratic, transparent system.

Time is against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s population is young and as the new generations age the memories of the chaos of the 1980s will fade from their collective consciousness. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Tunisian Spring was that people were no longer afraid to take to the streets, unlike their parents’ generation who were witness to the brutal crackdowns of the 1980s. No government can rely solely on the use of force to hold a country together, but the bitter internal divisions between the reformists and the conservatives, who currently hold a de facto control of the state, will prevent the country from achieving the reform it needs to adjust to the daily realities of everyday life. However, the current conservative leadership sees such reform as a second imperialist onslaught, which in its essence is an affront to their power but simultaneously a product of Iran’s acrid interaction with the West. The enforcement of the Islamic code is now less an ideological belief rather an attempt to crackdown on dissent, hence why the brutality of the codes’ enforcement tends to intensify with the heightening of political pressure.

The final thought to leave with is this: this is not the first time Iran been subject to severe economic punishment for the sake of nationalism. The movement to nationalise the oil industry brought a similar international response where British-led sanctions attempted to strangle the Iranians into giving up their demands to wrestle control for the oil industry from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Unlike today, however, there has not emerged as skilled, eloquent and popular a politician such as Mohammad Mossadegh that could unite the country rather than divide it. When Mossadegh blamed the ‘imperialist powers’ for Iran’s ills, the people cheered. Now, when an IRI official blames the West for all of Iran’s problems, it seems more and more people are rolling their eyes. Mossadegh was welcomed as exuberantly in Cairo as he was in Tehran. None of the IRI’s politicians can boast the same popularity. The honeymoon of the post-colonial era has long ended since Mossadegh’s premiership and Islamic Republic has failed to translate the nationalistic issue of its era into enduring unity.

The Pussy Riot Trial: Russia’s Resurgent Religious Right

Crucially, the Pussy Riot trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. 


Pussy Riot


The BBC Trust ruled last week that Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s use of the phrases ‘religious hogwash’ and ‘stupid people’ during an interview about religion ‘breached the editorial guidelines on harm and offence’ because the words may have unintentionally upset religious viewers. The ruling was the result of just one complaint, raising serious questions about the disproportionate weight of the offended individual in swaying the process of open debate, but the apparent power of religious upset in manipulating rational decision-making can have even more dangerous consequences for justice and those it should serve around the world.

In the same week, it was reported that a 23-year-old mother had been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan after being found guilty of committing adultery. The sentence comes after the Sudanese President articulated support for an entirely Islamic constitution in July, and has been condemned by Amnesty International. In a statement, Amnesty has specifically called attention to the unfair nature of the woman’s trial, in which they say ‘she was convicted solely on the basis of her confession and did not have access to a lawyer.’

Meanwhile, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, have been detained in Russia since early March after performing an anti-Putin dance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The women have been charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ by the court, facing up to seven years of imprisonment if convicted for their brief demonstration.

The trial began on 30th July and an interesting account by Pyotr Verzilov, husband of one of the accused, has described court proceedings from his perspective, detailing the court’s attitude towards the press and the conditions in which the three detainees are being tried. The Guardian reports that lawyers for the defendants have openly criticised the reportedly exhausting and unfair trial environment, with one stating: ‘this is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure’.

Crucially, the trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. As the writer Wayne K. Spear argues, it is important to note that this resurgence has been reinforced by the cosy relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Church, reflected in early February by Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill’s description of Putin’s previous two terms in office as ‘a miracle of God’.

Despite an unconvincing call for leniency from Putin, the distinctly religious nature of the complaints made against the accused demonstrates the dangers presented by influence of religion in Russia’s legal framework. Witnesses for the prosecution have repeatedly implied a paranoid fear of the supernatural, as well as belief in literal hell, ‘black energy’ and divine judgement. Verzilov’s diary notes that one witness described the ‘devilish twitching’ of the protesters, while another complained of ‘spiritual trauma’ in the wake of their demonstration. It has also been reported that one witness deplored the role of the internet in spreading Satanism, accusing the three women of having ‘lowered themselves into hell’ with their actions. Questions from the prosecution have been no less focused on trivial expressions of offence, with the Guardian reporting that witnesses were asked about the meaning of their faith and how offended they were at the clothing worn by the protesters.

The tone of this dialogue underscores a religious sentiment that may have persisted in Russia since the Tsarist era, as the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens often suggested. In this sense, state support for the Orthodox Church may not be directly responsible for the faith-based fury surrounding the trial, but the overtly spiritual content of the prosecution’s case is a symptom of deterioration within Russia’s constitutional separation of church and state. As the verdict draws closer, it is clear that the increasing power and influence of the Orthodox Church is denying the Russian people a strong legal system blind to the special interests of religious tradition and uninterested in accusations of blasphemy, no matter how many claim to be offended by it.

Reflections On the Burgas Attacks: Iran’s Revenge?

Israel must not repeat the mistakes of the past and vindicate terror by retrenching its policy of striking at Hezbollah’s leaders and key operational personnel. Neither should the Jewish State abort its hitherto high-impact, yet covert, attacks on Iran’s headlong rush towards nuclear weapons capability.


Bulgaria bomb Iran



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n February 12th, 2008, Imad Mughinyah, a master bomb-maker who played a critical operational role in the Lebanese Shia Islamist organisation Hezbollah, perished in a car bomb attack near his Damascus hideout. Since 2010, at least five distinguished Iranian scientists associated with the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear programme have been killed in ‘mysterious’ explosions and assassinations.

Though Israel was widely seen as the perpetrator of these incidents, government officials maintained their traditional policy of refusing to publically acknowledge responsibility, whilst hinting heavily that the assassinations served the Jewish State’s national interest.

On Wednesday the 18th of July, 2012, a terrorist detonated his bomb on a bus full of Israeli holidaymakers in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israelis, a Bulgarian bus driver and himself. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to pin the blame on Hezbollah, whom he claimed were operating under Iranian orders, whilst the Pentagon has released a statement to similar effect.

Don’t expect Iran or Hezbollah to publically claim responsibility. Both actors follow similar paradigms to Israel: ‘plausible deniability’ whilst sending a decisive, pugnacious message to a hostile entity. Though Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied the Islamic Republic’s involvement in the bombing, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the attack as a ‘response’ to Israeli ‘blows against Iran’.

