Terrible Terrorists

The third of five responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena by scholar, artist, and educator Asif Majid.


In this series of time-delayed field reports, I reflect on my observations of the sociopolitical responses to the 2017 Manchester attack, responses that have taken place over the past year. They appear within the city of Manchester, across the UK, and around the world. All five posts, the third of which is below and the remainder of which are archived here, lead up to the first anniversary of the attack on May 22, 2018. The italicized portions of each post are my original thoughts, while the regular text represents more recent reflections. Much of this is linked to my ongoing research as a PhD candidate in the Anthropology, Media, and Performance program at The University of Manchester.

In the world of satirical movies that deal with gruesome and horrible events, a 2010 film called Four Lions stands out. Set in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, it depicts four British-born would-be terrorists who seek to attack the London Marathon. Led by Omar, a character played by Riz Ahmed of Rogue Onefame, the foursome hatch a plan to do so by signing up for the fun run and dressing in costume. Their costumes hide explosive belts and allow them to run alongside other marathoners to deliver maximum damage.

However, Omar and the crew are terrible terrorists. They are incompetent in their planning, ineffective in their purchasing of supplies, and awful at working together. All of this makes for very funny viewing, as in one scene when a character named Faisal shows off the stockpile of liquid bleach he has gathered. One of the other members of the group, named Barry, is shocked when Faisal tells him that he purchased it all from the same shop, leading to Faisal’s hilarious depiction of the different voices and disguises that he used in the shop to trick the shop attendant. All the accents and impersonation are the same.

In some theatre work as part of my PhD, accents and voices were serious questions. Collaborators created a radio play titled The Wedding, which features two British Muslim young couples at a wedding. Both couples fight over myriad issues, including the challenges of being in an interracial relationship and the compatibility of LGBT+ sexualities and Islam. In the process of making The Wedding and deciding who would voice it, collaborators wanted to stay true to the piece being conceived and executed by British Muslim youth. Yet, accents all over the UK are specific to particular regions, perhaps even more so than accents in the US. For instance, “posh” accents from the country’s south are those that are most often exported to Hollywood or other major international cultural forces. Accents from England’s north in particular, such as those found around Manchester, are seldom given airtime on the island or elsewhere.

Since the project was sited in Manchester, collaborators created characters who could believably be from Manchester. It may seem redundant or an unnecessary detail, but someone’s voice first and foremost communicates who that person is in relation to others, rather than whatthat person is saying to others. Feminist philosopher Andrea Cavarero, in For More Than One Voice, refers to this as a “vocal ontology of uniqueness” that is still “for the ear” because “it is always relational.” Collaborators who made The Weddinglooked for particular individuals who had particular voices, just as they much as they looked for particular individuals who could deliver particular lines. Would the play have been different if someone who wasn’t British, Muslim, or young voiced it? Most likely. Meaning is not only a product what something is, but also a process of how that something came to be.

This type of incompetence is not just an onscreen fiction, though. In the aftermath of the recent explosion at the Parsons Green tube station in London, which caused a less damaging fireball than it should have due to a failed detonator, commentators have dubbed this and other acts of incompetence as the “Four Lions factor.” In so doing, they make a direct reference to the film. The link between a film showing would-be terrorists (all four of whom happen to be Muslim) as incompetent and an actual event seems convenient and easy to make. All intelligence agencies need to do, then, is make would-be terrorists more terrible at being terrorists.

This is a compelling idea because it’s funny: that those intending to cause harm to others are not as good at doing so as they think they are. But it also, according to political scientist Frank Harvey’s The Homeland Security Dilemma, “exaggerate[s] the incompetence of terrorists.” Harvey argues that acts such as the attack at Parsons Green succeed in raising “public fears and anxieties” even when they fail on a technical level. For him, there are no failures at all.

There is, of course, possibility in failure. Perhaps this is why Harvey finds there to be no such thing as failure at all. The fact that a terrorist can get to the point of being able to terrorize others is enough of an indictment on the state of society itself. Failing to do something, though, isn’t the same as doing something good. The intent behind the act still matters. In the weeks leading up to former Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation because of the Windrush Scandal, Rudd claimed to not know about the deportation targets that her agency set. As memo after letter after testimony emerged, showing that not only did she know but thought them achievable and enforceable, Rudd failed to hold herself accountable. She failed to recognize the severity of her and Prime Minister Theresa May’s actions, resigning only after hundreds of MPs signed a letter demanding she quit. Rudd failed to own her position, paving the way for newly appointed Home Secretary Sajid Javid to steer clear of the idea of creating a “hostile environment”for immigrants to the UK. Lemons out of lemonade, perhaps.

But what I find more questionable about labeling such incompetence the “Four Lions factor” is the negligence with which it re-entrenches terrorism as a particularly Muslim phenomenon. To take the satire of reality that is Four Lions — the reception of which has been critiqued for celebrating a white British non-Muslim director as “intellectually rigorous and astute,” even as it characterizes non-white progressive artists who do similar work as “ungrateful or belligerent” — and link it to violent acts undertaken by Muslims in the name of political objectives without equally applying that label to incompetent terrorists like Darren Osborne, who was similarly poor in the planning of his attack, is lazy. It’s also, unfortunately, no surprise. For it’s not just the terrorists who are terrible, but also our characterizations of them.


Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.