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Why did they do it?


Why did they do it?

Created on Friday, 11 December 2009 11:47
Written by Paul Eedle

Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, four years after the 7/7 suicide bombings in London, an entire counter-terrorism industry has grown up in Britain. The government is spending £140 million on social programmes to 'counter violent extremism'. But do policymakers really understand what they are doing?

Here is a paper I wrote for a workshop with a group of academics working on "radicalisation" - a term which policymakers use all the time but which researchers find dangerously misleading.

Why did they do it?

Disentangling grievance and ideology as factors behind political violence by British Muslims

Paper for Expert Seminar on Islamic Radicalisation, London, 1 December 2009

By Paul Eedle

Why, since 2005, have a number of young British Muslims been ready to kill people here in Britain in pursuit of what they see as a worldwide war between Islam and “The West”? Whether or not we use the word ‘radicalisation’, this is a critical question which the British state needs to answer if it is to prevent future attacks.

I am a journalist, not an academic, so my responses to the question are not as soundly based on literature and research as I would like. But I have reported political violence in the name of Islam in different parts of the Middle East over 30 years and analysed Al Qaeda’s messages on the internet in the years after 9/11. So I hope my thoughts may be useful at least as starting points for more thorough investigation.

1. Political violence in the name of Islam

The suicide bombing of London Underground trains and a bus on 7 July 2005 and a number of other attempted attacks baffled policymakers, academics and journalists who could not understand why British-born British citizens would kill in this, their own country, in the name of Islam.

In trying to answer this, it may be helpful to start by looking at the use of political violence in the name of Islam elsewhere in the world at different times. The phenomenon might be new in Britain, but it has a long history in many parts of the Middle East and Africa throughout more than 100 years. In many cases, the reasons for the resort to violence have been quite clear, as have the reasons for using the language of Islam to justify the actions.

There is a consistent pattern of political violence in the name of Islam against two types of target: foreign powers intervening militarily or politically in Muslim-majority lands, and local Muslim rulers viewed as illegitimate or unjust.

As soon as European colonial powers began occupying areas of the Middle East in the late nineteenth century, local people began to resist, in many cases violently and often under the banner of Islam – for instance, the Mahdist revolt against British rule of Sudan in the 1880s and 1890s and the Senoussi movement’s resistance to Italian colonisation of Libya from 1911 to 1943. This pattern has extended into modern times with, for instance, the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

In all these cases, the reasons for the resort to violence was clear: foreign military occupation and political control. The reasons for the use of Islam to explain and justify the violence were equally plain: Islam was the natural language of right and wrong for the majority of people affected, and Muslim institutions such as mosques, shrines, religious schools and Sufi orders were the most powerful local organisations not controlled by the foreigners.

I saw this in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, reporting for Reuters the growing resistance by Shia armed groups to Israeli occupation and American support for it.

In April 1984, I drove round villages in the hills east of Sidon trying to find out who was behind increasingly sophisticated attacks on the Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon. I found village imams openly leading civilian agitation against the Israelis and freely praising the attacks[1]. In Jibsheet, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid,explained that in Islamic law “the wronged party is permitted to use any means to eliminate the injustice he is suffering.”

The south Lebanese were living under oppressive foreign military occupation without rule of law or representative government: their religion was their one certain source of moral authority, and their clerics were natural community leaders.

In Lebanon and all these other cases of violence against foreign control, there is no doubt that what UK policymakers now call “grievances” were the primary drivers of the violence: if there had been no foreign presence, there would have been no resistance. The role of Islam was important but secondary, as a set of beliefs which shaped people’s perceptions of events and, above all, legitimised their violent response.

This suggestion is underlined by the fact that ideologies other than Islam have also been widely used to justify violence against foreign control in Muslim-majority lands. Arab nationalism and socialism were for much of the first half of the twentieth century even the dominant ideologies: they underpinned violent resistance to British rule in Egypt in the early 20th century, French rule in Syria in the 1920s and 1930s and French colonisation of Algeria in the 1960s among a number of other conflicts.

