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Black Widow, Questionable Cause

08/04/2010

In an article in this past weekend’s Observer, Luke Harding tells the story of 17-year old Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova. According to Harding, it was she who detonated her suicide belt at Moscow’s Lubyanka metro station, killing nearly two dozen commuters last Monday, 29 March. Notwithstanding the confusion over the identities of who did what where, Harding has at least identified the reason why this act of terrorism happened:

But though a precise explanation for Dzhennet’s actions can never be known, we shouldn’t ignore a simpler reason: the internet. In recent years the insurgency in Russia’s north Caucasus has mutated. During the 1990s, the rebels were largely Soviet-educated and secular, seeking to establish their an [sic] independent Chechen state. Today’s insurgents are radical Islamists, fighting for a Taliban-like emirate across the Caucasus mountains. The web has become a potent tool for recruiting volunteers. According to Kommersant newspaper, Dzhennet and Umalat [Magomedov, husband, insurgent, dead] met while chatting online; at the time she was just 16.

And so ends the article. Somewhat abruptly, but that’s OK as the ‘mystery’ is obviously solved.  This is fairly typical for what passes as comment and analysis in the mainstream press when it comes to examining the links between the internet and political violence.

In this case, what Harding has provided is a classic case of a ‘logical fallacy’, of the post hoc ergo propter hoc or ‘questionable cause’ variety: because Y happened after X, X must have caused Y. In the context of Abdurakhmanova’s internet use and her subsequent terrorist act, correlation does not imply causality, and this particular example is a form of technological determinism that allows little room for human agency.

It belongs to the same school of thought that treats people as empty vessels into which an ideology is placed, ‘causing’ radicalisation, leading to terrorism.  At the same time, proponents of this view also like to generalise from specific cases, an inductive approach that tends to result in ‘othering’ as many people as possible. You can argue for the relevance of many factors in someone’s biography leading to the commission of violence but you can’t have your cake and eat it.

What compounds Harding’s error is that he arrived at this conclusion because he cannot appeal to any other data. This is not even an application of Occam’s Razor: it’s just lazy. Such linear and dubious argumentation has plagued counterterrorism policy for years, although governments are far cannier about such things these days. In this case, both journalist and The Observer’s editorial staff are at fault. Why is taking so long for the media to catch up?