Nihilist youths turn into Islamic State terrorists

by Safya Khan-Ruf (2017)

Image Copyright: Oliver Roy

The attacks in the UK and the rest of Europe have placed questions about Islam, Muslim integration and radicalism to the forefront of politics. Olivier Roy, a French political scientist, terrorism expert and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, has researched the profiles of these radicalised youth for years. 

Safya Khan-Ruf interviewed him about his new book, Jihad and Death, and his argument that young extremists are not inspired by Islam, but rather are radical nihilists who adopt the Islamic State narrative.

How long have you been researching this topic?

It’s a long story! I was in Afghanistan in the 1980s and I wrote my first academic book on Islamism in Afghanistan. There, I met the first foreign jihadists and I saw the birth of Al-Qaida. From then on, I followed the global trajectories of radical Islamists.

I also live in Dreux, a French city where nearly 30% of the population is of immigrant origin. So I’ve always worked on the integration of second generation immigrants.

The two subjects collided with the phenomenon of radicalised second generation youth.

What sort of profile [his list] did you create for these radicalised youths that perpetrate attacks?

I took all the names known to have participated in a French terrorist network between 1995 and 2017. To that list I added around 20 known jihadis, those known to have given orders but who didn’t participate directly in terrorist action. There are actually more than 100 names on the list now – every three months, there are new names. Now I have around 150 people.

What did you find…?

Roughly 65% of these are second-generation immigrants and 25% are converts. Then there are a few atypical cases. Surprisingly, the percentage of second-generation immigrants remained stable over the 20 years. Even though you might expect an increase in third generation immigrants on the list – it doesn’t happen.

Then there are other elements – 50% of the people on the list were delinquents in the past and nearly none of them had been religious, or had been a member of a mosque, or an Islamic organisation, or had even done any proselytism. There was also a surprising number of brothers on the list.

Your book, Jihad and Death mentions a self-destructive dimension to these youth?

Yes, this is a very important element – nearly all of them blew themselves up except for those arrested before they could commit the attack.

Since 1995, terrorists have been either blowing themselves up like in the 2015 Bataclan attack in France or committed suicide by police. So there was no plan B, none of them prepared an exit plan and that is completely new.

If you take the attacks linked to the Middle East between 1970 and 1980, the attackers placed bombs and then they left. Or they assassinated someone but arranged for an escape.

To blow yourself up is not indispensable to the success of the attack. In Manchester last month for example, the attacker Salam Abedi had the explosive in his bag. He could have left the bag under a seat and left. Same with the London attacks in 2005, they could have left their bags in the bus and left.

All or nearly all, had death at the centre of their plan.

Does Salman Abedi, the Manchester attacker, fit your profile?

The only missing element is the generational connection – what his relation with his father was and whether the latter knew about his plans. I think not, but it is not clear yet.

But all the rest fits the profile. He wasn’t very pious at 15, he was radicalised but wasn’t part of a Salafi mosque – the imam even considered him radical. He hadn’t studied the religion much and may have been a delinquent in the past. Also, his brother may have been aware of the attack so the fraternal element is there. Then there is the suicide dimension and his target wasn’t strategic. He didn’t target the military or bankers – he targeted the youth. So all these fit with my profile.

How do you think we can prevent youth from becoming radicalised?

Despite what many people say, these youth are not the products of unemployment, of racism, or a lack of integration. It’s just not true. For Abedi for example, Libyans are pretty well integrated and while he had a chaotic past, it wasn’t because of his family life.

And then people are ‘stuck’.

My thesis is that these are youth in revolt: nihilists that are suicidal and will ascribe their revolt into the narrative provided by IS. For those that have a Muslim background, it’s easy to adopt the narrative because the keys are already there.

But we also see hundreds of converts that adopt this. IS placed a very sophisticated narrative in play that combines references from Islam at the time of the Prophet with a modern type of extreme individualism – the image of the solitary hero – and a modern aesthetic of violence and death. That is what is working.

So we first need to attack the narrative of IS and the fascination it causes.

In these youths there is a demand for spirituality and mysticism. We’ve known since the anarchists and Dostoyevsky that there is a spiritual dimension to terrorists. The problem is, we fight this demand of spirituality by secularising and using our rational thought. I think our society has a problem with the religious – it doesn’t understand the religious anymore.

So in France, we fight religion in the public space. The more there is terrorism, the more we remove all religious signs. Or in the UK, we look for ‘good’ theologians or ‘liberal’ and ‘enlightened’ imams that we will talk reason with and who will put the Qu’ran in context. But that’s not what these youth want. We respond to hard religion by soft religion. But these youth want hard, they don’t want soft. There is a demand for irrationality. Christianity had answered this demand with monasteries. Those are not moderately religious.

To combat IS, we need to allow religion to express itself instead of demanding it to self-secularise.

But you are allowed to express your religion in the UK.                          

But we demand it expresses itself in a way that is rational. In all our Western countries we push religions to, for example, accept gay marriage. I say this is stupid. Gay marriage should be recognised as a civil marriage, of course, but we don’t have to demand of religions to accept homosexuality. Why is the secular society asking the religious to change their parameters?

Yes we must live together, but we do this by asking the religious to secularise themselves. We don’t accept religious radicalism, but that exists whether we like it or not. We can demand that religious radicalism respect the laws of the country. That is evident. But we shouldn’t demand of the religious to reform their beliefs to be compatible with secularism.

This would destroy the religious legitimacy of IS.

And prevent other attacks?

We will never be able to stop a youth from blowing themselves up. There are attacks like the Columbine high school massacre in the US that we will never be able to stop. But we can reduce the number and the social and political impact.

An attack done when shouting Allah Akbar has a lot more impact than an attack without the words, even if there is the same number of deaths. Every time we hear there is an explosion, we ask immediately if it is Islamism and if it’s not, we forget about it three days later.

Every week you have a mass shooting in the US – every week you have a person who kills at least four people. But this doesn’t reach front page news unless it was an Islamist or a white supremacist attacking. If it doesn’t fall in these two categories, it doesn’t exist.

I’m being a bit cynical, but if a bus filled with children is driven off a cliff, it’s a tragedy of course. But if the driver had shouted Allah Akbar, it has a greater impact and becomes a danger to all of western society.

Take the German wings pilot who crashed his plane four years ago in France. There were 130 deaths, and the first question was whether he was Muslim. When we realised he was not Muslim but suffering depression and paranoia, it was an accident.

It’s important not only to reduce the number of deaths, but also the impact of the attacks. So we need to delegitimise the religious dimension of these attacks.

IS is in the business of making theatre. It knows very well what to do so that we talk about it – like killing children. So the impact of IS is linked to how we feel and react to attacks. It lives off our fears.

Olivier Roy’s book Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of the Islamic State can be bought here.

You can read an excerpt from Jihad and Death at The Guardian Long Read.