February 7, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Ready to Die: Extremism, Fatalism & the Streatham Attack

The recent Streatham attack differs from London Bridge for a few reasons, one of them being that it occurred in a relatively nondescript south London suburb, as opposed to a popular tourist location. Another, more significant variance was the presence of undercover police at the scene of the attacks as a result of active surveillance on the now deceased culprit, Sudesh Amman, following his release from prison the week before. Unsurprisingly, questions have surfaced surrounding their inability to thwart the attack. Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick explained:

They are there covertly and that is a deliberate thing…I wish I could assure the public that everybody who poses a risk on the streets could be subject to some sort of thing that would stop them being able to stab anybody ever, but it is clearly not possible.[1]

A Whitehall source also noted:

He was under surveillance, that is what allowed police to do their job so quickly. It could have been much worse than it was.” [2]

While discussions continue about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of covert surveillance in the above-mentioned circumstances, more focus is required on the impetus behind Sudesh Amman’s desire to be killed in the process of committing an act of terrorism.  There is a perturbing trend in which terrorists are actually seen awaiting – indeed, welcoming – the arrival of armed police while brandishing imitation weapons or donning fake suicide vests during the process of their attacks. We only have to recall the behaviour of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the immediate aftermath of their murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013. While awaiting the arrival of armed police, Adebolajo calmly articulated reasons for killing the soldier and once they arrived, he and Adebowale stormed the vehicle in anticipation of being killed.[3] Usman Khan was shot dead on London Bridge after killing two innocent people while wearing an imitation suicide vest. Amman is the latest violently radicalised extremist to follow Khan’s pattern of behaviour. They both knew sight of these vests would necessitate a deadly police response. The type of self-destructive fatalism witnessed in these attacks is underscored by various socio-religious, socio-economic and/or psychological factors. However, they do not exculpate the perpetrators from these crimes.

Dying to Live

Raffaelo Pantucci, observes:

In order for a person to be persuaded that he ought to attack the society in which he lives, he must convincingly believe the latter is already against him…For many of Britain’s self-appointed Muslim warriors, one of the roots of the anger they feel is the backdrop of real or perceived racism emanating from the country in which many of them were raised.[4]

There are, of course, other grievances cited by violent extremists that transcend societal borders to include the global Muslim community – the Ummah – particularly those facing persecution:

The borderless loyalty is a religious sentiment of the people in your midst. As long as the Muslims remain in your focus, you will remain in ours. No matter the security precautions you may take, you cannot kill a borderless idea.[5]

In previous articles, I have referred to the Cognitive Development Framework developed during my PhD. Examination of violently radicalised individuals revealed their often rudimentary knowledge of the religion, which restricted their socio-religious development to the first two of four cognitive stages; namely, the ‘founding’ and ‘youthful’ phases.[6] These can be considered the most vulnerable stages of religious development where the individual possesses an idealised and abstract understanding of his/her faith. Sudesh Amman fell into this category and, like other violently radicalised novices; his religious learning was invariably garnered from extremist propaganda via the Internet. Contrary to his mother’s belief,[7] Amman’s violent radicalisation actually occurred prior to imprisonment, as revealed during trial in December 2018:

Sudesh Amman, 18, declared his own wish to carry out a terror attack and had stockpiled a combat knife, air gun and black flag at his family home in London…His fascination with dying in the name of terrorism was clear in his notepad…[8]

Despite the sensationalist nature of the above article, it still captures his sense of idealism. Amman’s death wish originated from a misplaced notion of martyrdom and his desire to commit an act of terrorism, believing it to be jihad. This yearning remained with him throughout his imprisonment.