The Burgas bombing was neither unprovoked nor random. Both Hezbollah and Iran have sought to manufacture a reciprocal, retaliatory pattern of violence vis-a-vis Israel in order to discourage further assassinations of their personnel. Indeed, Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, described Wednesday’s bombing as ‘Iran’s revenge’.

‘Deterrence’- the art of persuading a hostile actor that the costs of aggressive acts outweigh the benefits, rests primarily on perception and impact. Thus, the latent deterrence capability of a state or non-state actor is undermined by an inability to fulfil promises of retribution. Iran and Hezbollah’s ability to project a deterrence policy has been patently undermined by a flurry of failed attacks against Israeli personnel in India, Thailand, Georgia and Azerbaijan in recent months.

Wednesday’s attack came precisely eighteen years since Hezbollah’s bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed eighty-five civilians. Like in Burgas, the Buenos Aires incident constituted a dramatic, bloody reaction to an Israeli targeted assassination of a senior Hezbollah operative. Because of the staggering body count and the precedent set by the Buenos Aires attack in internationalising what was previously a Levant-centric conflict, Israel abandoned surgical strikes on the Hezbollah leadership, fearing further mass-casualty international terrorism.

Thus, Israel’s response to the Buenos Aires atrocity presents a successful manifestation of Hezbollah deterrence potential, vindicating terrorism against distant civilian targets. Hezbollah and Iran’s behaviour in Burgas is the product of hard-headed realist analysis of previous Israeli reactions. In short: killing innocent people altered Israel’s behaviour in Hezbollah’s favour.

Israel must not repeat the mistakes of the past and vindicate terror by retrenching its policy of striking at Hezbollah’s leaders and key operational personnel. Neither should the Jewish State abort its hitherto high-impact, yet covert, attacks on Iran’s headlong rush towards nuclear weapons capability.

Though the deliberate slaughter of six innocent civilians must be unequivocally condemned by the civilised world, when framed within the context of multiple stillborn plots, ‘Iran’s revenge’ hardly represents an unequivocal ‘victory’ for the violent Islamist axis in the Middle-East. Had the Hezbollah operative arrested in Cyprus last week fulfilled his objective of shooting down an Israeli commercial airliner, the impact of hundreds of Israeli civilian deaths would have elicited either a dramatic Israeli recalibration of policy in Iran’s favour, or a devastating military response.

Burgas aside, Israel retains its contemporary superior success record vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran in preventing retaliatory attacks whilst simultaneously inflicting casualties on high-ranking hostile officials. The prolonging of this superiority is contingent on an as-of-yet unrealised smart, yet stinging, military response to the atrocity in Bulgaria. Israeli officials must institutionalise the strategic lessons from Buenos Aires; that excessive restraint begets further bloodshed, whilst avoiding the ignition of a regional powder keg and full-blown war with Iran and Hezbollah. Israel is winning the covert war, thus a paradigm shift towards open conflict is premature and counter-productive.

Europol’s TE-SAT: Disappointing Analysis On Terrorism

In the 21st century decision makers are confronted with an increasingly complex environment and subsequently the demands on institutions such as Europol have grown exponentially: the body must keep up.



[dropcap]E[/dropcap]uropol publishes an annual report (TE-SAT: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report) on terrorism activity in Europe which has shown that since 2007 there has been a continued decline of terrorist activity in the continent. The 2012 report however suffers from flaws: Firstly, the definition of the Andreas Breivik attack as explicitly not right wing and secondly, the questionable outlook and trends that it provides. This piece will briefly look at both of these aspects in turn.


The report fails to identify the Breivik attack for what it was: a right wing attack. Separating it from other incidents, such as recent right wing attacks in Germany, creates the illusion of continued low levels of right wing violence in line with historical attitudes of governments in Europe that have tended to underestimate this issue. The report is also inconsistent: In its key judgments the report states that right wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. It is assessed to most likely come from lone actors or underground groups making an implicit link to Breivik. This is, however, surprising because when ignoring Breivik, right wing terrorism is only responsible for a single attack in the EU in 2011. When later discussing the case it is explicitly said that Breivik ‘established his own ideology from various influences and without clear affiliation, presenting himself as a “cultural conservative”’. The formulation here is puzzling as well: “His ideology is assessed as opposing multiculturalism and more specifically Islamism”. It can be assumed that Europol does not believe Islamism to be a form of multiculturalism, but this might be another indication for the somewhat disorientated approach that Europol has taken to this specific case. In addition we can be quite sure that for Breivik a difference between Islam and Islamism does not exist; he opposes Islam per se, making him an enemy of a part of society based on its religious believes. Signifying that he is indeed right-wing.

The contradiction here is obvious; When it comes to the political spectrum: “cultural conservatism” can easily be fitted on the right side of the scale. In addition the use of “conservatism” in this context is a stark euphemism. Taking up weapons with the will to smite the perceived “traitor” is clearly outside the realm of classical “conservatism”.

Even worse: the notion that Breivik has constructed his ideology without connection to a wider ideological movement ignores the obvious facts to the contrary. His manifesto is a copy & paste work. It is not an original piece of work, but incooperates the work of Islamophobes “cultural conservatists” from all over Europe. Europol ignores recent developments on the right side of the political spectrum and the fact that Breivik is embedded in a much larger movement.

Trends and outlook

The trends and outlooks that conclude the report concentrate almost exclusively on Jihadist oriented threats despite that fact that Europe has seen only one such attack in 2011 (the shooting of two US airmen in Frankfurt, Germany). Other than that the report registers 110 separatist motivated plots that either failed, were foiled or were completed, and 37 leftwing oriented. Even when it comes to arrests separatist terrorism still beats religious oriented. A possible bias is also showing itself when discussing the Olympics. Despite fears by experts that Irish republican dissident groups might use the event for attacks, the only variant discussed is al-Qaida inspired terrorism.

To improve future reports in this regard is crucial especially when Europol states that: “The TE-SAT aims to provide law enforcement officials, policymakers and the general public with facts and figures regarding terrorism in the EU, while also seeking to identify trends in the development of this phenomenon”. If this report is supposed to inform decision makers than it will have to improve its assessments. In the 21st century decision makers are confronted with an increasingly complex environment and subsequently the demands on institutions such as Europol have grown exponentially: the body must keep up.

