Controlling Home-Grown Western Islamic Terrorists

Theresa May, the home secretary in the British Conservative government, in a speech in the House of Commons on September 3, 2014, spoke of ISIS as a “group of murderous psychopaths.”  The videos of the two American journalist hostages about to be brutally beheaded show a level of evil that should draw the attention of the World Council of Churches, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, and the “scholars” of the American Studies Association, hitherto almost exclusively preoccupied with criticism of alleged violations of humanitarian rights by Israel.

The beheading of the second journalist, Steven Sotloff, is even more poignant than that of James Foley based on the knowledge that he was the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and the son of a mother who taught at a Jewish school in Miami.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is not alone in regarding this cruelty of ISIS as “an act of medieval savagery by a coward hiding behind a mask.”  We are now aware that ISIS has committed other such acts, especially the execution by firing squads in desert areas of Iraq of more than 500, and possibly as many as 770, people.

Almost everyone, except perhaps for those named above, now appreciates that ISIS is not simply a “manageable problem,” as President Barack Obama described it, but is a group that must be crushed.  It is not sufficient to condemn the violent Islamist preaching with which the West has become familiar.  It is essential to end the brutality and the menace of ISIS by every means in the Western armory.  The wheels of judgment should not grind exceeding slow.

Pope Francis understands the situation, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been made directly aware of the issue.  The pope spoke of the beleaguered Iraqi Christians and declared that the Church will defend her “defenseless and persecuted children.”  President Putin was warned by an ISIS terrorist sitting in a captured military jet that “we will with the consent of Allah free Chechnya and all of the Caucasus. The Islamic state is here and will stay here and it will spread with the grace of Allah.”

At the NATO meeting on September 4, 2014 at Celtic Manor near Cardiff, Wales, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron urged their fellow members of NATO to confront the “brutal and poisonous” Islamic state.  A possible NATO coalition may be created to implement this response through a variety of measures: military power, diplomatic activity, and economic constraints.  However, it is disappointing that no specific pledges of action have been agreed upon.

It was more encouraging that NATO members understood that the more urgent and important issue facing the alliance is not the threat of Russia, however objectionable the policy of Putin towards Ukraine, but the Islamic threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in their own countries.   

It should be an international priority to end the caliphate announced by ISIS as soon as possible before it spreads its control over areas in the Middle East.  But equally urgent is the need for policies to deal with the threat of Europeans and Americans – namely, home-grown terrorists, who have fought for ISIS and may return to their countries of origin and undertake terrorist activities.

This issue is not easy to resolve, because what animates Western jihadists remains a mystery.  What makes Muslim citizens of Europe and the United States leave to join the ISIS group and be prepared to commit murderous attacks in their countries of origin when they return?  Are they psychopaths, or are they motivated to act through conviction on political and social issues?

Psychologists tend to suggest that there is no conclusive evidence to determine if terrorists or others who take pleasure in violence are insane, disturbed, or abnormal.  Regarding non-Islamic issues, one can identify the lunacy of the multi-murderer Ted Bundy, an apparently charming man, who confessed, “I just like to kill.  I wanted to kill.”  Likewise with the murderous Baader-Meinhof group (Red Army Faction), the far-left militant group in West Germany from 1970 1998 responsible for bank robberies and the deaths of at least 34 people.  They may have genuinely believed they were engaged in an anti-imperialist struggle and were acting on behalf of the counter-culture.

It is more difficult to understand those who commit atrocities in the name of Islam, such as the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg, both Jewish, and the murder of Lee Rigby.  Pearl, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, was beheaded by al-Qaeda in February 2002.  Nick Berg, a young Philadelphia businessman, was abducted and decapitated in May 2004 by Islamist militants.  The 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was murdered in May 2013 in Woolwich, London by two Nigerians who had converted to Islam.  

To prevent terrorist attacks on Western soil, attempts must be made to understand what, if anything, may motivate the desire of Western Muslims to kill.  Both official reports and unofficial commentaries suggest that for many of these individuals, Islamic religious zealotry is not the main factor.  Many have little knowledge of the faith for which they are supposedly fighting.  It is said that their information, especially those who are converts to Islam, comes largely from the book The Koran for Dummies.  If so, the terrorists are hardly preparing themselves spiritually to defend Islam.  Moreover, it is unlikely that these individuals, with so little understanding, have any real concern about political or economic conditions in their own countries.

The terror suspects do not fit any single category or demographic pattern.  A number may have been unemployed, and others, such as the French Islamist murderers Mohammed Merah and Medhi Nemmouche, spent time in prison for robbery and assault.  Yet a number of those joining ISIS are known to come from middle-class families, are reasonably well educated, and have technological knowledge.

One can try to find clues using well-known literature.  Some terrorists, like Shakespeare’s character Iago in Othello, may suffer from motiveless malignancy.  Some, like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Lafcadio in André Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican, may commit murder to prove they are exceptional persons. But it is very difficult to determine what motivates the beheadings committed by ISIS terrorists.

Of course, the brutal beheadings by ISIS have been the opportunity for Islamist propaganda to show the impotence of the West.  This suggests that the Westerners who flock to ISIS are annoyed at or are unhappy about Western impotence.  The most plausible explanation for the activity of terrorists is a sense of alienation not only from family in particular or from parents who they believe betrayed them in some way, but also from society in general.  Some have been radicalized by a community created by social networks, others by relationships formed in prison.  They are aroused by the energy, belligerence, and defiance of accepted rules of behavior by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and all Islamic terrorist groups.  One can perceive that they find liberal democratic systems unexciting.  Qualities of prudence and compromise, behavior patterned on the rule of law, does not evoke heroism.  Nor are these patterns of behavior celebrated or promoted in Hollywood movies or on TV serials.  Home-grown jihadists may well be attracted to what seems to be an adventure or a revolutionary appeal that ISIS and al-Qaeda seem to offer.

Control over Western terrorists, whether preventing them from returning to their country or canceling or confiscating their passports, or removing their citizenship, or trying to prevent their recruitment by terrorist groups, or establishing no-fly lists, is not easy, but it is urgent.  Britain and France are presently grappling with the problem and see the actions and threats of Islamic jihadists as a declaration of war, not simply as criminal acts.  The U.S. and the rest of the international community must now do the same and collaborate in the policy to overcome Islamist expansionist aggression.