Paris attacks: there is no simple explanation for acts of terror

France is looking for answers. Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

The French authorities have named one of the attackers who terrorised Paris on November 13 as Omar Ismail Mostefai, a French national who was reportedly known to the security services as having been radicalised as long ago as 2010.

The announcement that Mostefai was apparently a radicalised French citizen will probably only feed into simplistic single-issue explanations for why the attacks took place – such as that they were provoked by jihadists enraged at Western foreign policy.

This view of events is not in itself unusual, Islamic State’s own statement of responsibility cited French involvement in Syria and this follows a well-established trend of terrorists citing foreign policy as a cause. From Osama bin Laden’s 1998 statement of intent with the World Islamic Front in which he cited the presence of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia, through the bloody video of Michael Adebolajo describing the murder of Lee Rigby as revenge for Britain’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, to “Jihadi John” who similarly decried British and American aggression in the Middle East, many of the terrorists who have attacked Western targets in recent years have said the actions of their governments demand that they respond with violence.

Given the consistent weight these and other jihadists have given to foreign policy it would plainly be wrong to dismiss it as a factor in their actions. But it is far too simplistic to say that Western campaigns in Iraq and Syria, for example, are the single or main motive, or that it merely takes fury at the war in the Middle East to trigger a violent act.

While the Western presence in the Middle East is a divisive policy in many countries, most restrict their opposition to peaceful protest and debate, not murder. Many more things besides play into any given person’s decision to commit an act of violent terror.

Troubled paths

There are many reasons why people become radicalised to violent action, and a large body of research has explored them. In fact, since Mohammed Siddique Khan claimed that UK foreign policy was behind the 7/7 bombings, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about what leads people to act violently. There are many ways to analyse why people might become radicalised, how they might join violent groups and how they end up carrying out a terrorist attack.

Lost in the chaos. Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Structural explanations can help us understand what we might call pre-conditional factors – circumstances that create the potential for radical violence, rather than the trigger that sparks that violence. There are permissive factors, things that enable future radicals to first find out about and associate with conflicts and terror groups – the internet and social media, for example. Motivational factors, on the other hand, include personal circumstances that could provoke the desire to fight, such as experiences of poverty or racial inequality.

Separate from these are situational factors that can act as triggers or catalysts for actions. It’s this realm that includes the perceived unfairness or immorality of foreign policy, which can trigger someone to decide that violent action is warranted.

Looking for meaning

While people may become informed of ways to campaign and organise, motivated by experiences of poverty and sparked into action by a particular event or policy, this is clearly still not enough to explain how they actually come to act violently. It also depends, for example, on the particular strategic aims of the group they join.

Depending on the group they end up in, a radicalised individual may well campaign and protest for change rather than engage in violence or terrorism. The desire for an end to a particular policy need not lead to violence, and indeed, it normally doesn’t.

With this in mind, we also need to consider individual attractions and motives – being part of a close-knit group, seeking meaning in life, or reacting to the experience of prejudice. A radicalised person may genuinely be motivated by an ideology, or by a need for revenge or status. Again, most probably it will be many of the above factors and more.

Ultimately, the paths that lead people to engage in terrorism are as varied as the individuals themselves. Profiling potential terrorists simply doesn’t work, and single-issue explanations for their behaviour are not enough.

The Paris killers’ motivations and life stories are still emerging and will only ever be known in so much detail. But one thing we can be sure of is that the stories that concluded with these awful acts certainly won’t be reduced to one simple theme.