Manchester Bombing: A Former Extremist Explains How Radicals See Pop Stars

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Armed police patrol the city centre ahead of a national minute's silence in remembrance of all those who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena attack, on May 25, 2017 in Manchester, England. 

H.M. Uddin was 19 years old when she was recruited by the controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir on her college campus in England. Founded in 1953 as a Sunni Muslim organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s core mission was to establish a Khalifah, or Muslim state, and has been credited with bringing the concept of an Islamic State into the mainstream consciousness. Rather than use violent fundamentalism or jihadist tactics to accomplish this mission, it relies on rhetorical and ideological extremism as a means of appealing to the pathos of converts. 

“I was told that it was my obligation not just to pray and to fast, but to solve the problem of Western countries invading Islamic land, taking their resources and killing people while no one seemed to care or be doing anything about it,” says Uddin, whose name has been changed for this article. “The mentality was, ‘Those people dying are your problem. Those babies being murdered in war, they are your children and you’re just watching it happen.'”

For the next 10 years, Uddin would steep herself in these tactics and climb the ranks to become a senior figure within Hizb ut-Tahrir. But with time, age and motherhood, she began to question things. The series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings in central London on July 7, 2005 -- which coincided with the birth of her third child -- proved to be a pivotal moment. “It was quite an emotional time for me,” recalls Uddin. “I realized that I had been told a pack of lies and I foolishly trusted the people and what they were saying. I trusted the way they converted the religious theology and presented it. And when I came to the realization that I had been following the wrong thing, that it’s not black and white but very different than that -- I was told to leave the group.”

While some leave and never look back, Uddin has since dedicated her life to counter-extremism and using the same rhetorical tactics that lured her into Hizb ut-Tahrir to lead others -- particularly women -- to question their involvement with radicalized groups. With extensive first-hand knowledge of violent and non-violent extremism, Uddin recently spoke with Billboard about the Manchester Arena suicide bombing by 22 year-old British man Salman Adebi outside an Ariana Grande concert on Monday (May 22). The attack, which ISIS has claimed responsibility for, killed 22 people, wounded at least 59 others and is representative of the Islamic State’s war on Western culture. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

When individuals are recruited into extremism, are pop stars and Western music specifically part of the dialogue? 

Yeah. It not only becomes: “Look at the Western nations destroying land,” it’s also “Look at their way of life and how they live.” [Pop stars] are the antithesis to conservative teachings, which are predicated on women covering their bodies, being modest and not showing their bums. This mentality is part of the very conservative interpretation that these people have. Not all those with a conservative interpretation are terrorists but all terrorists adhere to conservative interpretation. 

But are there specific names or people in the pop star realm that are pointed out as examples being the “enemy.” How does the “demonizing” process work?

Billboards promoting naked women, things of that nature, are seen as not a way to live life. So it would make sense that a popular star like Ariana Grande who is in the news, who does pop videos that many extremists would find insulting, would be a target. 

So then the sexually empowered woman is also presented as a threat. 

Yes. And that’s the thing, Ariana checks all of those boxes. But again, I feel the violent extremist mindset is more about, “You’ve killed all of these children, we will kill all of your children. We’ve seen the loss of people in Iraq and around the world through wars that you’ve perpetrated. Here’s a taste of your own medicine. All that meddling was done within your foreign policy -- we’re getting revenge.” 

With regards to plotting the attack itself, to what extent do you think the artist is thought about?  When it comes to targeting concert venues, do you believe extremists are calculated enough to think along the lines of “Nicki Minaj is more dangerous, more explicit than Beyonce” for example?

No. I don’t believe so. In this instance, the bomber was from Manchester, so he has to use what he’s got in front of him and it happens to be a mega pop star who is coming to his doorstep, and he happens to be the weirdo who is radicalized. He was only 22 years old, so you have to realize they recruit very young people. [Adebi] looked at what he could do with his own resources, and that unfortunately happened to be an Ariana Grande concert. But it wasn’t just, “Let’s get Ariana Grande." Or "we are going for Beyonce because she shows more cleavage.” It was: he’s in Manchester, Ariana Grande is coming, that makes sense and would cause a massive amount of chaos and publicity. 

Do you think they were aware that the audience would have been mostly young girls at the show?

I think the way that the tactics are now, it’s about shock and awe -- to do the most violent act possible that will get the most attention and create highest level of fear. Extremists would sit down and think, “How can we achieve that massive impact.” And that’s what they’ve done: everyone knows Ariana, she’s an international pop star . . . the number of people, the killing of young children are purposely choreographed to get the highest amount of attention and disrupt moderate Muslim peoples’ lives as well. This is [ISIS’s] only tactic because they are losing territory and they are losing support, so it may have the effect of invigorating people who are feeling disenfranchised. If you’re feeling attacked or unwanted, this act appeals to those people -- it’s strategically executed with desired effects.

As someone who has a deep understanding of an extremist mindset, do you believe concert venues will become a more frequent target?

It’s about mass crowds and that’s what concert venues are. But again, the Islamic State has lost a massive amount of power and territory and they need to make it seem like they are still significant. The attack in Manchester only took one guy to cause that much destruction and that’s all they need. They’re looking at how they can make the most of what’s in front of them.