30 January 2018

Uncomfortable truths about what makes a terrorist


Speaking in Bethlehem the day after the slaughter at the Manchester Arena in May last year, Donald Trump made the following observation: “So many young beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers, because that’s what they are.”

It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it – that the people who inspire and carry out atrocities against us are forever stuck at the bottom of the barrel materially, intellectually and morally. But is it accurate? More worryingly, has this compelling story drowned out other voices when it comes to policy and action against Islamist extremism.

Alan Krueger seems to think so. Professor Krueger is a much vaunted US economist who teaches at Princeton and is the author of What makes a Terrorist? – economics and the roots of terrorism. This book, first published in 2007, has just had a 10th anniversary makeover which reflects the rise of ISIS. Kruger argues that too much of the counter-terrorism effort has been informed by intuition and speculation by narrow subject experts who have bought into the notion that poor socio-economic performance is a predominant driver in pushing people into radicalised terrorist violence.

There is uncomfortable evidence here for policy makers who cleave to the idea that extremism can be countered by focusing on poverty and underachievement. Krueger points out that globally, many of the most high profile and lethal terrorist attacks from 9/11 on were carried out by college-educated, middle-class men. Something else is going on that defies a sheep dip policy response of economic regeneration as the magic bullet.

Krueger accepts that many of the appalling “lone actor” terrorist incidents have indeed been carried out by marginalised and vulnerable persons. But he puts this firmly in context – the people who carry out these awful crimes do not represent an existential threat to Western democracies. Their actions cannot overcome a strong liberal state which emphasises integration, responds proportionately to violence and polices with consent.

And here’s the rub. Krueger criticises the default response of Donald Trump to terrorist incidents which he says, in the age of Twitter, is at least ill-thought-out and often incendiary. He draws a link between this sort of rhetoric and increases in hate crimes against minorities which in turn result in those minority communities losing confidence in law enforcement and engaging with them less. He says: “Terrorists are more likely to arise in societies that suppress civil liberties, including freedom of the press, political rights and the right to assemble.”

This means in effect that no matter how efficient the police are, curtailment of civil liberties is likely to create more potential terrorists than they can hope to stop. Civil, religious and political rights and their perceived or real curtailment is to him a more powerful engine of radicalisation than socio economic performance.

These conclusions are based on detailed research into the background of perpetrators involved in terrorist attacks in the United States from 2008-2014. In this analysis Krueger debunks the prevailing assumptions, echoed by Trump, that the perpetrators of terrorism – either lone actors or organised assailants –  are “losers” in life. In fact the majority of home-grown US assailants perform averagely well in education compared with their peers. These people were neither poor nor uneducated nor illiterate. On the wider stage, Krueger cites unsettling research from the Middle East which goes further and suggests a strong relationship between university education, good jobs and support for terrorism. Smart people in good jobs want to kill us. It’s a sobering thought.

Where does this get us to in the UK? Krueger has used a wealth of socio-economic data to tell us, convincingly, that a terrorist is not – or at least not necessarily –  a product of a poor environment. Even other studies which suggest this link is stronger – for example, the United Nations Development programme report into radicalisation in Africa – state that while socio-economic conditions play a part in radicalisation it’s often state violence or the abuse of power which provides the “tipping point”.

Hannah Stewart, working for Henry Jackson Society, has provided the best analysis of Islamist terrorist offenders available in the UK. Her seminal examination of the characteristics of all Islamist-inspired terrorism attackers in the UK from 1998-2015 provides a wealth of information on the background of out own jihadist killers and their fellow travellers. Many of her conclusions about the socio-economic characteristics of UK offenders match Krueger’s – for example, no obvious link between low education or employment status and offending and the significance of institutional contact through prisons, local authorities, police etc. Interestingly, however, in the UK, there was a strong link between the residential location of our extremist offenders and areas of high deprivation. Our “losers” are closely tied to localities in this country that are clearly falling behind in the race of life.

The lesson is simple, really. Islamist terrorist offenders are a heterogeneous group with ever-changing dynamics and any policy response, including the Government’s own key counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, must take account of this in sophisticated and individualised responses. These responses are extremely expensive – as I have set out in my recommendation, adopted by Government, for separation units to contain and treat the risk posed by highly subversive and radicalising extremist offenders. They must be continually weighed against the ongoing threat posed by this type of terrorism and the real risk of ham-fisted actions inspiring others to offend.

Krueger’s point about civil liberties as a factor in radicalisation is also well made. He uses research to support a view that minority groups who perceive the police to be “on their side” are more likely to tip police off to terrorist attacks than those who feel alienated. There is a problem here. In the UK, driven by cuts to frontline policing, it seems clear that police leaders are forced more and more to rely on contacts with self-styled “community representatives” to understand and influence events in areas thought to be terrorist incubators. There is often little evidence that these representatives speak for anyone other than small, ideologically inspired or politically motivated sub-groups.

Moreover, it is patronising and probably racist to regard Muslim communities as homogeneous. They are diverse, and their responses to terrorism will be diverse, in the same way that traditional working-class white communities will have widely varying responses to the emergence of far-Right extremism. Restoration of community policing, which has unfortunately collapsed in many of these areas, is surely a better way to connect the state to individuals and go around dubious contacts. It is also an exceptionally important way to gather intelligence and problem-solve for the community. As has proved to be the case in Northern Ireland, terrorists hate normality, and the sight of a patrolling police officer in high-vis, accessible, knowledgeable and responsive to community needs is a far better way to mediate the legitimacy of the state than high-level headquarters meetings between the usual suspects.

The appointment of Sara Khan as Chief Commissioner for Counter-Extremism provides a welcome opportunity to take stock of emerging research into what makes a terrorist (in the UK). Krueger’s work is a very useful warning against over-reliance on one apparently rational response to terrorism – economic improvement – as the Holy Grail. Environment matters but it interacts differently in different people with all sorts of other factors – alienation, mental illness, law-enforcement approaches, to name but a few.

Before he was President, Trump also said that the thing that separates winners from losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate. It’s often true. Let’s also start thinking more about “what makes a winner” across our diverse communities, so that policy and practice tune into the fates of hundreds of young men and women who don’t get any breaks, but who don’t use that as an excuse to break others.

Ian Acheson is a former prison governor.