Stop calling Khalid Masood a ‘Radical Islamist’. We do not yet know if he was
March 26, 2017
by Martin Odoni
After lengthy investigation – and it would appear some very reckless and unjustified arrests in a big show of looking ‘in control’ – the police have concluded that the Westminster Attacker, Khalid Masood, acted alone when he took the lives of five people this week.
The media, and many in the wider public, seem to have determined for themselves that Masood, nèe Adrian Ajao, was a Radical Islamic terrorist operating on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq & Levant (ISIL/’Daesh’). That is a perfectly understandable conclusion to draw. Although born and raised a Christian, he converted to Islam at some point probably between 2001 and 2004. His method of killing, involving driving a vehicle into a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge, has very loud echoes of last year’s attacks in Nice and Berlin. And of course Daesh have claimed Masood as one of their own, calling him “a soldier of the Caliphate”. Open-and-shut case then?
People would do well to show a bit more caution though – yes including you, Andrew Marr – as the idea has now taken such a firm hold that everyone is just taking it for granted. In fact, while on balance Radical Islam is perhaps the likeliest explanation for Masood’s actions, it is by no means a certainty. There are a few details that lead me to having doubts; –
Firstly, after the aforementioned investigations concluded that Masood acted alone, it is perhaps a little difficult to reason exactly how or when he had been radicalised. For one thing, radicalisation is not exactly unknown among middle-aged men, but younger men are far more vulnerable to it. More importantly, it is a little incongruous that Masood supposedly joined a movement that radicalised him, but then he acted completely independently of it. When and how did it happen? He is understood to have spent a couple of years living in Saudi Arabia teaching English, but that appears to be the closest he ever got to the heartlands of Radical Islam. He did feature in a counter-terrorism investigation into an extremist group some years ago, but he was very much a peripheral figure, and it was before Daesh had even existed in any event. He may have had very loose associations with radicalised individuals, but the truth is that we can find ways of saying that about almost anybody. There really is no firm indication that Masood was ever ideologically radicalised.
Secondly, it is high time everybody grasped that just because Daesh claim a crime as one of their own, that does not mean that it genuinely is. Daesh wants the world to fear it. It especially wants Western countries to be afraid, as it hopes to intimidate the West into abandoning ‘The Holy Land’. Therefore, so long as it sounds plausible, Daesh will always claim these sorts of crimes as their own; it makes the organisation sound like more of a threat than it really is. But the reality is that the investigations have found no direct, practical link between Daesh and Masood. He might well have carried out the attack as an act of support for Daesh, he might well have done it after being inspired by Daesh (although actual evidence for either has not yet been uncovered), but the signs are that he did not do it as a part of their organisation. He did not appear to act under Daesh’s specific instructions, he certainly did not act in co-ordination with Daesh. Nor indeed did he act in co-ordination with anyone else. He acted alone. It is only by appending a very, very broad definition of what constitutes a member of Islamic State that the claim can really be sustained.
This leads directly into the third of my reasons for doubt, and it is quite a major sticking point. The truth is, as yet, no one really knows precisely why Masood did what he did, because he did not appear to leave an explanation behind for it. This may sound like a minor point, but it is fairly important to my mind, because it is where his modus operandi deviates from the norm; it is quite unusual for a Radical Islamist not to leave behind an explanation, usually by video recording, for his actions. Not unheard-of, but unusual. The London Bombers of 2005, just for instance, made prior video recordings of themselves explicitly pointing to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as their justification for the attacks. So far, no explanation for Wednesday from Masood, written or spoken word, has been found. No political or religious motivation has been established. Given the extent of the police investigations, it seems highly likely that they would have found it by now if he had provided one. As Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police commented yesterday,
“There is a possibility we will never understand why [Masood] did this. That understanding may have died with him.”
Analysis of Masood’s history suggests a man with serious problems controlling violent and criminal impulses, dating back to long, long before he became a Muslim. He spent three terms in prison, all before he converted to Islam, including twice for stabbing victims in the face with knives. In both cases, it seems more-than-possible that the attacks were intended to be lethal, but also they foreshadow his killing of PC Keith Palmer on Wednesday. Masood further had an extensive history of substance abuse, including cocaine and steroids, which were bound to have long-term effects on his mental health. Perhaps paradoxically, after his conversion, he for some years showed signs of bringing his behaviour under control.
So while Radical Islam is one strong possibility, another strong possibility cannot yet be ruled out. If we look at the Westminster Attack in the context of the rest of Masood’s life, instead of in the context of popular hysteria against Muslims, we see an equally consistent pattern. The possibility is that Khalid Masood was just an unstable man who, having spent some years battling to bury old impulses, finally reached the end of his tether. He may simply have been carrying out a mindless act of last-gasp despair similar to the massacre by Derrick Bird in Cumbria a few years ago.
Nobody called Bird a terrorist, or assumed some kind of ideological motive for the Cumbria Shootings. Given Masood was attempting to force a way into Parliament, it seems more likely in his case, but we should at least be cautious about it. It is possible he took inspiration from the Nice and Berlin Attacks when choosing his method, but not necessarily when deciding to attack in the first place; Masood may have only decided to drive into the crowd on Westminster Bridge on a sudden mad impulse for all we know. (The fact he was carrying a knife on Wednesday tells us nothing, as it is clear from his previous convictions that there was nothing unusual about him carrying a knife.)
We really do not know why Masood did what he did on Wednesday, and as he was gunned down, the odds are that we never will. Without finding more information first, any attempt we make to fill that void will be a mixture of prejudiced speculation and fevered guesswork. Such an exercise is not only futile, it will potentially blind us to better information, should it become available.
In the end, such impatient guessing games will only reveal more about the people playing them than they will ever reveal about Khalid Masood.