Sudesh Amman, a first-generation Sri Lankan Muslim, was shot dead on the streets of south London by undercover police officers on February 2. Released less than two months after serving half his sentence, Amman attacked three people with a knife he had purchased moments earlier. Questions are now being asked about what caused this event and how similar incidents can be prevented in the future.
There are numerous cases of young people now in prisons for various offences related to spreading material associated with terrorist groups, whose aim of radicalizing others in the hope of generating further support for acts of violent extremism led to their conviction. These young men, once locked up for their offences, are generally released after serving half of their allocated time. However, these prisons can act as an incubator, where impressionable young men are surrounded by hardened ideologues with an even more checkered history.
In the case of Amman, and as reported in relation to others, deeper radicalization can occur, in the process further damaging the minds of these young men. Imprisoning someone for offences related to terrorism takes them away from particular forms of stimuli, but being incarcerated creates a real possibility of these prisons acting as a breeding place, where the radicalized can learn from others.
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Elsewhere, problems of torture and abuse at the hands of captors played a significant role in radicalizing individuals who became influential leaders within their domains. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was an insignificant car mechanic before he was radicalized in prison and then became the number one al-Qaeda figure in Iraq from 2005 onward. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an inconsequential teacher with a background in theology. He too was also radicalized in prison, ultimately becoming one of the founding actors within the Islamic State.
Already Too Late
In many ways, when a young British Muslim has been radicalized, it is already too late. The problem is the belief systems they now carry have warped their sense of themselves and their position in the world. It is true that this ideology is problematic, but it is not new to the study of violent jihadism. It has always been part of the eschatological framework of particular interpretations of script. The problem is why so many young people are seemingly drawn to it.
And this is the crux of the matter. If ideology is the pull in this equation, the push is individual, with structural factors that are somehow enabled at a particular moment. While the lure of ideology is potentially always there, attempts to fight it are limited because the push of structural and individual factors is too great. Halfway measures that intervene just before “the bomb goes off” only do so much.
The case of Amman, therefore, is not unsurprising in the context of the problems of knowing what to do with radicals in the European context — and often getting it wrong. Having witnessed, experienced and seen it first hand, too many working within the fields of deradicalization, counterextremism and counterterrorism start with the premise that an individual on the verge of carrying out an act of violence can be “reverse-engineered” if their psychological state of mind can be altered by education or emotional support. This approach has amiable ambitions.
However, upon the completion of this intervention, and as individuals are returned back to the communities, they face the same vulnerabilities of being exposed to all of the pressures that lead some to a narrow path of self-realization through self-annihilation. There are much wider structural issues that relate to investment in rebuilding communities that have faced decline over the last few decades, especially in parts of the country traditionally home to postwar ethnic minority communities, now in their fourth and fifth generations.
By being trapped in spaces that reduce opportunities rather than open them up, creating narrow cultural domains rather than present opportunities to learn and share with others from different backgrounds — with internal questions relating to intergenerational disconnect, and with communities having been effectively left out of the race for success, which is essentially racialized and gendered — the risks remain.
Reality of Extremism
The government, in its usually reactionary manner, wishes to increase sentences or to ensure that those who have been imprisoned complete their sentences. This works well with presenting strength and receiving the support of parts of the country that equates toughness with results. At the same time, there will be those who decry counterterrorism policies that are quick to incarcerate individuals based on a presumption of intent rather than actual evidence of action or its potential — such is the law at present.
All of this will also embolden far-right groups and their counterjihadi rhetoric. But all of this is to forget the reality of extremism — that it is a function of social conflict in a more general sense, which is to state that these young men are products of society. They are made in Britain. And it is the fissures and the cleavages of society that permit young men to fall through the gaps.
As austerity deepens, and as insecurity in relation to the future of Britain and its populations continues to heighten, the vulnerabilities in relation to the potential for young people to be drawn into extremism will only grow. No deradicalization intervention can succeed without the appreciation of the wider social contexts in which radicals are made. And it is this lack of awareness and misdirection — in some cases fueling confusion and misalignment with respect to what should be done in such situations — that leads to attacks against academics, think-tankers and policymakers who seemingly get it wrong every time.
The fact of the matter is that while thinkers spend time and energy to work through an argument, it is in the hands of policymakers to introduce laws to make a difference. However, too many political actors play politics with people’s lives. They would rather engage in populist overtones in the pursuit of power. Combined with a certain media, in particular at the behest of the billionaire press barons, an intractable situation leads to more harm than good.
Terrorism, while a social construction, is also primarily a function of the lived experience facing groups and individuals with particular gripes and grievances that for various reasons cannot be met through the democratic process. This is why there will always be terrorism and extremism in societies that necessarily include groups whose interests conflict, in a hierarchical social structure, with those at the bottom of the social ladder — with those who have already fallen through the cracks of criminality most at risk.
They are so because of their vulnerabilities, not because of their inherent tendencies. Amman’s shooting in the middle of a London street by undercover police officers was in many ways distressing. The perpetrator was a hugely disturbed young man who had been thoroughly let down by a whole host of actors. Jailed for distributing terrorist propaganda, with a history of petty crime, Amman was thrown into the heady mix of Belmarsh prison, then released halfway through his sentence with little or no support. In fact, in many ways, due to the permanent mark on his record and his pariah status as a former inmate, his psychological and emotional well-being would have been in even more vulnerable state, but with no one to act in support.
Radicalization and deradicalization, extremism and counterextremism, terrorism and counterterrorism are all subjective and highly contested concepts. While we can argue about what they mean in reality and the implications they raise for a social context in which people find themselves, young men face all the vulnerabilities of life with little or no focus on their needs, wants and wishes in a fractured, atomized and hugely polarized world. Theirs is a malaise that grows insidiously but blindly for far too many — lest we revisit the sight of a young, Muslim man lying dead on the streets of Britain next time an event such as this latest London attack happens all over again.
*[This article was originally published on Medium.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.