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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The global Internet jihad: Web of terror Add to ...

As I arrive three hours early at the airport for a one-hour flight, so that I can shed my shoes, my liquids, my carry-on, my blankie, and all my other forbidden objects (too bad about my metal hips - I'm stuck with them), I can't help feeling that somewhere in Waziristan, OBL is cackling in his cave. A pious, baby-faced jihadist has managed to wreak worldwide havoc in his name - even though the underwear bomb plot was a miserable failure.

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What's going on here? Can we stop it? If so, how? I can't help thinking that all those extra high-tech screeners and scanners, our heightened vigilance and our plans to profile people from entire countries, along with Barack Obama's freshly declared war against al-Qaeda, somehow miss the point. Mass screenings and enhanced harassment of the flying public can't really be the best way to find needles in haystacks.

Do we really understand these young men who want to kill us? How did they get that way? Why do they do it? Wouldn't they stop attacking the West if we just abandoned our meddling in Muslim countries and went home?

Probably not. Suicide attacks against the West, the experts say, have at least as much to do with existential issues of identity as they do with history or politics. " 'Happiness is martyrdom' can be as emotionally contagious to a lonely boy on the Internet as 'Yes, we can,' " writes anthropologist Scott Atran, who has been studying terrorism - and interviewing radical young men - for years. "That is a psychologically stunning and socially far-reaching development that scientists have hardly begun to explore."

Mr. Atran argues that we get a lot wrong about terrorists. To start with, most of the ones who are likely to attack the West are already here. By one estimate, 80 to 90 per cent of known jihadis come from the great Muslim diaspora. Which means that if we want to engage in national profiling, we might be better off profiling young Muslims from Britain than ones from Nigeria.

The baby-faced underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is a textbook example of the new wave of jihadis. He was radicalized not in Nigeria or Yemen, but in Britain. He came from an affluent family and was educated in elite Western schools, but he felt like an outsider. "I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do," he wrote on an Islamic chat site when he was 18. Eventually, he was born again into radical Islam, and found his sense of purpose and belonging.

British universities are fertile breeding grounds for the new generation of jihadis. Many are hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. Mr. Abdulmutallab's former university in London - where he was head of the Islamic Society - extended speaking invitations to such charmers as Abu Usama adh Dhahabee, who believes that women are mentally deficient and that apostates from Islam should die. "Such poison has spread throughout our universities," writes Douglas Murray, who is director of London's Centre for Social Cohesion. An authoritative poll published in 2008 bears him out. It found that a third of Muslim students in Britain - and 60 per cent of those who, like Mr. Abdulmutallab, were active in their campus Islamic societies - believed that killing in the name of their religion could be justified.

But you don't need personal contact to inspire you to holy war - not when there's the Internet. It's likely that both the Fort Hood gunman and the British-educated student from Nigeria drew online inspiration from Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric who hails originally from New Mexico. As Mr. Atran writes, they and many others were "self-bound into a virtual community whose Internet Imams spin Web dreams of glory in exchange for real and bloody sacrifice."

Terror groups and radical imams don't need to bother with aggressive recruiting. Most would-be jihadis recruit themselves. Their attraction to the cause is (in their view) profoundly moral. "I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win, God willing, and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!" reads another Internet posting from Mr. Abdulmutallab.

This is not the secular, political language of resistance against foreign occupation. It is the language of apocalyptic salvation. It has nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan or the Palestinians, although countless young Muslims identify passionately with stories of perceived injustice. Radical Islam claims that martyrdom is the ultimate act of faith - the highest duty of a believer, next to the worship of Allah itself.

"The movement is from the bottom up," terror expert Marc Sageman told the New York Times. "Young people … are already radicalized. What they want in a sense is a validation of what they already believe." One of the most popular clerics, reports the Times, is Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al-Husainan of Kuwait, who mixes contemporary politics with talk of martyrdom. "Obama, in the same way that you raised the slogan, 'Yes We Can,' I too have a slogan," he wrote. "My slogan in this life - and memorize this slogan - is 'Happiness is the day of my martyrdom.' "

We tend to think of al-Qaeda as an entity that is directing and organizing martyrs around the world. But it's really more like a phenomenally successful global brand. It is the inspiration for dozens of other terror groups with which it may or may not be connected. These groups are provisional, opportunistic and ever-shifting. They aren't armies. They're networks. And you can't fight networks with armies.

Many of us used to think the Internet would be a powerful force for progress and modernity, shrinking divisions and differences, in the world and uniting educated people everywhere in the quest for more democracy and freedom. But it turns out that far from dissolving the age-old problems of tribalism, identity and belonging, the Internet can exacerbate them. By connecting politically restless young adults with a noble cause, it gives them a powerful new sense of purpose.

As Mr. Atran suggests, globalization and the Internet have made the world more flat and fluid, and also more divisive and tribal, all at the same time. Maybe what we need is not more high-tech airport scanners. Maybe what we need is more people who can make friends with lonely, disaffected guys on the Internet.

 

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