Islamists protest in London, November 2013. © Peter Marshall/Demotix

Why European Muslims turn to jihad

Many of the European Muslims who turn to jihad are motivated less by religion than by the desire to escape a divided identity
December 11, 2014
Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalisation and Terrorism in Europe by Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Benard (Cambridge University Press, £21.99)

At the mosque recently an old friend took me aside. A teacher in a north London college, he had just found out that an ex-student of his was fighting with Islamic State (IS). He told me he had taught a teenage Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary computer science for a year. Abdel Bary, who grew up in Maida Vale near central London, was, he told me, a “capable student, particularly good with technical subjects,” but he was often “rude and rebellious” towards those in authority.

My friend was stunned when—as has now been much reported—the young man, who is also known as the rapper L Jinn whose work has been played on Radio 1, tweeted a picture of himself posing with a Syrian soldier’s severed head.

In Abdel Bary’s case, he had previous contact with terrorism: his father was extradited to the United States two years ago and in September pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill American citizens. However, since IS took over parts of northern Syria and Iraq earlier this year, around 500 British Muslims have joined them—although security officials said earlier this year that 250 may have since returned home, possibly disillusioned.

That has sharpened questions about the extent of extremism. Since 11th September 2001, there have been multiple homegrown terror plots in Europe. The 2004 attack on the Madrid trains (191 dead) by a Spanish-Moroccan gang, and the 2005 suicide bombings in London (52 dead) by four British Muslim friends have been the most deadly. But there was also the Glasgow airport car bombing in 2007, and the targeted murders of Dutch anti-Muslim campaigner Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. In November, Theresa May, Home Secretary, claimed that since 2005, the police have thwarted 40 terrorist plots, including a Mumbai-style mass shooting. European intelligence agencies estimate that out of Europe’s 17m Muslims, 1 per cent sympathise with violent extremism; though proportionally small, this still notionally adds up to 170,000 people.

Why is this happening and what can governments do about it? These are the tough questions posed in Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalisation and Terrorism in Europe by Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Benard, two writers who, since 9/11, have produced a number of books tracking the al-Qaeda threat. This book is both a compact history of jihadi terrorism in Europe over the last 13 years, and a statistical and case study sourcebook for other analysts to figure out patterns of radicalisation. The three main factors they assess are poverty, religion and cultural alienation. Do such terrorists emerge from Europe’s most deprived areas? Are their beliefs based in Islamic thinking? Or are they insufficiently integrated into mainstream society?

As Rabasa and Benard show in a useful tabulation, British terrorism suspects of south Asian ancestry are—broadly speaking—middle class. Of the 31 who have been charged with terror offences, 21 did A-levels or attended university. Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombers, worked at a primary school, and Bilal Abdullah, one of the Glasgow airport attackers, was an NHS doctor. However, converts who become terrorists generally come from less privileged backgrounds: 71 per cent were either unemployed or in unskilled jobs. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber who tried to blow up a transatlantic plane in 2001, was a petty criminal.

Suspects from the European mainland are also more likely to be materially deprived. Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-Moroccan man who killed van Gogh, was brought up in a poor Amsterdam suburb. Like Reid, he had also been in prison. However, their material circumstances are not as strong a link between them as the gap between their achievements and what they feel they deserve. Many terror suspects did not have jobs commensurate with their education. Rabasa and Benard argue that “a sense of relative deprivation... may have been a contributing factor in their radicalisation into violence.”

What about religion? Though such men are described as Islamic extremists and often wrap themselves in Islamic language, most of al-Qaeda’s victims in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria are Muslim. To justify these killings, the jihadis have developed a theory that anyone who opposes them is no longer considered Muslim and is thus fair game. This puts them beyond the pale of both conservative and liberal Muslims.

As the ex-CIA agent Marc Sageman argued in his influential book Leaderless Jihad (2009): “The majority of terrorists come to their religious beliefs through self-instruction. Their religious understanding is limited; they know about as much as any secular person, which is to say, very little.” Their ideas tend to be an incoherent mish-mash of disparate ideologies. And there is some evidence that a strong religious upbringing can actually help to inoculate young Muslims against terrorism.

This does not mean Europeans should be complacent. The jihadi infiltration of university Islamic societies is worrying.  And although Rabasa and Benard show that many jihadis are university graduates, they do not comment on the subjects they studied. Not a single one was a humanities graduate and a large percentage of them were—like Abdel Bary, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (who tried to blow up a US-bound plane), Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—engineers or computer scientists. Their technical know-how enabled them to use guns and make bombs—but perhaps also encouraged a dislike of ambiguity or rival views.

For a certain kind of culturally-alienated European Muslim, the absolute certainty of the jihadi worldview offers a haven. But this haven can’t last long since its ultimate destination is suicidal murder. In his posthumously released martyrdom video, Mohammed Siddique Khan claimed that British civilians were legitimate targets because “your democratically-elected government continuously perpetuates atrocities against my people all over the world.” Yet as a British citizen himself, the man whose mates called him “Sid” must have been aware that by his own logic he was an equally legitimate target. Perhaps that explains the choice to target Edgware Road and Aldgate Station—near densely populated Muslim areas in London. This might also be one reason why IS did not spare Muslim convert Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig or Alan Henning, who worked for a Muslim charity.

The Eurojihadis’ rage is directed at those who have managed to hold multiple selves together—European and Muslim. Suicide bombing is an act of self-hatred that violently enacts the psychological splitting that has tormented them through their lives.

Eurojihad rarely strays into psychological analysis. It is a coherent summary of the issue that will be useful to policymakers. One oddity is that the authors barely mention the role of the Iraq war in recruiting European terrorists. At the very least it offered a propaganda victory to al-Qaeda and a place from which to operate after they were thrown out of Afghanistan. Benard also should have mentioned that her husband is Zalmay Khalilzad, who was US Ambassador to Iraq at the height of the civil war between 2005 and 2007.

Their proposed solutions are modest and workable: engage Muslim organisations that support liberal values and offer a path back to those who have been led astray. Only by listening carefully to the concerns of ordinary Muslims however will the authorities get the necessary security cooperation—something that enabled the arrest in early November of four suspects, three of whom were subsequently charged with terrorism offences. The recent initiative by the Department of Education to teach British values in schools is well intentioned but there is a danger in linking universal values such as democracy, human rights and religious pluralism to a specific cultural identity such as Britishness—especially since the very people most likely to turn jihadi have such a complicated relationship with the place they despair of calling home.