It’s complex: why the us-and-them approach to extremism won’t work

Instead of playing on people’s fears and trotting out soundbites, politicians must refine their response to terror attacks and hate crimes.

With our attention focused on the election and its aftermath, the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London will inevitably be seen through the lens of electoral politics. Both the main parties responded to the attacks by reiterating how they would “keep us safe”. The divide was broadly “resources v powers”, with the Tories emphasising how they would pass more laws and regulate the internet, and Labour saying there were already plenty of laws on the books but that Tory cuts had left the police and security services lacking manpower.

But Europe’s issues with extremism are complex, terror arrests are at a record high in the UK and the tendency towards simple answers and easy solutions – especially during elections – is not without risk. European policing agency Europol has reported that there were 142 failed, foiled or completed terrorists attacks in eight European states in 2016, more than half of them in the UK – although the UK’s figures differ.

So it’s no surprise that both parties talk about security. However, the term itself is open to debate. People will point out that cows, clothes and cars kill more people every year than terrorism. Some say the threat we face from jihadi terrorism is “unprecedented”, while others say that, in historical terms, Europe is in a period of relative peace and that the larger dangers are from our own governments grabbing power in the wake of tragedy. Who’s right? Well … it’s complicated.

Security expert Bruce Schneier describes security as both a reality and a feeling. The real risks of your children being the victims of a terror attack are low, but the odds don’t matter when it’s happening live on the news. Certainly, the raw number of attacks were higher in the 70s and 80s. That may be contributing to a greater sense of threat: if our baseline expectation of violence is minimal, attacks have more impact than if they are more regular.

However, Islamic State is actively recruiting, and we’re seeing what Searchlight has called a “growing Nazi axis” in Europe. It would be unreasonable to suggest that the Manchester and London attacks definitely foreshadow a new wave of extremist activity. It would also be unreasonable to say that they definitely don’t. We’re neither “safer than we’ve ever been” nor in the midst of an unprecedented terror wave.

To point to the rise of far-right extremism in parallel with increased Isis activity is not to make a cheap “both sides do it” point. There were 304 terrorism arrests in the UK in the 12 months to March, of which 113 were of white people, a 66% increase on the previous year. Any conclusions must be extremely cautiously caveated.

Academics have identified a process called “cumulative extremism”, in which extremist groups rely on the narratives of those they nominally oppose. Those familiar with Northern Ireland called this tit-for-tat violence. Extremists constantly seek validating actions by their counterparts on the other side to say, “See! We told you so! Westerners/Muslims are all like that.”

“Westerners” and “Muslims”, of course, are groups of significant overlap. They are not in opposition, but extremists on both sides want them to be. Professor Matthew Feldman, an expert in extremism at Teesside University, explains that an often overlooked impact of extremist activities is that they make the broader community feel “forced to pick a side”. Seen through this lens, the rush to demand that Muslims “condemn” the violence, setting up new loyalty tests for ordinary Muslim citizens, reinforces the Isis/English Defence League narrative that Islam cannot be accommodated within European culture. The attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque last night has already been labelled a “revenge attack” by some, as if the broader Muslim community should be expected to bear responsibility for extremists. This is deeply toxic and counterproductive. Seeking to shore up bridges in the aftermath of an attack is not liberal appeasement but a vitally important part of any anti-extremism strategy.

The Manchester bomber and the London Bridge attackers were atypical in historical terms but match a recent pattern of Isis terrorists. They weren’t religious extremists who became radicals, but radicals who became religious extremists. Isis is targeting young men who are already angry, disillusioned and rootless, and giving them a focus for that anger.

The Egmont Institute published a report last year looking at this new wave of fighters. It identified a number of “push” and “pull” factors that would draw people to Isis. Economic marginalisation, feelings of powerlessness, and a sense of alienation and racialised unfairness were among the push factors. Youssef Zaghba, one of the London Bridge attackers, reportedly became drawn to radical Islam following his parents’ divorce, which is in many ways a terribly mundane trigger for young men going off the rails.

Isis offers pulls that directly complement those pushes – money, power and a sense of control, meaning and purpose. Islam is used as a carrier for those more visceral attractions rather than being the main draw.

White nationalist extremism tends to be more opportunistic and decentralised than Islamist violence. While hate crimes are known to spike after trigger events, this is often due to a mix of local and environmental factors that nationalist groups exploit and amplify, rather than seeking to organise in a top-down manner. Among other things, this means that such violence tends to fly under the radar of people who aren’t targeted by it, while dramatically affecting minority communities’ collective sense of insecurity and alienation. Religious extremism isn’t caused by bigotry, and bigotry isn’t caused by extremism, but when both factors co-exist they feed off each other.

Isis also sets up Europe as another front in the ongoing war in the Middle East. Again, this is not to say western involvement in the many overlapping sectarian conflicts in the Middle East has caused extremism, but to point to how all the factors in complex situations have to be considered.

Libyan rebel fighters told Middle East Eye that many of them had their control orders lifted because the UK government had “no problem with people fighting against Gaddafi”, in a move that seems reminiscent of the foolish US strategy of arming Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The west’s vocal commitment to its supposedly foundational virtues of liberalism and freedom stand in direct contrast to its determination to sell weapons to repressive theocratic monarchies if it serves its material interests.

What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, in part because we’ve positioned analysis as inherently suspect, and shied away from answers that might upset voters – or donors in the arms industry – in favour of soundbites that appeal to our existing biases rather than challenging them. In the aftermath of tragedy, when people are looking for answers, “it’s complex” can be seen as an attempt to obscure or minimise people’s fears. But there isn’t a nice neat Hollywood narrative where the bad guys are out there and we just need to shoot them.

If we can’t understand how our actions will resonate throughout politically complex systems, we become passive participants in a cycle that increases the risks of the things we want to avoid. Actively working to reduce the risk of violence requires us to first understand and then to act carefully.