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London Attack Highlights Struggle To Combat Extremism Across Europe


We just heard a few key details about the man who carried out this week's terror attack outside the British Parliament in London, and one of those details is particularly notable. He had a criminal past. Rajan Basra of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London told us earlier today via Skype this is a common element in the biography of attackers.

RAJAN BASRA: It does fit the profile that we've seen throughout Europe of criminals who embrace violent jihadism. And so we've spoken to officials throughout Western Europe, and they've confirmed that the majority of their foreign fighters that travel to Syria to join groups like the Islamic State actually had previous convictions for criminal acts. So they were known to the police for something other than extremism. So he does conform to that picture, but he differs in one important respect, which is his age. So at the age of 52, it's very, very atypical...



BASRA: ...For someone to be involved in jihadism. And the median age of ISIS recruits that we've come across is in the mid-20s. So this is quite a bizarre instance, really.

MCEVERS: What is it about people with a criminal background that attracts them to operations like this?

BASRA: So we looked at criminals that became jihadists, and we saw two distinct patterns. The first was that they seek redemption from their violent pasts, from their criminal pasts in jihadism. Basically the idea of redemption is intrinsically linked to the idea of martyrdom, which says that the minute that you die, you will be absolved of your previous sins. You will be able to intercede on behalf of family members on the day of judgment.

So it has a very strong effect on people that are looking for this redemption in their lives. If that's the case, we do have to ask ourselves, well, why is it that they get involved in jihadism and they don't become let's say Quakers or members of the Salvation Army...


BASRA: ...Because in the marketplace of ideas, there are many, many different ideologies that can offer this redemption and the ability to wipe the slate clean. And so our research really showed that perhaps it's down to human networks - who you know, who you're in touch with face to face or on the Internet, to a lesser degree. And they can introduce these ideas and kind of steer this person that is searching for this salvation and redemption into extremism.

MCEVERS: So you said redemption is one reason that people with a criminal background are attracted to these militant activities. What's the other?

BASRA: So the other phenomena that we saw amongst criminals that engage in jihadism is that their ideology further legitimizes them committing crimes by justifying it on the grounds that, you're living in the West, which is at war with Islam, and so it's ok to steal from the nonbelievers.

And you see this in the propaganda that these groups produce. So Islamic State, in their glossy PDF magazines - they've justified committing crimes. The same with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Their famous propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki...


BASRA: ...Wrote a lengthy essay justifying under what conditions can you steal from the nonbelievers. But the important thing here is that to the person on the street, they don't need to know the intricacies of the debate. For them, they just need to know that it's acceptable.

MCEVERS: And so one way it would seem that you might be able to counter this kind of propaganda is that there are other paths to redemption, right?

BASRA: That's possible. So if you're looking at a criminal profile, perhaps you could consider better ways of reintegrating them back into society, giving them a sense of identity and belonging to make up for the mistakes that they made in life.

But aside from trying to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place, we also have to accept that terrorism is just a fact of life in the West these days. And so perhaps it's better to make society more resilient to the effects of terrorism.

MCEVERS: What do you mean?

BASRA: In the sense that terrorism aims to terrorize people. So if these attacks just don't gather that much attention or don't cause so much panic as they would otherwise do, this kind of defeats the whole purpose of this attacker engaging in that act.

MCEVERS: So don't cover them in the news.

BASRA: It's not necessarily about not covering them in the news, but I think much of the coverage is alarmist, and I think these attacks should actually reinforce the identities and values that we hold so that we can not only just survive these attacks, but after the fact, we can rediscover what it is that this society stands for.

MCEVERS: Rajan Basra of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, thanks a lot.

BASRA: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "SAINT PABLO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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