What’s wrong with the ‘Black Box’ view of terrorism?

Apr 17, 2012 | Tzvi Fleischer and Sharyn Mittelman

What's wrong with the 'Black Box' view of terrorism?

Tzvi Fleischer and Sharyn Mittelman

ABC Religion and Ethics – 17 Apr 2012

Refusing to engage with the nature of the ideology behind terrorism is not the solution to preventing potential anti-Muslim racism.


Rachel Woodlock’s latest contribution to the debate about terrorism following the crimes of Mohamed Merah in Toulouse last month is unfortunately a good illustration of the problem we were trying to call attention to in our initial response.

She clearly is very uncomfortable with anyone discussing the extremist ideology that motivates individuals like Merah. Moreover, when the issue is raised, her response appears to be to relate any such discussion to “anti-Muslim stereotyping.”

Woodlock appears to imply that we are guilty of such stereotyping after we stressed the importance of understanding and countering the Jihadist/Islamist ideology that inspired Mohamed Merah – the Toulouse gunman who claimed to be a member of al-Qaeda – rather than focusing solely on the aspects of French society that might encourage an individual to become prey to extremism, as Woodlock and earlier contributor Tariq Ramadan did.

She did so by seizing on a phrase we used in our argument against her suggestion that focus should be placed solely on the factors in French society (such as discrimination and lack of opportunity) that create a “market for Jihadism.” To illustrate that individuals and groups react to such alienation and marginalisation in different ways, and ideas and ideologies are essential to understanding these differences, we stated that other minorities in France and elsewhere have not reacted to “similar sorts of perceived injustices the way a small minority of Muslims do.”

Based on that phrase, Woodlock’s latest article simply assumes that we are arguing that only Muslims commit terrorism or that, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but nearly all terrorists are Muslims.” We did not say this, we do not believe this, and we do not believe it is a fair reading of our article to attribute either of those sentiments to us.

As we noted in our last article, we agree that normative Islam does not condone such actions, and that it is important to make this clear in all discussion of Islamist terrorism.

What we were trying to say was that, at this moment in time, the existence of an Islamist totalitarian ideology emanating from the Middle East leads a small number of alienated Muslims to become proponents of a particular kind of terrorism – one which views all Jews, including small children, as legitimate targets for murder, and one which also frequently propagates especially indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets such as railroad stations, buildings, hotels and schools.

Moreover, this ideological movement provides international support services – training, internet bomb-making manuals, advice on obtaining equipment – to assist adherents to the ideology to gain the skills for carrying out such attacks.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that Woodlock’s latest article lists numerous terrorist attacks committed by groups with no association with Islam, but most of those attacks were on symbolic targets of the state – police officers, government offices, embassies. This is certainly terrorism, but of a different and more carefully targeted character than most of the major attacks by Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked groups.

And while it is true, as Woodlock notes, that numerically-speaking local separatist terrorist movements probably commit more attacks overall, the Jihadist or extreme Islamist terrorist stream remains the largest transglobal threat, affecting more countries, attacking indiscriminately and with the most potential for a truly horrific mega-terrorist event (such as an attack involving WMD).

Accepting this reality does not mean that we believe that terrorism and Islam are irrevocably linked, or even that Islam is uniquely susceptible to being distorted into an inspiration for violent terrorism. It merely means that we must face the fact that there is such a pro-terrorist ideological movement spawned by the specific local history and circumstances in the Middle East, which is sparking particularly dangerous forms of terrorism and must be contained and countered if we want to reduce that terrorism. (It hardly needs to be said that Europe has also in the past been the source of extremist ideological movements which led to massive violence.)

Moreover, the reality is that the predominant victims of Islamist fundamentalism or jihadist ideology of the al-Qaeda variety, are Muslims. This ideology has led to the oppression and murder of Afghani civilians under the Taliban and encouraged civil war in Iraq – including particularly murderous targeting of the Shi’ite majority there. It is an inspiration for at least some of the semi-genocidal violence against minorities which has occurred in Sudan over the past two decades.

In Toulouse, Merah killed three French soldiers, two of whom were Muslims. When he shot the soldiers he reportedly said: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.” “Brothers” appears to be a reference to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where French troops make up part of the NATO force. This only makes sense in terms of his radical al-Qaedist ideology.

Merah was a Frenchman of Algerian family origin. In what way were Afghanis his “brothers”? Only if his “brothers” are all fellow Muslims. Then, why weren’t the Muslim French soldiers his “brothers”? Apparently, because they were serving the non-Muslim state of France – which is fighting in Afghanistan to maintain a government which is made up almost wholly of Muslims against other Muslims trying to destroy it. It all makes no sense – unless you have the unifying Jihadist/Islamist worldview which sees a unified Islam in eternal battle against all infidels conspiring to destroy it.

Jihadist/Islamist ideology encourages anti-Semitism and terrorist attacks on Jewish targets. Merah specifically targeted a Jewish school and Jewish children. The case of Mumbai is another example, where a remote Jewish synagogue was attacked – the Rabbi, his pregnant wife and visiting tourists were viciously killed – their bodies mutilated.