“We love Death as you love life”

This statement has become a common mantra for extremists and is yet another part of authentic – and nostalgic – religious phraseology that has been misappropriated by them, much in the same way that other terminology, like Jihad, Khilafah etc. have also been bastardized. Historically, this declaration was made in a letter prior to war between the emerging Muslim community and Persians by Khalid ibn al-Walid, a renowned military leader and companion of Prophet Muhammed. The context of this announcement is recounted below:

Submit to Islam and be safe. Or agree to the payment of the Jizya (a tax levied on non-Muslim inhabitants), and you and your people will be under our protection, else you will have only yourself to blame for the consequences, for I bring men who desire death as ardently as you desire life.[9]

Needless to mention, the merits of Islam’s pious predecessors are incomparable to the conduct and behaviour of violent extreme co-religionists who cite misappropriated slogans and proclamations in an attempt to legitimise their distorted beliefs. However, it is important to understand how deeply entrenched these notions are within the extremist mindset, making the fight against their unrelenting ideology all the more challenging:

Islamic State’s taunt that “we love death more than you love life” was always a threat as well as a fact. This expressed love of death was incomprehensible to people raised to believe that self-preservation is at the core of human nature. In extremis, soldiers might die to protect their comrades and parents would sacrifice their own lives to save their children. But they did not love death, let alone long for it.” [10]

Ronald Tiersky continues:

A love of death meant ISIS was implacable. There was no possible negotiation, and no deterring suicide bombers or terrorist attacks in which militants knew they would die. In fact, getting themselves killed was part of their motive.” [11]

During a general meeting with the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner in 2006, following a bungled attempt to raid premises in Forest Gate, east London, in which an innocent person was shot, I queried whether any strategy was in place to tackle terrorists intent on dying at the hands of the security services.[12] The resounding silence should come as no surprise in view of the observations made above. Incidents like Forest Gate serve to exacerbate existing tensions between statutory agencies and Muslim communities, playing into the hands of extremist propaganda. Today, in 2020, evidence of antagonism, distrust and indeed, the targeting of Muslim minorities continues under the guise of failed strategies and politicians apparently seeking to cement their careers through the introduction of draconian policies.

A Priti Ugly Affair

The new home secretary, Priti Patel, received deserved criticism as a result of her somewhat gung-ho approach to tackling crime:

…quite frankly, with more police officers out there and greater police presence,  I want [criminals] to literally feel terror at the thought of committing offences.” [13]

Such statements illustrate the extent to which the government – at the most senior level – continues to lack crucial understanding of the motivation that underpins religious extremism today. Contrary to Patel’s pretty glaring oversight, extremists like Amman actually welcomed police presence and was, in fact, the purveyor of terror on this occasion. In this instance, it is difficult to argue against critics who emphasise:

Priti Patel’s notion that making people terrified of the police will cut crime shows just how out of touch she is with what’s leading people into crime in the first place.” [14]

A properly thought out and pragmatic approach is more likely to yield progressive strategies instead of the knee-jerk and headline grabbing responses this and recent governments have become notorious for. At least former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6, Richard Barrett, acknowledges Britain has to do more to understand and engage potential terrorists before they become attracted toward violent radicalisation and not afterwards. He observes:

The crucial work of immunisation against this insidious persuasion has to take place before an individual is exposed to extremist propaganda, by offering more attractive and available ways to achieve the sense of purpose and belonging that so many terrorist recruits appear to seek…[15]

He further acknowledges:

There has been some discussion of deradicalisation programmes outside Britain…all are highly tailored to the culture and resources available, and none is 100% guaranteed to work. In recognition of this, all continue to evolve, and the one direction that appears to be common among them is towards the greater involvement of local communities, both in preempting radicalisation and in attempting effective deradicalisation…It is, after all, the community that is most likely to spot warning signs…It is the community to which any convicted terrorist must return.[16]

Conclusion

Sudesh Amman was not returned to his local community after release from prison and Streatham must have been unfamiliar territory to him. Many south Londoners are familiar with this suburb. In fact, my first job was on the high road – Boots the Pharmacy to be exact – outside of which Amman was shot and killed. On the day of the attack local shoppers would have been traversing familiar routes, visiting familiar stores. The shock and fear they probably experienced that Sunday afternoon must have felt surreal. Many will have experienced similar feelings as the news emerged. Witnessing another shooting via mobile phone footage, within 3 months of the London Bridge attack, is enough to make anyone feel unsafe. There is now trepidation that more of the same is likely to occur in the near future. Pantucci forewarns:

