The terrorist label: When does an attack become a ‘terrorist’ attack?

Published: August 12, 2016
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The truth about what motivated Zakaria Bulhan will be known only to his psychologist, who will, in time, report to the court on his mental state and motivations for the attack.

Last week, Zakaria Bulhan, a British Somalian teenager, armed with a knife, allegedly killed one person and injured four others in a central London square as passers-by were out enjoying the evening. An ordinary scene of urban serenity was disrupted and panic ensued. However, the British authorities have so far refused to label the incident as a terrorist attack stating that the attack was “spontaneous” and triggered by mental health issues.

The labelling of a “terrorist” is a delicate task. It is a deliberate decision taken by those in positions of authority rather than induced by the observations of members of the public. For this reason alone, the label matters.

An attack that earns the label of “terrorist” continues a narrative of a long-standing war with many battles that pits rival images of civilisation against each other. Each individual terrorist attack raises the temperature and elongates the war. By contrast, a regular criminal attack is a much more familiar and manageable domestic issue, as each state is in charge of maintaining the health and safety of its own population and usually has fairly effective mechanisms for dealing with the perpetrator and the threat through its own justice and media structures.

Whilst all crime has the effect of generating a sentiment of insecurity amongst a population, terrorism breeds an especially enhanced sense of insecurity. The normal preventive measures used by civilians of avoiding dangerous people or places fail when the next attack is likely to be in broad daylight, in a public space and largely unavoidable. In the case of terrorism, every member of the population – no matter how far removed – shares a sense of victimhood for the event just gone and for the potential of another forthcoming by virtue of being a citizen of the state under attack.

Government, police or the media will inevitably speculate about the motives and affiliation of an attacker that appears to target members of the public in an act of mass violence. Although certainly not the only factor, the motivation of the attacker plays a key role in determining whether a particular act is one of ‘terrorism’. In London, the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, said of Bulhan that,

“We’ve found no evidence of radicalisation that would suggest the man in our custody is in any way motivated by terrorism.”

In France by contrast, the label of terrorism was applied to the Bastille Day attack in Nice almost immediately. This was despite neither the identity of the attacker (with its potential social, political and religio-ethnic clues as to his motivation) being known to the public, nor the affiliation of the attacker with Islamic State being communicated until two days later when Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

President Hollande of France appeared on the night of the attack in a televised address and stated that,

“All of France is under threat from Islamist terrorism.”

It appears then that in certain contexts, an attack can be a terrorist attack without knowing or sharing the precise motives of the attacker.

Given the French example, the haste with which this label is applied would appear to be the consequence of context: where a nation is already on high alert, and where the attack is timed to coincide with a holiday of significance; where the attack features in to a relatively quick succession of a series of other ‘terrorist’ attacks before or after, and where the disregard for the value of human life involved in the act itself is extreme.

These factors come together to suggest that, regardless of motive, the crime will be one of “terrorism” and not capable of being divorced from the attribution of that label simply because of a lack of affiliation with an external terror group or a lack of knowledge of the motivation of the attacker.

In other words, numbers and timing matter just as much as motivation, if not more. Motivation may therefore only be the determining issue in small scale attacks where the question being posed – silently or not – is whether this was a case of a professional mercenary with a specific, radicalised motivation, or an altogether fuzzier, less professional, criminal, whose motivation is likely to be emotional or mental typicality. Such a person is generally seen to be less culpable and less frightening to a population which does not wish upon itself the burden of being seen to be a target for guiltless, technically efficient mercenaries operating on their own streets.

It is for this reason that – at least in Britain – authorities will avoid the label wherever possible in a domestic context, reserving it only for the most heinous and impactful events. Smaller scale attacks that do not turn up evidence of affiliation with an organised terrorist group can be more easily brushed off as the acts of mentally ill or attitudinally askew individuals acting in isolation from any official group or political agenda.

The success of a truly “terrorist” attack determines its likelihood of being labelled as such, and the application of the label will steadily increase the link between terrorism and the idea of the vocational killer. As an understandable psychological reaction against this, the public begins to feel safer if they recognise, through mental illness, a vulnerability and flaw in the attacker that renders them, in the collective unconscious, much more like themselves than the alternative. A mentally ill attacker is one of their own that went bad, rather than an enemy that has infiltrated their defences. The consequences for social, political and economic well-being are thus lightened and made more bearable.

However, caution must be sounded in using the box of mental illness to house failed terrorists. Mental illness is a complex process made up of multiple, interrelated factors, and affects far more of the population than is currently reported. To link mental illness to violent public attacks is to do a disservice to the many silent persons suffering with disorders they cannot obviously manifest due to stigma.

That stigma may be reinforced by the inclusion of violent offenders in this category unnecessarily. It also muddies the waters between violence and illness, whereby illness will be seen by many, not least the justice system, to be the sole or dominant cause of the violence. Labelling a problem as an illness can afford much in the way of access to treatment; however it can also restrict the view of the root causes of the problem. As with so many other mental illnesses that have dropped out of existence over the last century, the label of illness is often just a convenient way of masking a deeper truth about the things a society does not want to face as part of its normalcy. It may repress rather than cure the cause of the violence in mentally ill offenders.

The truth about what motivated Zakaria Bulhan will be known only to his psychologist, who will, in time, report to the court on his mental state and motivations for the attack. The degree to which he suffered with mental illness is now a question for a professional in conversation with the perpetrator of this attack. However, for the reasons outlined above, it is easier for Britain, and perhaps more responsible, to refuse to hasten the application of the label of ‘terrorism’ to this particular incident and to save themselves the large amount of public and political grief that would be contingent upon the label.

Many will see in this an element of hypocrisy and double standards, where the attacks in Germany, like in France, were committed not by foreigners but by domestically resident persons and were labelled terrorism nonetheless. However, in most of those attacks the affiliation of the attackers with organised groups was made public very soon after the attacks. In Britain, in this attack, without further information or evidence as to motivation or affiliation, and without the attack existing in the same context as currently exists in France, the attribution of the label is less attractive.

The true motivation of the attacker will come out in time, but for now, Britain rests a little easier than it might otherwise have done. The attitude of ‘business as normal’ has trumped any desire for hysteria, and though we may in future see more of these types of violent mass attacks, context will come to play a heavier role in the way that they are seen and interpreted.

Shereen Akhtar

Shereen Akhtar

The author is a barrister practising in London. She is interested in issues of diversity, interfaith relations and human and minority rights. She tweets @shereentwits twitter.com/shereentwits

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.