Op-ed: The ‘War on Terror’ is Failing, to Prevent Future Terrorist Attacks We Must Look Outside of Islam

Published June 7th, 2017 - 06:44 GMT
This week London fell victim to the third terrorist attack in Britain in three months. (AFP)
This week London fell victim to the third terrorist attack in Britain in three months. (AFP)

This week, with the horrors of the Manchester Attack still lingering, London fell victim to the third terrorist attack in Britain in three months.

The attack took place in the heart of Central London on Saturday night when three men crashed into a group of pedestrians in a hired vehicle before proceeding to Borough Market and carrying out a string of stabbings in bars and restaurants in the area. A total of  7 people were killed and a further 48 suffered injuries before attackers were gunned down by police.

What follows has become an all too-familiar discussion on whether Islam itself inherently breeds violence and extremism, how Muslim communities in the West can avoid and fight radicalization, and an affirmation by politicians of how, in spite of this, Britain will remain united and take the enemy down together.

Islam and ‘Islamism’ finds itself at the centre of all these discussions, nit picked and torn apart with loud voices on either side. The media and politicians alike continually use their platforms to either condemn the faith and its followers or defend it in the name of social cohesion and diversity.

What remains outside of the conversation is a much needed discussion on the reality of the forces at play; what is the real driving force behind these gross acts of violence? And more importantly, how can we counteract these to stop the next attack from happening?  

Placing Islam at the centre of the problem is not only inaccurate according to many, many studies and government intelligence reports, but is also a dangerous distraction from actively addressing the root causes of terrorism. The West’s ‘War on Terror’ is failing, and it is now more important than ever to re-think anti-terror and anti-radicalization strategies.

Is Islam the driving force behind acts of terror?

Back in 2008, a report carried out by MI5 researchers, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, concluded that ‘far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.’ Journalist Alan Travis who revealed the leaked report found that perpetrators of violent acts of terrorism are ‘far from being Islamic fundamentalists, most are religious novices.’

These findings are echoed by facts we have about Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, the Birmingham-based Brits who flew to Syria to fight and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in court. The men made an amazon.com order for Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.

Similarly, the Bataclan attackers in Paris sold their bar in Brussels very shortly before carrying out the deadly attack.

Westminster attacker Khalid Masood (formerly known as Adrian Elms) converted to Islam in prison following a long history of violence, having been previously charged of grievous bodily harm, assault and even possession of firearms.

What is even more pivotal about the MI5 Report, which was made up of hundreds of case studies, is that it actually found that ‘a well established religious identity protects against violent radicalisation.’

Despite this very solid, very useful information (which came out almost 10 years ago) we are still upholding the false stereotype of the Middle Eastern Muslim terrorist and inaccurately placing Islam at the centre of the public discussion.

What do the studies tell us?

In regards to Islam as the driving force for extremism, studies echo the findings of MI5. One study found that ‘terrorists had a simpler, shallower conception of Islam than radicals’ - who do not commit acts of violence. Another defining aspect of the ideology of those who commit or intend to commit terrorists acts, in contrast to radicals who do not turn to violence, is that although ‘both are familiar with so-called jihadi scholars and some support the application of Sharia, although mostly in a nostalgic or aspirational sense, terrorists were set apart by their extreme attitudes against the West and Western culture.' 

Young Muslims and radicals who do not turn to violence shared feelings of isolation and issues with identity, but they also  felt genuine affection for Western values of tolerance and pluralism, as well as the system of governance and western culture. On the other hand, terrorists expressed loathing for Western society and culture, they embodied a strong ‘us versus them’ ideology and a rejection of the other, according to the data they were also less likely to have studied at university or to have been employed.

These defining attributes of terrorists identifies key aspects which seem to have not been understood well enough in counter-terrorism strategy making, and fail to make it into mainstream discussions surrounding terrorism. The first important finding is that where Islam does play a role in the lead up to a terrorist act, it is a shallow, simple, and sometimes politicised version of Islam, as is illustrated by the profiles of the recent perpetrators of ‘Islamic’ terrorists.

The other very crucial piece of information in the study is that a radical understanding of Islam, however extreme or problematic it may be, is never itself the driving force behind violent acts of terror. According to the information we have, one can be extreme in regards to religious ideology but still never be pushed to carry out any kind of violent attack. The studies also showed that religion played a varying role in the process of radicalization for each individual who was investigated. It was impossible make a general finding about which point through the process of radicalization religion began to play a role, if at all, or to what extent. Despite this, researchers were sure that somone who is brought up with a strong Islamic religious identity is less likely to become a terrorist. 

A change of direction?  

Following Manchester and London Bridge, British people are asking the question why? People are coming to acknowledge that the current system is not working, and they are desperately seeking a solution. Relying on the security services to foil plots is also becoming more and more difficult with the new form of attacks such as Westminster and London Bridge, which were carried out with very little pre-planning. 

If, according to the studies the major driving force behind acts of terrorism has been found to be a 'loathing for the West' and a desperate feeling of powerlessness among marginalised sections of society, then this is what anti-terror efforts should be focussed on addressing.

Anthropologist and expert on religious radicalisation Scott Atran described ‘wannabe’ jihadists as ‘bored, underemployed, overqualified and underwhelmed’ in a testimony to the US Senate in 2010.

Job creation for the youth and social security are essential counter forces to radicalization which are being largely ignored by policy makers.

Another important defining characteristic of a terrorist profile is the adoption of the ‘them versus us’ narrative. If we are to tackle this rhetoric to prevent extremism then it is important to also recognise its strong presence within the politics of Western leaders. Trump’s travel ban succeeded in alienating Muslims and isolating Muslim communities in America and across the world. It also would not have prevented either the Manchester attack nor the Westminster and London Bridge attacks.

The London Bridge attackers were of Libyan, Moroccan, Pakistani and UK nationality, not one of them would have been affected by the ban.


Islam is not inherently evil, neither are most people who commit evil acts. Declaring a 'War on Terror' achieved nothing but justify further war and destruction in the Middle East, creating vaccums for dangerous groups such as Daesh to appear. Terror in all its forms is on the rise, and it is now time to re-assess the facts and create a strategy that will push us forward.

 Sahar Esfandiari 

© 2000 - 2022 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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