Under Our Very Noses. The Terrorist Next Door
It is indeed reassuring to view the terrorists who now threaten us as an exogenous threat rooted in the Middle East's Hobbesian environment of obscurantism, poverty, and repressionbut police and press investigations offer evidence of a far more complex, and ominous, picture.
The key hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, were well-educated children of privilege. None of them suffered first-hand economic privation or political oppression. Equally important, it is becoming clear that hundreds, if not thousands, of graduates of bin Laden's schools for terror are Muslims who have grown up and been educated in the United States and Europe.
To understand the September 11 terrorists, we should have in mind the profile of the classic revolutionary: deracinated, middle class, shaped in part by exile. In other words, the image of Lenin in Zurich or London; or of Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh in Paris. Like their Leninist revolutionary forebears, the terrorist shock troops of al-Qaeda see their mission as an international revolutionin their case, to create the khilafah, a global government under Islamic rule. For them, Islamism is the new universal revolutionary creed, and bin Laden is Sheikh Guevara.
Mohamed Atta was the son of a moneyed Egyptian lawyer and official, and those who knew him have described him as a class snob and snazzy dresser. Atta spent his last nine years living in Germany and the U.S. While he may have been linked to activist groups in Egypt, there is nothing in his record that indicates that he was a committed political extremist or even deeply religious. Rather, there is significant evidence that he came to his fanatical beliefs in Hamburghome to as many as 2,500 Islamic radicals in a community of some 80,000 Muslims. No longtime Islamist "sleeper" deposited from the East, he was shaped by the environment of extremist Islamic politics at a German technical university.
Another hijack leader, Ziad Jarrah, was the son of well-off Lebanese parents who subsidized his life in the West, wiring thousands of dollars to support his academic studies and pilot's training. Educated in Lebanon at exclusive private Christian schools, Jarrah played basketball, drank alcohol, and while in the U.S. drove a red Mitsubishi Eclipse. He is unlikely to have been a committed Islamic radical in Lebanon; he went to Germany soon after concluding high school. Another key terrorist, Marwan al-Shehhi, came from this same Hamburg community, where, according to a terrorism export quoted in the Boston Globe, "there is a lot of peer pressure" to embrace radical Islam.
Counterintelligence operations and arrests around Europe have confirmed that other suspected plotters came to their radical views in the West. Zacarias Moussaouinow being held by federal authorities in New Yorkbecame radical in 1991 under the influence of a Wahhabi group at his university in France. Djamel Beghal, now under arrest in France, has admitted to organizing a conspiracy to blow up a U.S. cultural center. Beghal grew up in the Paris suburbs and lived in London from 1997 to 1999, where he recruited future terrorists from Muslims who had also grown up in Europe.
As the dragnet widens in Germany, France, and Britain, more attention is being focused on the significant network of "religious" political groups. The website of the Islamist, London-based al-Muhajiroun, Arabic for "the émigrés," offers a global map of the organization's branches in England, the U.S., Lebanon, and Pakistan. A press release issued by the group on September 16 screams, "USA at War with Islam." Among the group's slogans are "USA, You Will Pay" and "The Final Hour Will Not Come Until the Muslims Conquer the White House." Their goal is a world state under Islamic rule. Al-Muhajiroun's "spiritual" leader, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammed, is a Syrian cleric who after the September 11 attacks issued a fatwa branding Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf an apostate and non-Muslim. Earlier fatwas by the sheikh (who lives on the dole, courtesy of British taxpayers) denounce as apostates Muslims who run for office in Britain and brand as sinners those Muslims who vote in British elections. A February 2001 report in the Guardian noted that "Sheikh Bakri has openly admitted to being responsible for sending as many as 700 undergraduates to fight abroad, mostly in Kashmir."
