Motive can be difficult to discern in acts that seem ‘terrorist’ in nature: can we trust what the terrorists themselves tell us?
HANAU, GERMANY — When we come across an act of violence and try to determine whether it was terrorist in nature we need some crucial evidence. That evidence centres on motive: terrorism has to be a serious act of violence perpetrated for political, ideological or religious reasons (or sometimes combinations of two or all three). Without that link, these are ‘mere’ acts of violence.
On some occasions, particularly if the perpetrator dies in the attack (or kills himself – or more rarely herself), it is hard or even impossible to make that determination. We are left with lots of questions and no answers: speculation perhaps but nothing concrete.
The 2017 shootings in Las Vegas are a great example. Stephen Paddock opened fire from his hotel room on a concert below, killing 58 people and wounding 851 others before shooting and killing himself. And because he took his own life and left no messages we have no idea why he did what we did. And we likely never will. It is frustrating, and not just for terrorism scholars or commentators like me. Imagine the families of the victims who are wondering why their loved ones were so brutally taken from them.
Painful at best
On the other hand we sometimes do get some insight into the reasons why these actors carry out their slaughter. This insight comes in the form of videos or manifestos, and we have many recent examples (there are also interviews with family and friends but nothing beats going to the horse’s mouth): Anders Breivik left us a 1,500 brick; the Christchurch attacker left a (thankfully much shorter) screed; etc. The attacks that took place in Germany yesterday (February 19) were also associated with a video by the shooter.
I have read some of these texts and they are painful at best. Usually poorly written, they contain reams of stream of consciousness and large sections that are hard to follow. Nevertheless, we do learn a lot about the thought processes, and hence justification, for their acts of violence. After all, these individuals, and these individuals alone, really know the reasons for their deeds.
But should we trust them?
This is a difficult question. To take the Hanau shooter as one example, the coward who shot and killed unarmed, innocent people, including his mother, talked of ‘invisible secret societies’ controlling the US and ‘mind control’ (NB why was he addressing Americans only to slaughter Germans??). In other words, we have legitimate questions about his mental state. In analogous cases, say in court, we would dismiss these as the rants of an unstable individual who cannot be held accountable for his/her actions.
But there is often a thread that brings in history and culture and religion and actual facts and events that cannot be dismissed, even if the presentation isn’t the greatest. In these cases can we rely on what is being said/written?
There will always be an element of bravado and self-importance. After all, these murderers want to live forever in infamy. They want to be remembered and, at least by some, be seen as role models. They don’t want their acts to be forgotten or cast aside as the work of less than optimal individuals. Hence, some go to great lengths to describe why they acted. They want their ‘accomplishments’ to COUNT. But there also always kernels of truth that provide useful insight.
Many call on social media companies to remove these ‘manifestos’ ASAP. They claim that leaving it up further traumatises the survivors and serves to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
What then should our response be?
Many call on social media companies to remove this content ASAP. They claim that leaving it up further traumatises the survivors and serves to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. And there is undoubtedly something in that.
But from a practitioner’s perspective these ‘works’ are important. If the terrorist survives and goes to trial they can be used to determine motive and gain convictions. If not, we can see how widespread they are shared, who picks them up and thus who might be keen to emulate these terrorist acts. If they are zapped or are forced to the Dark Web the jobs that security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are tasked with are rendered much more difficult.
We can learn something from what terrorists tell us
I have to admit this is a tough issue and I see both sides. Given my background I want to make the case for why practitioners need to keep this material. It can be used in conjunction with other information, both open and classified, to better understand this mindset and help stop future terrorists from creating death and mayhem. Perhaps this can be done in such a way that only law enforcement and security intelligence agencies keep a copy but it is not more generally available, but I can already hear the protests from academics and those who demand freedom of information.
So, yes we can learn something from what terrorists tell us. We must analyse all this data judiciously and act to corroborate their ‘facts’ by collecting multiple sources and seeing where the ‘truth’ lies. But we must acknowledge that we may never fully grasp why these things happen.
As the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within”. Sage advice indeed.
The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West (2015)
This textbook examines what drives Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization to violence, how to detect it, and how to confront it. The chapters discuss behaviors and ideologies that are observable and tangible in radicalized individuals or those on the path to violent radicalization. These behaviors are drawn from a variety of cases, such as planning acts of terrorism, traveling to join terrorist groups, or participating in violent jihadi conflict outside the country.