February 22, 2021

When, earlier this month, a 16-year-old boy became Britain’s youngest person to be convicted of terrorism offences, the British press responded with a mixture of disgust and incredulity, inquiring how someone so young could have become so fanatical. By all accounts, his career in violent extremism started at a remarkably early age: he joined a far-right internet forum when he was just 13. A year later, he had become a fully-fledged terrorist “mastermind” running a “Neo-Nazi cell” from his grandmother’s house in Cornwall. The teen, who can’t be named for legal reasons, had reportedly downloaded bomb-making manuals, spoke of his desire to launch a “white jihad” and had recruited a 17-year-old British neo-Nazi who was convicted of preparing acts of terrorism last November.

The case of Britain’s youngest ever terror offender is profoundly disturbing, reigniting serious concerns over young people and their vulnerabilities to radicalisation. But it also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how we talk about terrorism, particularly in the highly politicised context of today’s post-Trump world.

In a saner time, I suspect we would hesitate to call a 16-year-old who has not actually committed any acts of political violence a terrorist at all. The boy in question was convicted under the “encouragement” and “possession” instruments in British terrorism legislation (two and ten counts respectively).As serious as this is, it isn’t terrorism as we conventionally understand it. It isn’t, for example, the same as carrying out a suicide bombing at a pop concert, or beheading a school teacher.

But even if one accepts that possessing bomb-making manuals and sharing violently hateful messages on WhatsApp is terrorism, one would surely hesitate to call a disturbed and misguided 16-year-old who didn’t realise he had recruited an undercover police officer a “terrorist mastermind”. My colleague Keith Hayward, a professor of criminology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has a word for this species of rhetorical slippage: adultification – the application of adult categories to those who are not yet adults. (Interestingly, the term is commonly used by sociologists to describe the racial bias against black schoolgirls in America, where they are unfairly viewed as more mature and “less innocent” than their white counterparts.)

The sensationalisation of terrorism is, of course, nothing new. But the coverage of Britain’s youngest “terror teen” intimates at a decisive shift in reportorial protocols around terrorism. This shift doesn’t reflect any real changes in the behaviour and threat level of terrorists, but is instead a direct consequence of the ever-tightening choke-hold of progressive taboos around race and Islam in contemporary western societies.

These taboos demand that we talk about terrorism in two distinct ways: on the one hand, we catastrophise its far-right variant, ramping up the agency and vileness of its perpetrators; while on the other, we infantilise its jihadi incarnation, playing down the agency of its instigators and forbidding any discussion of the religious motivations behind their violence.

As part of this juggling act, we are required to pretend that far-Right terrorism in America is far more problematic than jihadi extremism (this isn’t to deny the significant recent uptick in lethal far-right terrorism in America). We are also asked to believe that while the ideology of the far-right is a primary driver of terrorism worldwide, the ideology of violent jihadism and its links to fringe interpretations of the Islamic faith has little or nothing to do with jihadi violence and conflict. This hypocrisy amounts to “ideology for thee but not for me”, as Graeme Wood has acidly put it.

Take, by way of illustration, the case of the three East London schoolgirls who left Britain in February 2015 to join ISIS in Syria. The response that followed was hysterical in many ways, but the girls and their families were given a mostly fair and lenient hearing. The consensus was that the girls — the youngest of whom, Shamima Begum, was 15 — were victims who had been “groomed” by manipulative male online recruiters and bewitched by dangerously seductive ISIS propaganda.

For example, Sara Khan, the current head of the UK’s Commission for Countering Extremism, wrote that “just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them, male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time”. That consensus, however, was wrong. The real-life and online peer-groups in which they were radicalised were strictly women-only; the so-called online “groomers” were in fact other ISIS-supporting women. And, of course, the vast majority of the pro-ISIS British girls were on the verge of womanhood, making the comparison to sexual grooming somewhat overblown. They may have been young, but it seems misguided to deny them any sense of agency.

Yet even when, aged 19, Begum surfaced in northern Syria and boasted to a reporter that seeing a severed head in a bin didn’t really faze her — she told another that the Manchester Arena suicide bombing was justified — many liberals remained firmly in her corner, insisting that she was still a victim of grooming, and that she should be given a second chance.

This urge is noticeably less strong among progressives when it comes to far-Right terrorists. And I suspect this points to a politicisation of terrorism that makes it almost impossible to talk about it in a coherent and serious way.

