Comment: The threat after Boston

George Morris 24 April 2013

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings last week, many people wondered why nobody had yet claimed credit for the attacks. Some expected a quick response issued from some Pakistani cave, where leaders of violent Islamist movements have been driven to hiding. But, though it is perhaps too early to make definite claims about the Boston bombings, this looks like an attack the explanations of which can be found within the borders of the United States rather than by looking overseas. The identities and ideologies of the two suspects, one of whom now lies dead, blur the boundaries between the international and the national, because they key to understanding this violence is ideas.

Politically motivated violence doesn’t need states, or even leadership. The assassination of Osama bin Laden has decapitated al-Qaeda, but, as Professor Anthony Glees of the University of Buckingham told The Cambridge Student, the Internet is now one of the most important weapons in the terrorist’s arsenal: “The messiahs have been killed, but the message lives on.” People whose ideas drive them to kill can learn how to do so without sponsorship by states or sheikhs.

In the aftermath of this violence, many will rush to discover that the two murderous brothers were merely mad. But for Glees, good, effective counter-terrorist measures understand the importance of ideas, and know when to intervene to prevent radicalisation turning into violence. Having come across a revolutionary Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens at Oxford, and a “thuggish” Gerhard Schroder at Gottingen, he knows that ideas don’t necessarily translate into action.

The move to anti-terrorist measures, which will now almost certainly take place in America, cannot simply look at the most repressive ways to treat terrorists. Instead, a different style is needed, engaging with the ideas of these people, spotting them early and intervening before they manage to carry out their intentions. On this front, British intelligence services seem to be more effective than the Americans. Despite a sixty per cent increase in terrorist related arrests in the UK last year, there has been no major attack since 2005.

The two suspects in this case were not just violent thugs. They were educated men, with ideas and a desire to implement them. In fact, Professor Glees is concerned with the spread of radical Islamism on university campuses in this country, pointing out that graduates are now heavily overrepresented amongst people arrested for terrorism offences. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the importance of ideas and ideology to these attacks; “These are not primarily men of action,” says Professor Glees. “They are, in a sense, intellectuals.” It is understanding and fighting these ideas that is important now.

George Morris