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. 



[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.

It’s That Condor Moment: The West & The Middle East

Terrorism is not the result of irrational hatred, and whilst the populations of the Middle East respect the West, they do not want the West to fix their problems.



[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the Fifth Afghan War soon coming to a close, it is an important moment to reflect on the conflict that the war sought to end. The Middle East and South Asia are vital regions in the Global War on Terror. The two regions are still afflicted with political problems that all too often manifest themselves in violence. This article does not attempt to suggest that the two regions share the same political problems, but there are three general lessons we can extrapolate from our experience in the Islamic world over the past 11 years. Our strategy has not worked – we arguably face a greater threat from terrorism and the two regions are even less stable than they were in 2001. We desperately need a new strategy, and these lessons painfully learned from the War on Terrorism will help us understand what we need to change.

1. Terrorism is not always the result of an irrational hatred

One of the overwhelming features of the rhetoric discussing the War on Terror is that the people who we are fighting hate us for our freedoms, who we are and what we stand for. We mistakenly believe that the reasons behind terrorists’ actions are as irrational as the means they employ to achieve their goals. If we are to draw any benefit from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must realize that terrorism that we see at home and abroad is very often the result of how our foreign policy is perceived in the Muslim communities across the world. The Islamic world feels, rightly or wrongly, that they owe very little to governments that they perceive have promoted only tyranny in order to benefit their own security.

We fooled ourselves that Western gold would buy Muslim acquiescence to our policies in their homelands. Western countries, in particular the US and the UK, have spent an extraordinary amount of treasure in the previous eleven years to end terrorism and its causes in the Islamic world. Its failure to do so has led us to believe that Muslims are destined for a future of despotism, authoritarianism, corruption and ever-increasing hatred. The view that terrorism is a tactic employed by the irrational has clouded our ability to see the real problems that cause it to persist. The cold, hard truth is that our attempt to combat terrorism has been particularly inefficient. Our insistence on a ‘no compromise’ policy with those we consider to be terrorists has resulted in overly-complicated solutions that simply do not work. Afghanistan is the perfect example of this – we tried to avoid dealing with the Taliban through a very complex, expensive and time-intensive state-building strategy that has unquestionably failed. By continuing the war, we have created more numerous and more radical Islamic groups in the Af-Pak border region that harbour an even more intense hatred for the West than their predecessors who fought against the Soviets.

2. Whilst many in the Muslim world are angry with the West, they still respect and value its support

The events of the Tunisian Spring that have recently come to light have revealed some very interesting nuances of how the Middle Eastern communities view the West. Amongst the thousands of diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, US diplomats’ comments on the corruption of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia have revealed themselves to have the greatest impact on the course of Middle Eastern history. Tunisian internet activists were able to exploit and disseminate the US diplomats’ comment that criticized the ruling family’s opulence whilst many Tunisians struggled to feed their families (Ben Ali’s son-in-law kept a tiger caged in his garden that consumed four chickens daily at a time when most Tunisians could not afford meat). The revelations of the regime’s corruption was not news to the ordinary Tunisians – they were all very acquainted with Ben Ali’s corruption and extravagance. However, the US’s (no longer) private recognition of the corruption was incredibly important for mobilizing the Tunisian spring, as activists believed these cables to be the proof that the US would not support Ben Ali’s rule in the face of popular opposition. Two weeks after the publication of these cables, the Tunisian Spring was initiated by Muhammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. This was certainly no coincidence.

If one were to look at the history of US-Tunisia relations, there would be little to suggest that the ordinary Tunisian would hold any warm feelings towards America. Its policies have help extend the longevity of the Ben Ali regime, which for 24 years had exploited their citizens for their own profit. On the contrary, the impact of the embassy cables shows that many Middle Eastern communities (though not all) still respect the US and the West’s judgment despite the tension of the past eleven years.

3. The Middle East does not want us to fix their problems for them

This leads on from the previous point. Whilst the Tunisian activists and protestors appreciated the US’s disapproval of the Ben Ali regime, they do not want to solve Tunisian’s problems for them. Perhaps the best description of the Tunisian view towards the US’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East was expressed by web activist Yassine Ayari as ‘like virginity sponsored by Durex’. Middle Eastern populations are already well connected to the Internet and, as Ayari subsequently pointed out, this has informed many Tunisians of the various failures of Western models of democracy. This is not to say that they are opposed to establishing democracy in Tunisia, but they will be the ones who decide what form their version of democracy takes. This does mean that Islamism will very likely play a prominent role in the Middle Eastern model of democracy. This is a reality that we cannot ignore or can do much to change.

9/11 caught the West off guard. Up until that point, the impact of Middle Eastern and South Asian conflict was only felt in the local regions, with little overspill on the global stage. The attacks were the moment when these conflicts landed squarely on the West’s doorstep. Our response typified that of the inexperienced to a surprise attack – uncoordinated, rushed and lacking solid direction. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan needs to be the lull when we reassess the situation, consolidate our position and adopt a different approach. 

Lessons From Northern Ireland: Coping With Islamist Terrorism In The UK

Where should the line be drawn between ethical practices and protecting the population from terrorism?


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he increased threat of Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom since September 11 in the US and the 7/7 bombings in London has had a significant impact on the UK government’s ability to relate to its Muslim communities, especially in the light of alleged human and civil rights violations, accusations of an emerging police state and highly controversial cases of international cooperation in counterterrorism operations. Yet we only have to look back a few short years to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland to see that these issues are not entirely without precedent.

The start of the most significant period of violence associated with Northern Ireland can be traced to the wave of riots and civil rights demonstrations by the Catholic communities seeking redress from the predominantly Protestant Stormont regime. Fears of a Catholic ‘revolt’ led to major violence from both communities and the failure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, also predominantly Protestant, to stymie a virtual civil war led to the British Army being called in as ‘peacekeepers’. Increased sectarianism and changing global politics caused the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to split at the end of 1969, leading to the creation of the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). PIRA represented the more significant and enduring threat. What should have only been a short few weeks or months of British military intervention, devolved into approximately thirty years of antagonism and violence.

