I have recently enjoyed reading Kathleen Belew’s historical study of the white power movement in America. Titled Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary in America, Belew’s work is an admirable attempt to trace the development of what is a complex ideological movement. The central difficulty facing Belew and others delving into the murky underworld of extreme white politics is how to obtain accurate and credible information about its activities and history. Thankfully, Belew displays a thorough knowledge of extant primary source materials (including pamphlets, speeches, essays and other propaganda) and has painstakingly evaluated their content in order to map out a history of extreme right and paramilitary organisations in the post-Vietnam era.
After reviewing key events in its history, Belew concludes her work with an account of domestic terrorist and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh’s activity in the lead-up to his bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As has been noted by Gore Vidal, the media narrative surrounding McVeigh’s attack depicted the former soldier as a mentally unstable aggressor motivated by little more than a false sense that the American government was his personal enemy. (1) The narrative also maintained that McVeigh acted alone in his crimes- a somewhat unbelievable proposition given the sophistication of the attack. Nevertheless, the media offered a sterilised and compartmentalised version of events that understood the tragedy of the Oklahoma Bombing as an outworking of the damaged psyche of McVeigh alone. This conclusion has now been challenged by Belew. In what is the books most insightful and provocative chapter, Belew dispels the myth of McVeigh as having acted alone with a thorough review of his links with various extreme right groups, each of whom offered a range of material and social supports. (2) As I pondered McVeigh’s inter-personal relationships, I was reminded of the essentially relational nature of much terrorist activity and its corresponding religious extremism. This is particularly the case in relation to the forms of terrorism perpetrated by those claiming fidelity to Islamic theologies. No ideology can spread without relationships, propaganda and complex systems of networking. The dark underbelly of religious extremism is of course no different.
I wrote some years ago about the need to take seriously the role of theology in the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. That reflection was written from the perspective of youth radicalisation and some of my experiences working with Muslim youth in Western Sydney. I had grown concerned that the narrative of terrorists as being ‘lone wolves’ actually undermined the depth of the issue and, ultimately, allowed for the misallocation of government resources pledged to deal it. It was common in the not-for-profit sector in which I then worked to treat Islamic radicalisation as a sort of sociological problem that could be fixed with mere policy changes and a greater willingness on behalf of non-Muslims to listen and respond to the grievances of radicalised Islamic youth. To me, this view is not only too simplistic but also faintly patronising and condescending. This notion is, in my mind at least, predicated on the assumption that young people are incapable of forming a coherent political and religious worldview, and that expressions of claimed theological beliefs are by default warped. The rationalisation process by moderate Islamic commentators ignored the underlying issues at play, and remains for me deeply unsatisfying and ignorant of the magnitude of the problem. Rather, there is something more significant going on here than mere sociological inequality and cultural divides. It is a phenomenon that is political and religious in nature, and pertains to fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.
Why, then, has the myth of lone wolf terrorism gained such traction? In the first instance we might say that on a superficial level it certainly appears that many terrorist activities are undertaken individually. At least, this is how the media often depicts the outbreak of any new terrorist-related attack here in Australia. An article in The Age newspaper in November last year discussed the facts surrounding the Bourke Street stabbing attack, in which the authors designated the aggressor to be acting alone. However, Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton betrayed something of the complexity of the case in the same article, in which he states that ‘we are treating it as a terrorism incident. He’s (the perpetrator) got family associations that are well-known to us.’ (3) A lone attacker, therefore, does not operate in a vacuum. There are always networks of support and sympathy, often coming from immediate and extended family. Yet there is also a range of social and ideological affiliations which, in my view, can be considered part-collaborators in terrorist activity, even if these influences lie beyond the scope of prosecution. In McVeigh’s time these networks operated primarily as paramilitary organisations that operated from centralised locations. Many of these locations functioned as military-style boot camps; each featured caches of weapons and tactical training programs delivered by former vets who knew their stuff. Today, the context is vastly different. The advent of the internet has allowed terrorist ideology to disseminate its theology across international borders with ease, and this constant flow of propaganda has served to function as a new breeding ground for future radicalisation. (4) What this means is that even though lone wolf attacks might appear to be carried out by socially isolated individuals, they are in fact the result of social processes of radicalisation that justify extremist theologies. Just because these influences may not be physically present in the individuals life does not lessen their impact in any way.
If the portrait of a lone terrorist is in fact problematic and inaccurate, what function does it then serve? It seems to me that the myth of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ is a form of cognitive avoidance. It is the stance those of us take who have not been direct victims of terrorism. We employ this device in order to make things seem more rational than they are in reality. In isolating terrorism to the warped initiatives of single individuals, we overlook the basic fact that such actions not only have their precedent in Islamic scripture, but that these same individuals have invariably received support and sympathy through their social networks. In indulging in this cognitive loophole we ignore the frightening possibility that there might be irreconcilable worldviews at play in Islams clash with the West. I don’t really have any answers to this complex issue, although perhaps one of the solutions is to dispense with the erroneous narrative that all terrorists are lonely, mentally ill misfits. Rather, we should seek to address the problem at its core, and that means to take radicalisation seriously as a theological and political problem, not as a sociological one.
- Gore Vidal, “The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh,” Vanity Fair, Nov 10th, 2008. Accessed Wed 23rd Jan 2019. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2001/09/mcveigh200109
- Kathleen Belew. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 209-34.
- See: Erin Pearson, John Silvester & Simone Fox Koob, “Lone Terrorist Responsible for Deadly Attack on Bourke Street,” The Age, November 9th, 2018, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/two-people-stabbed-man-shot-after-car-set-alight-on-bourke-street-reports-20181109-p50f55.html
- Readers interested in this topic in its Australian context should consult Anne Aly’s thoughtful conference paper “The Internet as Ideological Battleground,” in Anne Aly (ed), 1st Australian Counter-Terrorism Conference, November 3rd 2010, pp 1-6. Perth, Western Australia: Security Research Centre, Edith Cowan University. A PDF version of the paper is available here.