Rik Coolsaet cited in Ottawa Citizen

Monday 13 June 2016 - Ottawa citizen

Editorial: Orlando killer: Murderer or terrorist?

After the horrendous bombings of the London Underground that killed more than 50 people in 2005, the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, said of the attackers: “This isn’t an ideology, it isn’t even a perverted faith – it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder …” He was right to put the emphasis on the crime itself, rather than on the motive for it.

That is where we, too, should focus in discussing the horrible saga of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 innocent people and wounded dozens of others at an Orlando gay nightclub. This pathetic man was a criminal, a murderer, a squalid failure in life who deserves only ignominy in death.

On the initial evidence available, however, Mateen’s attack is being investigated as an act of terrorism. He mentioned ISIL in his 911 call to police. That criminal gang, in exchange, claims credit for his carnage. Thus a puny failure is elevated to status as a martyr to some twisted cause, a man willing to kill or die for something – however misguided – apparently greater than himself.

That is the unfortunate part of labelling his crime “terrorism,” even if it does fit the rough definition: aimed at non-combatants, committed for an alleged cause of some sort.

The phenomenon of modern-day “terrorism” is confusing to most of us. Are lone wolves – which he may have been – the same as the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Red Brigades of the 1970s? Is the label helpful in examining what Mateen did?

In his thorough – and recently updated – study on so-called foreign fighters, Prof. Rik Coolsaet of Belgium’s Royal institute for International Relations summarizes some of the best current thinking about terrorists. Though Coolsaet’s focus is on those who left Europe to fight for ISIL in Syria, his themes are relevant here.

Many modern-day “terrorists,” he observes, are not particularly religious. The European security agency Europol, for example, says “religion is neither the key departure point nor the primary engine” of people who fight for ISIL. Some would-be terrorists drink, use drugs, are petty criminals. Mateen does not appear to have been overly devout. Islamic scholar Oliver Roy, Coolsaet also points out, argues that ISIL adherence is “not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamicization of radicalism.” Islam, for such people, is just a convenient excuse for violence. Indeed, Mateen appears to have declared support for various competing terrorist groups in the past.

Meanwhile, in many cases, the “radicalized” wannabe terrorist is rebelling against his own upbringing, or is nudged along by a desire to be part of a group, the ISIL “super-gang.” Mateen, investigators say, had at least one brush with radicalized people.

Another strong correlation in the research appears to be a sense of having “no future,” or as Coolsaet describes it, “an escape from an everyday life see seemingly without prospects.” People who are failures in some way fantasize themselves as heroes, so glom on to some adventure that can make this happen.

There are particular reasons why ISIL, and not some other violent group, has become the touchstone for some of these people; Coolsaet’s study bears reading in its entirety. Explaining terrorism (if we can) doesn’t excuse it, though. Mateen may have simply been a viciously evil homophobe masquerading as an adherent of a movement. We don’t know.

But we do know what criminality and murder are. Imputing grandiose, quasi-Islamic motives to this shooter are useful only if they help us prevent future mass murders.


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