No terrorist is an island

Another terrorist attack another claim that a – pick one – mentally ill/alienated/uneducated/inherently violent/disenfranchised young  man “self-radicalised” and went on to commit a terrorist act.  The case this time is the axe attack on a train in Germany by an Afghan (or Pakistani – the information on this is not yet clear) immigrant.  German officials have stated that they have found no link to Islamic State despite the fact that IS posted a video of the attacker calling himself an “IS soldier” and  the discovery of a hand-made IS flag in the man’s apartment.  Authorities believe that he “radicalised himself”.

Aside from the inconvenient fact that IS has the video – how did they get it? – there are some troubling aspects to yet another claim of “self-radicalisation”.  I do not want to repeat what I have been saying for over a decade on why self-radicalisation is an inaccurate description of how terrorists are made, but rather make some fundamental points on how radicalisation actually happens and why it is so devilishly hard to analyse sometimes.

Let’s look at this case in some detail.  Muhammad Riyad was an Afghan teenager who traveled to Germany unaccompanied and lived with a foster family in Ochsenfurt (Bavaria) since leaving a refugee centre two weeks previously.  He was described as “calm and quiet”, attended the mosque on special occasions only and showed no signs of radicalisation or links to terrorist groups.

Ergo he had to have been self-radicalised.

Wrong.  We have no clue to date as to how he became radicalised and perhaps never will but I will wager that he did not travel this pathway alone.

There are so many unanswered – and indeed unanswerable – questions surrounding this case:

  • how did he get to Germany and who did he meet along the way?
  • who were his contacts at the refugee centre?
  • which Web sites did he frequent and with whom did he communicate online?
  • who were his closest friends?
  • how did he process his refugee experiences?

Those are the easy ones which we could figure out if we had a lot of investigative resources. Now for the really hard ones.  You will need to do some work here.

Perform the following little experiment.  Look back over the past two days and write down every single interaction you have had with anyone – in the real world or virtually.  Once you do that, and I believe it would be a huge challenge, go on to the next step. How did each interaction make you feel?  How did every interaction contribute to your views of yourself, other people and the world?  Now lay on every piece of information you have passively received over that same time period.  Every news article, tweet read, FaceBook posting browsed – everything.  Put them all together and determine the relationships among all these inputs.

Think that was hard?  Now do the same exercise to account for the last two YEARS.  Then two DECADES.  Good luck with that.

We are the product of our genetic makeup and our exposure to others in our close circles and wider society (nature and nurture).  The person I am today is very different than had I been born in 1560 instead of 1960: the genetic part would have been the same but my environment would have been completely different.  Why should Mr. Riyad be distinct?  He has led an “interesting” life and we have little insight  into that life.  Until we do, we will not understand why he slashed at people on that train.

Unless you think we are all like Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away you have to acknowledge that we are the sum of our experiences with others.  Untold people, dead and alive, have an impact on how we see ourselves and our world.  We may not be aware of those influences but they are there. I did not get to be a terrorism specialist on my own.  While I do think I have worked hard at it, I have benefited from the contributions of THOUSANDS of people.

Yes, we are beings imbued with free will and we make our own decisions but those decisions do not come from blank spaces.  They are nudged and prodded by what we have learned and by what we deem to be important and meaningful.  The same goes for “self-radicalisation”.

Mr. Riyad may indeed not have belonged to a specific terrorist group.  The problem is that group affiliation is neither a sufficient nor a necessary step on the road to terrorism.  He undoubtedly was exposed to extremist material and other extremists though.

In the end, Mr. Riyad appears to have had a hard life.  That does not excuse the decision he made: lots of people have it rough and very, very, very few opt for terrorism.  Whatever drove him to this point may be unknown, but I can guarantee you he did not get there alone.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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