Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the met: more powers

Understanding Khalid Masood

We cannot explain atrocities like the Westminster attack through individual psychology, argues Paul Demarty

To the list of Islamist atrocities in Europe, we may now add Khalid Masood’s assault on Westminster, which has left five dead and 10 times as many injured.

Perhaps the only surprise is that it took so long for this wave of attacks to produce a major incident in London - the last truly comparable event being the July 7 bombings nearly 12 years ago. The carnage wrought in the vicinity of parliament on March 22 is dwarfed by the events of that day, of course; yet for the civilian population, it is an uncomfortable reminder that they remain a legitimate target in the eyes of a very real (if numerically small) layer of the world’s population, however far (geographically and socially) they may be from Raqqa.

The question of the response to Masood’s attack is, likewise, peculiarly familiar in form and content - despite the spectacular violence at issue, it is almost a matter of going through the motions. Various silly Ukip types immediately connected the issue to immigration and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, when anyone with an ounce of historical memory can bring to mind the small fact that such people are often (like the 7/7 bombers) native-born Britons - as turned out to be the case with Masood. At least they did not blame it on Brussels bureaucrats.

Similarly opportunistic are the spooks, for whom this is yet another knock-down argument for drastically extending their powers. Home secretary Amber Rudd followed the lead of her predecessor and boss, Theresa May, by using the whole thing as an opportunity to decry the modern convenience of encrypted messaging. After all, Masood sent an encrypted message only moments before his attack. Something must be done!

Alas, exactly what is another matter. Rudd insists she only wants to backdoor WhatsApp in extreme circumstances, with a proper process and warrant and all that; but that would not have helped in the current case (Masood had been peripherally investigated by MI5 years before, but was not in the state’s crosshairs as of March 22, and thus there would have been no warrant). Maybe (OK, definitely) she is lying and actually intends to bulk-collect all the messages ever; but that has proven to be a dubious benefit so far due to information overload, with most useful intelligence coming from old-fashioned spycraft. Masood’s assault has not advanced the case in substance, then, but only provided a spurious sense of urgency.

Weighing Hitler’s brain

To leave the demagogues and self-promoters behind is to arrive at the studious efforts to understand Masood himself. What were his motivations? What makes a more or less ‘normal’ individual become a terrorist?

The biography is well-rehearsed at this point: Khalid Masood was once Adrian Russell Ajao, who led a peripatetic existence, frequently in trouble with the law. According to some accounts, he emerged from a prison spell a changed man - more serious, calmer, with a new-found faith in Islam. He later moved to Saudi Arabia, to teach English. He had a wife and three children. All express their surprise and horror at his final actions.

There are many aspects of this that seem to point in the direction of such an outburst. He was clearly an alienated individual. His most serious stretch inside was for grievous bodily harm, when a racially-charged argument turned violent. Prison is a fertile ground for Islamist proselytisation - the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, likewise, became committed to the cause of al Qa’eda in jail, later perpetrating the Charlie Hebdo shootings and contemporaneous anti-Semitic rampages in Paris. Masood’s long time in Saudi Arabia does not look good in retrospect. And so on. He fits the profile: a life of frustration and rage, an opportunity to stand tall and die a martyr, not a common criminal ...

The seduction of this explanatory framework is that it seems to be very concrete, very focused on the real motivations of the individual who carried out the attack. Yet the overall effect is akin to looking through the wrong end of the telescope. An analogy can be drawn with those who explain the holocaust not with reference to the Treaty of Versailles or the 1929 crash or the divisions of the left, but by Adolf Hitler’s childhood trauma, his over-fondness for his mother, or even the weight of his brain.

It appears that a vast agglomeration of random circumstances conspired together to deliver Masood to Westminster, a combination that cannot reasonably be expected to recur. Yet not only may it well recur - in a sense it already has - for Masood is merely the latest in a very strict pattern. The question is not ‘Why did he do it?’, but ‘Why do people keep doing it?’

Unintended consequences

The answers are still many, but few of them have their primary loci in Britain, or even Europe. This story, in the end, is about the Middle East. The first aspect of relevance is the general chaos wrought by a decade and a half of near continuous and ever more complex wars and insurgencies. The failure of the Iraqi state after the American-British invasion of 2003 provided both a new battleground to the world’s jihadi fanatics and a new recruitment base - ex-Ba’athist officials purged by the coalition in the immediate wake of victory, and Sunni Muslims troubled by the increasingly Shia-sectarian character of the US- and Iranian-backed (work that one out ... ) Baghdad government. When civil war broke out in Syria, the theatre of operations expanded.

In this fertile ground of bloody chaos, Islamic State grew to outstrip its progenitor, al Qa’eda, in power and international prestige. Further state failures - notably in Libya, after French and British forces helped topple the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, to the benefit of various warlords and Islamist militias - followed.

This is one sense in which the recent spate of massacres is the unintended consequence of western policy in the Middle East - a succession of calamitous military interventions have created conditions most amenable to warlordism, which is what Islamic State’s so-called caliphate amounts to as a state formation; yet it is not only a warlord’s fiefdom, but also a transmitter of a particular ideology, and one with the elan of (apparently) successful resistance about it.

That success, indeed, seems miraculous, given the circumstances - no wonder it attracts wannabe martyrs! As with all miracles, however, the success of IS has its vulgar material reality, which is where we meet the second sense in which western policy brings forth atrocities. Guns do not grow on trees. Food does not come cheap in a war zone. These things require money. Where does the money come from? The answer - by one tortuous route or another - is a country on the very short list of places Khalid Masood taught English as a foreign language. The Saudi monarchy - whether as such, or via some of its crazier princelings - props up IS, perhaps through direct subsidy, or perhaps by laundering Iraqi oil on its behalf.

Whatever the precise nature of its dealings with IS, the Saudis are undoubtedly the principal material force promoting Wahhabi fundamentalism the world over. Shiny new mosques spring up everywhere, funded with Saudi money. Foundations, community organisations, even vast political movements (the Muslim Brotherhood, until recently): all have their operational capacity considerably enhanced by Saudi oil money. This vast operation, however, only works because the Saudi regime is propped up by the United States and its allies. (The latter also, it must be said, assisted the cause of Islamist fanaticism more directly by funnelling arms to the Syrian opposition long after the point where it was entirely dominated by religious factions.)

The result is a phenomenon whereby western societies are trapped in a cycle, due to the increasingly dangerous diplomatic contortions of the various states. A terrorist atrocity brings forth, most immediately, a further ratcheting up of repression; which drives people to seek explanations, which they find in the doctrines of reactionary radicals, which drives them in turn to the ‘real’ resistance, which inculcates the strategic view that it is necessary to provoke the west into wars and repression, which leads to more violent actions, and to more repression ...

There is no end of bourgeois worthies lining up to solemnly intone that an alternative to Islamism must be offered to those at risk of joining its wilder fringes. Yet it is they precisely who are incapable of offering it, propping up as they do the global capital of their ideological enemies, and apologising as they do for the increasingly destructive adventures of their governments in the Islamic world. Any serious political alternative - which means no more than something that explains the world better than radical Islamism (a low bar nonetheless not cleared by capitalist state apologetics) - will have to break decisively with this disastrous legacy.