When I originally wrote this novel, I could not predict just how closely it would reflect and speak to subsequent events in the area of terrorism, security and counter-terrorism. It is only a small exaggeration to suggest that the primary conceit of the novel – exploring why an individual would choose to join a terrorist group and launch attacks against the West – has become the preeminent question of our society at this moment in history. From the intense concern about the hundreds of Western recruits travelling to join the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) in late 2014, to the Sydney hostage crisis on 15 and 16 December 2014, the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7 January 2015, and the revelation on 26 February 2015 that British-raised-and-educated Mohammed Emwazi was the notorious ‘Jihadi John’ of the ISIS beheading videos, there has been a cacophony of public commentary and discussion about what would compel seemingly ordinary young people to become cold-blooded killers in the cause of ‘jihad’. With few exceptions, the blame has been laid squarely on ‘radical Islam’ or what is euphemistically referred to as ‘violent extremism’. Inherent to this narrative is the argument that the roots of such deviant behaviour lie in the combination of individual alienation and psychological vulnerability, lack of social integration and the infectious power of an extreme religious ideology.
As I have tried to make clear in the novel through the arguments articulated by Youssef in his response to the charge made by the counter-terrorist officer Michael that he is acting out of religious fanaticism, such an argument is both unconvincing and functions to deflect responsibility. The reality is that ISIS (or the other violent individuals and groups who plot to commit murder in Western states) is no more religiously ‘Islamic’ than the Democratic Republic of Korea is politically ‘democratic’. Instead, it is clear that the violence of ISIS has political origins and follows a rational strategic logic suited to its capabilities as an armed group, as does that of other groups such as the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Just as the fictional terrorist in the novel – the Professor – was in a sense created by, and motivated by, the shock and horror of the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, so too has ISIS emerged out of the brutality of more than ten years of invasion, occupation, torture, rendition, drone strikes, depleted uranium shells, corruption, sectarian violence and death squads. And, as Youssef explains, if militants possessed the same capabilities as state militaries, namely, airpower and heavy weaponry, they would have no need to employ terror tactics.
The consensus among scholars and journalists who have talked with ISIS fighters and home-grown terrorists is that, just as with Youssef, religion plays a secondary, legitimating role in the decision to fight. It is not that religion compels people to be violent, but that religion is sometimes used to justify and explain the decision to employ violence in a particular context. In the context of the Middle East, where all political activity is expressed and discussed in the language and idioms of the local culture – namely, the language and social-political-cultural system of Islam – it would be surprising if the politics and strategy of ISIS were not expressed primarily in Islamic language. This does not mean that religious belief is what primarily drives ISIS’s violent actions. Political conflict and deep-rooted grievances, especially the suffering of millions of ordinary people which is the direct result of Western intervention and interference, and which is visibly displayed on television, is at the root of conflict and political violence in the Middle East today. As with Youssef, it is easy to imagine that under these conditions, militants could emerge who are not really very religious at all, but who see their violence as a legitimate course of action in the struggle against invasion, repression and Western imperialism.
From this vantage point, it seems clear that the oft-repeated mantra of the religious causes of terrorism is an exercise in the evasion of responsibility. Western leaders, and Western opinion more generally, do not want to face up to the consequences of, or take responsibility for, the deaths and suffering of millions of ordinary people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. It would be too shameful, and it might have political and legal consequences; some Western leaders could even end up facing charges in a forum like the International Criminal Court. In fact, the defl ection of blame is a long-standing practice within Western foreign policy, used to elide and obscure the role of Western states in colonial violence, invasions, coups, bombings, assassinations, support for dictators, dodgy arms deals, and the constant self-interested shifting of alliances and double-dealing. As Youssef explains to Michael, however, the sordid history of Western intervention overseas, and its indifference to human rights and the suffering it causes in the relentless pursuit of geostrategic advantage, is not unknown, especially among its victims, even if it is largely unknown among Western publics. It is out of this historical context that militant groups and individuals emerge to violently challenge the Western-dominated world order and its hypocritical actions.
