My heart sank twice last week: first when I heard about the brutal murder of Sir David Amess; and again when I started to read some of the disturbing commentary about the 25-year-old arrested on suspicion of carrying out the attack.
For many, the ethnicity and heritage of the only person facing charges in this case, Ali Harbi Ali, were wholly irrelevant to his alleged behaviour. Acknowledging that Ali is of Somali background, we were told, is racist and xenophobic. He must only be identified as British.
As someone who was born in Somalia, I find this absurd. Of course a suspect is not a murderer because he has a Somali background — and Ali is not a murderer until proven as such. But denouncing facts as racist — especially when the person in question was referred to Prevent, and police and security services believe he may have been inspired by al-Shabaab in Somalia — forces a dangerous ignorance on the public.
Yet it is just one of a number of fallacies that continue to dominate almost every discussion about Islamist-driven terrorism — fallacies that are promoted by both the media and British authorities. Indeed, it strikes me that our efforts to counter Islamist attacks are hindered by at least three other misconceptions: our insistence on describing a perpetrator as a “lone wolf”, our obsession with online self-radicalisation, and the idea that “all extremisms are created equal”.
Take that first fallacy. As unpleasant as it may be to acknowledge, I suspect numerous victims of Islamist extremism might be alive today, if those in charge of preventing terrorism recognised that Islamist extremists are anything but lone wolves.
In a liberal society, it is appealing to think of suspects of Islamist terror as solitary actors. As a matter of principle, we uphold the importance of individual freedoms, rights, and responsibilities, while our judicial system assumes that individuals are responsible for their actions. We also recognise the importance of not maligning an entire community because of the extremist views of a few of their fellow believers. This is particularly crucial when the historical relationship between a particular minority and their new country is fraught with memories of colonialism.
But while individuals responsible for terrorist attacks may conduct their attacks alone, they still emerge out of communities or networks of like-minded individuals, whether in-person or online. They learn from teachers, imams or instructors the radical ideas that inspire their violence. This is not to say that their entire family or community is extremist — only that these individuals find and are exposed to people who are. Little is known about the background of the murder suspect, Ali, but we can be certain that if found guilty, he would not have plunged a knife into a total stranger, possibly picked at random, wholly of his own accord. Someone or some group would have inspired these actions.
Since last Friday, we’ve heard from a number of people who reportedly knew Ali, all of whom have expressed shock at his alleged crime. Yet it seems hugely unlikely that no one in his immediate circle would have picked up on any extremist tendencies. After all, the Somalian communities are very social. Unlike in traditional Western families, where individuals live an atomised life within an atomised society, a Somali family typically lives together in one household, where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business.
Gossip is a way of life. Solitude is not an option, even more so during the pandemic when families not only lived together but were home more often. It is likely, therefore, that key signs of radicalisation — a shift in language, withdrawal from society, increased frequency of praying and attending mosque — would be noticed by various family members.
When that does happen, you might expect a person’s family to become more involved, to pull them back into their community. But that isn’t always the case. Imagine, for example, that you are a family member of a potentially radicalised individual from a highly tight-knit community. You notice something of concern — but might it be best to keep quiet? Are you a sinner if you report your brother to a programme led by non-Muslims? What does it mean for your relationship with God and the afterlife? What kind of traitor would report their own blood to the authorities?
Or perhaps you are just a non-Muslim colleague or friend of the individual. You may notice a change in behaviour, but are you really going to go forward and report them, with the possibility of being labelled a racist or an Islamophobe? Who would report a potentially innocent person, just for observing their religion?
Lone wolves, then, do not come out of nowhere. They are inspired by other radicals and they are noticed by their community. The problem is that the community then keeps quiet.
A similar fallacy looms over our understanding of online radicalisation, which does not occur in a silo, between the individual and their computer screen. The individual has to be susceptible, in a place of vulnerability, where Islamic radicalism can easily set in.
Though there is much about Ali that we are yet to learn, we do know that his father was Harbi Ali Kullane, a former government official in Somalia. Since the attack, reports have presented Kullane’s Twitter profile as a testament to assimilation, displaying his support for Captain Tom and the England football team. It has also been reported that, while working in Somalia, he faced threats from al-Shabaab.
And yet I suspect his attitude to his new country is more nuanced than has been presented. It is striking, for example, that not a single news outlet has flagged a tweet by Kullane from 2017, in which he suggests: “the 5-pointed star [on the Somali flag] represents the aspiration of a nation and the misery inflicted by British colonialism. Let’s not sugar coat this #Somalia.” Given that Kullane moved to the UK in the Nineties, his comment suggests an antipathy to Britain that has so far been ignored.
The last fallacy that must be confronted is the belief that all forms of extremism are created equal and should be treated as such. Under the British counter-terrorism Prevent programme, Islamism is lumped together with other forms of extremism, such as far-Right extremism, and handled with a similar approach. But while Right-wing extremism is a threat that should not be downplayed, its causes and motivations are totally unrelated to radical Islamists. They should be distinct and handled separately.
The only way to prevent Islamist terrorist attacks is to understand the lexicon of the Islamists. It is vital to understand the historic heroes that inspire them, the hadiths that speak to them, the myths and legends that motivate them, and the materials that are put into their hands. It is important to know not just the history of Islam, but also the history of the nation that is connected to the radicalised individual.
This kind of specialisation is not possible when so many in the UK cry Islamophobia at every turn. The only way to ask family and community members to come forward and report potentially radicalised individuals is to win their confidence. Individuals have to feel that they can safely approach the authorities without repercussion. They also deserve to know that the situation will be handled by someone who deeply understands the issues at hand. As Nik Adams, a counter-terrorism police officer, explained brilliantly, we need people who can recognise “how significant the seemingly insignificant might be”.
Given the ineffectiveness of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, and the blinkered approach to reporting since Sir David’s murder, that will be an uphill struggle. But it is not impossible: Prevent is undergoing an independent review, led by the capable William Shawcross, that will report in December and produce suggestions on how it can be improved.
More importantly, I believe that, by and large, the Islamic terrorist narrative is waning. al-Qaeda is a skeleton of what it was two decades ago, while the spectre of ISIS continues to serve as a real-life deterrent to what living under a caliphate requires. Even the Muslim Brotherhood narrative is stale and petering out. Yes, the Taliban may have taken control of Afghanistan, and the threat of Islamism in Africa remains deeply concerning and often ignored. But taken in its entirety, radical Islam does not have the same potency it once did.
So even if Sir David’s death is proven to be a terrorist incident, the defeat of radical Islam in Britain is still attainable. But achieving that requires us to bin the fallacies regurgitated after every attack. If we don’t, the pattern of seemingly random terrorist violence will persist.