home :  blog :  resources :  research & analysis :  contact
20 October 2008

Why Nicky Reilly matters

by A. Aaron Weisburd

The Exeter bombing
Successful counter-terrorism can be described as a non-event. When we are successful in identifying people who are intent on committing terrorism, and manage to somehow intervene to prevent them from doing so, nothing happens. When we fail to identify and focus our efforts on the right people, however, bad things happen.

The Big Friendly Terrorist
Called "the Big Friendly Giant"[1] by neighbors prior to his conversion to Islam, Nicky Reilly recently pled guilty to charges[2] stemming from his attempted bombing in Exeter, England, on 22nd May, 2008. Nicky Reilly matters precisely because upon superficial examination his case is so atypical. Conventional wisdom would argue that we should dismiss him. A giant of a man with - according to his mother - the mind of a child, Nicky Reilly has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome[3], depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder[4]. Viewed as mentally disabled, Nicky Reilly was in fact dismissed as a threat when he turned up on the periphery of an MI5 investigation.[5]

There is no profile
There is something close to consensus in counter-terrorism circles that there is no profile for jihadi terrorists, and perhaps not for terrorists of any sort. In fact, what stands out when people attempt to study terrorists is that, aside from having been involved in terrorist-related activity, they are ordinary, average guys. To cite just one of the many studies that have arrived at this conclusion:

The majority of the individuals involved in these plots began as “unremarkable” - they had “ordinary” jobs, had lived “ordinary” lives and had little, if any criminal history.[6]

Nevertheless we must constantly make decisions regarding who is the greater threat, and who the lesser threat. Those decisions are made on the basis of something - call them "guidelines" or "standards" if the word "profile" offends. Herein lies the problem. We study terrorists as individuals - rather than as participants in a process - and we focus on their attributes or characteristics instead of their behaviors and relationships.

Differential Jihadization
In order that we might better be able to assess who might constitute the greater threat, and thus require attention on our part, I have developed the theory of differential jihadization[7]. The theory is an attempt to explain why some people succeed in becoming terrorists while others fail. I arrived at the theory as a way of reconciling my observation of tens of thousands of individuals active on jihadist websites over the last six years with the comparatively low rate of terrorist attacks during the same period.

To become a terrorist one must need something that the Internet either does not provide or is not very effective at providing. The theory of differential jihadization is derived from criminological discussion of a similar issue: the fact that some people, some of the time, get involved in criminal activity while many others do not, when all other factors (e.g. poverty, or discrimination) are experienced equally. Opportunities and associations that might facilitate involvement in crime are not equally available to all - that is the differential. This is not to say that an individual who is truly hell-bent on becoming involved in crime cannot succeed in doing so, only that they will be less likely to succeed, and that they will have to try harder to do so.

When it comes to the aspiring terrorist, I contend that three things are necessary: motivation, association, and opportunity. The theory does not stipulate that these things be found on, let alone exclusively on, the Internet. In fact, when first conceived, my assumption was that the missing conditions were *not* to be found online. Only after being confronted with hard data have I come to admit that yes, in some cases, the Internet can significantly contribute to and/or enable people becoming involved in terrorism[8], as was clearly the case with Aabid Khan[9], Younis Tsouli[10], and their many associates.

Motivation can be viewed as a state of being. The radicalized Muslim youth views his world as one where the armies of Zionist Christendom are seeking to destroy Islam, and so he should involve himself in terrorist activity in defense of the Ummah and Muslim lands. Motivation can also be viewed as a process, a fire that requires constant tending and stoking. The behaviors of searching for, collecting, sharing, and expressing outraged response to "the real news" of The West's War on Islam™ can all be observed in potential terrorists, in some more than others. The aspiring jihadi needs a constant supply of news and information that fits his view of the world and keeps the fire of his anger burning brightly. Can he find this fuel on the Internet? Sure. And he can find it in abundance on jihadi websites. But he can also find it on al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. In recognition of the importance of this behavior, al-Qaida for a number of years operated a website called "World News Network", a site which served primarily as a clearinghouse for open source news and information.

Sutherland's Differential Association theory[11] stipulates that criminal behavior is learned in interaction with others within intimate personal groups. And so it is with terrorism. Real world associations are likely to be of more assistance to the aspiring jihadi than those found in cyberspace, yet there is be no doubt that individuals can come together on the Internet to learn terrorist tradecraft. Certain aspects of that tradecraft, e.g. the manufacture of explosives, may be particularly problematic to learn online. In addition to uncertainty regarding the qualifications of the teacher and the self-discipline of the student, there are additional complications related to the third pillar of this theory - opportunity - which will be addressed in a moment. Nevertheless it has happened, and it will likely continue to happen, that some people find the associations they need and acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to be functional terrorists, at least in part and sometimes in whole, on the Internet.[12]

Opportunity is a function of time and place, is frequently a by-product of association, and is not equally available to all. Returning to criminological theory, Cloward and Ohlin built upon the work of Sutherland and addressed this issue as follows:

What we are asserting is that access to illegitimate roles is not freely available to all, as is commonly asserted. Only those neighborhoods in which crime flourishes as a stable, indigenous institution are fertile criminal learning environments for the young. Because these environments afford integration of different age-levels of offender, selected young people are exposed to “differential association” through which tutelage is provided and criminal values and skills are acquired.[13]

With one notable exception, the opportunity to engage in terrorist-related activity will be found in the real world, not online. To understand why this is so, consider the problem of making explosives. Such an effort, if it is to produce reliable results, requires not only good instructions and the necessary ingredients, but also a place to safely assemble the explosives and to test the component parts. The exception is what we have come to call eJihad - terrorist-related activity which is not only organized online but also perpetrated online.[14] Such activity includes but is not limited to: attacking enemy websites; operating jihadi websites; distributing, uploading, and/or producing propaganda; distributing pirating software; and stealing credit cards and identities. Involvement in eJihad is likely both to enable involvement in more serious terrorism-related acts and to embolden the new recruit - the latter because he is likely to think that he has gotten away with something, at least in the short term.

