The New York Times has published a lengthy profile of the Islamic State group bomb-maker involved in the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris. In the latest attack in Brussels, Najim Laachraoui demoted (or promoted, depending on one’s feelings about life) himself from bomb-maker to suicide bomber, blowing himself up along with 15 bystanders. Much of the article, focusing on Laachraoui’s “radicalization,” follows the soporific pattern mainstream media outlets have by now mastered in their coverage of “homegrown” terrorists.
The profile is still valuable, however, because it does unwittingly dispel many assumptions behind the government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program.
The various CVE pilot programs now being undertaken in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis all rely on the unfounded (and thoroughly debunked) premise that it is possible to predict a future terrorist from past behavior. This inevitably leads to the surveillance of constitutionally protected activities which are thought to be predictors of violent extremism and the policing and entrapment of communities which are thought to harbor extremist ideologies. The focus of law enforcement agencies shiftsfrom crime to pre-crime (or “pre-radicalization” in the words of an infamous 2007 NYPD report). Schools, hospitals, mental health facilities, and workplaces all turn into mini-surveillance states. Communities become infiltrated by informants. All to detect erroneous predictors of a drift toward violent extremism.
As The New York Times profile notes, Laachraoui’s radicalization trajectory was “decidedly different from that of many of his cohort, who were possessed of scant prospects and long rap sheets.”Laachraoui was “an educated European who radicalized all but invisibly, not in prison, but while in the classrooms of good schools and university study groups.” His radicalization, the paper tepidly notes, “defies simple explanation.”
Here are the factors behind Laachraoui's latent radicalization, according to The New York Times:
— He was “in search of his Islam.”
— According to his teacher, by his last year of high school, Laachraoui “adopted the dress favored by Salafist Muslims, rolling his pants to above his ankle, growing a goatee and refusing to shake hands with women.”
— He felt “increasingly like an outsider…”
— Laachraoui told his teacher that “Islam was superior to the Western model.”
— He was influenced by “a charismatic street preacher named Khalid Zerkani” who was later “charged with organizing and financing a recruitment network that funneled jihadists to Syria.”
These are apparently the factors behind the radicalization of Laachraoui: an exploration of his religiosity, an embrace of Salafi Islam, a belief in the superiority of his faith, feelings of isolation, meeting with an extremist preacher and terrorist recruiter.
While any of these factors may or may not have driven Laachraoui toward violent extremism,they are certainly not sufficient factors behind radicalization itself. Millions of people explore their own religiosity, practice Salafi Islam peacefully, believe in the superiority of their faith (despite how distasteful we may find it), feel isolated and even manage to escape meetings with extremist preachers without a suicide belt on their waist. These factors may be useful to investigate Laachraoui’s radicalization but — taken as markers of a drift toward violent extremism — they have no utility in predicting who will become a terrorist.
One may ask why, when there is ample research disproving the predictive value of various radicalization theories, does the government continue to pursue CVE, especially when it necessarily involves the utter disregard for the civil liberties of millions and stigmatization of entire communities. The answer is quite simple: the alternative is an abandonment of policies which, while continually producing violent extremists, preserve U.S. hegemony. And no matter which party is in power, a retreat from empire is simply unfathomable.
Waqas Mirza is a writer based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter: @waqasahmi