Posted May 29th 2013 at 10:04 am by
in Perspectives on Current Events

Spotting a terrorist is easy. They look just like you.

Spotting a ticket inspector is easy - they look just like you!

“Spotting a ticket inspector is easy.” Image credit: Christian Heilmann on Flickr.

This sign – which reads, “Spotting a ticket inspector is easy. They look just like you.” – is common on London buses and trains. It seems the same can be said of terrorists. David Lammy, Member of Parliament for Tottenham wrote in Saturday’s Guardian that Abdullah Shaheed Jamal, one of the men who bombed London on 7th July 2005, “did not look like Osama bin Laden, Kaled Sheikh Mohammed or Mohamed Atta. In fact, he looked like me… ”

On the afternoon of Wednesday 22nd May, Lee Rigby, a young off-duty soldier, was run over by a car and then hacked to death in Woolwich, 10 miles from my home in London, England. I read that in one of the earliest reports, the attackers had been described as being of “Muslim appearance“. I assumed that this meant that they wore the length of beard and loose clothing prescribed by Islam.

So I was surprised to see news footage of a clean-shaven black man, Michael Adebolajo, wearing a tightly buttoned modern duffel jacket, jeans, and a woolen hat. Had he not been brandishing a bloodied meat cleaver and knife, he would have been indistinguishable from most of the other people going about their business on Woolwich High Street that day.

CCTV (closed circuit television) photos of Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, show two young men in baseball caps, sweatshirts and shades. Superficially, they appeared equally indistinguishable from the crowds watching the Marathon – many of whom would soon be seriously injured or dead as a result of what they were about to do.

A high school friend of the younger brother Dzhokar (nicknamed Jahar) wrote, “You think you know someone, he was such a nice kid, I still can’t believe that he planted those bombs and shot an MIT police officer to death. This is not the Jahar I know.”

This echoes the words of a school friend of Adebolajo: “When I look at these pictures on our last day at school and compare it to the one of him holding that knife I find it hard to believe it is the same person.” A friend of the second Woolwich suspect, Michael Adebowale, said of the boy he used to know: “That wasn’t someone monstrous. That wasn’t the same person at all… He was one of us… just normal”.

In both cases, friends were utterly shocked that someone they had considered “one of us” had morphed into that ubiquitous bogey man of the 21st Century – the Islamist terrorist. It’s as terrifying as that nightmare in which you look in the mirror and find someone else – a monster – looking back at you.

“I’m so emotionally torn,” wrote Dzhokar’s friend, trying to reconcile the person he went to prom with and the person who bombed Boston. “I just can’t help but feel bad for him, I wonder how scared and alone he probably feels. On the other hand, I’m placing these emotions on the person I knew, not the person he is now…”

The Tsarnaevs were immigrants, refugees from war-torn Chechnya, via Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan.

I know what it’s like to try to blend in with your new countrymen, to be what they consider normal, and not to bring attention to the things that make you different. Many of my British friends would be surprised to know of some of the things my family and I experienced before we came to the UK. We were briefly held hostage by Assamese separatist rebels. We were frequently in danger of attack from wild elephants, boar and panthers. We were on alert to shelter from aerial bombing during the Bangladesh war. We were caught up in violent industrial disputes and political riots. But these are not stories you can casually slip into the conversation in an English pub. They just don’t fit.

So your history starts from when you come to your new country. You adjust your dress, your language, and your demeanour to blend in. My father taught us how to pronounce dipthongs – the gliding two-part English vowels that get foreshortened by Indian accents. I even took up smoking at the age of 13 to fit in with my new friends. And yet, deep down, you know you will never truly and totally belong.

So despite appearing to their friends to be just like them, in reality, there were rivers of difference and confusion flowing beneath the Tsarnaevs’ all-American veneer. British born and bred, the two Michaels had other reasons for not belonging or being accepted: being bullied at school, being brought up by ultra-strict Christian parents, or perhaps it was just something about their personalities.

All four young men were ultimately drawn to the brotherhood of militant Islamism. But even then, they didn’t really belong. They were not always regular attendants at their mosques. They didn’t all become close to others worshipers. Adebolajo attended militant Islamist organisation Al-Muhajiroun events, but never became an official member. Adebolajo’s former schoolmate says, “Maybe he just felt he didn’t fit in anywhere, and that’s what led him to this.”

