Usually it is all about the radicalisers

After four years and almost 1,000 blogs (have I really written that many??) it should not surprise anyone that there has been some repetition along the way. As this is a blog on terrorism there can’t be that much to say, can there? Yes, unfortunately, there is always some heinous act against innocent people to write about, but I never saw this medium as one in which I would be happy to just list attacks and their implication. No, what I have been trying to do, and only you the reader can determine if I have been successful in doing so, is to talk about terrorism from a strategic perspective (matching what I did as an intelligence analyst in counter terrorism for 15 years). Sometimes I will start with what just happened – like the massacre in Sri Lanka a week ago that has led so far to five separate blogs (plus a podcast!) – but I always try to give some sort of the bigger picture. That some similar themes will arise on occasion is inevitable.

Well, here is the sixth piece that uses the bombings at Sri Lankan churches and hotels as a starting point. What I want to do here is to illustrate – yes again! – that the myth of the ‘self-radicalised’ jihadi, which never seems to go away, is indeed a myth. As I have been repeating for four years in this format (and in speaking engagements since 2005!) there is no such thing as a self-radicalised terrorist. Violent extremists are made not born and a major part of that process is the intervention of others (family, friends, associates, etc.). One of the most important characters in this regard is what those of us in intel used to call ‘radicalisers’, i.e. those with the knowledge, personality and charisma to pass on terrorist ideology and encourage others to take up the mantle and kill. One such person you may be familiar with was Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American killed in an airstrike in 2011. It would be impossible to estimate how many terrorists, especially in the West as Awlaki spoke fluent American English, were inspired by this radicaliser.

Today’s example, taken from Sri Lanka, is Zaharan Hashim, described in a New York Times article as “a radical Muslim preacher…(who) never hid his hatred.” He is also seen as the ‘mastermind’ of the attacks and died as one of the suicide bombers at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo (you cannot say he did not practice what he preached). Among this radicaliser’s views were:

  • He railed against a local performance in which Muslim girls dared to dance.
  • When a Muslim politician held a 50th birthday party, he raged about how Western infidel traditions were poisoning his hometown, Kattankudy.
  • There were, Mr. Zaharan said in one of his online sermons, three types of people: Muslims, those who had reached an accord with Muslims, and “people who need to be killed.”
  • Idolaters “need to be slaughtered wherever you see them.”
  • He had a particular hatred for Buddhists and Sufi Muslims (the latter is more prevalent than you might think).
  • He preached that the Sri Lankan national flag was a worthless piece of cloth, and that the country should be ruled by Shariah law.

According to those that knew him or heard his khutbas (sermons) Mr. Zaharan was “a very good talker and a good researcher of how Islam was developing worldwide… (he) was influential, very attractive, very smart in his speeches, even though what he was saying about jihad was crazy.” In other words a very effective communicator.

And that is not all. You see, Mr. Zaharan said all this in the open, not in secret. His words and his ideas were there for everyone to see and hear. That he eventually took part in near simultaneous suicide bombings should not have come as a surprise to anyone. As one Sri Lankan Sufi said: “We warned them that this man was vehemently spreading Wahhabism and that he was calling for jihad. It was out in the open, clear as day. Nothing was done.”

What this means, besides the fact that the attacks were possibly preventable (remember that India had provided very specific intel to Sri Lanka as well), is that radicalisers matter in the radicalisation to violence transition. This change does not happen in a vacuum. I wish more people would realise this.

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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