The Terrorism Act (2000) has provided the foundation for counter-terrorism policy and tactics for the last 20 years. By and large the act appears to have withstood the test of time and judicial scrutiny. It defines an act of terrorism as the use or threat of violence to advance an ideology. In the days of balaclava clad men, meeting in dingy back street rooms, this definition was suitably ubiquitous. But the times of IRA active service units and Islamic terror cells, although not over, are becoming less prevalent. Instead the socially interactive web (or Web 2.0) provides unconnected networks of like-minded extremists with a cause celebre on which to pin their anger and frustration. Massive online audiences provide them with a suitably impressive stage on which to carry out their horrific deeds.
But do these individuals really commit acts of murder to advance a hell bent cause? Or are these self-initiated killers, hijacking a cause for – quite literally – their own ends?
I would like to look at two case studies to explore these questions. Firstly, that of Jake Davison and secondly that of Emad Al Swealmeen. You will be forgiven for not immediately placing the name Davison, undoubtedly the second is still burned into the public consciousness with the almost unthinkable implication of what could have happened in Liverpool Maternity Hospital on Remembrance Sunday.
On the 12th August, Davison pointed a shotgun at his mother and pulled the trigger. He then calmly walked out of the family home in Plymouth where he proceeded to murder four other apparently random people before finally turning the gun on himself. At the time, rumours about his motive quickly circulated and many were introduced to the word ‘incel’. Incel is the merger of the words Involuntary celibacy. It is an entirely web based ideology that is shared by networks of people who do not know each other and have certainly never met in person but who relate to one another and share the same frustrations and anger. To put it very simply, incels are those geeky people who never seemed to be able to get a girlfriend. I have to say that I can entirely empathise with those awkward teenagers who did not have the confidence to ask a girl out on a date and remember the frustration and jealousy I felt towards the good looking ‘football boys’ who always seemed to wander around arm in arm with some beautiful girl. Incels take this anger and jealousy and distil it in the echo chamber of social media. Right wing extremism adds fuel to the fire of resentment, suggesting that the Ubermensch should have the pick of the genetic crop and that somehow having sex with beautiful women is a white supremacist prerogative.
By comparison, little so far is known of the background and ideology of Emad Al Swealmeen. He was a 32 year old Jordanian born in Iraq and raised in the UAE, arriving in the UK to make a claim for asylum sometime between 2009 and 2014. In 2015, he converted from Islam to Christianity and appeared to be a well-known member of a church in Fazakerley, Liverpool and an attendee at the city’s Anglican Cathedral. He was known to have mental health problems and his asylum claim was rejected some time around 2015. Between 2017 and 14th November 2021 his story becomes shadowy and elusive. He lost contact with the Church and the support network it provided and apparently was not on the radar of MI5 or the police. Only resurfacing at 1059hrs on 14th November in the appalling scene at the Maternity Hospital, there is little doubt that Al Swealmeen intended to murder innocent people. Where he intended to actually detonate the device does not seem certain; although his bomb exploded in the grounds of Liverpool Maternity Hospital it is worth remembering that the cathedral he knew so well was only around two minutes drive further down the road. Perhaps the even deeper mystery is why a troubled Christian asylum seeker chose this horrific course of action.
Humankind has a need to rationalise the irrational; it is almost inconceivable to reasonable minds that both Davison and Al Swealmeen did not have some fanatical cause in mind in those final moments. However, their rage and anger may not have been driven by ideology or – in the very least – their ideology was not the only driver behind these attacks. Both were diagnosed with mental health problems and this must certainly have played a part in forming their actions. They had both – as far as they were concerned – been rejected from mainstream society and both were digital natives. This is a term used to describe the generation born within the digital revolution and to whom the use of web technology and web based social interaction is entirely intuitive. There is growing academic research to show that through a toxic blend of nature and circumstance, some vulnerable minds turn to the use of violence as a means of achieving significance. They have little to show for their lives and therefore their deaths finally grant them the importance they so desperately strive for. They grab ideologies they most closely sympathise with, be that extreme right wing, incel or Islam. As soon as they have a cause, they have an audience and as soon as they have an audience they require a swan song.
So where does this leave us? We have a case of a young man in Plymouth who undoubtedly had an ideology – albeit one that law enforcement does not appear to fully recognise – and murdered five people, compared with a man who killed no-one other than himself and so far as it seems had no discernible ideology at all. We are left in the precarious position of trying to make the offence fit the crime. An act of terrorism clearly requires the motive of advancing an ideology. Without this can Al Swealmeen legally have been a terrorist? Conversely the ideology that Davison possessed was somehow not considered legitimate enough to define him as a terrorist.
In 2020, The Home Office published a report stating that 51% of all referrals (2019 to 2020) to Prevent, showed ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’. So, law enforcement agencies do recognise this shift away from a single strand fanatical cause to something more personalised and disparate. The term terrorism was legally defined in 2000, written by extremely intelligent people, but by people who viewed terrorists as groups of balaclava clad bandits and who had no concept of the hyperconnected society of 2021. The world has totally changed in the past twenty years, perhaps it is time to change what we think of as terrorism also.
Stuart Hollihead is a Detective Constable at Greater Manchester Police. This blog is based on his research for a masters degree which focused on counter-terrorism and security.