"We Love Death as You Love Life": Britain's Suburban Terrorists

June 9, 2016

Detail from book cover

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Raffaello Pantucci. He is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London and author of the book "We Love Death as You Love Life": Britain's Suburban Terrorists.

Raff, great to speak to you again. It has been a few years. We used to be colleagues [at the Center for Strategic and International Studies]. Thanks so much for chatting with us today.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: Of course. Thank you for the invitation.

DEVIN STEWART: Raff, tell us about this book. It has quite a dramatic title. What were some of your research methods and what did you learn from writing that book?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: The book is one that essentially tries to track or offer a history of Britain's jihad, which is to try to explain and understand the huge cast of characters that make up the community of people who ultimately produced the terrorist attack that we saw here in London in July 2005 and the subsequent community of people that we see now who are being radicalized to the point of going over to fight in Syria and Iraq and some of whom are coming back with a deadly intent to launch attacks in the United Kingdom. The book was one that came about after many years of research. It's a subject, broadly looking at jihadism and terrorism in the United Kingdom, that I've been looking at.

As I was doing my research around it, I discovered often that what tended to happen was individual cases tended to get a lot of attention in the media when they came to court or when the people were arrested. But what I couldn't find was something that tried to piece it all together and say, "Well, hang on. Where does this community of people come from, these people who have been radicalized within the United Kingdom, to the point that they reject the society so violently that they want to launch attacks against it?" So the book was an attempt to try to create, or try to stich that narrative together, drawing all these different stories of these individual cases into one larger piece.

The research itself was a combination of me putting together pieces that I had been picking up over the years of doing work here in London and elsewhere. It was going through court records and trolling through media reporting to try to find out as much as I could about the individuals.

But then also, reaching out and talking to people. I was very fortunate in getting to talk to a number of people who had been involved in some of this activity, either in the communities at the time, or involved in various security forces, or people who were participants in some of these activities.

So it was really a combination of all of these that then gave me the bigger narrative, which is an attempt to offer a contemporary history of Britain's jihad.

DEVIN STEWART: What were some of the biggest themes you learned, and maybe some of the patterns that you detected?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: The first, most obvious thing was that I think there are different stages to Britain's jihad. It is something that has been fairly consistent in many ways in the background of Britain's life since the 1970s. It has consistently been there, and we have seen this phenomenon of people being radicalized to the point of going to participate in foreign conflicts. It's something that has been happening really since the early days of the Mazcan [phonetic] jihad, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. And we see it consistently show up in pretty much every battlefield that there are British individuals who want to go and participate in it.

The broader point about radicalization and who joins these groups and who gets involved in this—the biggest take-away from that was the fact that there really is no single profile. If you look across this community of people, you will find people from all walks of life; people who are actually fairly well integrated, people who are clearly at the margins of society; you find people who are very young and people who are a bit older; and you find men and women. It's very difficult to point to any specific sort of profile or trait that really you could identify as a distinct British jihadist.

There tend to be more people of South Asian origin, but that is because the biggest part of Britain's Muslim communities is people of South Asian origin. But we find there are other converts in there as well. So one of the biggest take-aways was in many ways the fact that there is no individual profile of people who are radicalized.

And more on the other side of the equation, is there a single pathway that you can track and say, "This is how people go along this path"? It's something that happens in a number of different ways.

The most distinct feature you can draw out is that usually there does tend to have to be some contact with other extremists for people to start down this path. The idea of people sitting at their desks at computers and just sort of radicalizing is something that you certainly didn't see much of in the period that I was looking at.

DEVIN STEWART: So you're talking about contact as being one of the biggest drivers. What about background environment, other contextual factors that lead to radicalization?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: Well, no. The problem is that there really aren't. The way I approached it in the book was I focused on basically three kinds of pillars that you had to look for in every case.

One was the concept of grievance; so the individual had to have a sense of grievance against the world. It's always present. In some cases, it's quite narrow grievances that are based around the individual circumstances, but in other cases it's a sense of association with a bigger grievance that's happening in the world. But there is always that need and that urge for some sort of a grievance to be present for the individual to start down this path.

The other aspect that's essential is mobilization, which, as I say, is very much this one of contact with others. It implies it's a very social activity.

The other one is the ideology. People have to have this kind of ideology there to offer them an explanation for the world that they understand and want to participate in.

When you have all these three sorts of factors, you can see individuals who will go down this path.

The problem is there are people you can find who have this sense of grievance, who had contact with others who are already involved and mobilized, and you can see that they have had some access to and contact with the ideology, and yet they don't go down this path. It's very difficult sometimes to understand exactly why that is.

DEVIN STEWART: You've written about the motivations as well. Are there any personal motivations beyond the three pillars that you talked about?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: The personal motivation goes back to a wide range of issues. I would point, instead, to look, maybe more recently, at the community of people we see going off to fight in Syria and Iraq now. If you look at the individual cases, you will find a wide range of different reasons for why people go.

