Radicalisers reaching out from beyond the grave

When I worked at CSIS on counter terrorism investigations one phenomenon we would encounter on a regular basis was the role played by an individual we called the ‘radicaliser’. This person, or persons, could reside in the real world or online. S/he (to be honest it was usually a he) would generally have a charismatic personality, an ability to influence others through words and emotions. In addition, and this is important as I am going to focus here on Islamist extremism, the radicaliser always had a very in-depth knowledge and mastery of faith and religion, able to cite scripture at the drop of a hat and use it to inspire, cajole or coerce the listener to act (violently of course) in response to what were claimed to be religious instructions.

And on many occasions the strategy worked. Those who tuned in to the radicaliser became radicalised themselves, adopting the version of Islam proffered and going on to plan and/or carry out acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, the radicaliser sat back and moved on to the next victim, seldom held responsible for the terrorism for which he had planted the seed.

A good example of a radicaliser is Anjem Choudhary, a UK Muslim ‘preacher’ who dominated the violent extremism milieu in London and area for decades. It is probably impossible to tally how many minds he warped through his lectures and khutbas (religious sermons) and he usually got away with this, much to the frustration, I imagine, of my friends at MI5. In the end he was jailed in 2016 for calling on his minions to support Islamic State but was released last October after having served less than half his sentence. Anyone want to guess what he will get up to next? I will wager it is not becoming a Premier League football fan (or soccer to those of us in Canada).

Mr. Choudhary shows how one can be ‘dead’ – i.e. unavailable – then come back to life. How about someone who is really dead but who still exerts tremendous influence? How about Anwar al Awlaki?

I am fairly certain you have heard of Mr. Awlaki. The US-born Yemeni cleric was the ne plus ultra radicaliser of his time. Many, many, many Westerners were led down the path to violent Islamist extremism in part through his words, aided by the fact that he spoke fluent, idiomatic English. In my time at CSIS it was rare not to find some link to him among the Web browsing and on-line habits of those under investigation.

Mr. Awlaki met his demise in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 (not that long after Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was killed by US Special Force actually). But the interesting thing is that his death does not appear to have diminished his influence as a radicaliser. A recent case in Singapore seems to underscore his continued relevance.

He may not be producing a lot of new material these days – that in truth would be a feat from beyond the grave! – but he is clearly still having an impact on the minds and souls of Muslims who embrace Islamist extremism. I think there are some lessons to be drawn here:

  • it is really, really hard to excise stuff from the Internet and social media. Companies and nations try, and they do remove all kinds of material, but this is a colossal game of whack-a-mole.
  • some messages stand the test of time. There are thinkers and actors whose ideas are hard to erase. After all, from the Greek philosophers to Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, lots of folks long dead exert influence on iterations of younger generations. Mr. Awlaki appears to have joined that group, although I am not so sure they want him as a member.
  • radicalisers matter. We tend to focus on those who plan and (attempt to) carry out acts of terrorism but we should find ways to isolate and punish the ideas men and women.

We need therefore to identify and monitor radicalisers, freedom of speech be damned. These people have a disproportionate effect on those who end up killing or maiming innocents. Anwar al-Awlaki happened to be one of the best and I doubt very much that this will be the last time I have reason to mention him. Stay tuned.

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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