The British treatment of the PIRA’s campaigns led to much criticism including corruption, collusion with Loyalist forces as well as PIRA informers, interrogation methods amounting to torture and other ethical quagmires in the intelligence gathering methodology. Whilst the Islamist threat is ostensibly different – a globally dispersed and structurally advanced network incorporating unpredictable individual-led attacks – the British treatment of this issue in either a domestic or international framework has been dogged by a learning curve which implies a lack of knowledge transfer from its long history of dealing with ‘cells’ of Republican terrorists.

In the early 1970s, 14 PIRA members were interrogated using internment and the techniques of sensory deprivation such as stress positions, lack of food or sleep, hooding and continuous uncomfortable noise – methods that, in a 1979 inquiry, were labelled as ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ liable to strengthen ‘the propaganda campaign […] for the enemies of society’. The balance here was sacrificing long-term legitimacy for short-term gains for intelligence and imminent threat disruption. At this time the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was the main policing body and took the brunt of these criticisms, but the United Kingdom government and security services were not exempt for allowing these methods to continue.

The same techniques have reportedly been used on prisoners accused of being Islamist terrorists. There have been reports of mutilation, forced nakedness and other tortures such as the removal of fingernails. In contrast to the case of PIRA members mistreated in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and in Britain, those such as Salahuddin Amin, Rangzieb Ahmed and Rashid Rauf were captured or detained in Pakistan by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Intelligence Bureau (IB), two of Pakistan’s main security and intelligence agencies. They both confirmed, on several occasions, the presence of MI5 members. In some cases, the alleged MI5 members were aware that the detainees were being ‘processed in the traditional way’. Alam Ghafoor, detained in Dubai after the 7/7 London bombings, was so badly treated that, according to a consular official, he is likely to have signed confessions alluding to prior knowledge of the bomb plots. Another detainee, Zeeshan Siddiqui, was in such a terrible physical state that, upon being brought to court, the magistrate demanded that medical treatment be sought without delay.

Cicero once wrote ‘silent enim leges inter arma’ – ‘in times of war, the laws fall silent’ – and whilst most citizens would readily concede certain rights in a legitimate war, a ‘War on Terror’ does not fit the bill. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA echoed Cicero in modern sporting vernacular, ‘after 9/11 the gloves came off’. However, more than stepping up the game, what the case of Islamist terror suspects highlights is a development from the Northern Ireland example in the ‘outsourcing’ of reprehensible methods and the virtual lack of an infrastructure for ethical international counterterrorism cooperation. This lacking was certainly an issue from the 1980s onwards when Prime Minister Thatcher attempted to work against the PIRA’s efforts to seek funding and arms from US-based support networks, European arms dealers as well as the PIRA’s troubling relationship with Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. It would seem that, once again, history’s lesson has been ignored or misused in the creation of altogether more worrisome framework for liaison – strategic partnerships which allow tactical distancing from issues of accountability.

Since 9/11, what we have seen is a greater demand for openness in issues of national security and intelligence work. This need undoubtedly stems from the technological and fast-paced, information-sharing age we live in, but the ethical core of the issue remains the same. If embarrassing public inquiries are to be avoided, accountability and the long-term good of the United Kingdom’s citizens must be balanced with careful consideration. Many of these lessons could have been gleaned from the under-publicized and tardy Steven’s inquiry of 2003 into police and military collusion, which highlighted numerous failures in the military, intelligence and policing structures in Northern Ireland.

Whilst counterterrorism policy and scrutiny of police powers have come a long way since the 7/7 bombings, the virtual demonization of the UK’s Muslim citizens is only just beginning to be rectified. The main concerns are intrusive counterterrorism measures such as racial profiling and the monitoring of university students which prejudice Muslims as well as other ethno-religious communities in much the same way that ‘stop and search’ campaigns prejudicially target black people. It is easy to forget that Irish people were subject to the same invasive scrutiny in airports at the height of the Troubles. Essentially, the ethical problem between Northern Ireland and islamist terrorism has transferred from a national prejudice, to a racial and religious prejudice.

In addition, ethically dubious debates such as raising the maximum allowable period for detention without charge to 42 days has also, perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, raised the concern of ‘special powers’ to hold suspects and gain large amounts of personal information. Reminiscent of internment without trial during the Northern Ireland Troubles, the social and political cost of such detention measures risk drastically outweighing the success of threat prevention which is seldom publicized.

The threat of terrorism does not constitute a trump card for governments to neglect or do away with civil liberties, but where do we draw the line between ethical practices and protecting the population?

Palestinian Islamic Jihad & The Futility of Violence

While non-violence hasn’t worked for the Palestinian cause, Islamic Jihad would make some political progression should they adopt the tactic.



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the second largest armed group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. It was founded in 1980 due to the disillusionment of some members of the Muslim Brotherhood within Gaza with the society’’s lack of violent struggle against the Israeli occupation. In fact, the PIJ’s distinctive characteristic is its unwavering involvement in armed struggle, consisting of firing rockets into southern Israel, suicide bombings of Israeli buses and armed infiltration into Jewish settlements. Although the organisation prides itself on this, there are good reasons to show that actually it would gain from a more pacifist approach.

First, attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets give Israel an excuse to retaliate using disproportionate force. Although these retaliations are claimed by the IDF to be aimed at the source of the attack, namely at the PIJ militants, many times they include the death of innocent civilians (“collateral damage”). According to a recent study on the relationship between the Palestinian use of violence and popular support for such Palestinian factions during the Second Intifada, an increase in Palestinian fatalities not only shifts public support away from all the political factions but, specifically, PIJ-claimed fatalities raise significant disaffection at the expense of the PIJ itself.

Furthermore, although it is widely believed that claiming responsibility for Israeli fatalities increases political support, this is not the case for the PIJ. In fact, statistics show exactly the opposite: Israeli fatalities claimed by the PIJ cause a decrease in public support for it. The authors of the study conjecture that the root cause of this trend is that the PIJ employs a “spoiling strategy” in its attacks: the PIJ commits its attacks when there are on-going negotiations between a Palestinian political group and Israel in order to spoil the negotiations. What this shows also is that, on the contrary to Selin Kavlak’s piece, at least a significant part of the Palestinian public is against the disruption of negotiations and thus is in support of them.