In some cases, Islam and Arab nationalism have even been used side by side in the same conflict. In the Palestinian territories in the present day, the nationalism of Fatah co-exists with the Islam of Hamas. Both groups have used violence against Israel, but they have explained and justified it in different terms.

Where violence has targetted local rulers, it has also in most cases been driven by real conditions of social or economic injustice. Islam provided a framework to articulate grievance and legitimacy for a violent response.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, for instance, was fuelled by a quarter-century of abuse of human rights by the Shah, exacerbated by resentment of American, Israeli and British interference in Iranian affairs. The Gama’a Islamiya insurgency in Egypt from 1992-99, the start of which I reported for Reuters, began as acts of revenge against police and intelligence agents for torture of Islamist suspects in prison.

When considering how far this pattern of violence fuelled by grievance and justified in Islamic terms fits the 7/7 bombing and other recent violent plots by British Muslims, it would be naïve to assume that the similarities are fundamental or that the differences are not significant. However, the repeated pattern of violence legitimised by Islam across the Middle East over the last century should at least make us question seriously any theories which suggest that Islam itself is a driver of violence. In almost every case, grievance has come first.


2. Al Qaeda’s ideology of a ‘Crusader war on Islam’

To what extent, then, is it true that “grievance” rather than the religion of Islam itself has driven the 7/7 bombing and other political violence by British Muslims?

The leader of the 7/7 bombers certainly said they acted out of grievance. Mohammad Sidique Khan recorded a video, broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite channel and distributed on the Internet in September 2005, in which he declared:

Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”[2]

However, Khan’s explanation has been difficult for many non-Muslim analysts and policymakers to accept because there is no evidence that he personally witnessed any of the “atrocities” which he gave his life to avenge. The BBC reported that he had travelled Pakistan and Afghanistan to attend military training camps[3] but that is all.

One possible explanation is ideology, a set of beliefs so strong that a person might respond to even indirect experience of grievance by turning to violence.

There are precedents for this even here in Britain. Between 1936 and 1939, some 2,000 British people volunteered to fight on the Republican side against the Fascists in the Spanish civil war. Very few had first-hand experience of the oppression they were risking their lives to confront, but they were motivated by a passionate belief that Fascism was evil and that socialism was the path to freedom and justice.

Mohammad Sidique Khan’s video shows that he certainly did believe in an ideology which justified his violence: not the religion of Islam, but Al Qaeda’s theory developed in the late 1990s that America, Britain, Israel, Russia and other “western” or “Christian” powers are waging a war against Muslims everywhere, and Muslims must strike back in self-defence. The Qaeda ideology links all conflicts in which Muslims have suffered – Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Thailand, the Phillippines – in a single global conspiracy.

Al Qaeda’s ideology initially seemed very successful. In the first years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, it appeared to find an echo among very large numbers of people in Muslim-majority countries. The Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project report ‘What The World Thinks in 2002’ showed that 75% of people in Jordan and 69% in Egypt and Pakistan viewed the United States unfavourably.[4] In 2004, Pew opinion polling found that Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was viewed favourably by 65% in Pakistan, 55% in Jordan and even 11% in supposedly secular Turkey[5]. Support for “suicide bombing in defence of Islam” ran at 40% in Pakistan, 50% in Jordan and nearly 60% in Lebanon.[6]

These figures might at first appear surprising. Many of the Muslims surveyed by Pew would, like Mohammad Sidique Khan, might appear to have had no direct experience of suffering as a result of American - or Israeli, or British – policies. However, this would be to ignore history and identity. The lives of every person alive today in the Indian sub-continent, Middle East and North Africa have been shaped by a 300-year history of European and latterly American economic, political and even cultural domination which has quite often involved direct military action or caused enormous human suffering.

