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Terrorism Without a Motive

Written by Daniel Greenfield

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Means, opportunity and motive are the three crucial elements of investigating a crime and establishing the guilt of its perpetrator. Means and opportunity tell us how the crime could have been blindfoldedcommitted while motive tells us why it was committed. Many crimes cannot be narrowed down by motive until a suspect is on the scene; but acts of terrorism can be. Almost anyone might be responsible for a random killing; but political killings are carried out by those who subscribe to common beliefs.

Eliminate motive from terrorism and it becomes no different than investigating a random killing. If investigators are not allowed to profile potential terrorists based on shared beliefs rooted in violence, that makes it harder to catch terrorists after an act of terror and incredibly difficult before the act of terror takes place.

The roadblock isn't only technical; it's conceptual. Investigations consist of connecting the dots. If you can't conceive of a connection, then the investigation is stuck. If you can't make the leap from A to B or add two to two and get four, then you are dependent on lucky breaks. And lucky breaks go both ways. Sometimes investigators get lucky and other times the terrorists get lucky.  

Federal law enforcement was repeatedly warned by the Russians that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dangerous, but operating under the influence of a political culture that refused to see Islam as a motive for terrorism, it failed to connect the dots between Chechen violence in Russia and potential terrorism in the United States, and because it could not see Islam as a motive, as a causal factor rather than a casual factor, it could find no reason why Tamerlan was a threat not just to Russia, but also to the United States.

The missing motive factor has led to a rash of lone wolf terrorists whose acts are classified as individual crimes. Nidal Hasan's killing spree at Fort Hood was put down to workplace violence, but workplace violence isn't a motive, it's a bland description. The motive was obvious in Hasan's background and his behavior; but the military, an organization that by its nature has to be able to predict the actions of the enemy, had been crippled and left unable to see Islam as a motive.

The current working concept is that by refusing to allow our military and law enforcement to identify Islam as a motive, we are stifling terrorist recruitment by preventing Muslim from identifying terrorist attacks with Islam. This ostrich theory of terror assumes that if we blind ourselves to the motives of the terrorists, then potential terrorists will likewise be blinded to their own motives.

Any law enforcement protocol that prevents investigators from understanding the motives of the killers in the hope that this will take away that motive from the killers is absurdly backward. The investigators of terror are not the instigators of terror. A police detective arresting a rapist does not create rape. An FBI agent arresting a terrorist does not create terror. Identifying a crime does not create the crime. It makes it easier for law enforcement and the public to fight that crime.

The insidious infiltration of blowback theory into terrorist investigations has dangerously subverted the ability of investigators to get to the truth and to catch the terrorists. Blowback theory assigns each act of Islamic terror an origin point in our actions. Everything that Muslim terrorists do is caused by something that we did. To those who believe in this linkage, the only way to fight Muslim terror is to stop inspiring it. The only way to defeat Islamic terrorism is to defeat ourselves.

Blowback theory has been dressed up in academic language and expert jargon, but all it amounts to is Stockholm Syndrome with a lecture hall. Its essential postulate is that if we become more passive in our responses, a strategy that is usually described with the complementary term, "smart", as in "smart war" and "smart investigation", then the enemy will become more passive in response to our passivity because we are no longer inspiring his violence.

Smart wars and smart investigations are those that don't offend Muslims. The cost of the smart war in Afghanistan has been a very expensive and bloody defeat. The cost of the smart investigation can be seen in the streets of Boston or in Fort Hood.

Any smart tactic based on inaction and ignorance, on throwing away advantages to seem less provocative, is not smart; it's stupid. When things go unsaid because they are politically incorrect, then they will eventually go undone. And when they are both unsaid and undone, then it becomes impossible to think them. The concepts fade out of reach, the connections in what, Hercule Poirot, called the little grey cells, are no longer made and what was once a familiar mental shortcut becomes an entirely alien concept.

Defeating ourselves in order to defeat Islamic terrorism is a dead end because we are not the source of that terrorism; we are its target. When we handicap ourselves out of a misguided notion that the best way to fight terrorism is with one hand tied behind our backs and an eyepatch on one eye, then Americans die.