In some cases, you'll find that there are some people who are seeking some sort of redemption for past ills. You will find that there are people who have been involved in criminal activity, petty criminal activity or gang activity, for some time beforehand, and then they get out of prison. While they're in prison, maybe they discover religion, and they find this is a way to atone for their ill-wasted past, and they decide to go and join a group as a sort of redemptive factor.

In other cases, we see it's that they have a close friend, a cousin, a relation, who's already involved in the group and they drag them in.

In other cases, we see people really do buy into some of these religious ideologies and they really do believe in the eschatological narrative that we see being espoused by these groups and they're curious to go and participate in it themselves.

In other cases, they are drawn because of youthful excitement. The idea of going off to a training camp and running around with a gun and camping—it's quite exciting for young people. So for some people there's a draw.

For some it's a compilation of all of these things and more. So it's very difficult to point to any single motivation. There tends to be a range of motivations within which you find one or two that will draw an individual in.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting, Raff.

Now, the title of your book is "We Love Death as You Love Life." I'm sure there's probably a story behind that. Do you want to talk about that?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: The headline comes from a quote from the suicide video, the "martyrdom video," that was released by al-Qaeda of Mohammed Siddique Khan, who was the lead figure of the July 7, 2005 bombers here in London, when he led a team of three people who blew themselves up on London's public transport system killing 52 people. This was a message that he included in his suicide video.

But it's a message that you see jihadists repeating continually. It's something that Osama bin Laden said. It's something that you see that all of these leaders will say. In some ways, it's their way of highlighting the strength of their faith. It's their way of saying, "We are looking into the hereafter because we are continually seeking God's greater glory"—they are seeking his world, not our world that we inhabit. And so it's their way of separating themselves from us and highlighting the vigor of their faith.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you get the sense that that's a sincere belief?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: I think that it's really difficult when you're looking at religion, in particular, as a motivator for people and as something that they genuinely hold. The reality is that really most of these people have a very thin understanding of the religion they purport to be willing to die for.

There was an interesting case here in the United Kingdom, a couple of years back now, of individuals who were going off to fight in Syria and Iraq, to supposedly go and flight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's organization on the ground there. They had actually brought with them a copy of the book Islam for Dummies, which to me doesn't speak to someone who's got a hugely in-depth understanding of the religion that they are going to purportedly go fight and maybe die for.

That is a feature you find repeatedly. You'll find that people just don't know the religion that they're going to join, and there seem to be other motivations.

It's worth pointing out that there are some individuals who do seem to have a greater understanding of the religion. Within every kind of cell, one of the interesting phenomena I noticed was that you would always find that there were clusters of three people. There's always three figures you could find in every cell.

There was always one who was kind of a charismatic leader, and this guy was the guy who everyone else was drawn to, he's kind of the magnetic heart of the group and helps pull everyone together.

You always have someone who is seen as the religious one, the one who's read the Quran, the one who knew what hadith was, and all the others would look up to him to get their explanation of the kind of religious side of this ideology they're being drawn towards. Often, those individuals had a very incorrect interpretation of the religion that they were supposedly the experts on. But there was always someone within the group. I think that highlights the fact that religion and an understanding of the ideology are important in some way to these people.

And then the third figure who is always very important was a convert. You always would find a convert in the group as well. The convert in some ways was quite an important figure because, with the convert's zeal of being new to the religion and feeling he has to prove himself, or she has to prove herself, more than the others, makes them a very passionate figure. That zeal can help spur some of the others along.

You always found these figures in every sort of cell. That was quite interesting in terms of highlighting that while maybe the religious kind of understanding might be fairly thin, the religious figure actually was a quite important kind of role within the cell.

DEVIN STEWART: You know, you're talking about belief systems as a very important and central factor here. In a sense, the title of your book sets up a dichotomy of life and death. Do you feel that that conflict is inevitable between belief systems?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: No, I personally do not. But then, I am not necessarily the most religious person in the world. I know people who have deeper views about religion do feel that there is a sort of inevitability to some of these clashes because of there being fundamental differences. For me, I have a very different sense of religion, as just being a moral structure in some ways that helps determine the way we should lead lives. But, you know, for people who have a deep sense of belief about the way the religion is structured and some of the key deities and where they fit and how they fit in comparison to others, that makes them feel like these religions have to come into direct clash.

If you look, for example, in the Muslim world at the moment, the sort of clash we see between Sunni and Shia is something that in some ways is actually quite new. You didn't used to see such a violent disagreement between the two. But at the root, the division between those two is about interpretation of who is the correct follower of the Prophet. The Sunni and the Shia have a different interpretation of that, or a different understanding of that, and that leads to this sense of the other side worshipping false idols and therefore being apostates, and then people's view of how apostates should be treated is of course usually fairly harsh.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think those conflicts are more about power or belief systems?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: I think that it probably varies from context to context. I think that often it feels to me like it's more about power. But I think in some cases there is a genuine sense of the two belief systems themselves clashing because of some sort of more fundamental reality.