The partition of India in 1947 killed up to a million people and left a dispute over Kashmir which remains violent today; British occupation of Palestine in 1918 ended in 1948 with the establishment of Israel and the dispersal of 800,000 Palestinian Arabs who are still refugees now; US-British sponsorship of a coup in Iran in 1953 overthrew an elected government and restored a dictatorship which oppressed Iranians for a generation.

The list continues into more recent times. The Qaeda ideology itself grew out of widespread Saudi opposition to the stationing of 700,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. The opposition was articulated in religious terms by Muslim scholars, particularly Sheikh Safar al Hawali, whose tape-recorded lectures formulated the theory that the United States had lured Iraq into invading Kuwait in order to have a pretext for a military presence in the heartlands of Islam.[7]

Most people in Britain know almost nothing about this history. A generation after the end of Empire, we teach very little in our schools about the deep involvement of Britain in the histories of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East over the last 300 years.

The National Curriculum formulated in 1999 tells primary schools to cover Ancient Greece, the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in Britain, Britain in Tudor times, Victorian Britain and the impact of the Second World War.[8] The curriculum includes nothing about the British Empire, despite the fact that in 2009, nearly a quarter of all primary school pupils were classified as of minority ethnic origin[9] - the vast bulk of them descended from people originating in the former British Empire. The curriculum for secondary schools is little better in this respect.

British people of Empire origin – and that includes most British Muslims – carry the history of Britain’s colonial era with them as family and community memory, and it shapes their perceptions of current events. British citizens may all watch the same television news, but they interpret it differently based on their own family backgrounds.

Perceptions of events far away may be sharpened by daily experiences here in Britain. Work led by Jonathan Githens-Mazer analysing interviews with former Algerian jihadis suggests that even quite trivial negative experiences of state power were significant factors in tipping many of them towards the use of violence[10].

The same might be true in Britain. A significant number of young British Muslims have negative experiences of the British state. Philip Lewis’s book ‘Young, British and Muslim’, for instance, describes many young British Muslims growing up in some of the most deprived areas of the country, discriminated against because of their race and condemned by their own families for failing to live up to cultural tradition.[11] Anti-terror laws introduced since the 9/11 attacks have also been viewed by many Muslims as discriminating against them: the number of Asians stopped and searched by police, for instance, soared from 744 in 2001-02 to 2,989 in 2002-03[12].

It is possible to imagine even someone living a materially privileged life, such as the private school educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, kidnapper of western tourists in India and murderer of the journalist Daniel Pearl, having such negative experiences. Being a well spoken professional does not protect a person against racism or prevent him or her identifying with people of a similar ethnic background who are suffering poverty and discrimination.

Against this background, the direct British involvement in the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been particularly offensive to many British Muslims. Here are wars in which thousands of Muslims have been killed, and their own country’s armed forces are taking part. It is hard to think of anything more damaging to your sense of belonging to a nation than watching its armed forces killing your co-religionists.

Given a family background of colonial injustice, present-day experience of discrimination and rejection, and wars against Muslim enemies in which British troops are directly involved, it is possible to understand why some young British Muslims with family origins in the lands of former Empire respond to Al Qaeda’s ideology when they hear it from friends or find it on the internet.

It is in fact proof of the humanity, common sense and commitment to Britain of almost all British Muslims that only a tiny handful go on to carry out acts of violence.

2. Definition of ‘Radicalisation’

Suicide bomb attacks in London on 7 July 2005 spawned a whole new counter-terrorism industry in Britain as security services, police and government struggled to respond to what appeared to be an entirely new phenomenon: transnational Islamic terrorism.

A new vocabulary developed as the authorities, academics and analysts groped for answers. ‘Radicalisation’ emerged as a key word, embodying some of the establishment’s most important assumptions.

The first assumption was that the attackers’ beliefs and actions were ‘radical’, a word first used in English politics in the late eighteenth century to describe campaigners for fundamental reform of the political system and which has come to mean any advocate of extreme change. The implication was that the British bombers were killing in pursuit of some kind of extreme change in politics or society.

