Simon Cottee

Academic and Author

Foreign Policy

The Islamic State’s Shock-and-Bore Terrorism

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty”, wrote the novelist Martin Amis. “That was the defining moment.” He was referring to United Airlines Flight 175: the second plane that smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien,” Amis ruminated, adding:. “For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

Terrorists Are Not Snowflakes

Something profound and seismic is happening in the way Western societies understand terrorism, and jihadi radicalization in particular. Until now, the terms of the debate were set by two master narratives about terrorists, usefully categorized in an Atlantic article published just over 30 years ago by the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien as the “hysterical stereotype” and the “sentimental stereotype.” The former saw terrorism as a form of pathology perpetrated by “‘disgruntled abnormal[s]’ given to ‘mindless violence,’” whereas the latter characterized it as a form of political resistance mounted by “misguided idealist[s] … driven to violence by political or social injustice or both.”

Osama bin Laden’s Secret Masturbation Fatwa

In January, the U.S. government released 49 new documents seized in 2011 from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Among the items — the fourth and final batch of bin Laden documents made public since 2012 — is a letter addressed to a senior colleague in North Africa in which the now-deceased al Qaeda leader raises “a very special and top secret matter”:

Did the Terrorists Win in Denmark?

For someone so unassuming and affable, Flemming Rose, the former foreign affairs editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, has a prodigious talent for making trouble. And trouble, for its part, has a special talent for finding Rose. On Sept. 19, 2005, Rose, the then culture editor at Jyllands-Posten, invited 42 Danish cartoonists and illustrators to draw the Prophet Muhammad “as they see him” for publication in the newspaper. Twelve artists took up the challenge, and on Sept. 30, that year, Jyllands-Posten duly published 12 editorial cartoons under the title, “The Face of Muhammad.” Of the 12, the most notorious was by Kurt Westergaard, depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban. Another showed the prophet in heaven, remonstrating suicide bombers with the words, “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!” The purpose of this exercise, Rose later explained in a Washington Post article, “wasn’t to provoke gratuitously,” but rather “to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”

Anjem Choudary and the Criminalization of Dissent

There is something unsettling about the conviction of Anjem Choudary, and the chorus of approval that has followed it, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. A disciple of the Islamist cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, who fled Britain for Lebanon in 2005, the 49-year-old former lawyer was a founding member of al-Muhajiroun, a banned Islamist group that had once called for jihad against India, Russia, and Israel and defended the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. For 20 years, Choudary had made a career out of Islamist activism, becoming a rent-a-quote radical the British media have been only too willing to enlist.

The Salvation of Sinners and the Suicide Bomb

The gulf between the terrorist and his atrocity is a wide one. Terrorist deeds are often monstrous and defy all human comprehension. But, as over three decades of research on terrorism shows, terrorists, by and large, are psychologically normal: not crazy-eyed, furious fanatics, but ordinary killers, with lives and personalities lacking, as Hannah Arendt famously said of Adolf Eichmann, in any kind of “diabolical or demonic profundity.”

What ISIS Women Want

What do Western women who join Islamic State want? One prominent theory is what these women “really” want is to get laid. Another is that they don’t know what they “really” want, because what they want has been decided for them by male jihadi “groomers.” Both theories are meant to resolve a seeming paradox: How can any woman who enjoys democratic rights and equality before the law join or support a group which actively promotes her own oppression?

Europe’s Joint-Smoking, Gay-Club Hopping Terrorists

Last month, CNN released video footage of Brahim Abdeslam and his younger brother Salah dancing in a nightclub alongside a blond woman, with whom Brahim, the report claimed, was flirting. “This was life before ISIS,” the voice-over to the report says. “It’s Feb. 8, 2015. Just months later, Brahim would blow himself up at a Paris cafe; Salah becomes Europe’s most wanted man.”

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