Friday, October 11, 2013

The Psychology of Apocalyptic Hostage Takers

by Riccardo Dugulin

Nairobi mall attack 

The slaughter perpetrated by members of the al-Shabaab terrorist organization in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi left approximately 67 innocent people dead. While the ramifications of this incident are still being investigated, the crisis generated by a small unit of a radical Islamist militia is in itself instrumental in highlighting the psychology of those who may be considered as apocalyptic hostage takers.

The Dubrovka Theater in late October 2002, a public school in Beslan in September 2004 or the Westgate Mall in September 2013 are all tragedies that led to the same conclusions. While Chechens holding spectators hostage in an Opera House, Arab foreign fighters massacring children in their classrooms and Africans killing shoppers in the middle of a random day may have nothing directly linking them, their modus operandi and especially the psychology behind their actions establish a direct bridge between those diverse groups of Islamic terrorists.

The concept of apocalyptic hostage takers may be defined by three key aspects intrinsic to the crises mentioned above. The first and most straight-forward point is the choice of targets that, in this case, represent the terrorists’ will to destroy the key to intellectual and social life of a world they do not understand and cannot integrate into. The second aspect stemming from the choice of targets is the need to destroy life in its most natural form. For this, Islamist hostage takers do not simply torture and kill but also express no willingness to live. The last notion central to this idea of apocalyptic hostage taking is that Islamist terrorists see the process of leading dozens of innocent people to death as an irrational spiritual experience linking the group of self-proclaimed righteous to the early followers of the Muslim prophet Mohamed.

The first step necessary for understanding the nihilistic and apocalyptic vision of the world present in the hostage takers’ minds is the analysis of the objectives chosen by the Islamist terrorists for their attacks. In the fall of 2002, approximately 50 armed elements of the Riyad As Salahideen took control of the Moscow Dubrovka theater. The hostage taking of hundreds of innocent spectators during a representation of the Nord-Ost opera underlines an essential element revealing the disregard Islamist terrorists have for culture and arts. In an end of the world mentality built upon a dogmatic understanding of a totalitarian ideology, opera houses are part of a freedom of mind that cannot be tolerated. While adults are not supposed to indulge themselves in the pleasures of music and dance, children are not free to study and learn. The massacre in Beslan was the outstanding proof that, pushed by their irrational understanding of life, militiamen are unable to grasp the sanctity of a school and its classrooms. In the apocalyptic state of mind no one is out of reach from the wrath of God, a wrath meant to destroy every aspect of individual freedom and brought forward by men and women armed with automatic weapons and strapped with explosive vests. The Westgate mall is the latest example pointing in that direction. Al-Shabaab militiamen did not only target civilians, they perpetrated an attack on an infrastructure constituting an utter blasphemy in their corrupted mindset. Leisure and self-appreciation found in shopping are elements highly incompatible with the ultra-conservative understanding of Islam espoused by these terrorist groups.

The second element essential to the Moscow, the Beslan and the Nairobi hostage taking crisis is the absolute will to destroy life. Hostage taking incidents led by radical Islamists differ from any other event of this kind as they are based on abuse of the victims, an apocalyptic discourse and utterly unattainable objectives. The overall irrationality of the goals stated by terrorists, may it be the independence of Chechnya or the supposed act of war against Kenyan policies, underlines the inexistence of a clear strategy pursued by the perpetrators. Neither al-Shabaab operatives nor Arabs and Chechens wish to obtain a clear strategic victory out of these hostage takings. In addition, the assailants clearly express their will to die. Their discourse, their attire and their tactics set them at the margins of the society they intend to demolish. For this, the arbitrary execution of innocent spectators and the gruesome torture of random shoppers is only part of the hostage takers’ macabre walk toward a certain death. Since the victims do not and objectively cannot enter the exclusive spiritual circle of the terrorists, any act of brutality is apparently justified to destroy the social fabric of the radical Islamists’ perceived enemies.

The psychology of apocalyptic hostage takers may better be understood by linking it to the modern intellectual fathers of radical Islam: Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Al Zawhiri. These two Egyptians have contributed in developing the concept of a Muslim vanguard using physical and aggressive Jihad to lead fellow coreligionists toward the real meaning of Allah’s precepts. In this vision, all those who are not part of the vanguard movement are to be considered legitimate targets whose death would serve the goal of cleansing the world’s sins. In this theory, the amount of dead cannot be limited and the final objective cannot truly be quantified leading it to be an irrational way of preaching the apocalypse. Both Al Qutb and Al Zawahiri have developed their theories by building on the much fantasized experience of early Muslims, the Muhajireen, who performed hijra from Mecca to Medina with Mohammed. Detached from its motherland, the community is meant to fight for a sacred cause and rely solely on its members.

The utter detachment from any temporal and earthly reality along with the unwillingness to set clear and attainable goals are the key elements setting radical Islamist hostage takers at the margin of a society they do not want to be part of. Since, in their understanding, only the destruction of human life can bring out the truth of the Quran’s teachings, their resulting apocalyptic views are key to understand and counter the tactics used in Moscow, Beslan and Nairobi. Shall other incidents of this kind occur, no negotiations, no socio-political understanding and no indirect support should be allowed as all of it reinforces those who disregard the core of human life. In fact, only the direct destruction of these nuclei of irrational killers may save the lives of innocent men and women.

Riccardo Dugulin holds a master's degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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