Second, the renunciation of violence on behalf of the PIJ would make the brutality of the Israeli occupation more conspicuous. Israel justifies its continued occupation in terms of security: it cannot give up the territories unless it is certain it is safe. In fact, one of the pre-conditions for recognition of a future Palestinian statehood is that it be demilitarized. If the PIJ keeps on firing rockets into Israel it only serves to make the Israeli position more convincing.

Third, the PIJ’s international reputation would ameliorate, and thus earn more credibility, once it gave up armed struggle. This is what happened with the PLO. Before Arafat’s speech at the UN in 1988 where he denounced terrorism, the PLO was considered a terrorist organisation. After the speech, the PLO earned credibility and with it the Palestinian cause earned more international recognition.

Fourth, if we look at some of the most important Islamic organisations which gave up armed struggle and pursued a more reformist approach, we see that they made considerable gain. Within Gaza, Hamas, once it accepted to take part in the PA’s democratic election in 2006 and the same year give up its call for the destruction of Israel, it won an internationally recognised fair electionThe Egyptian Brotherhood won the parliamentary elections and, once the military junta decides to step down, will rule the country (though there may be problems on the horizon with such a development).

Fifth, acts of violence on behalf of Islamic political factions on Israeli targets encourage the Israeli public to vote for right-wing parties who believe in the historical right of the Jewish people to the whole of “Judea and Samaria” and who support government policies to increase settlement construction and to not give back land to the Palestinian people, precisely what the PIJ is fighting for.

Having said this, the PIJ would probably retort that peaceful and reformist policies on behalf of Palestinian political factions never achieved anything. Israel is expanding settlement construction daily and keeps the Gaza Strip in a painful humanitarian crisis. Whilst non-violence patently doesn’t work, violence will only exacerbate the Israeli approach to the Palestinians.

Impact Of Iranian Revolution On Islam

What has been the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in world politics over the past three decades?
{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Iranian Revolution has been one of the most relevant political event occurred outside the Western and Soviet blocs during the Cold War. The end of a 2,500-year-old monarchy in that country, announced on the 11th February 1979 after eighteen months of mass demonstrations, huge industrial actions and general strikes which deeply shook the Iranian society as a whole, brought about the victory of the Islamic revolution. According to Sidel, the Iranian Revolution has been significant for three reasons: as the first, and politically successful, Islamic Revolution; as for as the global political context characterized by the Cold War and a first opposition to “The West” was concerned; finally, because such an upsetting unrest in the Persian Gulf used Islam as a mobilizational force for opposition against the monarchy and as the basis for Islamic republicanism likewise.[1]

On the one hand, the popular unrest in Iran was favoured by its “peculiar position within the geopolitical order and the particular form of authoritarian rule”[2] during the 1970s, when political and economic drivers led to an unsustainable situation: raising inflation provoked by the first oil shock in 1973; recession two years later and repression campaign promoted by the Shah against the social class of bazaaris, blamed for overpricing; destabilized alliance with the US because of the Carter commitment regarding protection of human rights, which was further reinforced by his election as President in 1976; party liberalization and court reforms in 1977, which created new channels for mobilization and more effective political association. On the other hand, an Islamic revolution in Iran was possible by virtue of the networking capacity and mobilizing role of religious publications and institutions, rather than their inherent ideological impact.[3] In fact, in the early 1970s, only a small group of the ulama, the most prominent Shiite authority in Iran and historically hostile to the Shah given his modernizing reforms, called for the establishment of an Islamic government.

The increase in the ulama followers against the Shah, that considered his overthrown as the primary political objective, was brought about by the afore-mentioned state repression of bazaaris and landowners, classes tied with the ulama. Against this background, the political theory, and not only the religion perspective, for an Islamic government gained attention in the Iranian society and it was the conceptual basis on which the revolutionary discourse was gradually shaped.[4]

In order to thoroughly understanding the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in world politics, is necessary analyzing it from a “macroscopic and historically grounded structural perspective”[5], examining the position of Iran in the international context in two different time spans: during and after the Cold War, when the aims of the Iranian political Islam have dramatically changed from a “revolution-exporting” approach to a more visible retrenchment for strategic concerns. A shift that, as it is going to be described, has been motivated by the same tenets of political realism and pragmatism: both of them considered essential for the survivor of the Iranian regime.

The Iranian Revolution and the Cold war

One could affirm that the first significant change of the Iranian Revolution on Islam is embedded in the Khomeini’s concept of world order. According to Roy, historically “the closer [the Muslims] are to power, the more Islamists use political tools to bring religion under their control”[6] and, as a result, the Iranian Revolution represents the most striking example. The central idea on which the Islamist Iran is based is the vilayat-e faqih (rule of the leading jurisprudent): the vilayat is a rulership that belongs firstly to God, followed by the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams and, finally, the pious faqih. In this list, the latter actoexercises the temporal and the spiritual authority, given the absence of the Twelfth Imam, and his main task concerns preparation for the ultimate establishment of an “Islamic world government”.[7] In this way, the Guide of the Islamic Republic (the ayatollah Khomeini himself), is one of the highest religious authority and the most relevant political leader at the same time, as borne out in the fifth article of the Iranian Constitution.[8] To draw a conclusion, in the Iranian Islamic revolution “the status and role of religion are defined by political institutions, not religious one. Politics rules over religion.”[9]

Since its inception, the Iranian Revolution has had an universalistic view of the world, characterized by a normative approach according to which the international system based on the bipolar blocs was essentially flawed: as for Khomeini, the superpowers were “illegitimate players” and the Islamic Iran had the political duty to offer an alternative perspective to the subjugated population of the world. Khomeini’s political doctrine did present itself as a powerful and attractive idea, sustained by religion and able to compete with the American and the Soviet ones.

