Statements like “we never saw this coming” when referring to terrorist acts are inaccurate: there are things to look for.
In the wake of a terrorist attack how many times have you read or heard something along the following lines?
- We never thought he could do something like this. It was completely unexpected. Why did he kill so many people? Sure, we did see some changes in his behaviour over the past six months but this? No, this was completely unpredictable?
Look familiar? It should, because it happens again and again and again. All these events seem to be unexpected and unpredicted. Sounds frustrating, doesn’t it?
Except that things are not that hopeless as I hope to show. In the wake of the fatal stabbings at a church in Nice, France, here is what people had to say about the suspect or what we have learned thus far:
- he spoke to his family 12 hours before the attack, giving no indication he was contemplating violence;
- he abandoned his education while at high school and worked as a bicycle mechanic before launching a roadside business selling small quantities of petrol to motorists;
- his occasionally violent behaviour and drug use had brought him to the attention of local police;
- over the last two years, relatives noted a change in Aouissaoui’s behaviour. He began praying regularly, staying at home and shunning the company of former friends;
- according to an older brother he “never showed extremism. He respected all other people and accepted their differences even since he was a child.”
So what do we or does anyone do with all this? Are there any obvious signs that the young Tunisian was going to kill three people in a Christian place of worship?
You see, here are the problems with the radicalisation to violence process. It is always a highly individual one with little commonality across cases. Furthermore – and this is based on my time at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) where I had access to intelligence on hundreds of investigated individuals – there is no way to tell which one(s) will go from spouting violent rhetoric to taking violent action. After my departure in 2015 from CSIS, colleagues tried to come up with a rubric of ‘indicators of mobilisation to violence’ – with very mixed results.
And yet, there are classic signs that do repeat themselves.
Such as a newfound religious fervour, especially one which is intolerant and critical of others. And abandoning former friends and family (both of which the Tunisian assailant demonstrated).
I was able to translate my experiences with real data into my first book The Threat from Within. It is not an exhaustive tome nor a foolproof one and yet whenever I revisit it six years later I am struck as to how the same signs keep cropping up. What this tells me was that I was on to something and that nothing truly happens completely out of the blue.
So, no, there is no one-size-fits-all model of radicalisation to violence. But yes there are things to watch out for. If this knowledge were to be more widely shared we would have a lot of false positives to be sure, but we would also maybe help identify those about to undertake violent action. Maybe we could save some lives.
It is certainly worth considering.
- A lot of dictatorships are using ‘terrorism’ to crack down on opponents - December 2, 2020
- December 2, 2004: Killing of Buddhist teacher in southern Thailand - December 2, 2020
- Eric Schmitt: Covering the terrorism beat for the New York Times - December 1, 2020