Traditionally, the liberal-left consensus on terrorism was founded on three principles. The first concerned the fundamental illegitimacy of the word itself; it was, they said, simply a label used by the powerful to demonise and control the weak. It was a term and tool of repression, a way of legitimising the ever-widening net of social control against dissidents and rebels with a righteous cause.

The second part was concerned with the legitimacy of terrorism itself and the moral standing of the terrorist. While some — notably Leon Trotsky and Frantz Fanon — sought to brazenly justify “red terror” as a weapon of the last resort in times of asymmetrical conflict, others were more equivocal, condemning the murder of innocents while at the same time making sure to situate such atrocities into a wider context that made it morally understandable (“This is wrong, but…”). From this perspective, the terrorist was not a monster, but instead a misguided soul who was “pushed” or “driven” to commit atrocious deeds. And whatever else he was, he was essentially forgivable; he was still one of us.

This is connected to a third and final aspect of this liberal-left consensus, which relates to the way that society should respond to acts of political violence. It took the form of the following cautionary wisdom: do not over-react to terrorism. Doing so not only tramples on human rights and sets in place a dangerous precedent for further rights-infringements, but it also risks alienating and further radicalising people, provoking a lethal “blowback”.

Much of this worldview remains in place on the liberal-left, but in recent years it has been brought into conflict with the emergence of a second, contradictory consensus. According to this new paradigm, there is actually nothing wrong with the label “terrorism”; what’s wrong is that it’s selectively applied to Muslims and other minority groups and not applied nearly enough to the white majority.

Moreover, the “real” terrorists — whether they’re storming the US Capitol or hiding on neo-Nazi online forums — really are monsters and deserve not an ounce of forgiveness. Indeed, they should be purged from the social order. And anyone who tries to contextualise or understand, still less give a platform to, these terrorists should be roundly condemned.

But the problem for liberal-leftists is that this consensus cannot co-exist with the other one. You can’t implore forgiveness for Shamima Begum while at the same time scream for the metaphorical lynching of the Capitol rioters.

None of this would be much of a problem if the pathologies and contortions of the liberal-left’s terrorism discourse simply remained there, but since this political tribe is now ascendant in elite institutions in America and parts of Europe, it’s becoming a problem for the rest of us. Indeed, so culturally prevalent and deep are the progressive taboos around race and Islam in the West that it has become difficult to talk about terrorism in a sane and rational way. Even traditional centres of power — like the police and civil service — are seemingly incapable of talking plainly about the threats we face. Last summer, for instance, the Met Police considered dropping the term “Islamist” when describing terror attacks carried out by jihadists.

Meanwhile, anyone who tries to understand the root causes of far-Right rancour is dismissed as a rank defender of the far-Right. The investigative journalist Naama Kates, for example, has told me that she regularly receives censure from so-called progressives for giving a platform to misogynistic “involuntary celibates” on her superb Incel podcast; Kates’s offence is that she uses a methodology called empathy to better understand incels.

Moreover, if you’re not Muslim and study or report on jihadist violence, you run the risk of being accused of Islamophobia. Even Thomas Hegghammer, one of the world’s leading experts on jihadism, has recently been accused of perpetuating “stale and harmful notions of Muslim essentialism” — all because his focus on the conservative, non-violent and strongly religious cultural practices of otherwise violent Muslim militants is regarded as perpetuating a dangerous conflation between conservative Muslims and jihadists. Which is a bit like saying that if a person points out that Tommy Robinson eats dirty fry-ups, they are smearing all fry-up-eating Brits with the taint of white supremacy.

Plainly, this is nonsense. But it is also dangerous nonsense. The implication is that any reference to the Islamic religiosity of jihadists is off-limits. And the result, as we can see, is the creation of a schizoid terrorism discourse that leaves us dangerously ill-equipped to face common threats to peace and security.

We desperately need to better understand why and how people — from all backgrounds and faiths and ethnicities — embrace ideologies that command and license them to kill other people for political ends. And we must try to do so with an open mind and in a spirit of curious inquiry, accepting our findings wherever they lead. To abdicate this responsibility from fear of offending the shallow pieties of what John McWhorter calls “the elect” is not only cowardly, but ultimately dangerous, given the very real threats that menace us.