Last week turns out to have been a good week to bury bad news for the security services; in between Brexit mayhem and Donald Trump’s bonfire of established policy on the status of Jerusalem, the report by David Anderson QC based on MI5’s own internal deliberations sparked rather less debate than might have been expected. Anderson’s most prominent finding was that the Manchester suicide bombing by Salman Abedi on 22 May last might, possibly, have been prevented. The failure to stop Abedi at the airport on his recent return from Libya does seem striking since he had already apparently been a ‘subject of interest’ to the security services since 2014.
But there are very many potential ‘subjects of interests’ to MI5; and its agents, in turn, have to prioritise monitoring them ruthlessly. That MI5 came even slightly close to discerning Abedi’s intentions is more reassuring than if he had remained entirely unknown to them — though that observation is of precious little comfort now to the bereaved or injured, of course. For his part, the Director of MI5, Andrew Parker, was very keen to point out last week that the security services had prevented nine out of fourteen planned terrorist attacks over the last year (64%). Across both the natural and social sciences, many experts would be very happy with rates of prediction like that.
Rather less impressive at reflection on likely future consequences has been the new Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson. This week Williamson appeared to announce that government policy was now one of projected systematic extra-judicial executions against any British citizen who joined ISIS, however young or impressionable that individual might have been since ‘a dead terrorist cannot cause any harm to Britain’.
With its assumption of total accuracy in targeting and total indifference to any wider social or cultural legacies, this is policy pronouncement at its most resplendently vapid. ‘A dead terrorist cannot cause any harm to Britain?’ Really? Williamson could do worse here than simply google: ‘Bobby Sands’.
Dr Tim Wilson
Centre Director, CSTPV.
What is the connection between victimhood and involvement in terrorism and political violence? What contributions can former perpetrators of violence make in deradicalisation programmes? How can former perperators and the victims of terrorism work together on these matters? The new book by Orla Lynch and CSTPV Lecturer Javier Argomaniz brings together important contributions by scholars whose work has illuminated an under-researched dimension of terrorism to answer these questions. Indeed, while the perpetrators of political violence have been the subject of significant academic research, victims of terrorism have rarely featured in this landscape.
In an effort to capture the vast complexity of terrorism, and to widen the scope of the agenda that informs terrorism research, the book presents a series of analyses that examines the role of the perpetrators, the experience of the victims, the public and media perceptions of both, and given the inherent intricacy of the phenomenon, how we might think about engaging with perpetrators in an effort to prevent further violence. By considering the role of the many actors who are central to our understanding and framing of terrorism and political violence, this book highlights the need to focus on how the interactivity of individuals and contexts have implications for the emergence, maintenance and termination of campaigns of political violence.
This volume also aims to understand not only how former perpetrators and victims can work in preventing violence in a number of contexts but, more broadly, the narratives that support and oppose violence, the construction of victimisation, the politicisation of victimhood, the justifications for violence and the potential for preventing and encouraging desistance from violence. Considering the significance of these issues for the field, this book will be of great interest to both students and researchers of terrorism and political violence.
Orla Lynch is Director of Postgraduate Criminology at University College Cork, Ireland, a fellow with Hedayah, Abu Dhabi, and co-author of The Psychological Processes of Terrorism (2018).
Javier Argomaniz is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and author of Post–9/11 EU Counter-Terrorism (Routledge, 2011).
Arms and the Man
We cannot know why Devin Kelley chose to slaughter 26 people at a Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas. Despite the shooter’s militant atheism the incident seems to be overwhelmingly interpreted in media comment primarily as the spectacular overspill of a domestic dispute.
Still, whatever the background nature of Kelley’s dysfunctional relationships, history of sexual violence and fragile mental health, we should be wary of interpreting this tragedy in purely idiosyncratic terms. In many respects, Kelley appears to fit a classic pattern of mass shooters in modern societies: still relatively young (26), male and of insecure social status — his apparently promising and stable career in the US air force having ended recently in the public ignominy of a dishonourable discharge.
Some comparative examples from Europe are suggestive here. In September 1881, at Tours in France a trainee law clerk named Lucien Morrisset was accused of theft. His response was to grab a pistol and gun down strangers in the street, killing one and wounding four. In June 1913, Heinz Schmidt, an unemployed teacher in Bremen had shot up a Catholic girls’ school, killing five. Just three months later at Mühlhausen in Germany, another schoolteacher named Ernst August Wagner shot dead nine, and wounded 12. Wagner apparently was convinced that the community had spread gossip about his youthful flirtation with bestiality; and it was this, in turn, that had prevented public recognition of his literary genius.
Mass shootings are rarer in Europe than the USA — not least because the titanic destruction caused by wars between states there in the first half of the 20th century generally led to a much tighter control over the means of private violence. Germany, for instance, introduced effective gun laws in 1928 — just five years before the Nazis took power. But these older examples from Europe are still thought-provoking. Regardless of the mental health issues, what all these examples seem to have in common is that they concern young men obsessed with perceived slights to their social status. In essence, they slaughter wantonly to make themselves respected again.
What has this to do with terrorism? The conventional answer has tended to be: not much. Spree or mass shooters kill for personal, not political, reasons. But this is perhaps to miss a wider point. True, the horizons of a Devin Kelley seem very narrow — he exerted such devastating power only within the micro-universe of Sutherland Springs. But even within these close confines his atrocity represents a more-or-less random slaughtering of strangers to make a point. In this sense, Kelley’s atrocity, like terrorism, firmly belongs to the Gessellschaft (a society shaped by impersonal transactions), and not the Gemeinschaft (the society of face-to-face relationships). Such violence says something about the society it emerges from. We ignore its wider lessons at our peril.
Dr Tim Wilson,
By contrast, ever since 86 people were killed in Nice on 14 July 2016, such ramming attacks have been a major preoccupation of European security agencies. It has long been clear that such attacks could easily spread across the Atlantic: on 12 August 2017, a white nationalist killed one woman and injured 19 by ramming a crowd of demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia; on 18 May previously the apparently mentally deranged Richard Rojas also killed one and injured 20 in New York’s Times Square. But until now Islamists have not turned to the vehicle ramming attack in the USA.
Ominous as this development is, it bears all the hallmarks of amateur improvisation: the contrast with the eye-watering casualty figures emerging from al-Shabaab’s bombing of Mogadishu on 16 October last (that left over 300 dead) could hardly be starker. In American society with its ferociously, well-armed citizenry (at least in parts), Saipov could apparently only source himself a paintball and pellet gun as his own private arsenal. After the Las Vegas shootings a month ago that killed 58, that reflection affords some very minimal consolation.
Still, for those directly bereaved or maimed, such reflections will be only cold comfort. And for security officials, this latest atrocity will prompt much reflection. With very primitive means, an attacker has caused significant carnage in the heart of New York and – however fleetingly – grabbed world headlines. Such attacks are hardly any existential threat to Western civilisation; but they do look like they are becoming a recurrent, if sporadic, feature of urban life in the early 21st century.
Dr Tim Wilson
1 Nov 2017