Islamic terrorism, once the starting point of any rational investigation, has become an uncomfortable endpoint uttered by uncooperative suspects who refuse to go along with the stress-motivated killing spree defense their lawyers are eager to put forward for them. It is the dark thing at the end of every investigation that politicians don't want to talk about, reporters don't want to write about and prosecutors grow reluctant to discuss for fear of offending judges and stifling career prospects.

Without Islam as a motive, there is no way to fight the larger threat except as a discrete collection of seemingly random events. What connects a Tamerlan Tsarnaev to a Nidal Hasan to Ahmed in Jersey City or Mohamed in Minneapolis plotting the next attack? The official answer is nothing. One was a boxer and another was an army doctor and the third is just an Egyptian student or a Somali bank clerk. They have no motive in common except that of Islam.

Motives identify links. They make it easier to stack events together as a trend. They make it possible to predict the next attack by looking at the common denominators that matter as opposed to the ones that don't. And above all else, they combine together to give us a rational picture of the world so that we understand what we are experiencing and what we have to do about it.

A man dropped onto a battlefield without having the concept of an army or a war will be bewildered and horrified by the incomprehensible experience of large numbers of individuals shooting at him for no reason. "Why do they all want to kill me?" he thinks. "Was it something I did?"

Crime is personal. War is impersonal. The murderer has personal motives for his actions, but the motives of the soldier are irrelevant. In war, it is the organization that matters more than the individual. Wasting time predicting the movements of individual armies instead of soldiers is not productive. Attempting to understand terrorists as individuals, rather than members of a mass movement is equally a waste of time.

Media accounts have presented various exculpatory motives for Tamerlan Tsarnaev ranging from the possible head injuries he may have suffered as a boxer to the murder of a best friend that investigators suspect he may carried out. All these motives are irrelevant, not because they may not have some figment of truth to them, but because they stopped mattering once he became what he was. One soldier may join the army because his girlfriend broke up with him, another  because he lost his job and a third because he wants to impress his friends. Those motives may all be true, but they don't matter. Once organized into a collective, their individual motives stop mattering and the collective motive takes over.

Islamic terrorism is a collective motive. There is limited variation in the tactics and the thinking of terrorists. Whatever they may have been before they fully committed themselves to the war against civilization is an incidental matter. And the only piece of individual identity that matters is still the collective one of their Islamic background. That is still the greatest predictive factor of terrorism.

The Islamic terrorist abandons his individuality and takes on an identity that asks him to love death more than life. His motives are no longer personal, but collective. He is a soldier in the Islamic war against civilization. His marching orders may come from Jihadi videos and magazines, but they provide him with training and an esprit de corps sufficient to the purposes of his campaign of terror. To strive to understand him as a father or a son, as a boxer or a doctor, is a waste of time. These biographical footnotes no longer represent him. They are the things he has discarded to become a messenger of death in obedience to a faith that values death more than life.

Without understanding that, the terrorist becomes a cipher, another nice young man who suddenly

turned violent, and the trend of terrorist attacks ceases to be a pattern and becomes a rash of horrifying incidents that can happen at any time.

Terrorism is a form of war. It cannot be won without understanding that there is a battlefield and an enemy fighting for control of that battlefield. Without that understanding, our superiority in strength and our possession of the battlefield can only result in a temporary stalemate leading to a permanent defeat. 

Terrorism denial turns terrorist attacks into a cipher without a motive. If Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev had not carried out their attack at a public event in the age of the ubiquitous camera, then how long would law enforcement have chased down dead ends or searched for the Tea Party tax protesters that the political establishment expected them to find?

Without a motive, there is no place to begin searching. Without Islam, there is no motive. Terrorism denial isn't just an intellectual error; it is a grave danger to the lives of Americans. Terrorism denial created a space in which the Tsarnaev brothers were free to plot and kill. Terrorism denial cost the lives of three Americans and the bodily integrity of hundreds of others. Denying the Islamic motive for terror, makes it harder for law enforcement officer to do their job and easier for Muslim terrorists to do theirs.

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.

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