Simon Cottee

Academic and Author

Why Jihadists Want to Kill

On Saturday night, seven people were brutally murdered in a jihadist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. Scores more were critically injured. It is the third terrorist attack in the UK in as many months. "Things need to change," said British Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech the morning after the carnage of the night before. May is right about that. But everything she said was a regurgitation of the same old script:

Why would anyone join ISIL?

ISIL is an abomination. Since capturing large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria last summer, it has slaughtered thousands of defenceless Iraqi soldiers and Shiite civilians. It has raped and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women. It has brutalized children by forcing them to watch scenes of horrific cruelty and violence. It has presided over public crucifixions in its stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. It has coerced boys as young as 14 to carry out suicide missions. It has launched a campaign of murderous aggression against gay men. It has stolen and vandalized ancient and irreplaceable artifacts. And it has created a vast library of snuff movies that degrades not only the defenceless victims whose deaths they depict, but also the viewers who watch them.
Why on earth, then, would anyone wish to join it?
This question was asked with renewed urgency last week after it emerged that three sisters from Bradford, U.K., together with their nine children, may have fled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State or the “Caliphate,” as it also calls itself.

What Motivates Terrorists?

One of the most frequently asked questions about terrorism is also the most intractable. Why? Why do they do it? Why do people join terrorist groups and participate in acts of terrorism?
There are as many answers to this question as there are terrorist groups, and everyone from clerics to caustic cab drivers seems to have a confident opinion on the subject, as though the interior world of terrorists can be easily mined and mapped. But this confidence is often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it.

The Zoolander Theory of Terrorism

Who knew that Zoolander would eclipse The Siege as the most prescient Hollywood movie about jihadist terrorism?
The Siege, scripted by Lawrence Wright—who went on to author a groundbreaking study of al-Qaeda called The Looming Tower—is a pre-9/11 drama about a wave of jihadist atrocities in New York and the human-rights catastrophe thereby entrained, including the introduction of martial law and the internment of Arabs across the city. Zoolander, released just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, is by contrast a comedy about an imbecilic male model who is brainwashed by an outlandish criminal organization to carry out an act of international terrorism.

What exactly is the allure of Islamic State?

“She used to watch ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ and stuff like that, so there was nothing that indicated that she was radicalized in any way — not at home.” So said Sahima Begum in her testimony before the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in London this month. She was speaking about her sister Shamima, 15, who together with Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, absconded from England last month to Turkey, eventually crossing the border into Syria.

Taking off the veil

As young Islamists hog headlines by revelling in slaughter, a procession of other young Muslims, often women, are risking all — even their lives — to abandon the faith, writes Simon Cottee

Terrorism With a Human Face

It’s all in the face, apparently. Just check out that terrifying mug shot of Mohammad Atta, the so-called “ringleader” of the 19 hijackers who staged the 9/11 attacks. His face, wrote the novelist Martin Amis in a short story about Atta, was “gangrenous” and “almost comically malevolent.” Hateful, too:

Why It’s So Hard to Stop ISIS Propaganda

“We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, purportedly wrote in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who led al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time. The previous year, Zarqawi’s network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, had publicly released more than 10 beheading videos, including a video believed to show Zarqawi himself beheading the American businessman Nicholas Berg. This was bad PR, Zawahiri cautioned his hotheaded field commander, and risked alienating Muslims.

I Escaped an Arranged Marriage

A few months ago, Amina left home. She was due to marry her father's friend: a man from Yemen nearly three times her age. The thought of it terrified her. She had expressed deep reservations from the start, but her father – a well-known sheikh in Canada with a large international following – was adamant that she was to be married and had initiated the sponsorship process to bring her prospective husband over from the Middle East.

ISIS and the Logic of Shock

On Tuesday, ISIS released another snuff movie: the ritualized burning to death of a captured Jordanian pilot. It is arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. But then every major video ISIS puts out is arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. The film of the mass beheading of some 20 Syrians last year, which ended with the display of the severed head of an American aid worker, was, at the time it was released, arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. And so was the video, released last month, featuring a child as chief executioner in the slaughter of two men confessing at gunpoint to be Russian spies.

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