The new terror

In the wake of the failed terror attacks in London and Glasgow Shiv Malik reports on an unforeseen t

The foiled terrorist attacks in London on 29 June, and the subsequent attack at Glasgow Airport, differ from previous British Islamic terrorist plots in two important ways.

First, in terms of their tactics. These were car bombs. The Iraqi insurgency, it seemed, had for the first time been outsourced to British soil.

Second, according to police, those involved in the plot or plots were not British-born or bred. With the notable exception of the Algerian Kamel Bourgass, the lead figure behind the so-called ricin plot in 2003 (a suspected plan to create havoc using home-made poison), pretty much every recent UK-based Islamic terrorist plot has had a British-bred rump at its centre.

But the Brit factor is not the only one that links those behind the 2001 "shoe bombing", the 2003 bombings in Tel Aviv, the Bluewater plot, the 7/7 and failed 21/7 bombings and the 2006 plot to blow up aircraft on transatlantic flights. Almost all of those involved in these incidents were associated with a network of jihadis who were radicalised during the time of the Bosnian conflict, and/or were ex-members of the British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun who went to Pakistan before or just after the 11 September 2001 attacks (see Observations, NS, 7 May 2007).

In the past few days, attention has focused around the profession of the suspects in the latest attacks: foreign doctors working in British hospitals. Much astonishment has been expressed that highly educated, affluent family men could perpetrate acts of terrorism. Yet this comes as no surprise to those close to the jihadi networks. These groups have long attracted people from all professional and social classes, not just the poor and socially deprived. It is often forgotten, for example, that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers, was university-educated, as was Omar Sheikh (who masterminded the murder of Daniel Pearl) - and, indeed, so were the 9/11 terrorists themselves. Dhiren Barot, the British al-Qaeda plotter, was also middle-class. Hassan Butt, a former fundraiser for al-Muhajiroun, commented this past week that many of his donors in Manchester and the north-west of England were professionals. Junaid Babar, supergrass in the Operation Crevice case, also stated that in 2002 he travelled "to the north of England to see a doctor to raise money for jihad". The doctor donated several hundred pounds.

In all but the most vicious of police states, it is possible to radicalise and indoctrinate terrorists with the right kind of ideology and mentality anywhere. Thankfully, however, there are very few places in the world where aspiring terrorists can equip themselves with the skills necessary to commit mass murder effectively. An audacious attempt to do so in the wilds of Oregon, where the Islamist British cleric Abu Hamza and his henchmen set up an ad hoc camp between 1999 and 2000, was quickly spotted by US law-enforcement authorities. And whatever is said about the vast amount of weapons information on the internet, nothing compares to being taught in person. Setting up an effective terror cell involves more than just knowing how to construct a bomb.

Basic mistakes

Those with inside knowledge tell me that if a cell is to be effective, it needs to learn discipline (in British jihadi circles this is known as amarship), as well as anti-surveillance techniques, how to operate secure funding structures, and the art of reconnaissance (so the jihadists don't make basic mistakes such as parking their improvised explosive device in a Westminster council tow zone).

And then there are the lessons that can only be learned through experience. For example, the Bluewater plotters wasted weeks trying to devise methods of smuggling nitrogen fertiliser through Pakistani customs, when they should have realised that it can be purchased quite easily in Britain (but not, of course, if you want half a tonne of it in one go). This learning of lessons is one reason why armed forces are far more effective at killing people than terrorists; institutions are much better at remembering their mistakes.

In Britain, the vast majority of home-grown terrorists are of south Asian descent and acquired their skills to kill in Afghanistan during the Taliban era (the 1990s) or during the few years after 9/11, when the Pakistani authorities were still grappling to take control of their historically lawless tribal regions. With filial links and few language barriers, aspiring British terrorists found that Pakistan was an easy place to manoeuvre around. The sterling in their pockets, raised from donors in Britain's Muslim com munities, also helped to elevate them into the ranks of Pakistani terrorist networks faster than their experience should have warranted. However, as President Pervez Musharraf made genuine attempts to crack down on foreign terrorist camps, it became much harder for Brits to travel to Pakistan to receive training.

Since the 7 July 2005 attacks on London, with Pakistan largely closed off, south Asian British radicals have found it extremely difficult to get training in other parts of the world, such as Iraq. For a start, they don't speak the pan-jihadi language - Arabic. (Sources tell me that although the Iraqi insurgents take on foot soldiers, they don't yet have any substantial capacity to train non-Arabic speakers in terrorist methods.) And so, as the men of the 1990s-to-2004 generation of trained jihadists have been arrested, fled the UK or, more horrifyingly, died succeeding, the overall skills base of the British terrorist network has dwindled rapidly.

In theory, if all other factors remained equal, the security services would just have to pick off the rest of the pre-2004 generation. The bad news is that all factors have not remained equal.

In recent months, there have been two major developments on the training front. First, before the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last December, there was a window of roughly six months when the pro-jihadist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was in control of the capital, Mogadishu. During that time, I am told, it was possible for British Somalis to travel back to Somalia to receive terrorist training. "If the UIC hadn't been removed, Britain would have had another nightmare," said a source who asked not to be identified.

The second problem is even more worrying. In Pakistan, as President Mu sharraf has tried to tackle the liberal opposition, he has had, out of necessity, to drop the ball of fighting extremism. The summer training season has been in full swing. "Musharraf," said another source, "has turned a blind eye to what Islamists and jihadists are doing there because he can't tackle everything. It has totally opened up." Under pressure, the Pakistani military has begun to clamp down again on hardline mosques. The potential for violence, and further grievance, is great.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood