jihadi john

This essay was published in the Observer, 1 March 2015, under the headline ‘The search for identity draws jihadis to the horrors of Isis’.

First it was Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, three schoolgirls from Tower Hamlets who smuggled themselves to Syria during their half term holiday. Then it was ‘Jihadi John’, the IS executioner who was unmasked by the Washington Post this week as the Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi.

The stories of the three schoolgirls and of Jihadi John are very different. But the same questions are being asked of them. How did they get radicalized? And how can we stop it from happening again? These are questions being increasingly asked across Europe. A recent report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization suggests that there are now some 4000 European fighters with IS, a figure that has doubled over the past year.

What is it that draws thousands of young Europeans to a brutal, sadistic organization like IS? ‘Radicalization’ is usually seen a process through which extremist groups or ‘hate preachers’ groom vulnerable Muslims for jihadism by indoctrinating them with extremist ideas. Some commentators blame Western authorities for pushing young Muslims into the arms of the groomers. The advocacy group Cage UK claimed this week that Mohammed Emwazi had been driven to Syria by MI5 ‘harassment’. Others stress the ‘pull’ factor in radicalization. The problem, they claim, lies with Islam itself, a faith that, in their eyes, legitimises violence, terror and inhumanity.

Neither claim is credible. Whatever the facts of his relationship with MI5, Emwazi himself was responsible for joining IS. No amount of ‘harassment’ provides an explanation for chopping people’s heads off. Nor is Islam an adequate explanation. Muslims have been in Europe in large numbers since the 1950s. It is only in the past twenty years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. Blaming it all on Islam does nothing to explain the changing character of Muslim communities and their beliefs.

The problem with both approaches lies in the very idea of ‘radicalization’. Marc Sageman is a former CIA operation officer who worked with the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. He is now a distinguished academic and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments. ‘The notion that there is any serious process called “radicalisation”’, he argues, ‘is really a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas – but it’s a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend.’

European recruits for IS are certainly hostile to Western foreign policy and devoted to their vision of Islam. Religion and politics both form indispensible threads to their stories. And, yet, the ‘radicalization’ argument looks upon the jihadists’ journey back to front. It begins with the jihadists as they are at the end of their journey – enraged about the West, and with a black and white view of Islam – and assumes that these are the reasons they have come to be as they are. But for most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons.

What is striking about the stories of wannabe jihadis is their diversity. There is no ‘typical’ recruit, no single path to jihadism.

nora el bahty

Sahra Ali Mehenni is a schoolgirl from a middle class family in the south of France. Her father, an industrial chemist, is a non-practising Muslim, her mother an atheist. ‘I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad’, says her mother. One day last March, to the complete shock of her family, she took not her usual train to school but a flight from Marseilles to Istanbul to join IS. When she finally phoned home it was to say, ‘I’ve married Farid, a fighter from Tunisia.’

Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, played as a teenager for Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish football club, and one of Germany’s leading amateur teams. He went on to study engineering. In July 2013 he boarded a bus to Istanbul, and then to Syria. I didn’t believe it’, said Alon Meyer, Makkabi Frankfurt coach. ‘This was a guy who used to play with Jewish players every week. He was comfortable there and he seemed happy.’ Berisha eventually returned home to become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.

There are hundreds of stories such as these, from all across Europe. What they tell us is that, shocking though it may seem, there is nothing unusual in the story of the runaway Tower Hamlets schoolgirls. And that what Jihadi John has in common with other European recruits is not so much his harassment as his college education.

The usual clichés about jihadis – that they are poor, uneducated, badly integrated – are rarely true. A survey of British jihadis by researchers at London’s Queen Mary College found no link to ‘social inequalities or poor education’; most were highly-educated young people from comfortable families who spoke English at home. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, a quarter of French jihadis in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds.

What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.

There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomized society than in the past; in an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.

In the past social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organizations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, today’s ‘radicalised’ Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook, and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organizations. Today they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam.