A mosque in London's Finsbury Park is home base for Supporters of Sharia (SOS), "sharia" meaning the Islamic way of life and law. The group is headed by Abu Hamza, a cleric who lost both arms and an eye fighting in Afghanistan. Such battle-hardened fanatics have gravitated to the West in part because of the freedom of maneuver and expression they enjoy in democratic societies. Under the guise of religious practice, they are now engaged in the education of new generations of vengeful fanatics, some of whom they inspire to learn from bin Laden the arts of terror and war. Hundreds of British Muslims already have been recruited to fight in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Kashmir, and Chechnya; many eventually become part of the bin Laden terrorist network.
Conversion to extremist Islamism is a significant phenomenon in the U.S. There are many cases of young American-born Muslims from secular or traditional Islamic families who embrace radical beliefs, often through on-campus political and "religious" networks. U.S.-based radicals inspired by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman were behind the murder of Meir Kahane, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and a plot to blow up New York City tunnels and the U.N. complex. Jordanian authorities stopped a terrorist attack on a 400-room hotel in Amman. The ringleader was an American-born Muslim, Raed Hijazi, who grew up in a privileged family, studied business administration at Cal State, and, according to Jordanian prosecutors, got his taste of radical Islamic teaching at a mosque near his Sacramento campus, whose mullah inspired him to join the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, where he became acquainted with the bin Laden network. A California Islamist website promoted the need for a khalifa (a ruler who will build the worldwide Islamic state under strict religious laws), and this idea is routinely discussed at Muslim student forums in the U.S.
All this makes clear that many of the terrorists we are now confronting are a Western phenomenon, existing inside the Islamic diaspora that is an established fact of life in the U.S. and Europe. In this sense, the terrorists may have as much in common with the radicals spawned in the U.S. and the industrial democracies in the 1960s as with the shock troops of Hamas or Hezbollah.
Like the leaders of America's Weather Underground, Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy's Red Brigades, and Japan's Red Army Faction, the Islamic terrorists were university-educated converts to an all-encompassing neo-totalitarian ideology. Just as the terrorists who plagued the industrial democracies in the '60s and '70s lionized Leninist guerrillas like Uruguay's Tupamaros, the Islamist terrorists are youthful members of a bored middle class who have grown contemptuous of "soft" and corrupt elites and are drawn to the romance of revolutionary guerrilla movements.
The Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof Gang, too, targeted government buildings, military and police headquarters, and banks and other symbols of our economic system. And still other parallels are worth keeping in mind. The terrorist gangs that operated in the West received logistical and financial support from the intelligence services of the Communist bloc. Some of them found refuge and remain to this day in Leninist havens like Cuba and North Korea. Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq play the same role for Islamist terrorists. And this means that the war against terrorism will require relentless efforts within the borders of the West even as it is prosecuted in the far-flung outposts of the Islamic world. It means that networks of terrorists may well be found among students and scholars who today walk the halls of Western universities and congregate after hours in sundry political and "religious" groups, not as "sleepers" ready to act under orders, but as Islamic radicals minted right here. This will pose key challenges for our open societies as we seek to understand the topology of the Islamic diasporas and their religious, political, civic, and charitable institutions, while preserving our own values of tolerance.
It certainly is true that bin Laden and his associates helped finance, train, and sustain the terrorist-hijackers and must remain a top priority. But it is wishful thinking for Americans and Europeans to assume that fighting terrorism is only a matter of smart missiles, special-forces operations, the uprooting of financial support networks, pressure on terror-sponsoring states, and the implementation of tighter border and immigration controls.
The terrorist threat can be disrupted and diminished with such techniques, if pursued rigorously and relentlessly over a long time. But it cannot be eliminated unless we are also prepared for a comprehensive effort to understand and interdict the threats emerging on our own shores and throughout the Western world. Such an effort must not be driven by hysteria or ignorance, nor should it lead to scapegoating or other injury to the millions of law-abiding Muslims who are now part of the West. Indeed, such a careful domestic antiterrorism effort should be something that decent Arab and Islamic groups not only welcome but aid.
The long shadow of Osama bin Laden now hovers over the Westbut it is joined by the shadows of the many new bin Ladens, whose despicable beliefs are taking shape in our own cities, and suburbs, and schools.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.