The reality is that while the British security services understand much better the networks they are dealing with and what radicalisation looks like, there is still very little understanding of how to counter and de-radicalise. The growing instances of ex-convicts emerging radicalised from prisons, and the very few terrorist prisoners coming out of jail having recanted their views, shows that even when the state holds individuals in a confined space it is unable to prevent extremist ideas from taking root.” [17]

With a ‘wave’ of convicted (and apparently unreformed) terrorists set to be released this year,[18] Pantucci’s final conclusion is ominous:

The crest of the first wave of British Jihadism may have been broken, but the undercurrents of a new storm surge are building.” [19]

 

 

 

[1] BBC News: ‘Streatham attack: Sudesh Amman was not marked ‘man-to-man’’ 5th February 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-51385085

[2] Hopkins, N: ‘Questions for investigators over surveillance of attacker,’ The Guardian, 2nd February 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/02/streatham-attacker-police-surveillance-monitored?CMP=share_btn_link

[3] Smith-Spark, L; Morgan, K & Gumuchian, M: ‘Lee Rigby murder: 2 men found guilty in UK soldier’s slaying,’ CNN, 19th December 2013: https://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/19/world/europe/uk-soldier-killing-trial/index.html

[4] Pantucci, R: “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists,’ C. Hurst & Co. (Publications), 2015, p.51

[5] al-Sana’ni, M: ‘Roshonara and Taimour: ‘Followers of the borderless loyalty,’ Inspire Magazine, January 2011, cited in Pantucci, R: We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists,’ C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers), 2015, p. 284

[6] Baker, A H: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror,’ Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 & 2015.

[7] Rashid, I & Mercer, D: ‘Streatham Terrorist Sudesh Amman’s mother spoke to her ‘polite boy’ hours before the attack,’ Sky News, 3rd February 2020: https://news.sky.com/story/streatham-terror-attack-sudesh-ammans-mother-spoke-to-her-polite-boy-hours-before-attack-11925460

[8] Dearden, L: ‘Teenage ISIS supporter who encouraged girlfriend to behead her ‘disbeliever’ parents jailed,’ The Independent, 17th December 2018: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/isis-behead-parents-girlfriend-teenage-supporter-london-terror-attack-sudesh-amman-a8687921.html

[9] Tabari: Vol. 2, p.554

[10] Tiersky, R: ‘Isis’s deadliest weapon is the idea of heaven,’ Huffington Post, 19th September 2016: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/isiss-deadliest-weapon-is_b_12087084

[11] Ibid

[12] Walker, P & Fickling, D: ‘Police apologise to east London raid family,’ The Guardian, 13th June 2006:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jun/13/terrorism.uk

[13] Gayle: D: ‘Home secretary Priti Patel criticised over wish for criminals ‘to feel terror’’, The Guardian, 3rd August 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/03/priti-patel-home-secretary-wants-criminals-to-literally-feel-terror

[14] Ibid

[15] Barrett, R: ‘We need to get potential terrorists before radicalisation, not afterwards,’ The Guardian, 3rd February 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/03/potential-terrorists-before-radicalisation-extremist-propaganda?CMP=share_btn_link

[16] Ibid

[17] Pantucci, R: “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists,’ C. Hurst & Co. (Publications), 2015, p.292

[18] Hymas, C; Mendick, R & Dixon, H: ‘Wave of jihadi terrorists due to be freed on early release within months,’ The Telegraph, 3rd February 2020: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/02/03/wave-jihadi-terrorists-due-freed-early-release-within-months/

[19] Pantucci, R: “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists,’ C. Hurst & Co. (Publications), 2015, p.293

 

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