Taming The (Lone) Wolves

why does a terrorist act as a lone wolf

Saturday’s London terrorist attack affects us all deeply, whether we were directly involved, or watching it from a distance. I feel particularly saddened by the attack because it took place in a part of London that I’m so familiar with, having qualified at Guy’s Hospital, all those years ago. The attack is just the latest episode of a trashy television soap series that we are all forced to watch and endure. The transcendental idea, on which the series is based, is some whimsical and totally absurd vision of imaginary values, and an after-life that none of us will be able to report back as being based on fact.

The actors of the series are totally irresponsible, viciously cynical regarding the real world, and extremely disrespectful of the value of human life, including their own. It is a TV series that has long gone past its “sell-by” date, and is turning out to be a mix of gratuitous violence, foul language, abominable screenplay and flawed improvisation.

Despite its absurdness that is plain for all to see, the soap series does pose a fundamental question that we must all consider, and our governing bodies must answer. We all cherish the fact that each one of us is able to think freely, to have personal convictions (that may be wrong), and to act out life in total liberty, but respecting the rules laid out by society and the freedom of others. However, is democracy, as perceived by Western societies, such an untouchable and universal value, that it cannot be modified, adapted, and even curtailed, in response to exceptional circumstances that threaten its very existence?

In constantly saying that these terrorists, be they lone wolves or not, are not totally responsible for their actions, having been indoctrinated by religious fundamentalists, Western societies are being too polite and restrained in their condemnation of religious violence. These thugs and the people who support them have no excuse for their actions, and certainly no mitigating circumstances.

Populist politicians, like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, have called for a closure of all Mosques in the country. Whilst this measure would go way beyond the curtailment of democracy that I’m suggesting, I dare say that I do understand his reasoning. He sees the Mosques as a source of indoctrination for young Muslims who already feel isolated from the rest of society. The Netherlands woke up to terrorism in November 2004, with the brutal assassination of film producer Theo van Gogh. The assassination followed the publication of a clear and unprecedented warning by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), earlier that year, that a growing number of Muslims were feeling “disrespectfully treated by opinion-makers and opinion-leaders”, and that Dutch politicians were being “not impartial enough, or not impartial at all,” to the prevailing situation. The feelings were shared not only in already radical Islamic circles, but also by second and third generation Muslims who were seen, by the AIVD, as potential targets for recruitment by terrorist organisations.

The recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester highlight that the UK faces similar difficulties in countering “home-grown” terrorist attacks. Questions must be posed because it seems that after every terrorist attack, intelligence services already knew something about the perpetrators. Should potential terrorists be monitored or stopped? And if so, how should it be done? Furthermore, is the restriction of freedom of movement of potential “home-grown” terrorists also a threat for our democracy and freedom? Will all citizens be equal, but some more equal than others?

Before even thinking about tackling a problem in any walk of life, you first have to know precisely what sort of problem you are dealing with. This may sound obvious, but in the case of radicalisation and, more specifically, radicalisation that leads to violence, defining the problem is not as straightforward as you might think. Governments are increasingly being pressured, both at national and international levels, to eradicate or at least severely curtail radicalisation that leads to jihad recruitment.

The complexity of the phenomenon makes it is very difficult, if not impossible, to provide a complete profile of these persons. The AIVD has established that the people who fall under the spell of the ‘holy war’ against the supposed enemies of Islam have wide-ranging backgrounds and that the circumstances under which this takes places are equally wide-ranging. Consequently, recruitment rather involves individual development paths than a group process.  –  AIVD 2004

The complexity of the situation concerning radicalisation, as expressed by the AIVD in 2004, coincides with the European Commission’s view on the problem, more than 10 years later. It seems to me that no progress has been made in trying to define the problem that national governments and different institutions of civil society are supposed to deal with.

Violent radicalisation is not a new phenomenon; however, its most recent manifestations, its scale, as well as the use of new communication tools present new challenges that call for an approach addressing both the immediate security implications of radicalisation as well as the root causes, bringing together all relevant actors across society – European Commission Statement 2016

But the European Commission has more on the matter:

The drivers conducive to radicalisation may include a strong sense of personal or cultural alienation, perceived injustice or humiliation reinforced by social marginalisation, xenophobia and discrimination, limited education or employment possibilities, criminality, political factors as well as an ideological and religious dimension, unstructured family ties, personal trauma and other psychological problems. – European Commission Statement 2016

That’s a lot of conducive drivers to be getting on with, and it underscores the very nature of the problem that we are dealing with, which is extremely complex. In other words, the situation regarding the motives and background that pushes these individuals to act violently and try to destroy the society that they actually live in, is getting more and more difficult to understand. And, by the way, we didn’t understand it much ten years ago, and we understand it even less now.

This lack of understanding of what goes on in a terrorist’s mind leads me to think that we should treat them as we treat children. You cannot explain to a small child why something that he does is wrong – you have to take an appropriate action that will teach the child that his conduct is wrong. It is only as the child gets older that you can explain why an action is wrong.

Following the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the German authorities are seriously thinking about tagging individuals who feature on their list of potential terrorists. Tagging, together with close monitoring of the use of cell phones and the internet, could prove to be a powerful tool in the prevention of terrorist attacks. To detractors of the idea, I would say that Western societies have enough wealth and expertise to be able to closely monitor the activity of a handful of potential terrorists. The biggest problem, of course, is determining who should appear on the list. In this respect, it can be argued that this monitoring would not be full- proof. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, responsible for the Nice attack, was not on any “potential terrorist” list. However, reports suggest that he did have contacts that were, and his activities could have been “monitored” indirectly as a result of this.

We now have to answer the question that is posed, concerning the protection of our fragile democracies. Either we leave the freedom of all individuals unchanged, accepting the risks that doing so entails, or we decide to “adjust” the nature of the freedom conferred to individuals who may pose a threat of terror. We have the funds and the technology. We must also acquire the will. For LBC reporter, Nick Ferrari, the choice is clear:

Instead of spending £56 billion on the pitiful HS2, why don’t we use some of that money to actually protect our children so we don’t have to see blood literally on the walls of an arena where kiddies have gone to a pop concert?  – Nick Ferrari, LBC


Indeed, why not?