Last year, I began to research terrorists with a background of domestic violence.
Sadly, violence is common in family court cases to do with children being made wards of court due to fear of radicalisation. Many fathers in these cases have been abusive, either to their wives or to their children.
That’s not to say that correlation goes hand in hand with causation. The majority of domestic abusers don’t go on to become terrorists, and many terrorists have no reported background of domestic violence.
However, there seem to be some patterns in common.
Take Rachid Redouane, one of the three terrorists behind the London Bridge attack last year, for example. Redouane married an Irish woman and moved to London with her in 2012. They had a daughter in 2015. At some point in their relationship, he became more religious, violent, and controlling. They broke up in 2017 because of his controlling behaviour: his wife reportedly hated him because he beat and humiliated her. When she refused to convert to Islam, she moved to a protective unit for victims of domestic violence.
Khalid Masood, responsible for the Westminster attack 2017, attacked a man in 2000 with a knife, repeatedly yelling that he felt the need to kill someone. At the time of the attack, Masood was taking anger management classes. His wife, who was with him for ten years, ended their relationship when he was imprisoned in 2000. While in jail, Masood converted to Islam. He was sentenced in 2003 for stabbing a man in the face. In 2004, he married a Muslim woman, but the marriage was short because Masood was violent and controlling towards her.
Mohammed Lahouiaej-Bouhel, responsible for the Niceattack in 2016, had a very similar profile to Masood. He was married with three children, and was thrown out of his house in 2014 for beating his wife; they subsequently divorced. His psychiatrist said that he exhibited violent tendencies toward his family. Both Lahaouiaej-Bouhel and Masood were in therapy: Lahouiaej-Bouhel attended a psychiatric unit and Masood was taking anger management classes. They both spent time in prison, a place where many are vulnerable to radicalisation.
It is concerning that domestic violence appears to fall outside the definition of conflict-related violence created by the United Nations in 2012, although it is included in wider definitions of gender-based violence. These cases– being the most famous and well reported, where the victim is able to expose the level of violence of their abuser – allude to a relationship between committing terrorist attacks and having a history of violence.
The use of sexual violence by terrorists needs to be put in context not only in terms of the wider socio-cultural environment in which the normalisation of violence is embedded, from also from an ideological perspective.
Propaganda released by terrorist organisations like Islamic State promises ‘sex slaves’ and new wives as a way of drawing men into their ranks.
In fact, when terrorist groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram cannot pay their fighters, women are often used as a reward, or as a replacement for lack of the funds.
We have seen these trends in times of war more generally. Rape and sexual violence have long served as a weapon of humiliation, with hyper-masculinity being used to compensate for a lack of power. Sexual violence helps to subordinate the ‘other’, as enemies, infidels and apostates, and reinforces bonds amongst those committing acts of sexual violence.
Literature on radicalisation and terrorism has placed emphasis on social dynamics contributing to creating a sense of belonging. Scott Atran, for example, argues that:
We shall see that young men willing to go kill and die for jihad were campmates, school buddies, soccer pals, and the like, who become die-hard bands of brothers in a tragic and misbegotten quest to save their imagined tribal community from Crusaders, Jews, and other morally deformed, unrepentant, and therefore subhuman beings. It is in groups that they find the camaraderie of a cause, however admirable or abhorrent, and the courage and commitment that come from belonging to something larger.
Following this logic, sexual violence helps to create a shared identity among fighters in terrorist groups, who do not challenge it because they are encouraged to rape women not only by peers within the movement, but also by leaders of the group and guidance within propoganda. This further reinforces the normalisation and institutionalisation of sexual violence as one of the pillars of terrorism.
Such a theory stands in contrast to traditional work on criminology and social bonding, which stresses that social bonds to schools, friends, and family can reduce the likelihood of an individual committing acts of crime, delinquency, or violence.
Yet while violence – both domestic and sexual – is an important factor in terrorism, it is difficult to study its role. Rape is a crime that is underreported due to stigma and shame. Even though violence often begins at home, researchers have failed to systematically map overlaps between data from domestic violence cases, and cases to do with subsequent acts of crime or terrorism. To end the use of sexual violence as a tactic of terrorism, this would be an important place to start.