As one grim atrocity follows another in unexpected locations across Europe – Nice, Munich and this week, a church in a small town in Normandy – everyone seems to have an opinion. Around family dinner tables, in bars and cafes, on social networks, everyone has a view about what is happening and who is to blame. For some, it’s Islam or refugees – for others we should exonerate both at all costs. The problem is that it isn’t opinions we need now, but intelligence and understanding. Doctrinaire thinking – and I have seen how political speech in France has become polarised since January 2015 – only serves to divide public opinion, favour populism and eventually weaken society.
So let’s stick to the basics. Terrorism is political violence. More specifically, it is violence against a civilian population and its infrastructure committed by a non-state actor with a political objective. The question a traumatised public is entitled to ask, after such unpredictable attacks as those we have seen in Germany and France, is why.
Three main explanations, each with its own justifications and limitations then come into play: the political, the religious and the psychosocial. We know that someone’s decision to commit a violent act is often the result of at least two of these factors. Of course, nihilism or mental health problems lie behind many of the terrorist acts committed recently, but psychiatric conditions on their own are not enough to explain them.
Proponents of the political explanation will tell you that it is essential to address global imbalances in the fight against terrorism, which is primarily the result of authoritarian regimes confiscating both freedoms and economic resources. Of course we have to stop the bombers, they argue, but above all we have to stop the machines producing the bombers.
Islamic State thrives in areas populated by Sunni Arabs who are despised or repressed by their own governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Without good governance in the two capitals, there is little hope of successfully destroying it. In the Middle East, as in deprived areas of cities in Europe, a population on the economic or political margins is naturally prone to radicalisation.
Supporters of the theory of religious radicalisation, meanwhile, rely mainly on doctrine promulgated by Abu Musab as-Suri, who in 2004 published a 1,600-page document on the future of jihad. But it is a mistake to think of him as a guru for the jihadis of Isis, who mocked him in their magazine Dabiq for advocating an ecumenical jihad, not reserved for Salafists. The real inspiration for jihadis today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a thug who, having fallen out with Osama bin Laden, ended up creating Islamic State in Iraq. Don’t underestimate either the contribution of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): sermons in English by the American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, one of its key figures, and its English-language magazine Inspire were instrumental in spreading jihadi ideas in the west.
The trouble with this theory is that so many terrorists seem to be very bad Muslims. As many as one in six of the Europeans who have travelled to join Isis in the Middle East are converts to Islam. Even among those of Muslim origin, almost all renounce the Islam of their parents: they become the “born agains” of Islam.
For Isis itself, religion is not the priority. “Come and do your hijra, your migration to the land of Islam, and you will learn Islam later,” we read in internet exchanges. It is not an urban legend that some of the jihadis from Europe arrested as they were about to enter Syria had the book Islam for Dummies in their luggage.
Today, the priority for Isis is not so much to convince supporters to join them in Syria as to push them to commit attacks wherever they are located. Among these terrorists, too, are some whose knowledge and practice of Islam are rudimentary. What matters for Isis, though, is that as many people as possible carry out attacks. Many jihadis are converts to violence more than converts to Islam. And despite popular belief, very few young people brought up in orthodox Islamdescend into violence.
The arguments for seeing murderous acts as evidence of mental illness are often queried by psychologists themselves, who are uncomfortable with psychological interpretations of social phenomena or delinquency. As for the military, they know very well that while dismissing one’s attacker as mentally ill can prove popular with public opinion, it has never weakened the enemy.
Manifestly, of course, many of the terrorists who have struck in Europe in recent months have had, at least, a fragile psychological background. But it is important to keep in mind a basic principle: it’s possible to be both a real terrorist and mentally ill.
As with any kind of sectarian indoctrination, religion can become a kind of healing or means of achieving redemption after a dissolute past, which corresponds perfectly with the apocalyptic vision of Isis. Many conversions to jihadism are preceded by a trail of violence and humiliation. Etymology gives us a good key to understanding radicalism. The word radical comes from the Latin word for root. Someone who is radicalised is someone who feels uprooted. Is an extremist, whether a jihadi or an ultra-nationalist, not someone who has an identity problem?
An act of violence is never simple and terrorism cannot be understood in a binary way. Understanding someone who attacks you is already a step towards controlling them. Knowing that beyond the casualties they can inflict, the terrorists’ ultimate aim is to scare us, allows us to be better prepared for the next time.
Nicolas Hénin is the author of Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State. He spent 10 months as an Isis hostage.