It’s always once they get to the back of the police station that they realise what they’ve done.
Once the arrests have been made, the paperwork completed and the police cell door bangs shut, it all becomes horribly real for them. That’s when they normally break down and cry like children. It is exactly the opposite of the kind of reaction you would expect from hardened terrorists. But then most of those who perpetrate deadly attacks like last week’s are not hardened terrorists.
They are, these days, more likely to be self-starters, closer in spirit to gang members and the young men we read about all too often in the US who sink into a noxious subculture of violence and vengeance and whose stories end the day they take a gun into the cinema or school.
Since 9/11, the nature of terrorism has changed, and last week’s barbaric attack reflects that change. The typical terrorist attack used to be planned by a cell which was a subsidiary of a larger global group or network which financed the attack and trained the attackers. This was roughly what al-Qaeda looked like in the late 1990s under Osama bin Laden.
In the face of military attacks and financial restrictions, al-Qaeda withered as an organisation, and the kind of hardened and trained terrorist operatives who might have remained cool and defiant in the back of a police station are no longer typical. Instead, the organisation focused on things it could do cheaply, remotely, and at lower risk to itself: inspiring new radicals and passing on instructions on how to cause damage and mayhem. The solutions of the war on terror era – fighting force with force and restricting international financial flows – do not go to the heart of the new problem. Today, preventing new terrorists from radicalising is more important.
And the evidence is that most were radicalised by adopting a black and white moral view of the world combined with a resentment against their society fuelled by bad personal experiences such as discrimination, inequality, or just an inability to get on. That means that institutions and organisations which provide experiences which bind us together as a society, experiences where our differences melt away rather than come to the foreground, are more important than ever.
And the irony of the murder of a soldier is that it is the army which provides just such an experience. As a British Muslim who has served as a paratrooper reservist in the army, I am disgusted that this has happened to a fellow soldier in the name of Islam. The army does an excellent job of integrating people from different backgrounds. My experience reinforced my faith that shared experiences – whether through a youth club, a sports team, a well-motivated company or startup, or through social action – breed the integration which will be a big part of defeating the extremism which left a soldier dying on the streets of London.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and Fellow a the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by The Scotsman on May 26, 2013. Read it here.