Woodlock agrees that the Toulouse attack on the Jewish school was a symptomatic of Jihadist anti-Semitism, but adds that:

“it is telling that Merah claimed to be acting out of ‘revenge for Palestinian children killing by Israel’. Antisemitism among Muslims does not exist in a vacuum …”

But Merah was not in Israel, he did not target Israeli soldiers, and he is not a Palestinian; but he chose a French Rabbi and Jewish children as his targets for murder, thereby expressing a worldview that sees Jews and Israel as a seamless identity standing in opposition to his own.

Can you imagine any non-Palestinian anti-Israel activist, no matter how extreme in their anti-Israel sentiments, arguing the way to respond to Israel’s behaviour is to shoot small Jewish children in Jewish schools in France, without such a Jihadist/Islamist ideology?

It is interesting to note that even prominent Palestinian leaders noted the profound moral absurdity of Merah’s justification for his actions. Following the Toulouse attacks Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad commendably released a statement stating that:

“It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life.”

Neither did we nor do we deny that anti-Muslim racism and bigotry exists and is real, as Woodlock suggests we did. We agree it is, and that it sometimes involves racist violence – though, happily, the sort of indiscriminate violence against schools and children that we saw against Jews in the Toulouse case is very rare in Western nations.

And it would indeed be both morally reprehensible and counter-productive to Western efforts to contain terrorism inspired by extreme Jihadist Islamism ideological movements if that racism and bigotry were to increase. It is therefore incumbent on every responsible commentator discussing such incidents to make it clear that neither Muslims nor Islam should be held collectively responsible for such heinous acts, and that bigotry toward them will only worsen the problem.

But Woodlock’s way of dealing with this need to contain racism appears to be to push the ideology almost entirely out of the picture and instead imagine terrorism as a behaviourist “black box.”

In one end goes social exclusion, marginalisation and identity-confusion; out the other end comes terrorism. When the input factors go up, the terrorism increases. When they go down, it decreases. What happens in between, in the box itself where the terrorism is actually prepared and planned, we don’t need to know anything about. We don’t need to discuss the ideological movement, which she apparently fears will promote anti-Muslim bigotry.

Even putting aside the fact that we are not aware of any clear empirical evidence that the relationship between terrorism and factors such as social exclusion, marginalisation and identity-confusion is as straightforward as this “black box” model postulates, this simply will not do.

As noted above, it simply impossible to understand who Merah targeted and why without looking at the ideological worldview that clearly motivated him. As American counter-terrorism specialist Matthew Levitt wrote with respect to Merah:

“Insufficient integration may have made him more amenable to the nihilistic message of Bin Ladenism but it was the ideology that ultimately led him to murder.”

Understanding this is important not only for explaining Merah’s actions; it is essential to preventing future terrorism of the same sort.

Levitt pointed out that Islamist terrorism in Western states has traditionally been challenged in two key areas: counterterrorism, which seeks to identify and stop terrorism, and engagement programs that seek to overcome social marginalisation. But often missing is a key third component: counter-radicalisation, which is based on fighting the ideology that animates terrorists.

This is a key part of a counter-terrorism strategy which addresses the other side of Woodlock’s “market for Jihadism” and attempts to address both the supply and attractiveness of the ideological “goods” that lead to terrorism.

A study of counter-radicalisation by four scholars, including Levitt, notes:

“Engagement and counterterrorism are key elements of [a] comprehensive [counter-terrorism] strategy, but the wide space between them must be addressed. Missing are the policies and programs that should suffuse the space between these two poles on the counterradicalization spectrum, including efforts to contest the extremist narrative of radicalizers, empower and network mainstream voices countering extremism, promote diversity of ideas and means of expression, and challenge extremist voices and ideas in the public domain. Contesting the radical Islamist narrative does not mean arresting or banning despicable but protected speech; rather, it means openly contesting extremist views by offering alternatives and fostering deeper ideological debate. The objective in either case is to strengthen the moderate center against the extremist pole and help Muslim communities become more resilient in confronting the challenge.”

Similarly, acknowledging the ideological movement behind terrorism is the key to developing policies to identify and counter the networks within Western countries that find and recruit individuals to extremism and, often ultimately, to terrorism. It also plays a role in finding and cutting off the sources of terrorist training, expertise and weaponry that terrorists need to turn violent ideologies into actual violence.

Like good counter-terrorism policing, and addressing problems of social exclusion in various societies, countering fundamentalist ideology is in the interest of all peoples. It is certainly in the interest of Muslim communities – given that tragically, terrorists such as those in al-Qaeda both invoke Islam’s name and then proceed to slaughter Muslims around the world in large numbers for the sake of their violent ideology.

Refusing to engage, carefully but robustly, with the nature of the ideology behind these attacks is not the solution to preventing potential anti-Muslim racism. Not only does it make accurately diagnosing the terrorism problem impossible, it further stokes the paranoia of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists.

To prevent another Toulouse-style attack it is critical that there be more policies and programs that not only include counterterrorism and engagement but also looks at ways to contest and contain, on all possible fronts, the underlying fundamentalist ideology that is fueling these attacks.

Tzvi Fleischer edits the Australia/Israel Review at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Sharyn Mittleman is a Policy Analyst at AIJAC.


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