Having another look at Nicky Reilly
As noted earlier, Nicky Reilly fell in with a group of guys who were already under investigation by Special Branch. In fact, shortly after the bombing in Exeter, two of Reilly's associates in Plymouth were taken into custody at gun point.[15] However, neither was charged with any crime related to Nicky's jihad, suggesting that they did not directly contribute to the planning and preparation of the attack (i.e. provide the necessary association and opportunity). Nevertheless, these real world associations may have contributed to Nicky's motivation - we simply don't know.

Somehow, somewhere, someway, Nicky came to identify with the global jihad, and to view himself as one of the mujahedin. We know from accounts of friends and family, as well as from testimony in court, that Nicky spent a considerable amount of time online, immersing himself in radical content. The account of a former boyfriend of Reilly's mother is telling:

"He was fascinated by the attack on the Twin Towers as he saw England and America as satanic.

"He would watch beheadings on the internet and believed in honour killing. It was deeply disturbing.

"Nicky discussed with me the concept of martyrdom and paradise, where 40 virgins would be waiting for him. I told him he was on a sticky wicket with his beliefs but he was utterly caught up in it."[16]

The more we look at Nicky's behaviors rather than his attributes, the more he sounds like so many other young men who have been caught up in Islamist terrorism. Consider how often we have heard comments such as these:
Neighbours recall him regularly using a local internet cafe. 'He used to come in quite often,' said one visitor to the cafe.[17]
“Nicky used to sit in his room all the time on the computer. He had a webcam and would be taking part in these internet prayer meetings and speaking to the others in their language.”[18]

In the case of Nicky Reilly, it was in fact on the Internet that he found both association and opportunity, on a "website" he created for himself called chechen233, on YouTube[19]:

click image to view full size

Using the messaging functions offered by YouTube, Reilly came to associate with two men said to be based in Pakistan, who helped him choose a target for his attack and pointed him towards bomb-making instructions.[20]

I think we do Nicky a great disservice when we speak of his being "brainwashed." While I don't see the world in the same way that he and his cohorts do, neither do I believe that their view of things is the product of some sort of weakness or abnormality. I can also see how Nicky's linear thinking may have actually contributed to his ability to make a more or less functional explosive device, and it is likely that computer mediated communications made it easier for him to relate to others, in addition to preventing others from observing him in such a way that they might have chosen to shun him. The comments of a doctor who treated Reilly address these points:

"He showed linear thinking and had special needs but he was not stupid.

"He just had trouble interacting. Nicky looked at the world in a different way to other people and he was very vulnerable."[21]

In Conclusion
We need to keep in mind that terrorism is an activity which only a very small number of people engage in, and the number of those who we are able to study in any detail is smaller still. Consequently, generalizing from any particular sample of terrorists to the entire population of terrorists will always be somewhat problematic. We need to assess potential terrorists in terms of their behaviors, their associations, and the opportunities that are available to them, rather than on their attributes and characteristics. Examining the online activities of the aspiring jihadist facilitates such a shift in focus, because by definition a person we observe in cyberspace is dissociated from their more worldly aspects.

+++ Notes +++

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/15/uksecurity1

[2] http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/uk/Muslim-convert-admits-failed-suicide.4594760.jp

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2075559/Exeter-bomb-blast-Muslim-convert-Nicky-Reilly-in-court.html

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2017366/Exeter-explosionNeighbours-tell-of-Nicky-Reillyandrsquos-troubled-past.html

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/may/25/uksecurity.terrorism

[6] http://hoekstra.house.gov/UploadedFiles/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf

[7] http://www.iletsbei.com/lee_forum/articledetail.php?recordID=1073

[8] http://internet-haganah.com/harchives/006390.html

[9] http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefaaabidkhan0908.pdf

[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7knxgWSEgr8

[11] Sutherland, E.H. (2004). Differential Association. In J.E. Jacoby (Ed.), Classics of Criminology (pp. 272-273). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

[12] http://www.sofir.org/sarchives/006276.php

[13] Cloward, R. A., & Ohlin, L. E. (2004). Delinquency and opportunity. In J. E. Jacoby (Ed.), Classics of criminology (p. 284). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

[14] http://internet-haganah.com/harchives/006390.html

[15] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article3994866.ece

[16] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3201863/Exeter-terror-bomber-Nicky-Reilly-was-known-as-Big-Friendly-Giant.html

[17] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/may/25/uksecurity.terrorism

[18] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2017366/Exeter-explosionNeighbours-tell-of-Nicky-Reillyandrsquos-troubled-past.htm

[19] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article4951616.ece

[20] ibid.

[21] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3201863/Exeter-terror-bomber-Nicky-Reilly-was-known-as-Big-Friendly-Giant.html

Posted on 20 October 2008 @ 09:52

copyright © society for internet research