Tag: radicalization

Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy

Share

New book – Radicalisation and Media – out now

Routledge has published Radicalisation and Media: Connectivity and Terrorism in the New Media Ecology, co-authored by Akil Awan, Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin. The book presents results from our two-year ESRC-funded project on Radicalisation & Violence, which was awarded the maximum ‘Outstanding’ grade by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2010.
Our chief finding, in a nutshell, is that despite the potential connectivity between radicalising networks like Al-Qaeda and ‘vulnerable’ youth and ‘terrorised’ publics, there is in fact a profound and structural disconnection. Security policymakers, journalists and audiences have little agreed understanding of what ‘radicalisation’ might mean, but a residual sense of anxiety that there is something threatening out there, possibly close to home. That diffuse threat is often spoken about as radicalisation through the internet, over the web, which could happen anywhere, to anyone, “at the click of a button”. Such statements do not aid public understanding of how individual opinions are shaped by on- and offline experiences, nor offer any evidence base of how and why individuals have turned to violence. Caught in the middle of this confusion are mainstream Security Journalists who deliver to audiences spasmodic episodes of bombings, arrests and warnings, the occasional, subtitled glimpse of an angry jihadist, but little insight or explanation of how political and religious violence is generated or prevented. Such news contributes to assumptions about an enduring social mainstream and radical margin; this may indeed feed back into potential disaffection by those identified as potentially radical. In short, we suggest that discourse about radicalisation may be as significant for Western societies as discourses of radicalisation, i.e. actual jihadist propaganda.
The study offers a cross-section of global (un)connectivities across a series of critical security events since 2006 by integrating three strands of data: audience research from the UK, France, Denmark and Australia, an ethnography of jihadist culture, and analysis of English and Arabic-language news.
Please contact Ben.OLoughlin@rhul.ac.uk if you require further information or wish to receive a review copy from Routledge.
Share

A gulf in understanding?

Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.

The event was a success, but I came away with two reservations. The first concerns the possible failure of Anglophone security studies to find ways to engage with the rest of the world in ways that don’t come across as dominating. Croft has written about this himself recently (chapter in here), noting that ‘interdependence’ is a concept we in elite universities in North America, Europe or S.E. Asia might be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to others. Our research might contribute to the very problems of international conflict and cooperation it seeks only to explain. Sure enough, in Doha the Arabic professors consistently argued that the migration of Western terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘radicalisation’ is itself aggressive, a continuation of colonial practices. ‘They begin in English dictionaries but are applied in Arabic countries’, said one participant. And the fact that ‘we’ don’t provide clear definitions is an act of power: ‘The vagueness is deliberate. They [Western academics] want to hold in their hands what is legitimate’, said another. Western academics will define terrorism to suit our states’ interests. From this perspective, perhaps, for us ESRC-funded researchers to go to Doha and use such terms was an affront.
We can easily contest these claims. How can ‘they’ so lazily conflate Western researchers with their national governments? How can anyone expect a consensual definition of terms that are political and essentially contested? But at the same time, do we have a duty to discuss politics and security in other discourses? How can all parties translate and recognise each other’s vocabularies, histories, and problem framings? Without some thought about this, a space is created for pointless misunderstanding and mutual aggravation.
And it’s in this space, marked by the lack of shared terms and meanings, that my second concern emerges. Misconceptions about ‘the West’ were used so routinely, by individuals who could be considered opinion leaders in Arabic media, individuals who are familiar enough with life in North America or Europe to know that these are misconceptions, but who continue to perpetuate them in a manner that reifies the notion of a war between Islam and the West. As mild instances, the notions that ‘Westerners burn Qurans’ and ‘the West is Islamophobic’ were raised several times. A colleague pointed out, if you try to burn a Quran in the UK you will quickly be arrested, and if a person or institution discriminates on religious or ethnic grounds then legal proceeding should kick in. This is not to say Islamophobia doesn’t exist, but that it can be challenged and is challenged. Everyday multiculturalism has survived the war on terror. And does it make sense to even talk of ‘the West’ now anyway? Well, from those outside it, who feel on the receiving end of ‘Western’ action, it seems so. But there is a danger of explaining the world through Orientalism and finding the world is Orientalist.
These reservations aside, such events are a useful platform for overcoming mutual blind spots and only highlight the need for more engagement. 
Share

Driving Parents Crazy: Why are some violent radicals fathers?

My blogging has been light lately as I have been on the road travelling a lot. This recent period has had me travelling like something of a crazy person with trips all over the Centre/East Coast of North America.

Part of this trip included some time in Ottawa, where it was some interesting times. The week before I arrived there was a series of dramatic arrests here against individuals suspected of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks against the city. These are individuals who, from most media accounts, were largely raised in Canada and subsequently became radicalized.

This is not the first series of arrests that have been carried out by Canadian police and intelligence services in recent years. The case of the Toronto 18 (although only 11 were eventually charged) – seems to be similar in the sense that it was a bunch of individuals that became radicalized and eventually tried to carry out terrorist acts in Toronto. Although their efforts were almost comically bad – and full of screw-ups along the way – the plot to blow up Toronto office buildings was not really anything to laugh about.

This is kind of old news now, but a couple of thoughts on this latest series of arrests – with the caveat of course that I am no terrorism expert.

I suppose the main thing that has caught my attention is that one of the suspects, Khurram Sher, has young children. Initially, I found this somewhat shocking – but upon reflection I realized that this is not unlike recent London bombers (in the 7/7 attacks and the attempts of 21/7 ) – some of whom were married and some with children. And some of the lead suspects in the Toronto 18 case also had children.

