Read of the Week

The Lone Wolves’ Legion: Terrorism, colonialism and capital

Peter Knoope


Review: John Harvey

In the wake of 9/11, then US President George W Bush famously declared a “war on terror”. It is one that has been waged ever since.

Around the world, fundamentalist groups such as Isis, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram have sprung up to spread their brand of terror with the intention of destabilising nations equally intent on wiping these organisations from the face of the planet.

But as Knoope, a former director of the International Centre for Counter-terrorism, explains, the stand-off between the largely Western or Westernised nations and their mostly Islamic counterparts is not as clear-cut as one imagines.

The emergence of these groups, he points out, can be traced to a long and fraught history in which entire cultures have been subjugated by colonial powers, instilling in them deep-seated feelings of inferiority which often later manifest as anger and violence.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw almost a million Tutsis slaughtered by members of the country’s Hutu population
(there were also Hutu victims among the dead). What is forgotten, according to Knoope, is that Western journalists and explorers such as John Hanning Speke perpetuated the view that the Tutsis had a Caucasian-Ethiopian origin, and were therefore deemed to be of higher intelligence.

The Hutus subsequently were relegated to an intellectual lower class, and so the feelings of resentment festered.

Knoope also raises the issue of disaffected members of the younger generations within these cultures, fed up with centuries of victimhood, who have found a voice thanks to the proliferation of communications technology. Yet by no means are they in the majority.

Knoope highlights the “lone wolf” phenomenon, whereby recruiters for these groups target young people who may be highly educated and ambitious, yet frustrated, often unemployed and in pursuit of social relevance.

“They know how to seek out the angry young woman who feels she is not accepted because she wears a headscarf as an expression of her identity. The resulting story is one of collective humiliation – the individual injustice elevated to a collective feature. It’s no longer about local discontent or local incidents, but about the manner in which the ‘we’ stand up against the ‘them’ – identity politics at its best,” he writes.

The author goes even further in his analysis of why the terror groups have come to be. He posits that even language has heightened tensions. English has become the de facto global language, yet about
5.6 billion people do not speak it.

“Language is power, and
using it with precision distinguishes
one from others,” he writes.

It would be hard to argue with what Knoope contends. Few would have come to have such a keen understanding of what drives terror organisations and their cells, and certainly the perspectives he offers gives the reader considerable

Though factual in his dissection of political, cultural and economic trends, he also examines situations with an empathetic eye.

The difficulty for the reader is grasping this holistic “world history” approach and setting aside the prejudices that invariably come with images of Isis henchmen throwing people off buildings in Palmyra, or heavy-duty vehicles plowing through a crowd of revellers on a popular French promenade.