A More Fitting Label for “Would-Be” Jihadists

Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, updates President Barack Obama on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, April 19, 2013. Photo via The White House.

Post by Allison Beth Hodgkins.

When the news of explosions in New York and New Jersey and a knife attack in Minnesota broke, the hunt for transnational links, homegrown networks, and local training camps commenced. Despite all evidence pointing to another ‘lone wolf’ attack by a rank amateur with delusions of Jihadist grandeur, the national and cable news networks trotted out expert after expert to spin each suspects’ Facebook feeds and trips abroad into an ISIL plot, or evidence of a looming threat to the homeland. Now, with the apprehension of Ahmad Khan Rahami in New Jersey and the death of Minnesota’s Dahir Adan, hours of commentary on the danger of radicalization and extremism are sure to follow.

It is understandable that a nation still traumatized by 9/11 would immediately look for transnational links and the cold, dead hand of Osama bin Laden and his followers in any explosion, shooting spree, or knife attack that takes place on our soil. There is also little doubt that chasing every video link down the cyber-Jihad rabbit hole and highlighting every last reference to “God being great” fills space in the 24 hour news cycle. What I would like to question, however, is whether the public is served by the manner in which the media and entrepreneurial politicians reinforce that fear.

As Erica Chenoweth has pointed out on this blog, there is a politics to threat inflation as well as a political economy of coverage on these events. But, given the consistent profile these ‘would-be’ Jihadists seem to share, I would like to suggest that Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has an alternative framework to apply to these young men: namely, being losers.

That’s right. When asked the reason his estranged nephews had committed such a heinous act of domestic terror, Ruslan Tsarni didn’t miss a beat: “Um, being losers. Hatred of those who were able to settle themselves [here]. These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else having to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.” In a raw moment of brutal honesty, the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers’ denied them the glory of association with the Chechnyan or Islamist cause and focused our attention on the fact that the two boys had squandered the abundant chances ‘to be treated as a human being and to just to be human being. To feel yourself human being,’ and shamed their father and their uncle, not just in the crime they committed in Boston, but in ‘being losers.’

In Ruslan Tsarni’s version of his nephew’s descent into infamy, the trips to Dagestan or visits to the mosque matter less than the drug use, the unplanned paternity, and Tamerlan’s delusions of being ‘a contendah.’ Instead of getting a job and coming to terms with a life of hard – but honorable – anonymity, Tamerlan found a quick and easy fix for his mediocrity and took his impressionable brother with him.

If we think about it, we could easily ascribe similar motivations to Omar Mateen, whose cringe worthy selfies, Tinder accounts, and flunked life as a rent-a-cop smack of similar crushed expectations and alienation. What better way to silence nagging questions over your sexuality then shoot up a gay bar while pledging allegiance to ISIL, Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other tangentially related terrorist groups you heard in your father’s rants during the evening news. We see similarities in the life of Syed Farook of the San Bernardino shootings. Granted the man had a stable, government job pushing papers, but he did have to go all the way to the hinterlands of Pakistan to pick up his mail order bride. Perhaps he too sought an alternative to a future worthy of an episode of ‘Parks and Recreation?’

Obviously, I am running roughshod over the complexities in each of these cases and drawing an unabashedly reductionist conclusion with regards to their allegiance to ISIL being more about 15 minutes of fame than joining a broader fight in defense of some twisted perversion of Islam. But are we better served by the equally reductionist conclusions – which exclude these salacious details – and elevate these patent losers to the rank of ‘enemy’?

Mark Sageman is one of the few scholars of terrorism who hones in on the psycho-social side of why some well-adjusted or maladjusted individuals take the leap from grievance into violent extremism. His work outlines a four-step process from shared outrage to group, or at least group-motivated, actions. More recent work by Gambetta and Hertog have identified significant correlations between membership or affinity to violent, right-wing extremism and a preference for academic fields valorizing hierarchy, replication of existent paradigms, and cognitive closure. These are important questions that deserve urgent, scholarly attention. However, I hope someone comes up with a viable method of determining whether a shot at cyber immortality as a ‘hero’ in the struggle against the great, Western Satan and the Zionist entity factors into the equation.

What does seem evident is that ISIL has devised an effective formula for tipping troubled individuals onto this path and into their global agenda. Unlike in the past, young men seeking a shot at glory no longer have to board a boat or a plane to join the revolution de-jour. An inability to join a training camp or run through a maze of burning tires are no longer a barrier to group membership. Instead, you can just pick up a pressure cocker, an assault rifle, or a Ginsu knife and go down in a blaze of Jihadist glory. The media will do the rest by replaying your 15 minutes of half-assed infamy on endless loops in the 24 hour news cycle.

Sounds a lot better than having your uncle call you out on national television as just another loser.

  1. ‘What I would like to question, however, is whether the public is served by the manner in which the media and entrepreneurial politicians reinforce that fear.’

    The boss media do not wish to serve the public. The media wish to get money and influence by recruiting web and television viewers. If you doubt this ask people who work at a programming level and are willing to talk honestly and straightforwardly about what they do.

  2. I applaud the idea of countering the lionization of these terrorists, but unfortunately statistics show that many salafi jihadists are better educated and better off than most of their contemporaries. This leads one to conclude that the salafi jihadists aren’t losers of their communities, but see themselves as the vanguard to extend their own privilege.

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