The making of a terrorist

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ANOTHER terrorist plot, described as ‘home-grown’, has been unearthed in Canada, belying conventional theories about what breeds militancy.

Last week the police arrested three men in Ottawa and London (Ontario) accused of “taking part in a domestic terrorist plot and possessing plans and materials to create makeshift bombs”. The police are tight-lipped about the details saying that the matter is still under investigation. According to them the suspects had allegedly selected specific targets for attacks.

This is the fourth case of people being charged for terrorism in Canada after 9/11. The three men picked up last week were all professionals — an engineer, a doctor and an X-ray technician — and, from what neighbours had to say, well integrated in Canadian society.

The arrests caused quite a stir as they shook the public out of its complacency. Since the men charged were Muslim, a wave of concern ran through the 600,000-strong Muslim community which, as is inevitable, becomes apprehensive of a backlash on such occasions.

The question being asked is: ‘why’? That is a question that even we in Pakistan have been seeking to answer with reference to our own terrorists. In our case it is often said that the terrorists are desperate men resorting to extremism, who are impoverished and have nothing to lose when they indulge in acts of violence that cost them their lives.

Another factor is said to be the intense sense of injustice — denial of a decent livelihood, education and healthcare — that drives people to the edge to give vent to their anger and inflict vengeance randomly. Others speak of religious indoctrination by the fundamentalists.

This can’t, however, be said about the alleged terrorists arrested in Canada. All of them were born and educated in this country and enjoyed economic security and the advantages of living in a highly developed country with an integrated multicultural society where racism is hardly a problem.

It was Haroon Siddiqui, a veteran journalist writing for Toronto Star , who pointed out the connection between the “the wars we wage and the terrorist mayhem that they trigger there and here”. He links the rise of the home-grown, self-radicalised terrorists in Canada (and also the US and Britain) to the West’s attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and the tendency to hold Islam responsible for this phenomenon.

This argument follows the same line advanced by many of our own analysts who insist that were the drone attacks in Fata to cease the suicide bombings would also halt. But we know that this may not be entirely true. Since militants — be they Pakistan’s or Canada’s — find the only outlet for their anger in acts of terrorism, they will discover other provocations to fuel their militancy when Nato pulls out its forces from Afghanistan.

True, wars are not good for the mental health of the people and create more problems than they solve, and it would certainly help if governments stopped taking recourse to them. But the militants would not disappear.

Conversely, one can ask why most people in similarly adverse conditions nursing anger against perceived injustices do not adopt the route of militancy. Why do many of them seek out more constructive avenues to drive home their point such as organising themselves into advocacy groups or becoming community activists rather than taking human lives? Why is only a minuscule minority radicalised?

A few years ago, the Pakistan Association of Mental Health held a seminar in Karachi debating the phenomenon of suicide bombing. There were some psychiatrists who believed that those who committed suicide bombings were people suffering from mental illness.

In the debate that has followed the disclosure of the alleged plots in Canada last week, one psychology researcher echoed a similar line of thinking when he said with reference to home-grown terrorists, “There seems to be a personality characteristic that predisposes people to radicalise — and that is sensation seeking.”

This seems to be a logical explanation. If the majority in similar circumstances is not radicalised it is because it does not have that abnormal trait. One may also add that some possessing a personality prone to radicalisation do not become militants because their circumstances do not encourage this tendency.

It is basically the age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. We now know that it is a combination of personality and an atmosphere conducive to radicalisation that helps mould the terrorist psyche. In the West the Internet has facilitated such individuals for whom group activity is essential. They derive the sense of belonging needed to spur them into action from numerous websites promoting jihadi literature.

Now YouTube, which brings live images with sound to any computer user, provides the environment to radicalise an individual prone to extremism. The Internet also allows people to communicate on a global scale for strategy planning. Muslims have become vulnerable because all manner of militants ranging from the Taliban to the various lashkars in Pakistan and Afghanistan provide a ready training ground to would-be terrorists.

Such globalised facilities have not been available to extremists who are not fighting for an Islamic cause, whether it was Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred Murrah Building in Oklahoma in 1995, or the gunman who recently went on a killing spree in Cumbria, England.

In a society like Canada, a person with exaggerated notions of self-aggrandisement stuck in a job that offers little satisfaction to his ego could turn to violence for the sake of sensationalism. In Pakistan a person with extremist traits might end up in a madressah environment where he receives military training or he might be a university student who is seduced by a religious party that radicalises him.

The need is to correct this aberration. Unfortunately, the media has not been very helpful. No one denies that the right to information is a basic human right and should not be suppressed. But reporting an event — even a horrific one like a suicide bombing or target killing — in a factual way is devoid of all interpretative (mostly speculative) frills is different from sensationalising it.