A parliamentary inquiry has cleared MI5 of failing to prevent the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013. This despite the fact that his killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were both subjects of previous investigations by the security services – investigations which showed that both men had been radicalised.
Inevitably this conclusion has reignited the debate about how one can go about spotting a terrorist, and preventing an attack. If these two men held radical beliefs, why weren’t they stopped before committing such a terrible crime?
But radicalisation and terrorism are often conflated. It is assumed that people who have been radicalised become terrorists, and vice versa that terrorists have radical beliefs.
This assumption is wrong, and indeed radicalisation is used to explain too much in many of these accounts.
Signs of radicalisation
The process of radicalisation tends to hinge on the beliefs of an individual. A person becomes radicalised when their beliefs have changed from being similar to the rest of society’s – which are assumed to be normal – to beliefs that are quite extreme and possibly violent.
But how do we know what someone is thinking if they don’t express their views out loud? When we ask about someone’s beliefs, are they telling us what they think we want to know, how they like to think of themselves, or, in the case of violent beliefs, what they think will keep them safe?
One way to approach the problem is to look at what they talk about more generally. That includes their beliefs but also about who they are, what they fear and what they think of other people. This can provide an insight into their non-negotiable beliefs and values – what they hold to be sacred.
This approach might help us get an outline of someone’s beliefs, and it might even tell us that these beliefs are very extreme, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us how or whether they are going to act violently. As the Director General of MI5 outlined in his evidence for the report, plenty of people express violent beliefs, the real difficulty lies in separating the doers from the talkers.
This is an important problem that is too often overlooked in the rhetoric about the threat posed by Islamic extremism. Plenty of people have extreme views but a liberal democracy doesn’t set out to police beliefs and values. It should challenge violent beliefs but that is a very different proposition from criminalising them.
Terrorism, not radicalisation
Radicalisation is a different problem to terrorism so we need to be clear that we only criminalise people who express their beliefs and values in a way that threatens or hurts others, who incite people to act violently, and who express their intent to act violently themselves.
Adebowale’s radical views, for example, became more specific threats in an online exchange with an unnamed person overseas that only came to light after Rigby’s death. Adebowale stated that he wanted to murder a soldier. This is crucial in this case. Had this information come to light earlier, MI5 would have made its investigation into Adebowale a top priority. What the security services can’t do is prioritise an investigation unless the person under surveillance shows signs of planning an attack.
Talking about planned terrorist acts is not that unusual, even amongst self-starter terrorists. Research certainly suggests that in a majority of cases, lone-actor terrorists make their intent clear, possibly to family and friends and even in public.
The fact that Adebowale’s communications about his plan were not shared with the security services will no doubt form part of the case to support the government’s attempts to increase powers for the security services. But we must be careful that this doesn’t extend to criminalising people for expressing unpalatable views.
As we debate whether monitoring rules should be tightened, we need to keep in mind the fact that spotting that someone has been radicalised is not the same as spotting a terrorist.