These developments have shaped not just Muslim self-perception but that of most social groups. Many within white working communities are often as disengaged as their Muslim peers, and similarly see their problems not in political terms but rather through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and diversity, and, for some, the seeming attraction of far-right groups. Racist populism and radical Islamism are both in their different ways expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.

is fighters

At the same time, there is something distinctive about Islamist identity. Islam is a global religion, allowing Islamists to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, from Afghanistan to Palestine, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. In an age in which traditional anti-imperialist movements have faded, and belief in alternatives to capitalism dissolved, radical Islam provides also the illusion of a struggle against an immoral present and for a utopian future.

Most homegrown wannabe jihadis possess, however, a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from Western societies.  Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents, have little time for mainstream forms of Islam, and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. It is not through mosques or religious institutions but through the Internet that most jihadis discover both their faith and their virtual community.

Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they must act on behalf of all Muslims and in opposition to all enemies of Islam, it becomes easier for wannabe jihadis to commit acts of horror and to view such acts as part of an existential struggle between Islam and the West.

Simplistic narratives about ‘radicalisation’ miss the complex roots of homegrown terrorism. Proposed solutions, such as banning organizations, pre-censoring online hate speech, increasing state surveillance, and so on, betray our liberties without addressing the issues that has made Islamism attractive to some in the first place.

Jihadis are responsible for the choices they make. However much we may deplore Western policies, at home or abroad, they provide no reason for the grotesque acts of IS. And yet there is an uncomfortable question to be asked of society, too. Why is it that so many intelligent, resourceful, young people find an ideology that espouses mass beheadings, slave labour, and the denial of rights to women more appealing that anything else that is on offer?


The photos are of ‘Jihadi John’ (from an IS video); brother of French schoolgirl Nora El-Bahty with photo of sister in Syria (courtesy of Reuters); IS fighters (courtesy of the BBC)


  1. This is a very interesting analysis. But if it perhaps isn’t adequate or accurate to talk about a pull from ‘Islam itself’ (as opposed to a push from the security forces), might there not be some ‘pull’ from hardline preachers and groups, such as Choudhary, and including those who are opposed to ISIS itself but whose other hardline views may help create the atmosphere in which IS gains traction?

    • Sure, insofar as wannabe jihadis are attracted by Islamist ideas, those ideas, and the people and groups that espouse them, have a ‘pull’ them. The point I was trying to make, though, is that this is less a question of being ‘groomed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ than it is of losing faith in mainstream moral and political frameworks and of searching for an alternative at a time most of those alternatives have disappeared or have lost traction, and when those that exist are framed primarily by the politics of identity.

  2. Fiona

    Interesting article. Agree with second last para and worry that we will, for want of an intelligent response ‘betray our liberties without addressing the issues that made islamism attractive in the first place’.

    I first started thinking about this in earnest when Aqsa Mahmood, who went for a spell to the same comprehensive my daughter attended, left home to join Isis. The sight of her parents distress moved me. My own daughter, who, like many young people today, is unfuriatingly non-politcal, felt angry and betrayed by Aqsa. I had too many strong memories of being a bedroom radical of a different kind in my teenage years to feel this way.

    I came from a poor, white Scottish working class background, I was a questioning (self righteous) teen and elected to be part of the hard left. One of my secondary school teachers was a Stalinist and she assured all pupils that any rumours of mass executions, gulags etc were capitalist propaganda. I supported Stalin, Mao etc in my bedroom. We had spent some time as immigrants in South Australia in the 60’s/70’s before returning to the UK and the backdrop of the Vietnam war was very powerful. Australia’s subservience to American foreign policy was evident in the conscription of young men from the local area and the new war graves in the local cemetery. It was the footage of napalmed Vietnamese civilians though that shocked me. I saw the world in black and white terms with the Americans paranoid and stamping down on socialism wherever and whenever they saw it and I saw the revolutionary socialists engaging in the armed struggle as being the ones brave enough to stand up to them. If travel had been easier then and revolutionary socialists somewhere had been actively recruiting the young all over the world, I might have gone. By the time I was 17 or 18, however, my certainties were gone. What actually saved me – and I use the word ‘saved’ because the idea that I might have gone off to support an armed struggle somewhere that took no account of what the unarmed local population actually wanted, amongst other things, now horrifies me – was the the ability for me to keep learning and taking in new information about the world and the fact that I could do this freely.