You get a glimpse of their confusion about belonging in these two photographs, one of Dzhokar Tsarnaev on prom night, and one of Michael Adebolajo with his schoolmates. Each of the boys is positioned at the heart of his group. Yet each is dressed – or undressed – in a way that makes him stand out. Adebolajo is bare-chested while his friends all wear identical t-shirts and Tsarnaev, though dressed as formally as the others in his group, stands out in a red silk vest and tie. Both photos cry out, “Accept me! Include me!” but equally so, “Look at me! I am different.”

Adebolajo is said to have wanted to move to a Muslim country. Would he have fit in any better there? Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Dagestan in 2012 and attended the local mosque. But he was described by a man in Dagestan as “sticking out”. “It was obvious he is not local,” he said, “He liked to draw attention with his expensive and fancy clothes. His haircut was something no one has seen before”.

Maybe, like the younger boys in the school photos, he was conflicted between wanting to belong and wanting to stand out. The New York Times reported that: “During registration for a [boxing] tournament in Lowell, [Tamerlan] sat down at a piano and lost himself for 20 minutes in a piece of classical music. The impromptu performance, so out of place in that world, finished to a burst of applause from surprised onlookers.”

Unlike Dzhokar, Tamerlan did not make friends easily. When featured in a college magazine photo-essay he said, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” He sought acceptance through his boxing. But after two successful years as New England heavyweight champion, he was banned from competing because he was not a U.S. citizen. Once again, he was denied belonging. Soon after this, his behaviour is reported to have “changed drastically”.

In each case, something happened after which the suspects are said to have changed. They become isolated, withdrawn, detached. There is much speculation about whether, how, and when the four killers were radicalised by militant Islamic preachers and websites. But the paths to their crimes appear to be much more circuitous and complex than simply being called to commit murder in the name of Islam.

The Tsarnaev family history is characterised by the violence of war, poverty, disenfranchisement, displacement, family break-up and disappointment, as first the father then the older son failed to achieve his professional ambitions.

Adebolajo and Adebowale also experienced family breakup and displacement. And each struggled with his own experience of unbelonging and violence. Six months ago, Adebolajo was thwarted from joining Al Shabab in Somalia, and was allegedly tortured and possibly sexually abused by Kenyan police. After this, according to his friend, Abu Nusaybah, he changed; “he wasn’t his bubbly self.”

Adebowale was stabbed when he was 16. He survived, but one of his friends did not, and Adebowale witnessed him being “literally cut to pieces”. He disappeared for a year after that, and when he returned he “had become distant”. Across the Atlantic, Tamerlan Tsarnaev may also have been involved in – and possibly guilty of – a drug-related stabbing. A man described as “his only friend in America” and two others had their throats cut and their bodies strewn with marijuana.

Is there a pattern in these four young mens’ backgrounds, personalities, experiences and their eventual crimes? Is radical Islamism, as David Lammy puts it, “marrying young men already drowning in their own grievances with a moral code that provides simple justifications for employing the worst excesses of human capacity.”

Both sets of suspects’ statements linking their crimes to Islam and U.K. and U.S. foreign policy, has created a blitz mentality. This was the state of mind Britons mustered when Nazi planes were carrying out their “blitzkrieg” (lightening war) on London. It was a pulling together, an “us vs. them” and “we will not be defeated” mentality that Brits are proud of. But a more apt legacy from the Second World War may be the posters urging Britons to “Keep calm and carry on”, which has become a global meme in recent years.

Because there are many young men from troubled backgrounds who are different, who don’t belong, who have had traumatic experiences, rejection and disappointments. There are many who take drugs and belong to gangs. Many who migrate, who convert or are born into strict orthodox versions of Islam and Christianity, into gangs, or into groups like the far-right English Defence League. But only a tiny number end up killing strangers in their own neighbourhoods.

There are also men and women from completely “normal”, stable backgrounds who have nothing to do with religion or politics who commit heinous acts of violence without trying to justify them.

Most people – whether or not they are “like us” – are not killers. The trouble is, like London ticket inspectors, it is impossible to distinguish them from the killers. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine, we may have “No indication, no inkling, no inclination, no hint, no nothing.”

So the best we can do is deny the killers, whatever their motivation, the satisfaction of being terrorised. The best we can do is to keep calm and carry on.

Post by Sabita Banerji.

0 responses to “Spotting a terrorist is easy. They look just like you.”

  1. […] common on London buses and trains. It seems the same can be said of terrorists. My latest blog on MIT’s CoLab Radio explores the shock of terrorism being committed on our streets by people who are, superficially at […]