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Bill Durodie on the war on terror

October 24, 2013
By: 
Stephanie Harrington
Humanitarian Studies Prof. Bill Durodie

School of Humanitarian Studies Prof. Bill Durodie recently contributed to a US Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of Defence White Paper on counterterrorism policies. Durodie argues that the framing of Islamist terrorism as a political ideology is an analysis trapped in the past. He proposes that particularly in the West want-to-be terrorists are primarily isolated fanatics looking for an identity. We sat down with Durodie to talk about his new paper, War on Terror or a Search for Meaning? one of the contributions to Looking Back, Looking Forward: Perspectives on Terrorism and Responses to It, which can be read in full here.

How did you become involved in drafting an element of this US government commissioned white paper on counterterrorism policies?

I’ve been writing about the war on terror since pretty soon after 9-11 and at that time I joined the War Studies Group of King’s College London. What I have always been doing is challenging the dominant interpretation of who these people (terrorists) are, what they want and what our responses ought to be.

Over the years since I have met countless individuals in various security-related roles and one of these put me onto the team preparing a preceding white paper which was based on interviewing 30 so-called terror experts. After I had contributed to that, the agency coordinating it asked if the people who participated in the preceding white paper, as well as a few others, were interested in making a written contribution that would expand on the points made. That’s where this paper came out of. I saw it as an opportunity to put together many arguments I have been gradually making and developing over the years since 9-11.

What are the main points you wanted to address in the white paper?

Firstly, I think many security agencies around the world still hold to a belief that what they’re dealing with are politically, ideologically or religiously motivated individuals. I do need to distinguish here between what happens domestically and what might happen in, say, the Gaza Strip or Iraq or Afghanistan where there is a totally different dynamic. But if you look at people who have been caught for terrorist incidents in the West, what you usually find are highly westernized youths who listen to the latest bands on their iPods, who wear Nike trainers, who might overtly convert to Islam at some point, but that’s not always necessary.

They’re often well-educated and articulate but most noticeably they don’t discuss their views with their friends or families or even come across as being that interested in politics. They have an exaggerated sense of moral self-righteousness – which, incidentally, I propose is encouraged in contemporary Western societies – and feel encouraged to literally blow themselves up and other people around them in the pursuit of that. That doesn’t strike me as political, ideological or religious. The religious part one can see as developing after they have decided to do something, so that’s why in my paper I make the point that Islam is their motif not their motive.

You draw an interesting comparison between ‘homegrown terrorists’ and other ‘lone wolves,’ such as Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik. Can you talk about that?

I asked the question, where do these individuals get their ideas from, what is motivating them? We’re left with a very awkward answer. Strangely and uncomfortably they are part of narratives that circulate about Western culture. You will find it is often Western commentators that accuse us of being a consumer culture full of shallow shopaholics. In many ways my argument is: these people reflect our discourses about ourselves, that we have developed a dystopian outlook about contemporary society and they then determine to act on this. We are the ones who say that the West is corrupt, it’s degenerate, it’s decadent and then you will find particular individuals will pick up on that narrative and decide to do something about it.

They come from all points on the spectrum. Some will call themselves jihadists, others will call themselves Anders Breivik type right wing crusaders but they’re all feeding off a narrative we generate. So one of the points I’m making in the paper and concluding with is that we have become so used to dismissing ourselves and reading books like Stupid White Men and laughing at ourselves and developing a culture of self-loathing that it’s hardly surprising that a few individuals decide to do something about it. If we want to challenge that extreme response it’s no good targeting, as all security agencies do, what they call the extremists, rather you have to find the mainstream narrative which feeds their ideas. We need to look at this negativity in the mainstream discourse and begin to challenge it if we’re going to prevent extremism, which is simply the extreme expression of mainstream ideas.

What are your closing thoughts for the US government?

America to me still represents some aspects of what’s best about humanity - the American dream, the idea that we are free and equal, and that people should all have universal rights are really positive things. It’s high time for the American authorities to regain that discourse and to reclaim their founding values as well as to develop a new vision for the future if they’re going to make any inroads in what they call the war on terror.