The sketchy details about the driver who barrelled a commercial truck through the crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, tell us he was a 31-year-old Tunisian migrant, presumably a second-generation Muslim. He was a criminal known to the police, had a history of using weapons, but wasn’t linked to any of the radical groups. He had a pistol and a gun, and his truck contained fake weapons and grenades. More details in subsequent days will provide us a better sense of the Tunisian’s profile.
However, his reconstructed profile will most likely establish, yet again, that the Islamic State is a veritable state of mind, as Al-Qaeda was, not too many years ago. Indeed, the IS has become a global ideological paradigm, which provides individuals a moral justification to express their rage through bloody deeds, and enhances manifold the impact of their despicable actions.
The Islamic State (IS) is to terror what global brands are to the consumer market. A locally-manufactured product acquires a greater value to buyers once it boasts the logo of a valued, recognisable brand.
The process in the new age jihadism is not remarkably different — acts of mass violence terrorise us more, once it bears the IS imprint. These also acquire a greater meaning for their perpetrators, who cross the line dividing civility from barbarity in the belief that they are fighting for a cause larger than them. It enables them to believe their certain death is truly heroic.
The IS, in reality, is a franchise anyone can appropriate. The person doesn’t even require its prior permission. All that he or she has to do is to carry out an attack and transmit a message beforehand, at times minutes before the mayhem is to be unleashed, or leave behind a note declaring his or her allegiance to the IS, which is then quick to claim the attack as its own. The IS hasn’t yet claimed the Nice attack, in which 84 people have already died.
The Nice attack underlines the problems security agencies encounter in tackling new-age jihadism. This is because they cannot possibly fathom the state of minds of individuals or anticipate their intent beforehand.
Earlier, the favoured method of intelligence agencies to preempt terror attacks was to track individuals who flew out, say, from France or Belgium or the United States, to Syria — or to Afghanistan and Pakistan, when Al-Qaeda was a dominant force — and arrest them when they were on the verge of launching attacks. Their efforts were bolstered by informers, at times from within the Muslim community, who informed the agencies whether persons under watch were demonstrating tell-tale signs of Islamic radicalism.
Perpetrators of attacks ascribed to the IS no longer show the behaviour pattern of before. Often, they are people whose personal problems are the source of their rage — they are social and culturally maladjusted; they believe their plight is on account of the modern social system indifferent to them. In the manner of mass shooters in the United States in the past, they wish to wreak vengeance on those who they mistakenly believe are responsible for their woes.
To these people, the IS provides a cause bigger than their personal woes to kill people. They were to slaughter people anyway, but once their desire to kill is linked to the IS ideology, their action gets rationalised. It tells them they are not insane in planning the death of others. It tells them their eventual death will not be meaningless. To them, therefore, giving up a meaningless, humiliating life for a meaningful death becomes preferable.
A meaningful death, from this perspective, is possible only through mass killings, which become an act of heroism for them. It is heroic because it seeks to punish the society judged callous and responsible for injustice. The angry young men are overnight transformed into soldiers at war. It becomes their duty to spray bullets at crowds, incidentally, enjoying a concert or, as in Nice, celebrating an occasion.
The transformation of personal rage into an expression of violence dressed as jihad was vividly illustrated in the story The New York Times did on Omar Mateen, who swore allegiance to the IS, before killing 49 people in a gay club in Orlando. The newspaper quoted FBI Director James Comey as saying that Mateen was more a confused angry man than an IS radical. The FBI had been keeping tabs on Mateen, interviewed him thrice, but deemed him as not dangerous.
The agency came to this conclusion because he would swing between supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia, and the IS, regardless of the fact that both are arrayed against each other in Syria. The night Mateen mowed down the clubbers in Orlando, he called the police, but disconnected, seemingly having doubts in the last minute. Moments later, he called again and implemented the IS’s directive to “self-starter terrorists to declare allegiance to the group publicly before they act”.