DEVIN STEWART: Well, if conflict is not totally inevitable, then how would you recommend that societies avoid radicalization? How can rival religions live side by side?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: I think that rival religions do live side by side, and have lived side by side for centuries. So I don't think it's something that is particularly hard to actually concoct.

I think the trick is to make sure that you don't have polarizing elements in your society and the sort of anger within the society that people can explain away through these sorts of divisions. That's very difficult, but that's where the fissures lie that these sorts of groups will insert themselves into to try to exacerbate, to try to make worse, because by making them worse they are creating the reality which gives them greater validity.

If we think about al-Qaeda in Iraq, this is an organization that in 2003–2004 made a very concerted campaign. It was a Sunni organization in Iraq and it made a very concerted campaign of murdering as many Shias as it could, in very bloody and public ways, quite specifically to radicalize not only the Shia, to overreact against that and ultimately create tensions between the Sunni and the Shia, but also to create tensions amongst the Sunnis who would themselves feel that they were now getting attacked by the Shia and, therefore, needed a sort of protector organization. Al-Qaeda in Iraq offered itself as that.

In many ways, this is why I think the group that we now look at, which is in many ways an inheritor of al-Qaeda in Iraq—ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or Daesh or whatever you want to call them—this is an organization that, in part, has been able to thrive and succeed in Iraq because the Sunni-Shia tensions were quite strong within that country. The Shia-led government was not able to make the Sunnis in the country feel like it was ruling on their behalf. It felt like it was a predatory government to them that was ruling on behalf of the Shia to their detriment. This meant that they were more welcoming of an organization that offered itself as a Sunni organization and, therefore, their protector.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there other factors in society that might help avoid these conflicts?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: I think the key thing about this is actually to look at the root causes. That's a really cliché thing to say. But the reality is that you should look at individual cases, individual context, to understand better what it is that is driving people in that specific place. If I look at the United Kingdom and I look at this community of people I'm talking about, it's a very broad and diverse community, and it's very difficult to pin down one national strategy that would deal with this problem.

There are often individual things that you can do in a specific area. If you think of people who are going through the prison system and being radicalized, focusing your attention on making sure people who are leaving prison when they have maybe discovered religion in prison have proper pastoral care subsequently so they don't veer off towards radical groups is one approach.

If we look at some areas where we can see that there are very distinct tensions between different communities, those sorts of radical groups, be them Islamist, be they on the far right, are pushing and inserting themselves into it to try to exacerbate it more. Engaging in these areas to make sure that these sorts of tensions don't get out of hand is crucial. Making sure that you target individual radicalizers, people who are actually specifically pushing an agenda in a specific area and recruiting people to join these groups, is key.

I think the trick is that you have to identify what it is in a specific area that really is the kind of problem that you can maybe work at from a governmental perspective, to try to maybe mitigate that one particular issue. If you're able to do that, you may be able to deal with the problem of radicalization there. You may not be able to completely deal with it, because that's probably going to be almost impossible to do, but you will be able to at least shrink it down to a much more manageable size.

DEVIN STEWART: This has been very sensible advice, Raff. Thank you very much.

A final question: Is there any end to this? What do you see for the future?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: It's difficult. It's very dangerous to make any sort of crystal ball projections.

But what I would instead point to is I would suggest that, if you think about organized human society and you think about organized human society for the past century, at some point within those organized human societies you will always find a group of discontents who will have a political expression and feel that they are not getting their voice heard and will want to use violence to express that.

You can go back and look at the early 1900s and you'll see anarchists. You can look at the 1970s or the earlier period, where you will find the struggle between the left and the right as the major defining political struggle of the time that had a sort of radical militant fringe to it as well.

In some ways, one could suggest that this violent Islamism we see is maybe the kind of latest expression of that, the most dominant expression of that. We do still have some of these other ideologies out there, in particular in Europe from the far right, that are consistent.

What that says to me is that maybe political violence, which is terrorism, is something that always seems to exist within any sort of organized society. There will always be a group of people who feel that they aren't represented and feel that they have an important message that people aren't listening to and need to get woken up to, and violence is the way to do that, which may be a slightly depressing statement, in that it suggests that this is a constant problem we will face.

But I would suggest to look at it in a broader lens and say, actually, if you are thinking about terrorist violence, it is a problem, it has been a problem for a long period of time, and it is one that we can manage down. And actually, if we're thinking in a Western context, we have managed to manage it down to a much smaller size. If you look at the pure numbers of people who died in the 1970s and the 1980s in Europe through terrorist violence, it's far more substantial than what we see happening today.

Admittedly, in parts of the Middle East, in particular, the level of violence is very high, but the causes of that are in some ways partially this sort of radicalization, but also partially other issues of governance at home, that maybe if they were addressed, some of these problems would shrink back.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like societies are a constant work in progress, Raff.


DEVIN STEWART: I really appreciate your time today. Thank you for sharing your insights.


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