In order to accomplish this demanding commitment, the Iranian clergy needed to institutionalize its power and the political effects of revolution, through the transformation of Iran form a monarchy to an Islamic republic endowed with its own constitution, laws, parliament, political party system and revolutionary committees.[10] Secondly, in order to make the world safe for Islam, the main objective of Iranian foreign policy was to lead the revolution abroad, in a strong effort of exporting its tenets and political features. Given that the use of armed force in war was permissible only in self-defense, the two major instruments to export revolution were culturally conceived: the first one was concerned with the spread of the “Islamic behaviour” abroad, aided by publicity and propaganda used in religious occasion and through radio station which broadcasted the new Iranian political faith to the Persian Gulf. The second instrument useful to export revolution was identified in the missionary work through ulama’s sermons.[11]

Despite this two-fold strategy, a couple of problems prevented from its own realization: the prevalence of Shi’i fundamentalism in the countries in which Khomeini’s followers attempted to spread his word; the lack of material and economic support by the Iranian regime, which caused a progressive decrease in supporting such propagandistic efforts.[12]

These restraints notwithstanding, the attempt to shape a revolutionary environment in the Gulf recorded a remarkable wave of unrests and sociopolitical turmoil throughout the Middle East. In Iraq, the Shiite Da’wah party radicalized its struggle and, along with the Mujahidin movement and both economically sustained by the new Iranian regime, launched a guerrilla attacks campaign on the posts of the police, the Ba’th party and the People’s Army.[13] Repressed and outcast by Saddam Hussein, more than 350.000 of these Shi’a revolutionaries were expelled from Iraq into Iran after the outbreak of the war in September 1980.[14] In addition, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain were significantly affected by the spread of the new Shi’a revolutionary thinking.

In order to fully understand the Khomeini’s concern for exporting revolution, it’s worth noticing its inherent strategic purpose, underpinned by the Iranian conception of security in the Persian Gulf. According to this approach, revolutionary Iran was deeply concerned about its own survival and its first political objective was to assure a real, true and genuine security in the region through a “true independence” for all the Gulf states as a condition for “true security” in the entire region (against the Great and the Lesser Satan); secondly, this kind of security was reachable only if the Arab states had established a “true Islamic government” in their societies, characterized by the same features of the Iranian one: a limited monarchy whose power were controlled by the clerical class; finally, the “real security” of the Gulf could not be achieved without the “religious and political primacy of Iran throughout the entire region, particularly at the Strait of Hormuz”.[15]

Applying this interpretative key, exporting the Iranian revolution was not only conceived as an ideological outgrowth but as a main political aim fostered by the Iranian national interest and leaned to build a Shiite sphere of influence in the Middle East. Embedded in this framework, it is easier to understand why, after the Cold war, Iran focused its efforts no more on spreading revolution, instead on a persistent attempt for acquiring a strategic advantage in the region by developing power capabilities and starting with building nuclear facilities.

Revolutionary Iran between political retrenchment and strategic concerns

During the first decade of its existence, the Shiite regime succeeded in institutionalizing revolution in the country but failed in successful spreading it abroad. As a matter of fact, a series of constitutional and political changes affected the Iranian state-system, like those regarding an enhanced control of the government and bureaucracy by the clergy and the suppression of domestic opposition. Eventually, also the Iranian society underwent to a radical transformation: pro-Westerns and modernized classes were outcast while foreign and capital investment were strictly allowed by the new state-economy.[16] Conversely, the original plan of exporting revolution showed to be ineffective: the impact of revolution on Islamic countries became more and more mitigated, rendering unsuccessful every attempt to establish new Shiite regimes in Lebanon or Iraq. For all these reasons, the second decade of the Iranian regime was characterized by a political retrenchment from revolutionary ideas (and political Islam as its main driver): indeed, it was marked by an increasing effort to developing economic ties with Western countries.

As a matter of fact, Rafsanjani and Khatami, both considered as reformist leaders, focused on strengthening Iran as a political and economic actor. Despite the new deal opened by their government, namely between 1989 and 2005 where Iranian economy tried to effectively recovery, the economic growth recorded between 1989 and 1994 was sustained only through “the accumulation of some 30$ billion in foreign debt”[17]. The economic recession which Iran suffered from in the following years was also worsened by the lack of foreign investments and, above all, by the American economic sanctions applied since 1995. Washington looked at Iran as a major threat in the Gulf region, especially after allegations of supporting terrorist groups and attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Despite the renowned approach to international politics which allowed Iran to establish friendly relations with China, India and a notable number of semi or under-developed countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba and North Korea by 2005, Iranian strategic concerns remained unaltered during those years.[18]

According to Rubin, Iran aimed to become the strongest state in the Persian Gulf region since the 1950s, when the shah launched a massive military build-up along with an ambitious nuclear power program. If the shah built his power aspirations on nationalism, since 1979 Khomeini carried on the same project prompted by Islamist radicalism.[19] Accordingly, also the main reasons which underpinned such plan dramatically changed: a powerful Iran ruled by the shah would have been the most loyal ally of the United States along with Israel, in order to unfold an offshore control over the region; conversely, a nuclear and heavily armed Islamic Iran was perceived as the most dangerous threat for the United States in that area, although Khomeini and his successors justified the military rearmament with security concerns.

By this token, the Iranian attempt to become a legitimate and international recognized political actor fell through: this political failure and the perception to be a semi-isolated country in the international realm, prevented revolutionary Iran from rising up as a convincing political and ideological centre for other Islamic countries in the last two decades. During this lapse of time, revolutionary Iran has gradually lost its original ideological and political attractiveness and, as a result, the clerical regime has been able to successfully supported only Shiite movements scattered in the Middle East, as Hezbollah in Lebanon, but leaving out its sphere of influence the large Shi’a Muslims groups in Iraq, Oman, Bahrain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.[20]

With the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, the Iranian political establishment has tried to restore the original ideological spirit of Khomeini.[21] Keeping on pursuing the realization of nuclear facilities, Iran has showed a renowned assertiveness in foreign policy during the Lebanon crisis of July-August 2006. In this case, Iran “supplied Hezbollah’s advanced arms, training, and sent advisors to Lebanon … [and] the conflict also knit Syria and Iran tighter together”[22]. At the same time in Iraq, the local government is currently increasingly worried about the growth in Iranian power among Shi’a Muslims, while Iran has expanded its influence also over Hamas and among the Palestinians. The objectives of the sole regional great power in the Middle East, along with its nuclear empowerment, have been summed up by Rubin: fomenting revolution in every existing Muslim majority state and expelling Western influence from the region.[23]


As broadly discussed in the previous paragraphs, the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in shaping world politics in the last three decades as been a powerful one, although shaped by different political factors and directly linked to its economic situation and rulership.

