Terrorism is very simple and very complicated at the same time. Its simplicity comes from the set of axioms that underlie every terrorist and every terrorist group. We can summarise terrorism in three compact phrases:

  1. My people are suffering
  2. I/we know who is responsible for the suffering
  3. I/we need to use violence to stop the suffering

Pick any group and you will find a list, large or small, of grievances and stories of victimhood, the explicit mention of who is causing the grievance and a justification that violence against the perpetrators (as opposed to negotiation) is the only way to get them to stop. Here is an example from Islamic State.

  1. Muslims are suffering all over the world
  2. Those behind the suffering are the West, corrupt Muslim regimes, the Shia, other Muslims, Western culture (e.g. LBGT), etc.
  3. We will use violence (which we believe to be divinely mandated by the way) to punish those who hurt us

OK, maybe using IS as an example wasn’t so great since that group seems to hate everyone and everything. But I hope you get the point.

Alas, that is where the simplicity ends

When it comes to why an individual becomes a terrorist and/or joins a terrorist group it gets a lot more complicated. Studies have shown that there is no profile, no template, no easy explanation for why people make this choice (notice I wrote choice for that is exactly what it is). If there were a usable, reliable way to determine who and why we would have found it by now. The fact that we haven’t means there is none. So stop looking for it and for all our sakes stop claiming you have one.

No, each person is different and each person arrives at that moment of decision in a different way. Sometimes we can unpack what that journey was and at times we cannot (the fruitless search to date for a motive for the Las Vegas mass murderer is a good example of the latter). Here is a good example of when we do know.

Tony Doherty was nine years old when his father Patrick – then 31 – was killed by a soldier in the Irish city of Derry on January 30, 1972 – Bloody Sunday. This seminal event is seen as the day The Troubles, as they were known, escalated into the paroxysms of death and destruction that lasted decades.

To best understand what happened to the young Tony that day let’s read what he went through:

“My journey towards the IRA happened on that day. I have a very clear memory of the day of the funeral, and thinking that it was only a matter of time. After Bloody Sunday, and the killing of my father, I think a lot of it was predetermined, so it’s not that surprising to find that as an 18-year-old I ended up walking down a street in my own city with a bomb in my hand…

It changed the discourse even among children in that we started talking about murder. It was all about how you oppose the Brits, it was all about rioting, and even though we could only throw small stones with small hands. That’s what you did… When we were being trained I imagined shooting the soldier that shot my father, that’s what I did when I was holding the rifle. For me it was a very personalised journey that had a bad start and a bad ending.”

Mr. Doherty is now 54. He served four years in prison for possession of an explosive device (it did not go off), possession of a firearm and membership in the IRA. When he reflects on his youth he writes:

“Violence does beget violence, but I thought I was doing right at the time. As far as I’m concerned you can draw a direct line from what happened on Bloody Sunday in 1972 to me deciding to join the IRA eight years later… Some people may struggle and other people may not as far as I’m concerned.

As far as I’m concerned there was more right in me becoming an IRA member than there was in any respect for the killing of my father.”

Mr. Doherty now works in community health but still wants some kind of truth commission to deal with the years of violence. He has written a book about his life entitled The Dead Beside Us (Mercier Press). It should be a good read.

I am not a proponent of violence to right wrongs but who am I to say Tony Doherty made the wrong choice at the time? Would I have have made a similar decision if it had been my father lying dead in the streets of Derry? What choice would you have made?

That, dear readers, is how terrorism happens. At least in the case of one young boy in Ireland in the 1970s.


Do you agree with Phil's view? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. He has spoken to audiences about terrorism across Canada and the US and around the world. borealisrisk@gmail.com

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