The men who have carried out al-Qaeda-style attacks in Europe all grew up irreligious. It’s not about Islam as a religion, but as a community.
The Western world’s leaders announced last year that Islamic State “must be destroyed” (US President Barack Obama), a goal to which “the entire world is committed” (French President Francois Hollande). One strand of that work involves bombing Syria and Iraq, where the group is based. Another strand is policing Muslims at home. In both areas, the policies being pursued fly in the face of the evidence, and are irrelevant if not counter-productive.
The British government’s counter-terrorist strategy now includes forcing Muslim women migrants to learn English (or face deportation) and casting suspicion on Muslim teenagers who show “argumentativeness” and “an unwillingness to listen to/consider views which contradict their own,” signs of impending “radicalization”.
If we look at the “homegrown terrorists” who’ve carried out the al-Qa’eda- and Islamic State-inspired attacks in the European Union since 2005, we see over and over again that they come from non-religious backgrounds, and that there is no simple profile that identifies those who will turn to political violence.
The four British-born men who carried out the 7 July attacks in London in 2005 came from non-fundamentalist backgrounds. The leader of the group, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was once a liberal, and told people that he had turned to religion after being involved in fights, drinking and drug-taking. Germaine Lindsay, who took the name Abdullah Jamal, was born in Jamaica to an evangelical Christian mother, and converted to Islam when he was 15. Shehzad Tanweer was a popular, cricket-mad young man with white non-Muslim friends who was reluctant to learn passages from the Qur’an – until he was 18. Hasib Hussein was raised in a devout Islamic family, but became a tearaway teenager, fighting in pubs and getting arrested for shoplifting. He became a fervent, born-again Muslim at the age of 16, worrying his family.
Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, who carried out a bombing in Stockholm in 2010 (killing only himself), was born in Iraq, raised in Sweden and apparently “radicalized” in Luton, England, after going there for university when he was 19. His childhood best friend Pelle Johansson said: “He had no interest in Islam before he moved there [to Luton].”
Mohammed Merah, who carried out terror attacks in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, was born in France to French parents of Algerian descent, and became a petty criminal in his youth, never going to the mosque. Often arrested, he was twice imprisoned. He continued partying in nightclubs, and drinking alcohol, while preparing the al-Qa’eda-inspired shooting spree which killed seven people.
Mehdi Nemmouche was a French national of Algerian origin who shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, in May 2014 (inspired by the Islamic State group). Nemmouche had a long criminal record, including arrests for armed robbery, vehicle theft, and vandalism. After his arrest for the museum killings, Nemmouche’s aunt expressed surprise: “He never went to the mosque or spoke of religion.”
The men who carried out the attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 have similar backgrounds.
Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were born in Paris to Algerian immigrants. They were not particularly religious growing up, until they became part of a group led by a charismatic French-Algerian militant, Farid Benyettou. In a French court document, Cherif Kouachi said he didn’t consider himself a good enough Muslim, and said he had only been to the mosque two or three times before he met Benyettou, and he had been smoking cannabis.
Ahmedy Coulibaly, who carried out shootings in Paris synchronised with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, had a long history of criminal activity - including drugs offences. A fellow drug dealer told the BBC: “He never went to prayers or talked about Islam.”
Five of the November 2015 attackers were French nationals. Friends of Brahim Abdeslam told the BBC that he owned a bar in which he drank alcohol and smoked drugs, and that he liked football, clubbing, and bringing back women. Omar Ismail Mostefai was arrested eight times for petty crime. He was involved in gang warfare on an estate, and is remembered as not being very “serious” about religion growing up. Samy Amimour’s parents were not regarded by the community as practising Muslims, with Amimour’s feminist mother helping out at a liberal Berber cultural centredescribed by the Financial Times as “the antithesis of jihadism”. Foued Mohamed-Aggad raised hell as a teen, smoking joints and getting drunk, and only becoming “radicalized” in 2012, three years before the attacks. Brigitte Collige, the headteacher of Koninklijk Technisch school in Diest, said of Bilal Hadfi (who went to her school briefly in 2013): “It is a massive surprise for the teachers who knew him. He wasn’t especially religious while he was at school with us.” In 2014, Hadfi’s brother told the authorities at another school that he had started smoking marijuana and skipping classes.
Childhood friends of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian believed to have masterminded the November attacks, say he smoked a lot of cannabis as a teenager and would steal to pay for his addiction, leading to his expulsion from school. It was during a prison stint for armed robbery that Abaaoud is believed to have become “radicalized”. Abaaoud’s older sister, Yasmina, (a professional woman who does not wear the veil) told the New York Times that neither of her brothers showed much interest in religion before they went to fight in Syria: “They did not even go to the mosque”.
There is nothing here to suggest that their mothers’ language skills had anything to do with the path these young men took, or that there is any pattern in terms of their “argumentativeness” growing up.
Information is not available for all of the attackers, but for those whose motivations are known, the touchstone was the West’s involvement in the oppression of Muslims around the world, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Cherif Kouachi told a French court in 2007, eight years before he attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices: “I was ready to go and die in battle”; “I got this idea when I saw the injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqis.” The most “integrated” and “Westernized” of the 7/7 suicide bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, left behind a video in which he said such attacks would continue “until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq”. More recently, Syria has joined this list as holy battlefield.
It should be clear from this brief survey that these young men, almost all born, and all raised in the West, were not drawn to terrorism by their religious devotion. More of them are connected to marijuana than to mosque-going. These men saw violence as a way to deal with the oppression of “their” people, the umma, the global Muslim community. In the modern jihadi worldview, violence against Western citizens (either random or targeted) is a justified and effective response to indiscriminate Western violence against Muslims around the world.
Increasing Western violence against Syria and Iraq, far from “destroying” groups like Islamic State, actually strengthens them, as Western governments well know.