    I know my position is not entirely analogous with Aqsa Mahmood’s. We could still have some very interesting discussions about what makes Marxism more understandable and excusable as a belief system than a fascistic, theocratic outlook. To some people though, the former, with it’s ideological certainties and revolutionary drive, still instils understandable fear. We have learned that the best way to deal with this fear though, is to allow free debate, while still stamping down hard in civil society on those on either side who plan to actually kill others for their views. Free debate must be allowed. In a context of rising militant islamism and growing self-cenorship, this must be strongly upheld, and youngsters like Aqsa must be allowed to hear all counter arguments loudly and clearly, with no punches pulled through fear of being deemed ‘racist’ or a self-hating ‘coconut’. Like you Kenan, I really don’t know the answers to curbing this extremism, but I do agree with you that our liberal left subscription to identity politics is eroding, slowly but surely the universal moral imperatives that I still believe tie all peoples, regardless of race, creed and gender together in a common humanity.

  3. Fiona

    Kenan – apologies if comment a bit personal. long and rambling. Brevity and clarity have never been my strong points! Feel absolutely free to scrap my comment. In fact, please go ahead and do this. I won’t complain and you will still be my favourite writer and thinker on this particular topic.

    • I think your points are important, and thanks for making them; though part of my point is also that it is the crumbling of progressive alternatives that existed in the past that now leads some to ideologies such as Islamism.

  4. Bruce

    Great article I was reading it this morning in the Observer. Interesting comment regarding identity politics and it has given me food for thought when I meet up with my muslim friends at gym I go to

  5. Bruno

    Very good article and much better comments than those left at the Guardian, which appear to be dominated by the “it’s all the fault of Islam” crowd.

  6. mel

    Very insightful piece and great comments. Fiona, you add a very important personal angle which adds to the article’s veracity.

  7. damon

    Very good article.
    What strikes me most about many of these Islamists, is that they have first gone through the petty criminal/street hoodie phase first. The less intelligent ones anyway. Smoking weed and thinking that violent Islamist video footage is cool.

  8. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    Excellent article, raising important issues. The question raised at the end is fundamental, and we’ve only started asking it in a meaningful way – I think this essay an important contribution to that effort.

  9. dimvisionary

    “Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.” Incisive line. Thank you and Bingo! These young people are afraid, and their fear comes out of their pores as hatred. Their souls are sweating. Why? Perhaps part of it stems from the terrifying statement of most scientists: The building is on fire; no where to run. It’s a frightful thought. However, violence is the resort of the immature and the coward. Calm, sober voices must come alive and give more hope, such as your article here. Thank you, again.

  10. nannus

    At one place, you say “back and white”. I guess you mean “black and white”.
    That is the only remark I have 🙂

  11. Chris

    Excellent article – but it’s only one side of the story. There seems to be something special going on with ISIS – after all, we didn’t have so many young people flocking out to join Al-Qaeda. So what makes ISIS different? A recently published article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood is very good. “What ISIS Really Wants” – It will take you an hour to read it, but it’s definitely worth it.

    • Jørgen Laursen

      An hour well spent. Thanks for the link.

      I didn’t quite realize how fundamentally different ISIS is from al‑Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor, obviously, did President Obama. Which is a pity, seeing the need to stamp out, defeat or, at the very least, contain those fascists. The author of the article, Graeme Wood, soberingly invokes Orwell’s words that

      Fascism is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

      Indeed. Nor, as Wood continues, should we underestimate the religious or intellectual appeal of ISIS, not to mention its claim to Islamic authenticity and legitimacy. In his interview with Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, the latter makes it chillingly clear:

      Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as Haykel told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

      According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam!’ It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

      All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

      In other words: The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. And most Muslims and Westerners remain in deep denial about it.

      What a deeply depressing situation. 😦

    • Jørgen Laursen

      The above doesn’t necessarily invalidate or detract from Kenan’s thesis, namely that

      A generation ago, today’s ‘radicalised’ Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook, and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organizations. Today they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam.

