Changing the Conversation — What motivates terrorists?

We can’t seem to go a day without news of another violent attack somewhere in the world. With another mass attack today in London and what seems like attacks everyday, everywhere from Japan to Germany, we are living in a time where this has become the norm. While there is no shortage of conversation about the dangers of Islamic extremism, we can’t seem to broaden this conversation to speak about the general extremist behaviours, preferring instead to think of these other actors as unstable actors.

It has been interesting watching recent violent extremist acts play out on Twitter and in the media, many of which are initially thought to be the work of Islamic extremists, gaining quite a lot of attention until they are found to be otherwise. I would like to draw focus particularly to three attacks found not to be the work of Islamic extremists. Namely, the shootings in Munich, the attack on Merrylands Police Station, and the mass stabbing in Japan.

Let’s look first at the attack on the Police Station in Merrylands (Sydney, Australia). From what I can discern from the little media covering his motives, the man in question had been involved in family court disputes which had been postponed. Despite what you may think from the airtime given to the issue, terrorism as a threat is grossly overstated in Australia. There were, however, a series of violent attacks on the Australian Family Court in 1984, whose alleged perpetrator was only charged last year. More recently, the One Nation Party has called to abolish the Family Court, a sentiment which is echoed among many men’s rights activist groups. Which raises the question: does an attack based on frustration with the family courts not warrant consideration as anything more than a mental health issue? When does this issue cease to be political?

If we look to the other side of the globe to the shootings in Munich, there are several factors that point to this being an act of terrorism. The shooter targeted people of Turkish and Arab descent, thinking his heritage to be superior, he was proud to share a birthday with Adolph Hitler and had shown support for the far-right Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany. The shootings were premeditated, with reports that the shooter had been planning these attacks for a year. Not to mention the attack was on the 5-year anniversary of the Norway attacks and the perpetrator had changed his Whatsapp avatar to a picture of Breivik, the Norway shooter. Yet, this has rarely been called an act of terrorism by the media who have instead chosen to focus on issues of mental health and now seems to have disappeared from the spotlight altogether.

If we cast our eyes to the recent mass stabbings in Japan, we see an attacker with a clear ideology of hatred for disabled people. He had gone so far as to write to parliament calling for all disabled people to be put to death.

Consider the reaction if this letter had been calling to kill all infidels? Or if it was on the anniversary of 9/11 with a social media avatar of Osama Bin Laden, what would we call these attacks then? Would the mental health of the attackers matter? Indeed, we have seen many examples of this, including the 2014 Sydney Siege, which has been painted as an act of terrorism for the Islamic State, despite the assailant’s long history of mental health issues and violence.

It seems we have lost the ability to engage in an intelligent discussion beyond the simplistic, manichaean view that Islamic extremism is our only enemy. All three of the attacks discussed above were extremist manifestations of ideologies that are commonplace, but we have a double standard when it comes to looking at the ideologies of people who commit violent extremist attacks that aren’t Islamic extremists. Any attack that doesn’t fit the narrative we have come to expect is put down to an unstable actor, and the longer we neglect to address the broader context, the more damage is done by these actors we insist are not terrorists. So we must now ask : what is it that is driving these people to take their political or personal frustrations out in such a violent way?

This is something that I have been thinking about for a while, I hope to explore this issue over a few more blog posts. I would love to hear people’s thoughts in the comments.

*Note: For the purpose of this blog post, I have used the following definitions:

Terrorism: [Non-state actors] using or threatening to use violence against innocent people and non-combatants and even property, in order to effect political change to achieve political goals by establishing a state of fear — Gregory Nagtzaam & Pete Lentini

Violent Extremism: Activities (beliefs, attitudes, actions, strategies) of people who support or use violence for political, religious or other identity-driven beliefs. This includes terrorism and other forms of identity-motivated violence from hate crime to genocide — Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research

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