Following the Woolwich murder, if you want to prevent or end terrorism attacks, the last thing to do is blame it on Islam, ‘like’ the EDL on Facebook, or call for retribution against Muslims. The whole point of terrorism tactics is it provokes an emotional response in its aftermath, so challenging the way people respond and the comments they make is a crucial aspect of countering terrorism. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, is in an excellent position to take the lead in framing this murder in a productive way, however, she made a crucial mistake in saying how it was an attack on all of us. A successful counter-terrorism frame should adopt three components: criminalise; contextualise; individualise.
The murderer is not an ‘Islamic solider’, he is a murderer who wrongly thinks that he represents billions – he is a delusional criminal.
Now, I am using ‘terrorism’ here for analytical purposes, but a successful strategy deployed has been to frame acts of terrorism as criminal acts. People engage in terrorism for political reasons, so why provide legitimacy by engaging it in political terms. By calling for all Muslims to be deported, burning down mosques or whatever is treating it like a political issue. Jihadist strategy is to create this very response, and groups like the EDL are effectively doing the work for them.
Framing the act as a criminal one helps to decouple the message the attacker wished to get across.
This was not an attack on all of ‘us’, nor was it an attack on our beliefs, or our freedoms. It was a brutal murder of a young man who was representing an excellent charity. Just because the murderers claimed to be attacking Britain or the West on behalf of Islam, it doesn’t mean it is true.
It is often assumed that the core of terrorism is that it targets civilians and creates fear (which it does), but another defining feature is in its ‘us and them’ mentality. People who engage in terrorism have a very black and white viewpoint of the world. They see themselves representing ‘their’ identity which is innocent and under attack, and this helps them legitimise and justify the killing of someone they believe represents an ‘other’ identity. In this world-view, there is no differentiation within the two camps.
So by people claiming this attack is representative of Islam or any other iteration, they are reproducing the very mentality that drives terrorism.
Theresa May’s claim that it was an attack on all of us creates a sense of community under siege While this can be useful for counter-terrorism purposes, it is important to define who the ‘us’, is. In essence, individualising the terrorism act can facilitate a more inclusive frame, where Muslims are also seen as part of the ‘us’ that is under attack. Showing support for the EDL on Facebook only perpetuates this perceived division.
One of the attackers claimed that the murder was because British soldiers are killing Muslims every day. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed recently, but this has been at the hands of Jihadists. People like the Woolwich murderers are killing Muslims and non-Muslims, this is not just an attack on Christians.
Furthermore, Islam does not cause terrorism, and neither does it cause peace. Islam, Christianity, Communism, Buddhism are effectively tools that people use who have already decided on engaging in a violent campaign. However, the hateful response of people on Facebook to the Muslim community does act as a cause of terrorism.
A key part of the narrative on Facebook is not enough is being done, the government is ineffective, EDL tactics are the best response, and terrorists and/or Muslims should be punished.
However, the number of Jihadist attacks is on the decline; sympathy for Jihadists has plummeted; and the Jihadist movement is deteriorating from one generation to the other. This is a sickening attack which is drawing shock and condemnation from people regardless of religion or colour. Such brutal terrorist tactics often represent the decline of terrorism campaigns because they put off people who are originally sympathetic to Jihadism. In the aftermath of the Omagh bombings, Catholics weren’t blamed, dissident Republicans were. They were marginalised and the public reaction from all sides of the conflict brought people together and helped the peace process. It was used to bring an end to terrorism. Supporting the EDL and blaming Muslims in general is missing an opportunity to do something similar.
Gordon Clubb is a PhD Researcher on counter-terrorism at the University of Leeds. His research interests are the decline of terrorism campaigns and the de-radicalisation process. He is the head of the Terrorism and Political Violence Association and an author of the books ‘Terrorism and Political Violence’ and ‘Hizbollah: from Islamic Resistance to Government’