If we start to link terrorism and domestic violence, we might just stop the next attack

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 23 May 2019

Home can be a dangerous place. Every week, two women are killed by current or former partners, and the number of domestic homicides in London tripled last year to 29. But there’s another connection between domestic violence and murder that doesn’t appear in official figures. Most terrorists – and indeed most of the men responsible for mass shootings in the US – have a history of abusing women and children.

I’ve spent a year researching the backgrounds of the perpetrators of fatal attacks on strangers in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. Some claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamist organisations such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, while others were followers of right-wing ideologies. How much they actually know about these organisations is another matter; two British men who were preparing to travel to Syria to join ISIS knew so little about the ‘caliphate’ that they ordered books on Islam, including Islam for Dummies, from Amazon. The Nice truck attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had shown little interest in Islam until a few weeks before he murdered 86 people and injured more than 450.

What these men are interested in is violence. Robert Dear Jnr, an evangelical Christian who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, had previously been investigated in relation to a rape, accused of domestic abuse by two of his former wives, and was reported to the police by a neighbour who spotted him peering into her bedroom. The rape charge was dropped and the only convictions Dear had were for driving offences, allowing him to buy four semi-automatic weapons.

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Terrorism is a form of male violence, just like rape and domestic abuse, and we know that it doesn’t stay in neat categories. Men with repeat convictions for beating up family members often have convictions for other forms of assault, including attacks on police and prison officers. They don’t ‘keep it in the family’ – and a small but significant number burst onto a public stage with catastrophic consequences, as we saw in London and Manchester in 2017.

What is surprising is the fact that this connection has been overlooked by police and counter-terrorism agencies. At the end of 2017, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson QC, published an interim report on three of that year’s fatal attacks in the UK. It offered revealing insights into MI5’s thinking, drawing on a mass of previously unpublished research into the backgrounds of known terrorists. Domestic violence wasn’t mentioned, yet I’ve found dozens of cases in which wives, girlfriends, children, mothers and even mothers-in-law suffered years of abuse before the perpetrators went on to kill total strangers.  

The Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks were all carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. No doubt Darren Osborne, a right-wing extremist who ranted in a pub about killing Muslims before he drove a hired van into worshippers in north London, would have regarded the Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood as his sworn enemy. Yet they had strikingly similar backgrounds: Osborne was a career criminal who was known to neighbours in Cardiff as a ‘shouty’ man who verbally abused his family in the street. He had dozens of convictions, including one in 2003 for actual bodily harm against his female partner, with whom he had four children. He had shown no interest at all in right-wing ideology until she threw him out of the family home in Cardiff shortly before the attack.

Masood likewise had a long criminal record. The mother of his two eldest children left him following ‘ongoing domestic abuse’ around the time he was sent to prison for slashing a man’s face with a knife. He then converted to Islam and married a young Muslim woman, who endured such abuse at his hands that she ran away from the marriage after only three months. At the time of the Westminster Bridge attack, Masood is believed to have been separated from his second wife, who described him as ‘controlling and angry’ at the inquest into his victims. She also said he was a habitual user of steroids, another common factor among the perpetrators of recent terrorist outrages.

‘The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home,’ confirmed Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west of England, when I interviewed him for my new book. Afzal is famously the lawyer who prosecuted members of the Rochdale gang who ‘groomed’ and raped under-age girls, sending the ringleader to prison for 19 years. ‘They would rather believe it was driven by politics than what it was really driven by,’ Afzal said when we discussed the Manchester Arena bombing, an attack we both recognised as driven by deep-seated misogyny.

Five years before the bomber set out to murder teenage girls at an Ariane Grande concert, he punched a teenage girl in the head for wearing a short skirt – an assault for which he was never charged. Salman Abedi wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme that exists to deal with individuals showing signs of radicalisation. MI5 didn’t know about Abedi’s history of misogyny and violence against women when they began to investigate him as a potential terrorist two years later. 

The web of male violence extends much further than we realise. And when it comes to terrorism, we’ve been blind to the obvious – that the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved men who pose a risk to their own families long before they pick up a knife or strap on a suicide belt. Living in an atmosphere where angry scenes and blows are a daily occurrence desensitises them to the effects of abuse; they’re practising at home, lowering the threshold that deters most people from committing acts of violence. Some of them start off as victims, growing up with violent fathers or step-fathers before they begin abusing women themselves. But domestic abuse is creating a pool of volatile, hyper-vigilant men who are far more susceptible than the rest of us to propaganda that appears to ‘legitimise’ violence.

And there are thousands of them: at the end of 2017, MI5 revealed that well over 500 counter-terrorism investigations were under way, involving more than 3,000 individuals who might be planning an attack, plus another 20,000 who had been investigated but were no longer believed to pose an active threat. There’s every reason to think the figure is higher now, as more right-wing plots are uncovered and ‘foreign fighters’ attempt to return home following the collapse of ISIS. It’s impossible to monitor every single one of these individuals day and night. ‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ Afzal told me. ‘You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.’

Terrorism isn’t an enigma. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it has the same origins as other forms of male violence; misogyny and histories of abuse almost always lurk beneath the rationalisations of religion or politics. If only we recognised this fact, and started looking closely at suspects with a history of abusing their families, we might be able to stop the next terrorist attack before it happens – and save lives.

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