To draw a conclusion, during the Cold war “the most pervasive way in which revolutionary Iran has influenced the Muslim world [was] on the level of ideas and ideology”, providing the Muslims with a concrete alternative to the bipolar system. Overall, the ability of Iran to use Islam as a political tool, and to present it as a monolithic religion beyond the Sunni-Shi’a divide was witnessed by “the worldwide dissemination of the ideas of Sunni ideologues as the Egyptians Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the Pakistani Abul Ala Mawdudi, and the Indian Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi.”[24] In addition, this trend has been recently confirmed by the Iranian sponsorship of Hamas. On the other hand, Iran has gradually became the new regional power in terms of military capabilities in the Middle East, especially in the last decade: if its material strength will be associated with a seeping influence into its Muslim neighbors, as it has been occurring in Iraq, Iran’s growing power is going to become “the most dangerous situation that the world will face in the coming years”[25], envisaging a scenario in which Iran could play a central political and ideological role in the Muslim world.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

1 Sidel, John. Class Lecture, The Shi’i International and the Iranian Revolution, LSE, London, 24 November 2011.
2 Sidel, 24 November 2011.
3 Bayat, Asef, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Islamic Activism in Iran and Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 40, Number 1 (January 1998), p. 153.
4 Moaddel, Mansoor, “Ideology as Episodic Discourse: The Case of the Iranian Revolution”, American Sociological Review, Volume 57 (June 1992), p. 364.
5 Skocpol, Theda. “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution”, Theory and Society, Volume 11, Number 3 (May 1982), p. 268.
6 Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam – The Search For A New Ummah, Hurst & Company, London, 2004, p. 83.
7 Ramazani, R. K., Revoultionary Iran: challenge and response in the Middle East, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 19 – 20.
8 Sivan, Emmanuel, “Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 21, Number 1, February 1989, p. 10.
9 Roy, Olivier, ibidem, p. 85.
10 Esposito, John L., (ed.), The Iranian Revolution, its Global Impact, Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990, p. 3.
11 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, p. 26.
12 Sivan, Emmanuel, ibidem, p.22.
13 Batatu, Hanna, “Iraq’s Underground Shi’i Movements: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects, Middle East Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, Autumn 1981, p. 590.
14 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, p. 37.
15 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, pp. 27 – 29.
16 Esposito, John L., ibidem, p. 317 – 318.
17 Khajehpour, Bijan. “Iran’s Economy: 20 years after the Islamic Revolution” from Iran at the Crossroads, edited by John Esposito and R.K. Ramazani, New York, Palgrave, 2001, p.98.
18 Keddie, Nikki, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 324.
19 Rubin, Barry, “Iran: The Rise of Regional Power”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 10, Number 3, September 2006, p. 142.
20 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 145.
21 Keddie, Nikki, ibidem, p. 329.
22 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, pp. 147- 148.
23 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 151.
24 Esposito, John L., ibidem, p. 323.
25 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 151.


Batatu, Hanna, “Iraq’s Underground Shi’i Movements: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects, Middle East Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, Autumn 1981.

Bayat, Asef, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Islamic Activism in Iran and Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 40, Number 1, January 1998.

Esposito, John L., (ed.), The Iranian Revolution, its Global Impact, Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990.

Keddie, Nikki, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Khajehpour, Bijan. “Iran’s Economy: 20 years after the Islamic Revolution” from Iran at the Crossroads, edited by John Esposito and R.K. Ramazani, New York, Palgrave, 2001.

Moaddel, Mansoor, “Ideology as Episodic Discourse: The Case of the Iranian Revolution”, American Sociological Review, Volume 57, June 1992.

Ramazani, R. K., Revoultionary Iran: challenge and response in the Middle East, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam – The Search For A New Ummah, Hurst & Company, London, 2004.

Rubin, Barry, “Iran: The Rise of Regional Power”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 10, Number 3, September 2006.

Sidel, John. Class Lecture, The Shi’i International and the Iranian Revolution, LSE, London, 24 November 2011.

Sivan, Emmanuel, “Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 21, Number 1, February 1989.

Skocpol, Theda. “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution”, Theory and Society, Volume 11, Number 3, May 1982.


The Institutionalisation Of Islamism: The ‘End Of History’

Islamism and the Arab Spring: Clash of Civilisations or the End of History?



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]nevitably, the optimism surrounding the ‘Arab Spring’ has dissipated following the electoral success of Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. Islamism, an umbrella term for organisations seeking a greater role for Quranic jurisprudence in politics, is ideologically rooted in a reactionary rejection of Western-dictated modernity. Seemingly, this trend has disproven naive predictions of a liberal-democratic awakening. In contextualising the rise of Islamism within existing literature, some commentators turn to Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. This theory posits that geopolitics is pullulated with cross-cultural conflict; different cultural blocs with their own irreconcilable, internalised value sets determine which ideologies are more palatable. Resultantly, Western norms of democracy and free-markets are incompatible with the traditionalist cultural-societal outlook of the Arab World, grounded in Islamic dogmatism.

By contrast, I seek to rationalise the rise of Islamism through an ‘End of History’ prism, based on a 1992 essay by Francis Fukuyama. For Fukuyama, history is dialectic, culminating in ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution….the universalisation of Western liberal democracy’. Hence, the desirable norm is the widespread consensus of liberal democracy and the discrediting of all alternative forms of governance. This hypothesis at first appears to be completely contravened by the ascendance of regressive, traditionalist Islamism. The Middle-East has proven so resistant to free-market democracy precisely because, in Islamism, an ideological alternative exists. However, I believe that the institutionalisation of Islamist movements may revitalise the ‘End of History’ premise, neutering and co-opting the last bastion of ideological resistance to the global status-quo.

