In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in France, there has been a fair amount of commentary on how much of a threat such attacks in the US are. Most pundits seem to conclude that it is not likely to ever become a significant issue here. Of course, significance in this sort of thing is very much in the eyes of the beholder. Does one count by headline? By number of social media posts? By actual deaths and injuries? By the threat posed to free speech? By whether a particular ethnic or religious group was targeted?
Most of the arguments to this effect cite points that are hard to argue with as far they go. For example:
In continental Europe, one can literally hitchhike all the way to Syria, though it seems that there are terrorists available to help arrange free transport to the battlefield. This is important because to many of the would-be jihadists, the abstract idea of being part of the creation of an actual new country is very tantalizing in the same way that starting a startup is, but at a vastly more grandiose scale.
The U.S. has never been an imperialist power in the sense that Great Britain or France were for hundreds of years. Unfortunately the scenes in Lawrence of Arabia about France and the U.K. scheming in secret to divide up greater Syria after WWI are based on fact. More generally, many of the borders in former European colonies were totally of European making. In some cases such as Afghanistan, the whole country altogether was a European notion. So the reasoning goes that there’s much more history / mess on the floor in Europe with respect to the Middle East – and much more ingrained history. In contrast, US involvement in the region though dramatic, doesn’t go back very far in time.
And yes, the Islamic population in Europe is larger than in US exactly because of these former colonial and similar relationships.
But this largely misses the point. Though not reported widely in the U.S., many of these would-be European jihadists don’t come from an Islamic religious background. Indeed, the majority seem to come from atheistic or at least non-practicing-something backgrounds, often garden variety French Catholic. The main thing that they all seem to have in common is a certain malaise or sense of alienation – for whatever the individual reasons. Many ISIL recruits note the strong sense of community and purpose that they experienced when they first got involved with ISIL. One presumes from this that they otherwise lacked such a sense of community and purpose in their lives previously.
While there really are cases of people dropping out of medical school to go join ISIL in Syria, it is very likely the case that the majority are those who feel marginalized by society, who aren’t looking to the future with much enthusiasm or optimism. (I say it is likely the case since it is impossible to get a complete count and hence demographic analysis of European jihadists and would-be jihadists.) ISIL and other terrorist groups present such individuals with an alternative reality in which their current disillusionment is in fact a mark that they have been chosen to do great things.
Consider the case of Omar Omsen. A teenage delinquent of Senegalese origin in the south of France whose future prospects were once probably quite limited, he has become very successful and indeed quite famous as a terrorist “cyber-recruiter” with a large social media following and quite a few international media interviews – a sort of terrorist executive role model. Terrorist recruiting in France in general is quite sophisticated. It is generally multi-stage in nature; for example, they don’t initially identify themselves when they do outreach to young women who have somewhere expressed a desire to work in a humanitarian field, or to fight injustice. It is carefully targeted both to the local culture, and the individual. It includes very slick videos and graphics. (There is an excellent and rather lengthy report on terrorist indoctrination in France available at no cost from Le Centre de Prévention contre les dérives sectaires liées à l’islam here: http://www.cpdsi.fr/nos-ouvrages-publications/. Note that it is in French.)
No such sophisticated recruiting effort or celebrity recruiters currently exist in the US. If and when it does, what exact form would it take? It seems likely that, for purely practical reasons, it would seek to encourage “lone wolf” attacks in the US rather than comparatively improbable and difficult trips to Syria. Who would the primary recruiting targets be? How would they prioritize the various groups of the disenfranchised? What injustices, real or imagined, would be the bait to lure potential recruits to engage with them? Above all, if this were done with the same precision as has been manifested in France, what would the result be? Thousands of grass roots jihadists popping up in random places?
Unfortunately, there are marginalized and alienated people to be found everywhere, some fraction of whom could be susceptible to the movie-like fantasy of being one of the chosen ones – if that fantasy were presented in a compelling and accessible way. It is worth taking a few moments to consider the possibility that this is the dimension that really matters – not geography, history, religion, or ethnicity.