Secondly, the word implied that the bombers had been subject to some kind of process by which they had been converted from ‘normal’ to ‘radical’. They had begun life just like everyone else, but something happened to them which made them ready to kill for their cause.

There are dangers in both these assumptions. The most frequently stated aims of Al Qaeda are not extreme change in British politics or society, not the establishment of a restored Islamic Caliphate overthrowing the British state; they are to force Britain, America, Israel and other ‘western’ powers to stop military and political intervention in Muslim-majority countries. This would mean a fundamental change in foreign policy but not necessarily a revolution within British society.

Perhaps more importantly, the idea that ‘radicalisation’ is a definable process does not seem strongly supported by research. The evidence of research since 9/11 seems on the contrary to suggest that people of many different backgrounds resort to political violence in the name of Islam and for many different reasons. Attempting to define a typical profile of a terrorist or a typical pathway to terrorism risks blinding policymakers to the real diversity of the phenomenon.

3. Policy implications

· Stop focussing counter-terrorism strategy on “Islam” and “Muslims”. We may not know yet exactly why some British Muslims have adopted the ideology of Al Qaeda, but we do know they form an extremely small percentage of the total Muslim population. There is no more relationship between them and Muslims as a whole than there is between activists who bomb abortion clinics in America and the Catholic Church. However, the emphasis by policymakers and media on “Islam” and “Muslims” has begun to have bad effects on social cohesion: Muslims feel increasingly besieged and racist attitudes and behaviour which have been marginalised by years of campaigning and legislation have re-asserted themselves under the guise of “peacefully protesting against militant Islam”.[13] This case has been powerfully made recently by Arun Kundnani’s report ‘Spooked’ for the Institute of Race Relations.[14]

· Focus the non-security aspects of counter-terrorism strategy (what is now called ‘Prevent’) more broadly on social cohesion as a whole, working across the full diversity of modern Britain. We need to recognise multiple identities and accept that cohesion means everybody must adapt, not just that minorities must adapt to the dominant white British culture. In particular, we need to recover our common history even where it is painful: Britain has been entangled with the Indian sub-continent for 300 years and Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East for 200. This history made us who we in Britain are today and we need to confront it together.

· Adapt Britain’s foreign policy to the realities of who we are today, a country many of whose citizens are descended not from the masters of the British Empire but from its colonial subjects. Our current foreign policies are based on our imperial past, seeing our most important partners as the European colonial powers of the nineteenth century and, above all, the United States, the superpower of the twentieth century. These partnerships have dragged the UK into damaging and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have deepened hostility towards us in many Muslim-majority countries. We need instead to work much more vigorously towards just settlements of conflicts where our people have powerful ties of family, culture or religion such as Kashmir and Palestine. We need to treat Pakistan as not just a source of terrorist threats but as the historic homeland of a million British citizens.

[1] ‘Lebanese guerrillas growing more sophisticated’, by Paul Eedle, Reuters news service 19 April 1984

[2] BBC transcript at

[3] ‘Trio cleared over 7/7 attacks ‘, by Dominic Casciani, 28 April 2009

[4] ‘What The World Thinks in 2002’, Pew Center

[5] ‘A Year After Iraq War’, Pew Center 2004

[6] ‘Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe’, Pew Center 2008

[7] Author’s interview with Saudi dissident involved in the campaign

[8] National Curriculum, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 1999

[9] DCSF Statistical First Release taken from

[10] Presentation by Professor Martin Thomas to ESCR Advisory Board on Violence and Radicalisation programme, Edinburgh September 2009

[11] ‘Young, British and Muslim’, by Philip Lewis, Continuum International 2007

[12] ‘Young Muslims made scapegoats in stop and search’, by Rosie Cowan, the Guardian 3 July 2004

[13] England Defence League website at

[14] Download from