The rise of political Islam was not an inevitable, organic process, but the result of an inter-woven patchwork of external and domestic factors. From a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ perspective, it is not the current success of political Islam that is most noteworthy, but its delayed entry into contemporary Middle-Eastern politics. For an ideology grounded in the Quran and the mosque, a document and a milieu familiar throughout the middle-East, it is astounding that it did not gain traction until after Arab states had experimented with a plethora of imported Western ideologies. Political Islam only came to fruition following the discrediting of these precepts after the humiliation of nationalist and socialist-grounded Arab states in the 1967 War with Israel. Hence, suggesting that Islamism is an inherent trait of Middle-Eastern cultural precedents is baseless.

Paradoxically, the Arab ‘national security’ states, where suppression of political freedoms is the norm, actually handed Islamists a unique monopoly on dissent. Though often persecuted, Islamists could retreat to their sanctified safe-havens of the local mosque, unlike secular opposition groups. This unique freedom of movement in an autocratic regime left Islamists uniquely placed to proselytise the disaffected. If the legitimacy of states lies in their ability to adjust to free-market globalisation whilst protecting citizenry from its excesses, the Egyptian Mubarak regime clearly failed, leaving 40 million citizens below the poverty line. The local Muslim Brotherhood responded to these inequalities, creating twenty-one subsidised hospitals and numerous welfare organisations. Thus, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s popularity results from their reputation as credible state-builders, not local cultural affinity with Islamic fundamentalism. Islamist groups, already suspicious of foreign influence, solidified their antagonistic stance towards Western notions of liberalism by opposing pro-Western regimes. The West, therefore, should pick their friends more carefully in future.

However, the Egyptian Brotherhood have also shown a desire to integrate into the existing geopolitical order, engaging in open meetings with American officials and pledging to maintain a peace treaty with Israel. As one American businessman said of the Brotherhood, ‘This is a movement that will make any neo-liberal happy’. The electoral success of Islamist groups brings them into the mainstream, de-mystifying and de-ideologicising them. One only needs to look at the Turkish paradigm. The Islamist AKP won power in 2002, promising economic and social reforms. The party has subsequently retained power with massive majorities, shunning Sharia law and instead seeking to join the EU and attract private-sector investment. Indeed, the AKP is now an observer in the European People’s Party. Could one have imagined when it was a proscribed, dangerous and indubitably more radical anti-Western organisation, that the AKP would seek inspiration from Europe’s wishy-washy, centre-right conservatives?

Hence, Islamist movements are not the inevitable offspring of ‘backward’ Arab culture; they are the ephemeral last gasp of an ideological alternative-seeking, impoverished populace. The recent moves by these parties suggest that they are attempting to integrate themselves into, rather than reject, the prevailing liberal-democratic global consensus. Though organised and radical in opposition, Islamic movements are becoming increasingly moderate as they come to power, courting the West and secular society. On a cautionary note, this optimistic outlook is not the inherent path for emboldened Islamist movements. Instead, this is but one road they could take. However, if this thesis is borne out, it will indeed be ironic that the end of history may be delivered by the institutionalisation of the last ideological barrier to free-market democracy.

Provoking Islamism: The Banning Of The Burqa

Populist political theater parading as a measure to increase social cohesion.



Last Friday the Dutch cabinet announced plans to move forward with the question of banning the wearing of burqas, along with other clothing such as ski-masks that cover the face, in public. The decision still requires approval by the Dutch Parliament, but if passed the Netherlands would be the third EU nation (France and Belgium already have a ban) to ban the religious garment. The arguments put forth in favor of such bans generally take the tack of public safety and social cohesion. Those opposed usually cite individual rights to religious expression. It seems there is little room for resolution between these two viewpoints and most importantly neither address the threat posed from violent extremism. Banning the wearing of the burqa in public is bad policy, from a national security standpoint, because it provides Islamists with what they perceive as additional evidence backing up their narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

Narrative is crucial to how extremist organisations maintain popular support, recruit, and justify violent action. Events and policies are not viewed in a vacuum, but are instead contextualised as part of a particular narrative. For example, in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, an encounter where a young Catholic is beaten or otherwise abused by British soldiers, despite the specifics of the particular situation, is contextualized as part of a long story of British abuse and exploitation that has gone back centuries. Violent response can then be seen as honorable and in the spirit of fondly remembered revolutionary action. The late IRA operative, Eamon Collins, reflects on this in his memoir, Killing Rage: ‘I felt those heroes of 1916 were like the priests who had died for us at Cromwellian hands. I felt my mother must be right: the struggle for our faith was not yet over.’ Later, when he was university aged, Collins had a run-in with soldiers from the British Parachute Regiment in his neighborhood where he was beaten while in custody. This encounter was not interpreted as an isolated incident but as part of the war against Republicanism and his ethnic identity. This experience is remembered as a key point in his radicalisation.

Back to 2012. For Islamists the banning of the burqa is not an issue of religious freedom, which they do not support. The banning of the burqa may be contextualised to young Muslims like this: ‘The West is killing innocent muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq and they support the Jewish occupation and oppression of your brothers and sisters in Palestine. Now in Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam they are dishonoring our sisters, mothers, and wives.’ For those who have bought into the Islamist narrative this is a powerful symbol of oppression that is not thousands of miles away, but on their doorstep. Ed Husain talks about similar tactics that he used as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir to stir up animosity in Muslim circles in the UK: ‘We had been trained always to link local issues to the global concerns of Muslims.’ These tactics allow extremist organisations to draw connections that miscontextualise local events, they can convince followers that they are living in a front in the the war on Islam.

There are policies that states must enact to ensure that their citizens are secure, many of them controversial. These decisions, from law enforcement and prosecution considerations at home to military and intelligence intervention abroad, should be debated vigorously and publicly on their security benefits and their potential impact on civil liberties. It must also be mentioned that the impact of these policies on the Islamist narrative should not always be a major consideration because it is likely that those who propagate or subscribe to that ideology will approve of very little that Western states do. However, what policy makers can be sure of is that banning a religious garment will do nothing to make theirs states safer and will certainly be made part of the ‘war on Islam’ narrative. The Dutch attempt at a burqa ban is a piece of populist political theater aimed at galvanising supporters against a largely peaceful religious minority within their borders. If the Dutch government wants to fight extremism it should focus on policies that engage moderate Muslims with Dutch society, not policies that agitate and alienate.

Case Study: Richard Reid

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



[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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