      Quite. But I don’t think we should underestimate the exceptionalism of radical Islam. Bad ideas aren’t created equal, and after WW2, the other identity movements available for disaffected young people through which to express their alienation and need for “belongingness” have been somewhat less malignant. Jihadism is simply worse (right up there with German fascism and Stalinist communism), and quite frankly, it cannot convincingly be divorced from the religion from which it sprang. In today’s world, Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas – there simply is no getting around it. Or to quote Bernard Haykel again:

      The claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam [is] preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he says. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required. [In fact,] many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature … are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

      It matters whether you choose to become a hippie, a Trotskyite, a Hells Angels member, an anti-racist – or a scemitar-wielding, slave-holding ethnic cleanser spouting devout scripture.

      Youth rebellions aren’t created equal, nor are religions

  12. De Te Fabula Narratur

    What is it that draws thousands of young Europeans to a brutal, sadistic organisation such as Isis?

    A racist like John Stuart Mill or Thomas Jefferson would claim it was because they’re not actually Europeans and don’t belong in Europe. Such a racist would also point to the hugely disproportionate number of certain young Europeans in Europe’s jails.

    Nor is Islam an adequate explanation. Muslims have been in Europe in large numbers since the 1950s.

    And obviously, a large number is a large number and we needn’t concern ourselves with anything so grubby as actual figures. That way, we don’t have to compare the number of Muslims in 1955 with the number of Muslims in 2015. The comparison might be somewhat unsettling. So better to keep the discussion vague and rhetorical. Things would get sordidly “statistical” otherwise.

    It is only in the last 20 years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. Blaming it all on Islam does nothing to explain the changing character of Muslim communities and their beliefs.

    Who blames it “all” on Islam? No-one I know of. I would blame a combination of Islam and human biology (inter alia). Populations with low average IQ and high average clannishness, like Arabs, Pakistanis and blacks, are not suited to life in Europe. But Islam is partly responsible for low average IQ, because it has no problem with in-breeding:

    The number of babies born with birth defects in Bradford is nearly double the national average, research conducted in the city has shown. The study found this was largely because of marriages between first cousins in the Pakistani community. Consanguineous marriage accounted for nearly a third of abnormalities in a study of more than 11,300 babies.

    According to Le Monde, a quarter of French jihadis in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds.

    Yes, the young Britons who attempted to behead Lee Rigby were “from non-Muslim backgrounds” too (they were originally Christians), as was the young Briton (Brusthom Ziamani) who tried to emulate them (he was originally a Jehovah’s Witness).

    Again, a racist like John Stuart Mill would claim that they’re not actually British and say that this helps explain why they’re attracted to a non-British religion like Islam, particularly when, thanks to mass immigration, a formerly cohesive society has been “atomized”.

    And yet there is an uncomfortable question to be asked of society, too. Why is it that so many intelligent and resourceful young people find an ideology that espouses mass beheadings, slave labour and the denial of rights to women more appealing than anything else that is on offer?

    It’s only uncomfortable for those people who think mass immigration is a good idea. For traditional liberals like me, who think mass immigration an extremely stupid idea, it’s merely confirmation of our traditional liberalism.

    • Sigh. Anyone who reads Pandaemonium regularly will know that every time I write an article that relates to Islam or immigration, ‘De Te Fabula Narratur’ turns up to make the same fatuous arguments in response again and again. As I have shredded them so many times before, I have no desire to waste my time doing so yet again, especially as reason and evidence seem to make no difference. If anyone is interested, you can check out some of the previous exchanges here and here and here and here and here and…

  13. I thought intelligent liberals were extinct, so I was shocked to stumble on this post which is clearly intelligent. In general, intelligence today is only found on the Far Right, in some parts of Islam, and among a few Orthodox Jews.

    I hate the West with a passion. The reason is exactly as stated in this post, it is cultural and not at all political or economic. To call the West immoral is too kind, it is in fact anti-moral. But the source of the problem is not political, and neither is the solution. Morals cannot be politically imposed on people. People must feel inspired to be moral, and this generally comes from religion. It is Western religion that has failed. The result is a culture so disgusting that I am emotionally thrilled every time it is attacked and I look forward to nothing more than its downfall.

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