T he “Jihad Jane” phenomenon—with the recent arrest of two blonde American women converts on terrorism charges—raises serious national-security issues. But it’s also the latest evidence of the rise of a dangerous cultural manifestation: the “jihadi wannabe,” the disgruntled, disaffected, lonely, and bored sociopath for whom holy war has become a sort of alternative fantasy life. In some circles, waving the flag of militant Islam has become the latest expression of countercultural subversiveness. Forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, a terrorism expert and former CIA case officer, calls it “jihadi cool.” American Muslim lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar dubs these folks “jang bangers”—where jihad meets “gang bangers.”
To me, as an American Muslim challenging extremist interpretations of Islam, it’s especially troubling. Converts, such as the two American women arrested—Colleen LaRose and Jamie Paulin-Ramirez—represent one market for jihadi fantasies. Some of the most notorious have included westerners jailed in connection with various jihad movements: “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh; “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid; “Dirty Bomber” Jose Padilla; and “Twentieth Hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. Often, jihadi wannabes try to out-Muslim Muslims. Take the case of Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam after being captured by the Taliban crossing into Afghanistan after 9/11. She has become so hard core in her adherence to fundamentalist teachings that she refused to shake the hand of leading Egyptian Muslim cleric Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi when she met him in early 2006. Tantawi, who died earlier this month, scolded her, asking, What kind of Islam are they teaching you in Europe?
Muslims raised in America often seem focused on trying to prove they haven’t sold out to secularism even though they have grown up in the West. They include Major Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, and the five young men from Northern Virginia who jetted to Pakistan to fight the jihad, according to charges just filed against them by the government of Pakistan.
Investigating the 2002 kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Muslim militants, I got a glimpse of jihadi wannabes, from an unemployed computer programmer in Karachi, who was recruited to send out ransom notes to the world, to the mastermind of the kidnapping, Omar Sheikh, who seemed an almost comic figure (reportedly raiding a militant training camp with a stick, pretending it was a gun), until you remember that in the end Pearl was brutally murdered.
There will always be people who feel alienated and suffer from a profound emptiness, whether it’s from bad lives or bad choices. The rigidity of a strict system of belief can be of comfort to anyone looking for answers (and this goes for Tea Partiers, too). Radical Islam, which is conservative and puritanical, provides such sacred boundaries, called hudood. The problem is that this search, which is normal and human, can lead, in the current world of global terrorist networks in need of recruits, to horrifying violence.
The British-Muslim leader, Haras Rafiq, co-founder of the Sufi Muslim Council, identifies four elements that draw Muslims to radicalization: a perception of vulnerability owing to a personal crisis; exposure to a worldview like Islamism that offers solutions to such crises; exposure to extremists who take advantage of this sense of vulnerability; and an internalization of a violent ethos. Rafiq’s idea is to begin “detoxifying Islamists.” Perhaps this will help lessen this brand of radicalism’s attraction for the likes of Jihad Jane, too.
The challenge is to give the jihadi wannabes something meaningful with which to fill the voids in their lives so that jihad cool stops filling the abyss. Iftikhar, the Muslim-American lawyer, appeals to jihadi wannabes thus: “Put down your Xbox 360, turn off the overmilitaristic Halo 3 video game, and go feed the homeless in a soup kitchen. That is Islam, my friends.”