3 Jun 2013

What turns young men to terrorism?

This is a question that I first tried to answer a few days after 9/11 when I met the parents of Ziad Jarrah, the 26-year-old Lebanese aviation student who is suspected of flying United flight 93 which was heading to Washington DC and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Jarrah came from a wealthy family. His parents lived in a mansion in the Bekaa Valley. He had gone to a Catholic private school. He was engaged to be married and when he rang his father the night before 9/11 to reassure him that he was returning to Beirut on holiday, the father told the son that there would be a BMW waiting from him at the airport with keys in it.

“That will be yours, my son,” the father remembered saying.  He was in tears when he told me the story. But he was also deep in denial about his son’s alleged actions.

All this reminded me of the reaction of the Tsarnaev parents, broadcast on Dispatches tonight, to their sons’ alleged terrorism in Boston last month.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother, was both apoplectic with grief for the loss of her beloved eldest Tamerlan, who was killed in a police shoot out after the bombing and adamant in her belief that he and his younger brother had no hand in the marathon massacre. Tamerlan had apparently become radicalised as he grew more and more disillusioned with life in America, the country that had granted his family asylum and refuge from the violence of Chechnya.

But Dzhokhar, the younger brother who will stand trial for terrorism, seemed to have made his life in the adopted country a relative success. He was popular, clever and sporty. He had everything to lose by allegedly conspiring to bomb innocent civilians.

So was he doing it to satisfy his more disgruntled brother? Had he become radicalised on the sly?

Woolwich, Boston and the New Terror: watch Dispatches on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight

‘Lost boys’

Michael Adebowale was known as Toby by his friends in south east London. According to neighbours he was popular, friendly and intelligent.

The Michaels came from devoutly Christian Nigerian families. They had immigrated to the UK for a better life.  Every case is different but there are some common themes.

All the suspects mentioned in this blog felt a degree of alienation and disillusionment in their adopted country. Ziad Jarrah was lonely in Hamburg. Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned against America when he failed to get citizenship and was thus denied his part in the Golden Gloves boxing championship. Michael Adebolajo started demonstrating against US and UK foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They all in their own way felt they didn’t belong, rejecting their adoptive home as well as the one they came from. These “lost boys”, of which there must be countless in a globalised world of immigration and mass mobility, worry the authorities. But only a small fraction contemplate violence. And only the smallest number amongst them resort to horrific crimes. There is still no reliable way of predicting the trigger points that turn a man onto the path of terrorism.

DIY terrorism

But there is a difference with the young man from Lebanon and the spectacular terrorism of 9/11 and what we have witnessed in recent months. Ziad Jarrah was recruited by Mohammed Attah, the quarter master of 9/11 who also lived in Hamburg. They had bank accounts. They went to foreign training camps. They apparently met Osama Bin Laden himself. Al-Qaeda in its heyday was an elaborate network. It is after all the Arab word for “base”.

But the terrorism of Boston and Woolwich involved pressure cookers and kitchen knives. It was DIY, home grown and cheap. It may have been inspired and plotted in the privacy of a bedroom by browsing any number of Jihadi websites.

And in the case of the Woolwich murders it was advertised on a cellphone camera courtesy of a bystander. It displayed a kind of narcissistic brutality. YouTube meets Jihad.

The scale of these homegrown attacks is less destructive than the kind of operations we saw in New York or Oklahoma City – an act of terrorism committed by an American against his own country.

But the homespun variety is much harder to detect, it has the potential to expand and become more lethal depending on the weapon used and it attracts a very large number of potential recruits. The message for the DIY terrorist is do it yourself, do it alone, do it on a road near you and keep it cheap.

The question for us is how to stop thousands of potentially angry young men, or lost boys, from listening.

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