I’ve been asking terrorism researching friends why this might be. Apparently the appropriate question is why, in these cases does having children not provide an “insulating” factor against radicalization? If there is some kind of parenting instinct, why is it not enough to overcome or prevent some individuals from wanting to carry out violent acts?

Based on some brief conversations, I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer. One explanation is that violent radicals have often married young and, naturally, have had children as a result. So in this sense it may just be something that has happened along the way, or during the process of violent radicalization.

Perhaps more interestingly it was also suggested to me that there is some research to support the idea that the women in the lives of violent radicals – such as their wives – may play a role in encouraging them to act. Kind of like a bad version of Macbeth, I guess. But in that case the question about the insulating effect of children then applies to the women as well – why don’t children discourage them from encouraging violent radicalism? Why would they prefer that their husbands act than their children to have a father?

But upon some (very light) investigation into this – it seems as though many women who actually execute terrorist acts (as opposed to only encouraging) are mothers as well. This is particularly the case with the Black Widdows of Chechnya where women are often in their mid-20s and may have 2-3 children. A depressing thought.

Another interesting question to come off of this is if there is a difference between fathers in the Middle East in harsh circumstances (such as Palestine) and Western radicals? While I could imagine that being the son/daughter/wife of a “martyr” might convey (however perversely) a certain social status in the Occupied Territories, would this hold true for the Canadian Muslim community (who have been very quick to denounce the supposed plot on a national level)?

I would be very interested in suggestions for research in this area. I’m fairly certain that if I asked my parents I would get some kind of sarcastic comment about myself and my brother being enough to drive anyone crazy. However, I have to think that there is more social-scientific research out there that doesn’t involve parental sarcasm.

This video of one of the London bombers holding his infant daughter is pretty chilling. He is literally making a video for her – spelling out exactly what he was about to do and that she should pray for him in heaven. I don’t like to think of myself as overly sentimental – but you would think that having kids would discourage someone from actively harming themselves?

Share

It’s radical, man.

Through the very good King’s of War blog I was directed to a post on Jihadica on the recent emergence of an apparent Al-Qaida affiliated English-language publication called “Inspire”. While the author suggests that this has thrown Western media into a panic, there was very little to actually be worried about (other than the fact that it might contain a computer virus).

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus… Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

I found this post particularly interesting because last week I attended a conference organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in New York City. This isn’t necessarily in the realm of my normal academic work – other than the fact that I am interested in the way that democracies confront threats and the threat of terrorism. (But let’s face it – it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sell me on a conference to New York City in July.)

The conference was interesting for a number of reasons – it brought together academics, policy makers and political leaders to address questions like “are we any safer after 9-11” and thinking about what has been learned. On the one hand there have been two attempted attacks on the US within six months of each other on the United States. On the other hand, one was a guy who literally could not set his pants on fire and the other a failed car bomb. Maybe we’re just safer because the quality of “terrorist” has gone down in the last couple of years?

Given the organizers, the focus of the conference was on radicalization (and they launched a study on radicalization in prisons). I did, however, expect a little more on thinking about these issues within the context of human rights/democracies/constitutions. (Maybe this was a bit of a sore spot as there were many former Bush administration officials there?) However, the issue was touched upon by the third panel of the second day titled “Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is It Working?” (Short answer: yes and no.) The panellists all agreed that human rights played an important part in how counterterrorism cooperation is engaged in. Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Bill Paterson suggested that his country had worked towards helping to improve conditions inside of Indonesian Prisons to diminish the threat of radicalization there. Richard Barrett, head of the UN Al Qaidea/Taliban Monitoring Team maintained that human rights are one of the main pillars of counterterrorism.

Eric Rosand, the Senior Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US Department of State argued that for the US this meant increasing the capacity to prosecute individuals within the United States. Interestingly, he also later added that there was a problem with some multilateral efforts. He pointed out that all UN counterterrorism work is being done in New York and Vienna and not on the ground in the countries where it matters.

Another interesting panel was on “How Terrorism Ends” – seemingly named for Audry Kurth Cronin’s 2009 book on the topic. She was at the conference and noted that while terrorism “doesn’t end” that terrorist groups do – the important question is how. She argued that there were six ways: group leadership may be ‘decapitated’ and the group withers, negotiations, success in eradication, failure to eradicate (leading to massive problems in the state or achievement of terrorist goals), mass repression and reorientation of groups. She also noted that given the variations of groups and the different ways they can be approached and confronted that the term “global terrorist insurgency” is not very useful.

I regret to say that the low-mark of the conference for me were the two plenary speakers, Lord David Trimble and Leader of the Opposition in Israel Tzipi Livni. Trimble – who helped to bring about a solution to the Northern Ireland “troubles” and won the Nobel Peace Prize – did not seem to be able to present a coherent narrative about his experiences (and went on so long that there was not time for questions). The main points I took from his talk was that peace in Northern Ireland was possible because of state power – but state power also gave them room to participate in a political process. While the UK government could have left the IRA to just eventually disappear and dissolve into its own infighting, an approach which accommodated them, according to Trimble, helped to diffuse the underlying problems causing terrorism. In addition the process helped to create political structures to address grievances and problems.

Livni, gave a speech which basically amounted to a justification of Israeli policies rather than any kind of serious engagement with the issue – or how democracies can confront the threat of radical violence. Actually, she talked about the way that Hamas ‘uses’ democracy to gain power. She literally stated that everyone “must choose a side… you are either for us or against us” – without any sense of irony or the fact that she was paraphrasing George Bush. I have a lot of sympathy with Livini (and blogged about it in one of my first posts for this site here). But there was nothing new or interesting in her talk – in fact it was rather depressing way to end the conference. (But then maybe that was the point – none of this is going away.)

So terrorism wasn’t solved but I got a really nice dinner out of it. I like to think that means “we’re” winning.

Share

© 2019 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