How does one respond to an act of terror?
Rhetoric in the political world and the media varied following Monday’s attack on a concert at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. The bombing, which left 23 dead and 120 injured, was condemned by most public figures. Many thoughts and prayers were publicly directed towards the victims, their families, and the people of England who are now under maximum terror alert.
Though investigations of the bombing are still underway, details have emerged concerning the attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi. A first generation Briton from a family of Libyan refugees, Abedi had previously been known to authorities as a potential terror suspect. A radicalized Muslim, Abedi likely received guidance and encouragement from the Islamic State — ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on Tuesday.
Revelations on Abedi’s religious and ideological background strike a chord in the contemporary discourse over Islam’s relationship to terror, as well as the tensions between Xenophobia and extremism in the West. The polarizing nature of the tragedy and its contentious sociopolitical context surfaced in the narrative differences between public commentators. In the political world of the United Kingdom, subtle wording signalled partisan interpretations of the bombing. Conservative, anti-immigration prime minister Theresa May referred to an “appalling terrorist attack” — left-wing Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn went with the gentler, “terrible incident.”
In an official statement posted to Facebook, London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke of a “barbaric and sickening attack… a cowardly act of terrorism.” In context, his direct and stern tone seems somewhat calculated. Last year Khan faced criticism for referring to terror attacks as “part and parcel” of city life — a comment that some interpreted as flippant and passive. His statement concludes with a carefully worded measure of defiance: “Manchester and the rest of Britain will never be cowed by terrorism. Those who want to destroy our way of life and divide us will never succeed.”
I want to unpack two central themes of Khan’s statement: the terrorist as a coward, and terrorism as a strategy for social division. Both of these tropes echoed in Khan’s statement have influenced mainstream discourse on terror attacks, particularly in the case of radical Islamic terror. I argue that these assumptions on the psychology of the terrorist and the fundamental nature of modern Islamic terrorism rest on faulty premises.
First, the simpler of the two assumptions. The ubiquity of the word “coward” in describing contemporary terrorists and terrorism is uncanny, seemingly transcending party lines. In an address to Congress across the pond, Paul Ryan spoke of the Manchester attack with similar language to Sadiq Khan’s: “to target innocent children is cowardice in its most heinous form”. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton took to twitter to express anger over the “cowardly terror attack.”
Are terrorists actually cowardly? Certainly Salman Abedi’s choice of target, a concert largely attended by young girls, makes his actions particularly heinous and sadistic. However, the difference in cowardice between suicide bombing an Ariana Grande concert or a police station seems negligible. Either way, Abedi’s own death was inevitable and premeditated. I don’t mean to assign any sort of courage or bravery to his actions, but the persistent use of the word “coward” feels inappropriate and forced in this context. I suppose it aims to humiliate Abedi and downplay his carnage while striking a pose of tough confidence. In this sense, “coward” functions as a coping mechanism, a totem to ward away the inevitable fear, confusion, paranoia and grief that accompany terror attacks. Though perhaps an effective turn of phrase to alleviate public worrying, it strikes me as disingenuous and misleading.
The other problematic trope of Khan’s speech is his implicit claim that terrorist attacks primarily occur as a strategy to “divide us.” This sentiment is almost as widespread as “cowardice” — it was the first thing I heard when I flipped the channel to CNN’s on-site broadcast of the Manchester bombing. With police car sirens blaring and injured concert-goers being hauled into ambulances, a reporter spoke assuredly of the attacker’s desire to spark anger towards London’s Islamic community. A headline published this morning in The Telegraph reads “Terrorists want us to be divided – we must do everything we can to make sure they don’t win.”
This interpretation of events has always seemed a little suspect to me. Granted, terror attacks do lead to unwarranted backlash against Muslim communities; moreover, it isn’t unreasonable to think that xenophobia could drive moderates to extremism. However, if ISIS were primarily concerned with aggravating tensions and sowing distrust why would they openly claim credit for terror attacks? Wouldn’t it be wiser to stay silent and frame a terrorist as an everyday, moderate Muslim rather than associate him with an established institution of Islamic extremism?
I decided to investigate the topic of terrorist motivations firsthand by reading through an English translation of the Islamic State’s internal newsletter, Rumiyah, Issue 9 (click at your own risk, it’s thoroughly disturbing and will probably put you on a list). According to the Clarion Project, the magazines is widely circulated and “aimed at recruiting jihadists from the West” — the type of publication that someone like Salman Abedi may have read.
One section in particular entitled “Just Terror Tactics” jumped out. In shockingly callous terms, the author outlines a religious rationale for slaughtering kuffars (non-believers) in Western countries and provides practical tips for achieving mass carnage. Instigators of recent terror attacks, including Syed Rizwan Farook of the 2015 San Bernardino attack and Omar Mateen of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, are hailed as heroes who have “attain[ed] Allah’s pleasure” (47). Citing the Quran, the author goes on to claim that these attacks were “ordered by Allah when He said, ‘So when you meet those who disbelieve, strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens’” (47).
The text repeatedly emphasizes the goal of killing as many kuffar as physically possible, encouraging attacks in enclosed and crowded spaces (much like that of the Manchester Arena). Overall, it reads, mass murder is an obligation to Allah and one must “ constantly [remind] oneself that this action is worship” (50).
Reading Rumiyah is by no means a pleasant experience, but it servest to dispel any illusions one might have about radical Islamic terror. For terrorists like Salman Abedi and terror organizations like ISIS, “dividing us” is likely little more than a convenient bonus. Their primary motivations are quite straightforward: kill, humiliate, or enslave all unbelievers in the name of Allah.
When politicians and journalists skew the narrative of an attack like the Manchester bombing they may have good intentions in mind. Trying to maintain the public’s sense of security and quelling xenophobic backlash against innocent Muslims are certainly desirable goals. However, they should not be pursued through deception or misinformation at the expense of truth and justice. The violent spread of radical Islam will not disappear because we downplay it or ignore it; radical Islamists like Salman Abedi will continue their barbarism regardless of whether or not we feel “divided” or if we call them cowards. To effectively combat such evil as was witnessed in Manchester this Monday we must eschew comforting ideologies to confront the raw ugliness of extremism as it truly is.