Talk of lone wolves misunderstands how Islamic militancy works

Jason Burke writes: A new attack, a young man who would be a killer and a tragedy narrowly averted. The media attention is currently on the identity of the have-a-go heroes who prevented carnage in France. It will shift eventually to the man who tried to open fire with an automatic weapon in a crowded European train.

From what we know already, he fits a classic type: young, of north African origins, with a possible recent visit to Syria and known to security services. This profile is very similar to that of the men who attacked satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January this year, to Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old who killed 12 in a shooting spree in south-west France in 2012, and to that of Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot at a Jewish Museum in Brussels last year.

The two shocking French attacks underlined the nature of the wave of violence emerging in the country.

This latest attacker too is now being described as a lone wolf, with people asking how he was radicalised. Both terms, however, are deeply misleading. Few lone wolves exist, certainly in the recent history of Islamic militancy, and to insist that they do is to fail to understand how Islamic militancy works.

Furthermore the idea of radicalisation is not particularly useful either.

Of the hundreds of Islamic militants who have been involved in attacks in Europe over recent years, only a tiny minority have acted alone. Most have been involved in broader networks of activism, some violent, some less so.

Many have travelled overseas and spent time with major militant groups. A high proportion – possibly two-thirds, recent research tells us – have told others of their plans to commit violence.

Most importantly perhaps, a very large number of them have been in prison with others who are steeped in extremist thinking, have peer groups who share much of their extremist worldview, know other people who have travelled to Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, or even grew up in families where casual prejudice against non-believers, Jews or the west in general was part of everyday conversation. [Continue reading…]

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