The dividing lines around identity have not gone away during the Covid-19 pandemic. The health crisis and the accompanying economic disruption have not stopped extremists and far-right groups from seeking to exploit the alienation of millions of people in order to incite conflict.
Viewed in isolation, it has sometimes seemed far-fetched that ideology can be blamed for the abrupt ending of lives in such a random way. But a new book called Incitement by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, the research director on extremism programmes at George Washington University in the US, illustrates the long tail of one ideological figure.
Examining the impact of Anwar Al Awlaki, the US-born Al Qaeda propagandist killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011, Mr Meleagrou-Hitchens details how online lectures and videos directly launched mass attacks of a type that are regularly inflicted across the world.
Attacks on an unsuspecting crowd in a park or shoppers in a market have diminished during the coronavirus-inspired lockdown. But when a Libyan asylum seeker stabbed three men in the English town of Reading earlier this month, the event almost seemed like a return to a normality.
Much remains unclear about what drove Khairi Saadallah. Feuds over the religion at the time of his birth or the rise of radicalisation in his homeland have surrounded the nature of the attack. However, seeking to kill as many strangers as possible placed Saadallah’s attack alongside the latest events that owe much to Awlaki.
Incitement shows how Awlaki, who was radicalised in the US and moved to the UK in 2002, initiated a new departure in mass violence.
Awlaki dissected the world in binary terms, between those who were fighting for "truth" and those propagating of falsehoods to oppress others. He weaponised alienation in way that departed from Osama bin Laden, his nominal leader, and he set the stage for the emerging terror masters of ISIS. Personal connections between Awlaki and the attacks are detailed in Incitement nearly a decade later – and they show few signs of abating.
The attraction of a mass killing for its proponents is two-fold.
At stake is the credibility of the state at the most fundamental level of not ensuring the safety of its citizens. In triggering a security response, the targeted state is in danger of haemorrhaging resources and becoming enfeebled as a result of the attacks. The attacker gains satisfaction both for revenging his alienation by killing other people and dealing a blow to the state they perceived as oppressive.
Some are deeply immersed in the teachings of Awlaki and others. But as time goes on, most are very far from religion. Indeed, far-right extremists adopted a policy of attack in an effort to strike their own blows.
When Awlaki arrived in London in 2002, he found a supportive community among the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a grouping that exists to this day, and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). At one point in 2003, the MAB put on a national tour for Awlaki.
Mr Meleagrou-Hitchens concludes that there was an increasing hardening of Awlaki's view during his time in Britain. He quotes a witness that three of the 2005 London bombers were at a lecture he gave in 2003.
The following year, Awlaki took up residence in Yemen and by 2005, the author concludes that there could be little doubt his words were a justification for murder. By 2008, when Michael Hayden, the then US intelligence chief, was declaring the “near strategic defeat of Al Qaeda”, Awlaki was launching a "battle for hearts and minds". He declared that a vote in the US presidential election was an “attack” on Muslims.
Awlaki directed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born bomber who attempted to blow up flight North West Airlines flight 253 in 2009. Abdulmutallab first encountered Awlaki's sermons on compact discs for sale in London. He was a prominent figure in FOSIS and headed the Islamic Society at University College London.
Awlaki also swapped power point presentations with Nidal Hasan, who carried out the notorious attack in Fort Hood, Texas – also in 2009 – killing 12 soldiers and one civilian. Other followers include Roshonara Choudhry, who attempted to kill a British MP by stabbing him, and Zachary Adam Chesser, who tried to join Al Shabab. All these figure were pathfinders for dozens of others.
By the time ISIS came along, its propagandists were relying on Awlaki’s instructions.
The upsurge in attacks on restaurants and public spaces in France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016 was co-ordinated over the Telegram app by Rachid Kassim, who can be linked to Awlaki's rhetoric.
Junaid Hussain, a British hacker who was an important member of an ISIS group known as The Legion, gave an interview to describe how he had been inspired by Awlaki and his words "victory is on our side". Hussain also filled Twitter with Awlaki's quotes.
Drip by drip, killing for the sake of it is destined to repeat – and one man has had a big role.
Also read: Culture wars in the West have failed to tackle extremism
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National