I spent almost half of my career as an intelligence analyst looking at a very specific type of extremism: Al Qaeda and its ilk. I looked at hundreds of cases of individuals who had radicalised in tune with the terrorist organisation’s ideology, and read hundreds of academic papers and dozens of books on the topic. After a decade or so of firsthand observation and a lot of thinking – posing hypotheses and rejecting them – I felt that I had finally reached a point where I understood the radicalisation phenomenon. At least this small section of it. The fact that I concluded that there was no pattern to the data should not detract from the sense of accomplishment I felt.
This laser-like focus on AQ and its world view meant that I was – and am – woefully uneducated in matters of other kinds of extremism, whether it be environmentalist, white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, anarchist or others. It is only thanks to the amazing work carried out by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US that I know anything about the US skinheads, sovereign citizens and other problem children south of the border.
Then again, maybe 15 years of research has enabled me to grasp more than I thought. I wondered about this as I read an account in the New York Times on Meir Ettinger, the Jewish extremist arrested recently (I wrote about him in Sins of the (Grand)father). The article (see it here) provided a small window into Mr. Ettinger’s mindset and the more I read the more I recognised some very familiar aspects of religious extremism.
Allow me to explain. When I lecture on AQ-inspired radicalisation, I point out that there are some consistent behaviours and attitudes that all these extremists share, regardless of their backgrounds (socio-economic, ethnic, family, education,etc.). These common themes include: a sense of moral and religious superiority towards other faiths and even co-religionists, a belief in a divine mandate, the rejection of laws and secular systems, a belief in violence to achieve goals, obsession with apocalyptic scenarios, and a tendency to associate only with likeminded extremists. These are well documented and can serve as warning signs that someone is heading down the “radicalisation pathway”.
So imagine my surprise – and satisfaction – to read that Mr. Ettinger subscribes to the following: according to the NYT he calls for the “dispossession of gentiles” who inhabit the Holy Land and the replacement of the modern Israeli state with a new kingdom of Israel ruled by the laws of the Torah. An Israeli sociologist noted that he does not accept the validity of Israeli law, nor does he accept the validity of civic morality. In addition, he believes he is duty-bound and religiously sanctioned to act whenever he thinks his view of the world is being violated.
Wow! That’s pretty extreme. You know what else is fascinating? I can take Mr. Ettinger’s words, make a few minor changes here and there, and come up with the ideology of Chiheb Esseghaier, recently convicted in the Via Rail plot of 2013. There is that much in common. Muslim terrorist, meet Jewish terrorist – you have a lot to talk about. Now if we could interview an abortion clinic bomber or an Odinist, we could do some serious cross-comparisons (or have the start to a politically incorrect joke – Bin Laden, Meir Kahane and Anders Breivik walk into a bar…).
What does this imply? While I would never extrapolate from a sample size of 2 (others have, believe me), it suggests that those who subscribe to religiously-motivated extremism share some fundamental views – rejection of other faiths, conviction that God/Allah/Yahweh speaks to them/directs them, and a belief that the Almighty sanctions (or even demands) violence. In other words, we may be able to study this subtype of terrorism as a semi-coherent whole. Or maybe someone has already done that.
In any event, what binds people is sometimes more powerful than what divides them – even if they don’t see it.