It has been a few days since the tragic events in Westminster, when a lone actor terrorist mowed down three people and brutally killed an unarmed police officer who was wearing a stab proof vest. As more details emerge about the chequered history of the assailant, aspects of what exactly drove this man to violent extremism are less clear.
Born Adrian Russell Ajo, this was a man in his early 50s, with a history of violence, domestic abuse, drug taking and alcoholism. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle, completely falling off the rails. His violent outbursts eventually landed him prison sentences, the first time in 2003.
According to reports, he converted to Islam in 2003, quite probably while in prison. In 2004, he married a younger South Asian Muslim woman and between 2005 and 2009, he spent many years teaching English in Saudi Arabia. During these years, he would have found himself in the domain of a hardened view on life, one where genders are not just separated but women are treated woefully. It is where an interpretation of Islam is loaded with narrow misguided diktats that take attention away from the richness and beauty of Islam more generally.
Upon his return, it seems that he was not quite able to reconcile the dichotomous black-and-white work of Salafist Islam that he took from Saudi Arabia and the free-spirited decadence that he clearly enjoyed in an environment that was his place of birth, a domain he called home.
In the final moments before his 82 seconds of carnage, he felt that his life was not worth living, whichever way he defined or characterised it, but that through his self-annihilation he would achieve self-realisation – that he would become somebody, in spite of the fact that much his reputation would be based on infamy rather than notoriety.
Can he now been seen as a homicidal maniac with a death wish rather than some loyal devotee inspired by an alleged greater cause (orchestrated by numerous homicidal maniacs with death wishes of their own)? While there will be much attention placed on the pull of the ideological expression manifested in an identity associated with being part of a supposed greater cause, it is easy to overstate this and to ignore some obvious indicators of causes elsewhere.
In a climate of rampant Islamophobia, virulent misunderstandings and woeful ignorance of objective thinking steeped in years of scholarship and research, these distortions are promulgated by lazy, ideological or indifferent media. It is led by big media outlets who attempt to outdo each other in their attempts to generate the most sensationalism in a competitive environment for ever limited attention from viewers. Moving on from the print age, the digital age has unleashed a different kind of beast, one that grows man-eating tentacles at will, to such an extent that online chatter becomes trending topics that become the news itself.
Concerning Ajo, later known as Khalid Masood, mainstream media had no story at first; hence, it drilled out the same old tired tropes, doing a number of damaging things in the process. First, it adds fuel to the fire of radicalisers whose message is that the west is perennially hostile to Islam and Muslims. Second, it emboldens those on the far right, increasingly mobilising themselves in an ideologically, politically and culturally charged space, with populism catalysing these rabble-rousers. Third, it obfuscates ordinary folks constantly bombarded with negative images and sentiments on Islam and Muslims, further confusing these people in the process.
Approximately one in eight of ‘home-grown radicals’ are converts, while Muslims, in general, make up one in 20 of the population as a whole. Therefore, one must consider that conversions alone does not really tell the whole story. Rather, the motivations for conversion reflect more the need for belonging, identity and solidarity. In the context of prisons, there is also the additional element of security and safety. Prison conversion to Islam was first discussed in the USA in the 1960s, when there were wider cultural and social revolutions afoot, affecting wider popular culture, too.
Masood was very much a loner towards the end, and it is therefore difficult to piece together anything about his associates or movements in radicalised circles, if any. Perhaps what is more to the story is the background of this individual. What was his experience of being in a minority of one or two in school or a village as a mixed-race man? While he played a jack the lad role, what was his experience in the home and in his community? What was his experience of race, racialisation and racism?
Answering these questions will generate a greater understanding of the wider sociological and psychological issues at play as all other investigative inquiries have drawn a blank thus far.