Last year there were 36 deaths in the UK with many more seriously injured as a result of five terrorist attacks. David Anderson QC, known for his work as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, undertook a review of MI5 and Police counter- terrorism investigative procedures, begun in July after the Manchester and London atrocities. Meanwhile the Director-General of MI5, Andrew Parker, went on record saying that terrorist plots against Britain had reached the “highest tempo” he had experienced in a long career as an Intelligence officer; they had attained “a scale and pace we’ve not seen before”.
The independent review and its practical recommendations were a healthy sign that things going wrong were being treated as an opportunity to learn and improve procedures. So often, large and powerful institutions go into denial and defensive mode as default position. As in the NHS such a posture costs lives.
Our Intelligence agencies are expected to keep an eye on a number of potentially dangerous people. The numbers have grown dramatically with some 20,000 considered “subjects of interest”. But effective surveillance is very labour intensive. While government is increasing resources for the Intelligence agencies, in a number of Police Authorities community policing, best placed to receive initial concerns and alerts, is set to bear the brunt of a further 7% government budget cut. Freeing up struggling local councils a little to plug the gap from council tax is a neat trick; it can provide modest relief but discriminates against the poorest Authorities.
The Joint Review exonerates the Intelligence Services of culpability for the five attacks slipping through undetected while proposing down-to-earth improvements in monitoring the enormous case load of potential extremists. Analysts, rather like traffic controllers, cannot get it wrong. On the cards is a computer algorithm to detect patterns of aberrant behaviour suggesting preparation for terrorism and violent radicalisation. Cheaper than a trusted local bobby approached by an anxious father or mother? Perhaps. More reliable and effective? Possibly. But with distant echoes of modern communist China. The trade-offs with civil liberties made for security is one of the most difficult prudential judgements.
Intelligence agencies have difficulty in detecting when “subjects of interest” move from big talk to deadly action. By the time suspects are learning how to make bombs from the Internet, getting military training where they can, renting pick-up trucks and collecting weapons, hell bent on murdering “infidel” fellow citizens, it is too late. Young lives have been deformed and futures destroyed.
Except for those known to be actively planning acts of terrorism – when obtaining evidence that will stand up in court becomes critical – preventive action can never be too early. But after a terrorist attack, mass media play an equivocal role. The news focus is predominantly, and inevitably, on the immediate events and follows the consequences of the attack: the victims, the reaction to the terrorist incident, the identity of the perpetrators. The aim of the terrorist is to instil terror. The impact of coverage in all forms of media inevitably, inadvertently, serves to some degree, their purpose.
Another possible consequence is to allow those tempted onto the same path to conflate infamy, notoriety and celebrity; the terrorists’ usurping of the Islamic concept of witness, shahid, like deadly nightshade flowers into an assertion of glorious martyrdom. The reality of sad lives, easily manipulated by sophisticated recruiting techniques, and readily accepting of gross distortions of social and political reality, rarely features in dispatches.
Many voices enter the discussions that follow in the aftermath. There are those in schools, and elsewhere, who view the government’s Prevent programme as inherently Islamophobic, as spying on Muslims, a theme that can be easily manipulated. There are those who have reason to see Prevent as doing a good job, providing a very effective mentoring programme for young people in danger, safeguarding young Muslim children with the same good intentions that are behind their protection from paedophile predators.
Analysis of motivations, the “why” of the attacks, tends to concentrate on links to Al-Qaeda or Da’esh and, at best, some elements of their propaganda, internet recruitment, and the extent of their networks. The distortions of fanciful accounts of the world are then played out in the public domain: the contest between the extreme Right in Europe for whom Islam is the problem and Muslims a fifth column, and the voice of Muslim community leaders who reject the term “Islamic terrorism”, or who say “it has nothing to do with Islam”. The latter is understandable. But this is like arguing that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Christianity and Christians. To which the reply is Agree as far as today is concerned. But if we think back a little, Disagree.
A great deal of important investigative effort goes into monitoring suspects, putting together network connections and analysis of key themes in terrorist publications and videos. The question more rarely addressed is what is happening in someone’s head when they are moving from repugnant views towards becoming a violent extremist. This is not a mental pathology in the normal sense of the word. We know, for example, what a narcissistic sociopath sounds like, the general symptoms, even if we don’t know how they became one. But no-one sits down and deliberately tries, using a well-honed process of formation, to take someone and turn them into a narcissistic sociopath. Terrorists are not born hating and wishing to kill infidels or religious minorities. They are carefully formed and activated. How? How is their weltbild, picture of the world and how it operates, their perception of social and political reality, changed in a way that demands the indiscriminate killing of innocents in the name of a God who is merciful and compassionate?
The premise behind these questions is that there is such a thing as an extremist mind-set with its unique characteristics and distortions. If so, it is the mind-set that is crucial, perhaps more so than the networks and the content of the ideology itself, be it for example Neo-Nazi or takfiri, jihadi. The other networks that need identifying are those within the brain. Neuronal networks are reinforced by frequent use; thus the key dynamics and interactions needing study are those that drive the emotional, cognitive, bodily, and behavioural aspects of attitudes and actions. There is a large gap between the brains we need today in our complex societies and the brains that were successful for keeping hunter gatherers safe.
Enter the psychologist stage right to only muted public acclaim. Psychology takes a subtle and long term approach. This is not the obvious heroism of the Police Constable who runs towards the knife-wielding fanatic. Nor the Intelligence analyst’s agonising dilemmas. The struggle against religious extremism is recognised now as taking many years, a marathon not a sprint. Psychologists are the marathon runners. Intelligence and Security agencies by necessity proceed at a greater pace employing procedures to move faster.
Extremist networks and ideologies will morph – we can be sure of that - but the extremist mind will remain recognisably the same. Its perverse perception of social and political reality comes before the change in behaviour that algorithms and smart parents or friends can detect. Understanding how it functions will likely enable the processes that create it to be reversed or prevented. But we will need the stamina of the long distance runner to make a difference.
Understanding the psychology of the extremist mind should not be a marginal pursuit on the edge of an expanding apparatus for countering violent extremism. When it comes to assigning priorities and allocation of resources, after the return from Syria and Iraq of many damaged young people, it should move more to centre stage. We need the practical improvements that David Anderson QC recommended in his Joint Review but, from prevention to interrogation, we also need to know more about how the extremist mind works.