Something in common

Joan Smith has a must-read piece at the Guardian about the often overlooked connection between violence against women and terrorist violence.

Five years ago, I began to notice that the perpetrators of some of the worst terrorist attacks had something in common. A high proportion shared a history of assaulting wives, girlfriends and other female relatives, sometimes involving a whole series of victims, long before they attacked total strangers.

It’s so obvious once she points it out, isn’t it. Of course they do. What do we so often see in angry men? That they love to turn their anger in the direction of women. But it needs to be spelled out explicitly so that law enforcement gets it and acts accordingly. Joan (who is a fucking superhero by the way) has made that happen.

She cites some examples from 2016 and 2017 (do read the whole piece).

There were striking similarities between the histories of Darren Osborne, the rightwing extremist who drove a van into worshippers leaving a mosque in north London, and Khalid Masood, the Islamist who staged an attack on Westminster Bridge. Both men had criminal records for violent offences – and both had abused women.

Officially they were enemies – a right-winger who attacked random Muslims and an Islamist who attacked random walkers on a bridge – but they were bros underneath.

I thought these cases challenged conventional wisdom about terrorism, which holds that it is all about ideology. Many fatal terrorist attacks actually appeared to be an escalation of violence that had been going on, sometimes for years, against members of the perpetrator’s family. I was convinced that the police and MI5 needed to change the way they assessed the risk posed by suspects, treating a history of domestic violence as a very significant red flag.

When I raised this with the authorities, however, I encountered scepticism and disbelief. So I decided to write a book, using published sources to piece together a woeful catalogue of men who had humiliated, beaten and sexually assaulted women long before they became notorious as terrorists. It was published in 2019 and this time senior figures at counter-terrorism policing and the Home Office listened.

See what I mean? Super hero.

The Home Office commissioned research on “adults and children who had caused concern to teachers, social workers and family members because of a possible vulnerability to radicalisation (V2R).” The results are not yet published but Joan has seen them and calls them stunning.

Almost 40% of adult referrals had a history of domestic abuse either as perpetrators, witnesses or victims – or a combination of all three. This is likely to be an underestimate, given that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes, but it provides some idea of prevalence for the first time. The comparable figure for children is 30%, another likely underestimate because under-16s were not routinely questioned about domestic abuse in the home.

Again – one feels “of course” but Joan actually got officialdom to do the research.

As I expected, the link is visible across ideologies, from Islamists and rightwing extremists to the fifth of the sample where no known ideology was identified. This confirms my theory that terrorism is at least as much about male violence as ideology, suggesting that angry young men are attracted to extremist ideas that appear to “justify” their grievances.

So now that they know misogynist violence can be a warning sign for real violence [sarcasm alert] maybe law enforcement could start to take it seriously. Maybe.

The Project Starlight report rightly includes a raft of recommendations, calling for much wider awareness of the link between violent extremism and a history of domestic violence. “All counter-terrorism case officers should consider checking for potential links to a domestic abuse-related incident,” it says.

But this may not be straightforward when so few incidents lead to convictions. A recent report revealed that three-quarters of domestic abuse cases reported to the police in England were closed without the perpetrator being charged. Some organisations have come up with welcome innovations – Croydon in south London, for instance, has a specialist social worker sitting on Channel panels, leading to the disclosure of previously unsuspected domestic abuse in the history of V2R referrals.

But the Cinderella status of crimes against women can no longer be tolerated. The connection between private and public violence is now crystal clear – and the cost of continuing to ignore it is way too high.

Joan Smith is the author of Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists and co-chair of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls board

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