Who Is the Homegrown Jihadi?

For the second time in a couple of weeks, the world has been subjected to the jarring sight of a hooded man with an English accent slashing the throat of a helpless American. While not unexpected, the public murder of Steven J. Sotloff, a thirty-one-year-old freelance journalist who had been held captive in Syria since 2012, raises a number of troubling questions.

One of them—How will President Obama respond?—has already been answered. Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, on Wednesday morning, Obama said, “Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States.” While that statement didn’t quite amount to a declaration of war on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, it laid down a clear marker, and it surely presages a significant expansion in the U.S. military campaign that began, in early August, with air strikes in northern Iraq.

A view of the bus bombed in central London on July 7, 2005.

The President didn’t commit the United States government to wiping out ISIS completely, which was probably wise. One thing we’ve learned about these Islamist groups is that they have a seemingly endless supply of young recruits, some of whom come from Western countries that the jihadis regard as their enemies. If, as seems likely, the United States puts together a coalition of the willing to attack ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the inflow of foreign fighters might well increase. A U.S.-orchestrated blitzkrieg through the desert could push ISIS back and destroy much of its military equipment, but the jihadi army, and its appeal to alienated young Muslims, is likely to survive in some form.

But who are these recruits? And what drives them?

The short answer to the first question is that they come from all over. Research carried out at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (I.C.S.R.), at King’s College London, suggests that by the start of this summer there were as many as twelve thousand foreign fighters, from more than seventy countries, fighting for ISIS. An
informative article in this week’s issue of The Economist points out that “the number today is likely to be a lot higher. Since [the Islamic State] declared a caliphate on June 29, recruitment has surged.”

The great majority of the foreign fighters come from Muslim countries. According to the Economist article, which cites various studies, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan lead the list, with more than twenty-five hundred recruits each. Then come Morocco, Lebanon, and Libya. In raw numbers, recruitment from Western countries is small. Britain leads that list, with an estimated four hundred citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Germany is second, with two hundred and seventy recruits. Then come Belgium and Australia, each with two hundred and fifty. (The estimate for the United States is seventy.)

Western recruits, in addition to being used for propaganda purposes, such as appearing in video recordings of Western hostages being killed, are sent to fight and die. Earlier this year, Abdul Waheed Majid, a British citizen, carried out a suicide bombing in Aleppo, Syria. Just last month, Douglas McAuthur McCain, a thirty-one-year-old Muslim convert who grew up in Minnesota, was killed in the same city during an ISIS attack on another militant group.

Ever since July 7, 2005, when three young Britons of Pakistani descent and one Jamaican-born convert to Islam detonated three bombs on the London Underground and one on a bus, killing fifty-two people, there has been a lot of interest in the motivations of these homegrown jihadis and what sorts of backgrounds they emerge from. In Britain, at least, many of them are twentysomethings of South Asian and Muslim heritage who have become deeply alienated from their parents’ generation—the generation of immigrants—and from the society in which they grew up. Some recruits to the jihadi cause, such as Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami back in 2001, are former petty criminals. (Reid reportedly converted to Islam while in prison.) But other converts, such as McCain, appear to have led pretty blameless and mundane lives before getting involved with radical Islam and heading for the Middle East.

While racism and a lack of career opportunities may have played a role in radicalizing some of these young men, there appears to be more to this phenomenon than social and economic deprivation. A good number of the British jihadis have been to university, and one of the 7/7 bombers used to drive around his hometown of Leeds (also my hometown) in his father’s Mercedes. The family of Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a British-Egyptian rapper who went to fight in Syria and recently tweeted a picture of himself apparently holding a severed head, lived in Maida Vale an upscale London neighborhood.

Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the I.C.S.R., divides the Western recruits into three types: adventure-seekers, idealists, and devoted jihadis. In each case, there is a common factor—the intoxicating appeal of radical Islam, with its promise of empowerment through a new beginning (and, in the case of ISIS, the establishment of a new state). As Maher pointed out last weekend in the Wall Street Journal, ISIS, through its strong social-media presence and, especially, its military success, has exerted a special attraction. “Other organizations didn’t have the same glamour,” Maher said. “And we’re dealing with young men. They want to be with a strong horse, with a winning team. At the moment, ISIS has momentum.”

Reversing ISIS’s gains could conceivably change all of this. And Maher, for one, doesn’t believe the situation to be hopeless. Until 2005, and the London subway bombings, he was himself a member of a radical Islamic group, Hizbut Tahrir, which operates inside of Britain and supports the formation of a global and puritanical Islamic state. Since the bombings, he and other moderate British Muslims have been campaigning against the jihadis, and the would-be jihadis, with some success. At one time, Maher told the Journal, Hizbut Tahrir rallies could draw twenty thousand supporters, but these days “they struggle to get one thousand.”

At last, a bit of good news.

by John Cassidy
New Yorker
Who Is the Homegrown Jihadi? Reviewed by Rid on 11:00:00 AM Rating: 5

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