Terrorism

The Mundane Radicalism of Today's Terror

Islamist and anti-Muslim attackers take similar paths to violence and terror.

What's a radical?

Photographer: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images

The U.K. tabloids hesitated about what to call the white driver of a van who crashed into a crowd of worshippers at the Finsbury Park mosque in London on Monday. But Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted furiously that he was no less a terrorist than the perpetrators of recent Islamic State-inspired attacks.

"Let's talk about how the Finsbury Park terrorist was radicalized," she wrote, and posted a picture of nationalist politician Nigel Farage standing in front of an anti-refugee billboard. How Darren Osborne, the van driver, was radicalized is a fair question, if indeed he can be called a radical.

Osborne's profile is similar to that of Khalid Masood, the convert to Islam who perpetrated the March 22 attack that started on Westminster Bridge in London. Osborne, a father of four, is 48. Masood, 52, had three kids. Masood had a long history of violence and went to jail for one of the brawls in which he used a knife. Osborne is described as "shouty" and volatile, though seems to have kept his outbursts to the level of pub confrontations. Neither could hold down a job for long. Neither had any links with radical organizations. They appear to have led miserable, angry lives.

Osborne wasn't provoked to violence by anyone nearly as mainstream as Farage: His isn't among the 32 accounts Osborne followed on Twitter. Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding, leaders of the far right Britain First party are. After the Finsbury Park attack, Fransen posted a video claiming it was "intellectually dishonest" to compare "sporadic" right-wing terrorism with the "industrialized" mayhem perpetrated by Islamist terrorists.

In fact, however, a lot of terrorism these days is sporadic. From time to time, there are major plots, like the Islamist one that resulted in the 2015 Paris attacks or, on the right-wing side, the foiled 2016 Kansas conspiracy to blow up a mosque, or this year's failed plan by some Germany Army servicemen to assassinate politicians and blame it on Muslim refugees. But attacks such as the Westminster one, the more recent one on London Bridge and the Finsbury Park one don't require much planning. They can be spur-of-the moment angry outbursts, requiring no more than a few hours of seething and frantic action.

In a lengthy 2016 report to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, described the common radicalization paths for U.S. far-right terrorists. They closely match those of Islamist extremists: A troubled personal history, a desire to belong and be accepted, the thrill of the forbidden, the search for a cause to which one could serve with violence.

Some take this path deliberately and take months, even years, to get to a violent terror attack. Others go through a kind of fast-food version of radicalization that can be limited to the spur-of-the-moment adoption of a cause to justify a strong violent impulse. Simi wrote:

Whether real or perceived, a quest for personal significance is based on the view that an individuals’ personal significance is being threatened. Threats to personal significance include: social rejection, exclusion, personal loss and humiliation. In an attempt to protect oneself from the threat of personal insignificance, individuals will often align with groups experiencing similar perceived injustices. These experiences motivate a person to accept extremist ideologies, which often encourages the conception of violence as a form of retaliation or “self-defense.”

For a Muslim afflicted by a deep sense of personal insignificance in the face of an unfair world, the Islamic State cause with its calls for DIY terror is perhaps the easiest to adopt. For a white man with the same psychological profile, the anti-Muslim cause holds similar attraction. And though fewer far-right attacks than Islamist attacks reach the front pages -- primarily because not many are deadly enough -- Muslims have to be on a constant lookout for haters. 

Hate crime statistics are woefully incomplete and hard to analyze. But the numbers are a constant white noise in Western societies. The London Metropolitan Police reported 1,264 Islamophobic hate crimes in the financial year that ran through March 2017 -- a 13 percent increase compared with the previous fiscal year. Only a minority of these crimes were violent, but they included assaults and property damage.

In Germany, 208 anti-Muslim crimes were registered in the first three months of 2017, including 15 attacks on mosques. In the U.S., CAIR, the Muslim civil rights organization, reported 260 verified anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016, up from 180 in 2015.

These relatively minor attacks only make the news when police report sharp increases in hate crime after major Islamist acts of terror. There has been such an increase in London after the London Bridge incident. Osborne's attack is part of that statistical bump, another case of instant radicalization, an angry outburst that left a trail of blood and suffering.

"He looked normal when I saw him at the pub," one mate commented of Osborne. "He had a nice family," said another acquaintance. That's what casual acquaintances usually say about a terrorist; they don't recognize the radical within. They look shocked. There seems little society can do if friends, neighbors and family fail to detect violent impulses in a person or protect him (rarely her), and others.

"How was he radicalized?" is a question largely for those whose lives intersected with that of the attacker.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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