Radicalized – Peter Neumann 6 December 2016
Walking into my local Waterstone’s on one Saturday, I was greeted by an extensive display of books all about terrorism. They range from books such as The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by journalist Patrick Cockburn to semi-fictional accounts, such as Undercover Jihadi Bride: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks by Anna Erelle. There is now an entire genre of books on radicalisation, extremism, and the Islamic State. With such a plethora of books, it is hard to tell the wheat from the chaff.
Radicalized, by Peter R. Neumann, is one book that does stand out as being a valuable contribution to a saturated genre. In a sentence, it’s a book rooted in academic rigour but written to be intelligible to a wider audience. Neumann is Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London and Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), and Radicalized is in some ways a summary of the work the ICSR has done so far.
Radicalized covers some ground already well-treaded by other authors and journalists, such as the history of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It contributes some new perspectives however, in locating their activities as the latest wave of anti-state violence that stretches back over a century. Neumann does this using the theories of David Rapoport, citing the waves as being “Anarchist”, “Anti-Colonial”, “New Left” and “Religious”. The final wave includes contemporary Muslim terrorists. Each wave lasts a generation before petering out, according to Rapoport and Neumann. This approach is valuable, first for giving terrorism a historical root, displaying its genealogy for others to see. It helps move terrorism out from unhelpful definitions that link it uniquely to Islam, and also stresses that contemporary terrorism is “serious, but not existential”. Nation States have survived previous waves of terrorism, and are likely to survive this latest wave also.
The book also spends considerable time looking at foreign fighters, an issue Neumann is particularly knowledgeable on given that the ICRS devotes much of its time tracking the activities and profiles of fighters from Europe who have travelled to Syria. He identifies three archetypes. The first are the “defenders”. These fighters are the first generation who travelled to Syria, and did not necessarily join the Islamic State. For them, “Muslim identity was crucial because it fostered strong identification with the suffering of the Sunni civilian population”. Then were the seekers, who “are chiefly motivated neither by politics nor religion, but are part of a booming jihadist counterculture that meets their need for identity, community, power, and a feeling of masculinity”. These men are “theologically illiterate, albeit familiar with Salafist rituals and slogans, and only superficially engaged with Islam”.
Finally, there are the “hangers-on” – “if hangers-on go to Syria or Iraq” writes Neumann, “it is not because of political events or because they themselves have looked for an opportunity to do so, but because their leader has decided it”.
This revealing typography of fighters is one of the strengths of the book, providing an insight into the identities and motivations of fighters based on thorough research by the ICRS. Each “type” of fighter is illustrated with a specific example, helping to reveal the nuances and diversity of the young men who join the Islamic State.
Two further chapters flesh out this picture of a Jihadist “counterculture”. “Supporters” considers the various cheerleaders and affiliates of terrorism, and “The American Exception?” looks at the question of why radicalised supporters are relatively prominent in Europe, but absent from the United States.
The book concludes with sensible counter-terrorism suggestions. As for the Middle-East, Neumann resolves “there is no simple, quick solution” – perhaps an anti-climactic solution, but in an era of soundbites and twitter commentary, such a contention runs contrary to popular punditry. Neumann stands by the value of a “prevention” strategy for at-risk individuals, but doesn’t (perhaps rightly) engage with a debate about what that strategy should look like. In Britain, the Prevent scheme has come under heavy scrutiny for infringing on civil liberties and creating a culture of suspicion. Though even detractors of the Prevent scheme would agree that there is a need for a counter-terror strategy, the disagreement is largely about what that strategy should look like.
The one argument of Neumann I take significant objection to is the focus on “Salafis”. He writes “that practically all European jihadists are Salafists, or closely connected to them”. He argues counter-terror agencies should focus their efforts exclusively on “dangerous and potentially violent people within the Salafist counterculture”. There have been notable cases of terrorists who are not Salafi. Take two examples, Boko Haram and the Tehrik-i-Taliban. The former, responsible for a string of horrific atrocities in Nigeria, draws on a partial Salafism, but also draw on indigenous animistic rituals according to research by Zacharias Pieri and Jacob Zenn. Naturally, animism has little role in a Salafi theology, but for the fighters, it is the utility of the rituals and teachings that matter, not the coherence of the entire system.
Tehrik-i-Taliban, responsible for the infamous 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar, utilises on the more immediate Deobandi traditions of Pakistan and India. The Deobandis are radically different from the Salafis, focusing on the existing traditions of scholarly exegesis. So what does this mean? Essentially, both Muslim terror groups utilise the religious expressions local to them, and adapt them to purpose. Salafi Jihadism may be the most significant expression today – but if counter-terror infrastructure is led by theology, they will be entirely unprepared for any developments from elsewhere. A focus on ideology, which Neumann himself has stressed throughout the work is often a peripheral issue, can prejudice counter-terror agencies to expect terrorism in one place, and ignore it elsewhere. I’m prepared however to shelve my criticisms until reading Salafi-Jihadism: The History an Idea by Shiraz Maher. Maher is a former student of Neumann, and so I expect there is a fuller treatment on Salafism and terrorism in the latter work.
Regardless, for those interested in better understanding the phenomenon of foreign fighters, Radicalized is one of the few books I’ve come across that provides a readable account coupled with rigorous research.