As the subsequent construction of Mateen’s profile showed, he was a person who was conflicted about his sexuality, dated men, but was also married, frequented the club, which he eventually chose to attack, drank heavily, took drugs, and would assault his wife. Given that he was confused whether to align with Hezbollah or the IS, the FBI concluded he wasn’t the man who would launch jihadi attacks inside or outside America. That he was just a young angry man.
Ultimately, Mateen turned out to be a terrorist. But what kind of terrorist was he? The New York Times answers. “He had no known ISIS (IS) or Al Qaeda connection; he wasn’t getting operating orders from abroad; he hadn’t gone overseas to be trained; he followed no predictable course of radicalization. Mateen appears, in fact, to have been less a soldier than yet another deeply disturbed American, who was full of hatred and uncontrollable anger — an example of what law enforcement officials describe as an aspiring violent criminal searching for a larger justification for the acts he’s desperate to commit.”
It is perhaps impossible to keep tabs on individuals who are mentally disturbed or harbour rage and wish to express it. It is more so about individuals who don’t demonstrate discernible signs of radicalisation. As The New York Times said, “The main sign of radicalization is something that no longer happens in a training camp or a mosque or even through the internet.”
So where does the radicalisation take place? “Between the ears of the individual,” the former FBI undercover agent Michael German told the newspaper.
To Slate, French academician Olivier Roy cited the example of Mateen to say that the IS “attracts these types of guys who are what I call de-culturated and who never adjust to any society, whether it is American society or any society.” Mateen was a second-generation Afghanistan in America. His father is known to have made political statements. But Mateen didn’t justify his attack in Orlando because of America’s role in Afghanistan, as he could justifiably have and spun a completely different narrative.
Roy says he can understand why he chose the IS. As he says, “It (lone-wolf attacks ascribed to the IS) is not connected to real struggles. They live in an imaginary world.”
Roy says IS lone-wolves in the West are not products of the radicalisation of Islam. They were radicalised already, for a variety of reasons, and choose the religious narrative to express their radicalisation. Their choice is the IS, says Roy, because it is the only “international anti-society, anti-world group.” (Read this to understand Roy’s theory.)
Indeed, the IS rejects modernity, and seeks a return to the world as it existed during the first three generations of Muslims. And so, therefore, it must behead prisoners and turn women captives into slaves. It projects itself as morally superior to all others, precisely what angry disturbed people need to justify to themselves the violence they carry out in the name of Allah.
The IS is just a few years old, but it symbolises a puritanical Islam, the genesis of which is much older. Every religious system has factions in it which debate over the true nature of faith. However, puritanical Islam has undoubtedly gathered momentum over the last three decades because of the West’s invasion and interference in West Asia and the cultural imperialism of Saudi Arabia. People tend to redefine their identity in moments of crisis. Saudi Arabia had already provided the framework for this redefinition through its export of puritanical Islam.
Sitting on heaps of dollars, and under compulsion to appease the clergy to win its support for monarchy, Saudi Arabia has endorsed a puritanical form of Islam, well known now as Wahabism. Since Islam was born here, Saudi Arabia claims to be the interpreters of true Islam. It has the financial clout to project its religious ideas across the Muslim world. IS is a spin-off from Saudi Arabia’s cultural imperialism.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Riyadh has supported the IS, or groups aligned to it, in Syria, as did the West for much of the civil there. If the ghost of IS has come to haunt the West, against which it now rails, it is, to many, not only ironic but perhaps also a case of poetic justice.
For India, though, the Nice attack ought to make us worry about the many Indian Muslims who have disappeared to apparently join the IS. Among them are Kerala Muslims, now totaling 21, including Hindus and Christians who converted to Islam. They are middle class, educated, and young. They conform to Roy’s paradigm that the jihadi violence we are witnessing is not the radicalisation of Islam, but Islamisation of radicalism.
It, therefore, should have us ask the question: Is the rapid transformation of India, too, producing angry young men and women looking for a cause to express their rejection of the society? Is it why our politics has come under the sway of religion, whether of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs? For the Indian political class that is notorious for its myopia, it is time to open their eyes to the dangerous trends in our society, of which terrorism is just an expression.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.