Is there a single terrorist who was not an extremist?

Mamdouh AlMuhaini

Published: Updated:

If there is a logical and simple explanation to any major phenomenon then it’s probably the right explanation. This applies to the phenomenon of terrorism which is caused by extremism. This is the simplest and most logical explanation to it. The issue is quite simple: Without extremism there will be no terrorists. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman clearly pointed this out during an interview with the Wall Street Journal when he said: “We have to get rid of extremism. Without extremism no one can become a terrorist.”

Although this explanation is simple and clear, there have been dozens of interpretations to the phenomenon of terrorism and that eventually sidetracked understanding it. What’s more dangerous is that this has squandered efforts to decisively eliminate terrorism.

A terrorist, however, acts upon an extremist and ideological belief which legislates ill behavior and makes him think that by blowing himself up he will go to heaven. This is deceitful whitewashing because comparing them to criminals means treating them equally and imprisoning them

Mamdouh AlMuhaini

Why extremism harbors terrorism

Before addressing these dangerous interpretations, it’s important to explain why extremism is the incubator of terrorism. It’s easy to realize that all terrorists are takfirists. When they carry out suicide bombings, they do not feel remorse because they believe they’re killing infidels whom they’ve devalued as humans. Is there any terrorist who believes in the ideas of tolerance, equality and co-existence? Of course not.

No terrorist just wakes up and decides to be a terrorist who rams children in the street. They are ordinary people who have absorbed extremist ideas which eventually made them professional terrorists. All terrorists are necessarily extremists. Without resolving the phenomenon of extremism from its roots, terrorism will not disappear on its own.

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This is the logical explanation. However there have been dozens of interpretations which ignore this major and clear reason which terrorists themselves confess in their recordings and conversations that are full of takfir and that speak of murdering Muslims who are different than them and non-Muslims. If terrorists themselves state they are extremists then why do we go ahead and create other excuses for them? This may seem like a naïve comment but there are in fact logical reasons for creating such apologetic interpretations.

One of the most famous explanations of terrorism is that poverty is the main motive. This is invalid because al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was a millionaire and his deputy emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, came from a famous and well-off family. The list goes on. A rich man becomes a terrorist because his ideas are poisoned. There are millions of poor Muslims around the world, like the case is in India, but they did not turn into murderers who are blowing themselves up in markets.

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An unemployed man looks for a job and not for an explosive belt. He may feel frustrated, depressed, hopeless and helpless but he does not decide to kill innocent people in the streets while chanting in God’s name. If this was a valid explanation, we’d see needy unemployed people joining ISIS and Al-Nusra. Humanity has always known poverty which will exist until Doomsday but it’s never been a reason for murder and terrorism.

Marginalization and ‘infidels’

Another explanation attributes terrorism to marginalization. This is also invalid because terrorists in Riyadh and Cairo are not marginalized yet they kill people in their own society. Do you remember the twins who stabbed their mother to death in Riyadh? Were they marginalized in their country, city, family or home? Did their own mother marginalize them to kill her like that? They killed her because they were extremists and terrorists. They decided she was an infidel so they concluded that shedding her blood is permissible. According to them, she had no human value.

Some respond to that by stating that marginalization in European societies pushes Muslims towards extremism and eventually towards terrorism. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of Muslims who integrated in European communities and held prominent posts because they believed in tolerance and co-existence. These people became European citizens, inside outside. Marginalized people and people who feel that they do not enjoy all their rights usually pursue either of two paths.

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The first one is a civil fight to restore their rights, like African Americans did in the US when they peacefully fought all the unjust laws against them. They did not decide to establish suicide bombers’ groups to kill in the name of religion and doctrine. The second path is surrendering to frustration, anger and isolation. In this case, protests erupt but terrorism is not produced. In western societies in general, there are groups that are marginalized for several reasons but they have not pursued terrorism or become terrorists. Attributing terrorism to marginalization is wrong and dangerous. The terror attacks which struck Paris, Brussels and London were carried out by terrorists who graduated with distinction from the school of extremism.

A third interpretation is that terrorists are mentally ill people and this is why they commit these horrific massacres. This is a wrong and harmful explanation because it accuses millions of people who suffer from mental issues of terrorism. Facts show this is false. Those who have psychological problems go to hospitals for treatment and do not blow themselves up. There are thousands of mentally ill people in hospitals. If this explanation is true, we’d see all these people at the “jihad” fronts. Attributing terrorism to mental and psychological issues is a mean trick to make it unnecessary to discuss extremist ideas and perceptions.

A fourth explanation stipulates that terrorists are mercenaries and criminals. This explanation bears clear condemnation however it’s dangerous because it transforms terrorism into a criminal offense similar to theft, embezzlement and rape. In this case there is no ideological background to condemn and fight. A thief or a bribe-taker does not ideologically or religiously justify his crime and he does not embezzle money in the name of God. Is there a thief who commits a crime to serve God? No. A thief is aware that he’s doing something shameful and there’s no need to convince him otherwise.

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A terrorist, however, acts upon an extremist and ideological belief which legislates ill behavior and makes him think that by blowing himself up he will go to heaven. This is deceitful whitewashing because comparing them to criminals means treating them equally and imprisoning them. Meanwhile, ideas flourish outside prison. This is what happened in the past two decades. It’s as if we are sinking in a sea of terrorists as every time a terror group is caught, another group whose members are younger than the latter’s emerges. This is all because extremist ideas continue to prosper.

Terrorists are not criminals or poor or marginalized or mentally-ill people. These are excuses which are promoted out of good intentions by some and ill intentions by fanatics, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Sahwa, to reshuffle the deck and make accusations in all directions except in the major one which is extremist ideology.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.