This observation – that individuals do not become terrorists by being somehow infected with the virus of religious extremism, but that they emerge out of a particular social-historical context of violence and political grievance – also serves to remind us of the symbiotic, dynamic and interdependent relationship between terrorism and counter-terrorism. In the novel, Youssef explains how he was moved to direct action by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the suffering and indifference towards the lives of ordinary Iraqis he saw, and the torture, brutality and death squad murders that he came into contact with, including the murder of his relatives by US-trained Iraqi government death squads. These kinds of violent actions came to typify the war on terror as it was practised in Iraq, and they are the context out of which ISIS has emerged. Many of the fighters within ISIS have experienced these things since they were children. More broadly, it is now widely accepted among scholars and Western military and security organisations that the invasion of Iraq was the single factor most responsible for radicalising the current generation of terrorists.
In other words, Western and Western-supported counter-terrorist violence has co-produced the terrorist violence of ISIS and other insurgent groups in a mimetic, self-perpetuating, deadly cycle: every act of terrorist or counter-terrorist violence has generated the same or worse. For every detainee tortured to death in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo (the US military has recorded more than a hundred homicides in custody during the period of the occupation of Iraq), ISIS and other insurgent groups have executed hostages dressed in orange jumpsuits. For every drone strike on a wedding party or group of workers in Afghanistan or Pakistan, terrorists have attempted to attack a train station or a supermarket in a Western city.
In effect, Western counter-terrorism has become a self-fulfi lling prophecy: it now produces, regularly and effectively, the terrorists and acts of terrorism it purports to counter. The case of Mohammed Emwazi – ‘Jihadi John’ – is illustrative of how the counter-terrorism practices of the security services often have an effect opposite to their stated intentions. In the same way that Michael tries to recruit Youssef to become an agent for British intelligence, MI5 tried on numerous occasions to recruit Mohammed Emwazi as an informer. When they failed, however, they resorted to a campaign of harassment, surveillance and suppression, which in turn provided Mohammed with a bitter personal experience of Western oppression and added to his perceptions of the injustice and anti-Islamic prejudice of Western societies. Sadly, as the novel tries to show, Western counter-terrorism seems unable to escape from its chosen path: it is trapped within a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and counter-violence, even when it knows that this simply fuels the production of more terrorists and more acts of terrorism.
In the end, the novel can be read as both explanation and warning. As explanation, it tells us that we need to understand the effects of our own actions in the production of violent resistance around the world, and that we are looking in the wrong places when we try to lay the blame on religion or ideology or individual pathology – or any source outside of the interventions by Western states in the Middle East and other parts of the world, or its domestic programmes of counter-terrorism. This is not to suggest that Western policy is the sole cause of anti-Western terrorism or violence in the Middle East. All violence has complex origins. Rather, it is to suggest that any explanation for this particular form of violence which does not take proper account of the consequences and context of Western actions will be a gross distortion and entirely inadequate for thinking about how to respond.
Since the novel was published in May 2014, I have been asked more than once if the Professor really exists, or rather, if people like that really do exist. The real question is not whether they do exist, but could someone like that plausibly exist? The clear answer to that is a resounding yes. Given that Youssef’s citation of Western crimes and atrocities is factually correct, and given that it can be plausibly narrated as being part of a long-running, violent imperialism, and given that Youssef articulates a legitimate set of reasons for violently resisting Western policies, it is entirely possible that a terrorist like the Professor could exist and undertake an attack like the one described in the novel.
Finally, as warning, the novel speaks to the necessity of breaking down the taboo on talking to terrorists and engaging honestly with the real grievances and political agency of those who choose to violently resist Western foreign policy. Until we understand why they fi ght us, there is no hope that we can persuade them to lay down their arms and work collaboratively to create a more peaceful world. It also speaks to the need for an honest and critical reflection on the nature and effects of Western foreign policy, the millions of victims and widespread destruction it leaves in its wake, the quality of our commitment to human rights, and the real failures and consequences of employing violence as the primary means by which we secure our interests overseas. Unless our actions match our words, the world – and those who struggle violently against us – will not be persuaded that Western states are truly committed to human rights, the rule of law, justice, democracy and peace. And, as long as we reserve the right to solve our conflicts with violence, so too will there be those who reserve the right to resist us violently. In short, the novel provides a warning that violence begets violence. Therefore, if we want to live in a world without terrorism, we must make a conscious effort to stop practising it and actively generating it ourselves.