The Lone Wolf—and Other Myths about Terrorism That Won’t Go Away

October 22, 2021 | Ayaan Hirsi Ali
About the author:

Yesterday, Ali Harbi Ali—a British subject of Somali background—was formally charged with the murder of David Amess, a veteran member of the British parliament who was stabbed to death last week while meeting with constituents. Ali had previously been called to the attention of Prevent, a UK program for identifying and “deradicalizing” individuals likely to become terrorists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali comments on the misleading and unhelpful ways the case has been discussed by the British public:

For many, the ethnicity and heritage of Ali Harbi Ali were wholly irrelevant to his alleged behavior. Acknowledging that Ali is of Somali background, we were told, is racist and xenophobic. He must only be identified as British. As someone who was born in Somalia, I find this absurd. Of course a suspect is not a murderer because he has a Somali background. But denouncing facts as racist—especially when . . . police and security services believe he may have been inspired by al-Shabaab, [the al-Qaeda offshoot] in Somalia—forces a dangerous ignorance on the public.

In a liberal society, it is appealing to think of suspects of Islamist terror as solitary actors. . . . But while individuals such as Amess’s murderer may conduct their attacks alone, they still emerge out of communities or networks of like-minded individuals, whether in-person or online. They learn from teachers, imams, or instructors the radical ideas that inspire their violence. This is not to say that their entire family or community is extremist—only that these individuals find and are exposed to people who are. Little is known about Ali’s background, but we can be certain that he did not plunge a knife into a total stranger, possibly picked at random, wholly of his own accord. Someone or some group inspired these actions.

[Another] fallacy that must be confronted is the belief that all forms of extremism are created equal and should be treated as such. Under the British counterterrorism Prevent program, Islamism is lumped together with other forms of extremism, such as far-right extremism, and handled with a similar approach. But while right-wing extremism is a threat that should not be downplayed, its causes and motivations are totally unrelated to radical Islamists. They should be considered distinct and handled separately.

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