It seems to be a ritual we go through, every few months, when a lone gunman commits an act of terror: talking heads ask why he did it and then immediately provide a simple answer. The shooting of two American servicemen in Frankfurt yesterday by Arif Uka, a 21-year-old Kosovar, is already being called an act of terrorism, with various pundits stressing that the suspect is Muslim.
Robert Spencer, for instance, called the shooting a “jihad attack” and said that Al Qaeda has been active in Kosovo “for over a decade.” The Washington Post helpfully identified him as “devout Muslim” who had shouted “Allahu Akbar” before firing at a bus full of American soldiers.
If these details feel familiar, it’s because they form part of a story we’ve been given frequently over the last few years. Neo-conservative thinkers have consistently argued that it is an inherent hatred of “our freedoms” that causes young men to kill people who have done them no harm. This hatred stems solely and directly from the Islamic faith, a faith, the public is reminded at every opportunity, whose holy book promotes violence against non-believers. These men, the argument goes, are merely taking what Richard Dawkins once called the “logical path” between religion and violence.
This theory was used to explain why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who came from a wealthy Nigerian family, went to a private school in Togo, and received a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London, disguised a syringe and explosive powder in his underwear and then attempted to detonate them as his airplane approached Detroit Airport on Christmas Day in 2009. But the trail of posts to social networking sites he left behind did not suggest he was angry with “our freedoms,” and still less with modern technology. His grievances appeared to be nebulously political, though powerful enough to get him to seek out terrorist training.
Meanwhile, some on the left have argued that it is Western involvement in Muslim countries—including, but not limited to, the propping up of dictators and monarchs throughout the Middle East; the unconditional support for Israel; the military bases; the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and now Yemen; the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay—that motivates young men to become suicide bombers. In this view, the bombers are soldiers in a war not just against Western governments but also against the leadership of many Muslim countries.
Such an explanation was put forth when Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay and Mohammad Sidique Khan blew up a double-decker bus and three underground trains in London on July 7, 2005. In a video he left behind, Tanweer stated that he wanted British troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and that attacking fellow Britons was justified so long as the government “continues to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.”
An even smaller contingent ties this type of terrorism to a range of social issues. The terrorists tend to be from poor, disenfranchised segments of Muslim societies. They may or may not be educated, but the plutocracies that rule their countries offer them no prospects of jobs and no possibility of living a life of dignity and self-respect. This despair leads them straight into the hands of radical groups, which convince them to take action against a mythical victimizer.
This, at least, was how some Moroccan commentators accounted for the dozen bombers who, in May 2003, staged coordinated attacks against hotels and nightclubs in the city of Casablanca. The bombers were extremely poor. They all lived in the sprawling slum of Sidi Moumen. Of the three bombers who survived the attacks, one, Rachid Jalil, was a welder, and another, Yassine Lahnech, was a street peddler. In these conditions, several Moroccan columnists wrote, young disenfranchised men turn to violence.
The debate over what makes a suicide bomber is likely to continue for quite sometime, because none of these explanations feels entirely satisfactory. We should not merely ask what makes a terrorist but what makes a specific terrorist act, against a specific target, at a specific time. A bomber may believe he is fighting foreign occupation of his homeland, or retaliating against occupation of another country, or exacting revenge for the loss of a loved one, or participating in what he sees as a religious war between Muslims and non-Muslims, or fighting back against the ruling class, or trying to regain a lost honor, or any number of other things.
There are plenty of Kosovar Albanians who live in Germany, but they don’t shoot at buses full of American soldiers. There are plenty of Nigerian men who study abroad, but they don’t join terrorist networks and attempt to blow up an airplane. There are plenty of British Muslims who disagree with their government, but they don’t carry bombs into trains. There are plenty of Moroccan men who have small jobs or no jobs at all, but they don’t blow themselves up at nightclubs and hotels.
What the debate over terrorists seems to miss is the personal dimension, personal failures, personal grievances, personal desires to lash out violently at others. As Joseph Conrad put it in The Secret Agent, “The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared for by personal impulses disguised into creeds.” Discussing all the bombers as if they all fit a simple profile—that of the Islamic terrorist—is a conveniently simplistic way of looking at a complex problem; it fits into the “Islam versus the West” narrative that has already led the United States into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
And, most tellingly, when the terrorist is not Muslim—when his name is Jared Lee Loughner or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold—the personal dimension of his crime, his mental health, say, is finally a matter of interest.