Extremists like the Reem Island ghost thrive in the shadows

Mourners light candles during a vigil held on Kite Beach, Jumeirah, for murdered American Ibolya Ryan. The ideology that inspired her killer must be tackled head-on, writes Faisal Al Yafai (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)
Mourners light candles during a vigil held on Kite Beach, Jumeirah, for murdered American Ibolya Ryan. The ideology that inspired her killer must be tackled head-on, writes Faisal Al Yafai (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)

By now, of course, almost every person in the country has seen the video of the Reem Island attacker and the dramatic arrest of a suspect a day later.

Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread concern among both expatriates and Emiratis at what the attack means. It isn’t so much that life in the UAE has become more dangerous, but rather that the perception of danger has become more confused.

Every country has some element of stranger crime. In most cases, it is possible to conceptualise that danger and so exert a measure of psychological control: if I avoid those areas or if I don’t let my children play there, the rationale goes, I’ll be able to avoid being a victim of crime.

That element of psychological control is important, because it allows people to continue with their lives. Even under the most extreme circumstances, people find ways to cope. Take the example of those unlucky enough to live under the brutal rule of ISIL today who still continue with their daily lives.

It is that psychological element of control that people who want to spread terror seek to undermine. The fear comes from not knowing where or when an attack could come. That element of psychological control is most lacking especially in the period directly after an attack, before life returns to normal.

It isn’t yet clear what the Reem Island killer intended. A security source told the WAM news agency that the victims were selected randomly and the crude home-made bomb made by the attacker and her internet browsing suggested she had been “self-radicalised”. Further investigation and the trial should reveal more.

Self-radicalisation is perhaps the most complex terror threat that the Arab and western worlds now face. The threat of ISIL has exploded on to our screens and minds this past year and that has perhaps led to a feeling that terrorism today resembles the threats previously posed by conventional armies.

But the era of hit-and-run “lone wolf” attacks has not gone away. Yes, ISIL has mutated the broader ideas of jihad towards holding and consolidating territory, but other strands of jihad still seek to practise lone wolf attacks.

This kind of attack developed in the post 9/11 era, as the base of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were disrupted and terrorist leaders went underground. Jihadi thinkers promoted the idea of an individualised jihad, whereby those radicalised would attack whenever and wherever they could. The aim of this was not to stage spectacular attacks but to promote a feeling of chaos and uncertainty.

From the limited information available, it would seem that sowing chaos and mistrust was precisely the aim of the attacker.

But what the Reem Island attack shows is that, as much as vigilance matters, it is also important to take seriously unseen ideologies and propaganda. The websites that the woman visited would be completely unknown to most people. But it is essential that, in combating the threat, we treat their ideas, however warped, with due seriousness.

These individuals who are affected by these ideas will probably not have the capacity to conduct large-scale attacks. But the devastation they cause to individual lives, as well as the ripples of that act across the community, can be serious.

The response to this sort of attack is not merely to shut down the ability of these groups to organise, but also to go after the message itself.

By reporting on these messages, publicly dissecting the arguments and allowing religious leaders to counter their views, the narrative can be undercut and overwhelmed with alternative arguments.

Otherwise we are simply ceding territory to the terrorists. By allowing them to frame the narrative, we are allowing them to speak freely to people who may have a very limited understanding of politics and religion and are easily persuaded.

As a region, we cannot allow that to happen. We have to involve ourselves in the argument. Lone wolves thrive in the shadows. By pulling their arguments and messages into the light, we stand a better chance of dismantling their ideology before another mind is warped and another life is taken.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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