What makes a violent extremist?

Carolyn Moynihan
Jul 29 2015
Reproduced with Permission

Murderous shootings and slayings are a common occurrence in the United States. Last Thursday, just a week after Mohammad Abdulazeez fired on two Navy sites in Chattanooga, killing five servicemen before being shot dead himself, a 59-year-old drifter opened fire in a Louisiana movie theatre, killing two people and injuring nine others before shooting himself. In Oklahoma on the same day two teenage brothers fatally attacked their parents and three siblings. In the preceding week there were at least 15 murder-suicides involving guns across the country, accounting for the deaths of more than 30 people, some of whom were children.

No, it's not only young Muslim men who go on killing sprees; old and young white men do it too. But it's the Muslims who exercise us most in the West, because they appear to be part of an organised movement whose extremities are defined by ISIS and Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. By contrast, the random acts of angry or psychotic individuals, who look just like the majority of folks around us, seem completely unpredictable and unable to be prevented.

But perhaps both kinds of killing have something in common. The Oklahoma tragedy and all of the murder-suicides mentioned above resulted from family and other relationships turned sour. What about terrorists? Do they all come from stable, happy families?

British Prime Minister David Cameron in a key speech last week pinpointed "extremism" as "the struggle of our generation", including the Islamic variety and far right groups under that heading. Mr Cameron is determined to tackle the causes of extremism in his country, and one can only wish him success in his efforts. The question is, whether he has identified the most significant causes, or perhaps overlooked any social trend that would make people susceptible to the propaganda of jihadists or the National Front.

Young people are attracted to such "poisonous ideology", Cameron said, because they watch videos that make it seem energising and heroic; because they hear conspiracy theories about Western motives; because extremist voices overpower others in the media; and because of identity issues arising from growing up in cultural isolation within the adopted country.

Turning to America, there is little evidence that these factors were at work when 24-year-old Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez went on his shooting rampage in Chattanooga. Like many Muslims with Middle East roots (his mother is from Kuwait, where he was born, and his father from the West Bank) he was concerned about developments there. Like many native-born Americans, he had criticised US policy in the region and the war on terror - a view heightened by his spending seven months in Jordan last year with relatives.

Since then he had shown more interest in his religion. He searched terms such as "martyrdom" and one of his last actions was to text a friend a link to an Islamic verse which translates as, "Whoever shows enmity to a friend of mine, then I have declared war against him." This was in response to the friend's difficulties with a job which required him to serve bacon to customers. Together with the fact that he had bought two assault rifles, these pieces of information seem more sinister, but investigators, initially at least, could find no link with ISIS or other extremist groups, although the FBI believes he watched terrorist videos on the internet. In fact, his close friend James Petty insisted that Mohammad had told him ISIS was a "stupid" group and "completely against Islam".

On the other hand, Mohammad hardly lived in a cultural ghetto. His home was in a "quiet" neighbourhood and he attended an ordinary high school and college, where he gained an engineering degree. Like many other young men he liked macho sports like shooting, fast cars and hiking in the mountains around Chattanooga. He belonged to a wrestling club whose coach and other members were incredulous that he would kill. That he also used alcohol and drugs - party pills and marijuana - and struggled to hold down a job, did not, by itself, single him out from his peer group. Nor would his depression, a condition which afflicts as many as one in 10 American adolescents .

But behind the drug abuse and depression was a family history that might explain that, and much more. According to divorce papers filed by his mother, Rasmia, in 2009, her husband, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez, had repeatedly beaten her, at times in front of their children, and had sexually assaulted her while the children were in the house. She said that that on one occasion she was beaten so severely that she fled their home and went to a crisis centre. Youssuf had also been abusive towards the children, she said, striking them and berating them without provocation or justification.

In fact, the couple did not divorce. They reached an agreement and said they would go to counselling. They remain together today, but it seems they had little influence with their son. He was not known at the local mosque (his mother attended only irregularly). His spell in Jordan last year was their attempt to isolate him from the friends he spent so much time with and who seem to have encouraged his drug abuse. He resisted his parents' urging to have treatment for it. He was in and out of treatment for depression but often refused to take his medication. His father objected to his guns, but Mohammad defied him, saying he knew what he was doing.

It seems that he shared his struggles with a couple of very close friends rather than with his family, and who could be surprised at that? The conflict at home during his early adolescence must have been unbearable, and would have undermined attachment to them and their faith. Partying, drugs, shootouts at the firing range and daredevil car rides became ways to escape unhappiness; by the time he tried to engage seriously with his faith it was too late. "Martyrdom" became an honourable name for suicide.

The authorities are calling him a "self-radicalised violent extremist" but Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez seems more like an accidental extremist, one who took that route because it was a way to resolve intolerable tensions in his life rather than because he was poisoned by extremist ideology.

David Cameron is going to clamp down on extremist ideologues. The FBI is switching its focus from large scale plots to identifying and preventing shootings and stabbings - particularly those that might be ISIS-inspired. "We don't expect to eradicate crime, but we've made a political promise that we're going to stop every act of terrorism," one official told the New York Times.

These things are necessary, of course, but it could also be worthwhile for the authorities to study the family history of the young terrorists we already know about. It seems highly unlikely that someone from an intact, happy family where there is trust between parents and children would turn into a jihadist. And while governments cannot know which families are not like that, they could think carefully about what makes family breakdown and stress more likely, and shape their policies accordingly.