The excitement of jihad attracts bored youths. Governments need to make al Qaeda look dullby Jamie Bartlett / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Western governments like “counter-radicalisation” programmes aimed at tempting young people away from extreme Islam. In Britain, dovish types, dominant since 7/7, want to target those who support violent extremism, but in doing so they are willing to ignore—or sometimes even work with—other fairly extreme groups in order to keep Muslims onboard. Government hawks—as Panorama revealed in February—now want a much tougher line, challenging those who challenge democracy. A hawkish new government strategy, called “Contest 2,” will emphasise the need for shared values. But this new approach, although largely positive, is unlikely to work—because it misunderstands why violent extremism is so attractive.
There’s a consensus view that frustrated young Muslims, spurred by injustices abroad and discrimination at home, struggle to balance multiple identities, and find solace in a Manichean worldview offered by groups like al Qaeda. In the name of multiculturalism, we then let radical preachers whip these angry young men into a state of rage against the west. (See Anshuman Mondal’s web exclusive on what young British Muslims really think about faith and politics.)
There is some truth in this explanation of extremism. But it is only part of the story. Violent extremism also appeals because it offers adventure, excitement and notoriety. The latest research on Islamic extremist networks, including that carried out by the think tank Demos, shows that members of terrorist cells tend to be young men with little religious knowledge other than a few cut-and-paste lines from the rockstars of jihadi literature, like radical Egyptian cleric Sayed Qutb. In comparison to such founding fathers of modern Islamic terrorism, this generation has suffered no serious repression.
Al Qaeda allows a young nobody to become a heroic warrior; an Islamic James Bond. Mourad Benchellali, a young Frenchman trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, explained how he wanted to learn about guns, test his physique and “get close to war but without taking too many risks.” One of the men involved in the recent plot to bomb British nightclubs, who trained at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan, imagined “something with [shooting] ranges and assault courses, like I’d seen on television.” Unfortunately, for him “it wasn’t that at all.” Senior al Qaeda cadres, like Abu Musab al-Suri, have complained that many treated the camps as an adventure playground or as a means of cleansing themselves after having “spent time with a whore in Bangkok.”
Psychologists at McGill…