- - Monday, March 27, 2017

How did British-born Adrian Russell Ajao become Kahlid Masood, the terrorist who maimed and murdered innocent people in the heart of London last week?

We can learn about the path into terrorism from those who found the path out.

I interviewed religious extremists who became peacemakers, and found that these unusual individuals, who came from widely different backgrounds, religions and countries, all shared some similar experiences. First, they experienced a trauma or crisis during their lives as committed and even violent, extremists. Then circumstances led to a radical change in their world, e.g., imprisonment or other separation from their community. Most important of all, each person I interviewed could point to a powerfully influential relationship that helped them develop a new worldview, much like a religious conversion (see Garfinkel, R. “Personal Transformations: Moving from Violence to Peace,” United States Institute of Peace, 2007).

Similar factors were at work to help Kahlid Masood become the 52-year-old terrorist who drove into crowds on London’s Westminster Bridge and then stabbed an unarmed police officer at the door to the British Parliament. Masood murdered 4 people and wounded 50 others, some critically, including 3 children who were on a school trip.

When he was a younger man, Masood, then-called Adrian Ajao (aka Adrian Elms), was known to British law enforcement as a low-life violent criminal, who spent time in prison for his crimes in the early 2000s. Islamist ideology is widely promoted in British prisons, and Masood eventually converted and took his new name. According to a British newspaper, The Telegraph, prisons have become fertile recruiting grounds for extremists.

As noted in my study, it is not unusual, nor is it always bad, for people to undergo deep psychological and religious change in prison. But terrorist recruiters in prison understand the vulnerability of prisoners, and develop relationships with them in order to shape a new belief system and a new identity that justify violence. Similar trends have been reported in U.S. prisons.

After prison, Masood lived in Saudi Arabia where he taught English from 2005-06, and again from 2008-09. There he had the opportunity to consolidate his identity and deepen his ties to the extreme form of Islam, the Islam that is preached, practiced and exported by Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia provides powerful theological backing for extremist Islam. Inspire, an on-line magazine by an al Queda affiliate, provides the tactics. Masood’s vehicle-ramming-plus-stabbing attack followed the script that has left a bloody trail of attacks - against Israeli victims in Jerusalem, attacks on French victims in Nice, German victims in Berlin, American victims at Ohio State University, and others.

Sources of religious-theological support, political-ideological support, social support and economic support all contribute to the global terrorist epidemic (see, for example, Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin “Fatah blatantly supports terror – findings presented in U.S. Congress,” March 17, 2017).

Individual recruitment and inspiration take place in both actual and virtual worlds.

We must fight terrorism on every front.

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