An Interview with Shane Brighton

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August 2, 2011

To what extent has the post-9/11 preoccupation with Islamic jihadism distorted the discourse on terrorism?

Shane Brighton: Too much public discourse in western states focuses on Islamic militancy in a way that over-stresses its otherness. The "civilizational" dimension of jihadi ideology has been accepted and reproduced in a largely unconsidered, uncritical way, and this has been reflected in media discussions, politicians' public statements, and government policy. A number of distortions have followed. To offer one example, the terms "radicalization" and "radicalized" (which have very specific meanings within the intelligence communities) have taken on a life of their own in public discourse, being applied indiscriminately to any Muslim who is politicized and criticizes western foreign policy. The problem is that this over-identifies political conflict with only one set of actors, and the plural, interactive nature of radicalization is missed: Aspects of government policy and other political elements (such as the far right) have been undergoing their own radicalization processes, not just Islamic militants. While these processes are, to some degree, internal to the specific actors, they have significant implications for the others

Will Anders Breivik's attacks in Oslo and Utøya alter the way we make sense of terrorism? Will they alter the way governments conceive of terrorism and, more broadly, threats?

SB: It certainly should. Finally – and rather too late – the excessive generality and counter-productiveness of counter-radicalization policy in the U.K. has been recognized with the Contest II changes and, more recently, the Prevent Review. (details on various U.K. gov. websites).

Breivik's big innovation is a political/strategic one: the idea that, if you want to attack minority communities, you should hit the "host" population, in the expectation that your real target will be denied public sympathy and at least part of the backlash you create will be against it. Unfortunately, the seriousness with which some of Breivik's ideas are being discussed in the media and blogosphere seem to affirm the effectiveness of this strategy.

Beyond this, some concepts already in circulation have gained a new relevance. For example, the idea of the "super-empowered individual" who takes advantage of the availability of materials and information in western societies to launch highly destructive attacks without much organizational back-up. The point is that, with global media coverage and a sufficiently spectacular attack, one individual or a very small group can create a global effect.

In what way does Breivik's brand of terrorism share similarities with the terrorism of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups? Does our understanding of one shed light on our understanding of the other?

SB: Beyond an appetite for mass-fatality attacks and, arguably, a recognition that this is needed to achieve a transnational impact, I don't see much direct correlation with al-Qaeda-type groups. The desire to stand trial and make post-attack statements, for example, is more reminiscent of 19th-century anarchist groups. Breivik's written "manifesto" statements, meanwhile, are more reminiscent of the Unabomber than of al-Qaeda-type martyrdom statements.

As indicated above, we might want to reconsider the modelling of "radicalization" to take into account the relations between different elements, and the impact of events across transnational communities, which interpret things in different ways. This is important because the forms of "self-radicalization" and "self-starter" individuals and groups may well increase if Breivik's appeal to the far right is successful. Here, at least, there might be some transferable benefits from the way in which al-Qaeda has been understood.