A new Wall Street Journal profile of the suspected Manchester, UK terrorist Salman Abedi offers our first clues into the motive for the deadly attack. And while we still don’t have all the details, it appears that the motivation was not religion.
The WSJ piece is behind a paywall, but Zero Hedge has written up a useful summary.
The Blowback Theory vs. “Call It Radical Islam”
For those that may not be familiar, the blowback theory of terrorism holds that acts of terrorism against Western targets are usually motivated by revenge, not religion.
In particular, terrorist attacks are seen as a violent reaction against (primarily) the foreign policy actions of the US and other Western governments. In this view, terrorism is not spontaneous or mysterious; it is a response to particular wrongs, or perceived wrongs, perpetrated by the US or the West against Muslims (or some other group of people) that the would-be terrorist identifies with.
The blowback theory is intuitive and the majority of high profile terrorists who have explained their rationale cite Western foreign policy as their justification. In spite of this, however, the theory is not widely accepted or even discussed by US politicians or the US media. This is why Congressman Ron Paul became an overnight sensation 10 years ago when he raised the blowback theory of terrorism on a Presidential debate stage. Many viewers were hearing it for the first time.
The most prominent alternative theory to explain why terrorists become terrorists is to essentially blame the religion of Islam. This is where you get the common and impotent plea from Republican lawmakers to “Call it Radical Islam”. However, the precise mechanism for how Islam leads someone to become a terrorist is rarely discussed in detail. The general theory appears to be that the more devout a Muslim is, the more prone they are to violence.
The Case of the Manchester Bomber
Getting back to the specific case at hand, it’s not altogether clear what the tipping point was that set Salman Abedi off on the course of violence. But we do learn some important details about his activities that help paint a picture.
The first interesting fact is that Abedi is actually a veteran of the Libyan Civil War in 2011. Although born in the UK, Abedi and his family are of Libyan descent and apparently still had some ties there. Thus, in 2011, he and his father apparently joined one of the militia groups fighting against the government of Muammar Gaddafi. This placed Abedi on the same side as the US regime change operation there, and it also put him on the side as hardcore Islamist groups that were fighting Gaddafi. It’s not clear whether Abedi might have came into contact with extremist groups during the war, but it is a possibility that this might have helped influence him towards committing terrorism.
Another significant event in Abedi’s life was the death of one of his best friends in 2016 who was also of Libyan dissent. The friend, Abdul Wahab Hafidah, was run down and stabbed to death in Manchester, and Abedi viewed the attack as a hate crime against Muslims. One family friend recounted that he heard Abedi vowing he would get revenge at Hafidah’s funeral.
Finally, the profile also presented the assessment of Abedi’s motives offered by his sister Jomana. Jomana said her brother “saw children—Muslim children—dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge.”
That is about the cleanest articulation of the blowback rationale available, and my own confirmation bias leads me to prefer it. But it seems equally plausible that the death of his dear friend might have transformed his views into something deadly–particularly if he already had concerns about how Muslims were being treated in Britain beforehand.
Whichever explanation is true, it’s important to note that neither of them have much to do with religion. In both versions, being Muslim is presented as a part of Abedi’s identity–much in the way that being American or being Latino might be part of someone’s identity. Thus, his anger was derived from the fact that he felt Muslims, as a broad group of people, were being mistreated. The resulting violence is more intentionally indiscriminate in the Manchester case, but we should note that this is the same basic impulse that led thousands of Americans to join the military after 9/11. “Their people” had been attacked and they were seeking justice.
So in one narrow sense, someone could still say he was motivated by Islam because it was part of his identity. But the nature of the motivation does not appear to be based on some unique characteristic of the religion; that is, it’s not as if he carried out the attack because verse X of the Koran says to kill infidels. This is a critical nuance.
To make things more complicated, near the end of his life, Abedi did become noticeably religious and he adopted the suicide bombing tactic employed regularly by ISIS. Even so, the timeline and quotes above suggest that a radical version of Islam was the brand of the attack, not the underlying cause.