Chechen jihadis.

The characteristics of the Second Chechen War were the important role played by radical Islamists and their use of terrorism.  Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khatab were important figures.

Shamil Salmanovich Basayev (1965–2006) was born in a Chechen mountain village.  He did a couple of years in the Red Army, but not in a combat unit.[1]  Then he worked on a collective farm; he tried to get into law school, but didn’t make the cut; he studied engineering, but flunked out; and then he sold computers in Moscow.  Basically, a slacker who ought to be recognizable to many young Americans: slept all day, played video games all night.  Then, in November 1991, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia.  Basayev and some friends hijacked a Soviet airliner and took it to Turkey to publicize the cause of Chechen freedom.  Then he became a soldier of Islam, or at least of the Muslim areas of the old Soviet Union that were trying to break away.  He fought in Nagorno-Karabakh (1992), Abkhazia (1992-1993), and then in the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996).  The war went badly for the Chechens until Basayev seized a hospital in southern Russia and the 1600 people inside it.  He wanted the Russians to stop attacking Chechnya.  He didn’t exactly get what he wanted, but he did force a pause in Russian attacks, and he did get away, and he did get a lot of publicity.  Which was nice.

Basayev found a kindred spirit in Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem (1969–2002), more commonly known as Emir Khatab, or Ibn al-Katab.  Khatab was born in Saudi Arabia.  He left at age 18 to join the last stages of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  He was in Afghanistan from 1989 to 1994, although with interruptions.  Here he met Osama bin Laden.  Along the way he lost a chunk of his right hand while handling an IED.[2]  In 1992, he may have fought in Nagorno-Karabakh.  He fought in the Tajikistan civil war from 1993 to 1995.  In 1995 and 1996 he fought in the First Chechen War.

After the end of the war, Basayev tried politics, but his career fizzled out, while Khattab became a warlord in the ruined Chechen republic.  Peace did not agree with them so well as did war.  In 1998, Basayev and Khatab organized the Islamic International Brigade.  Most of its members were from neighboring Dagestan, with a smattering of Arabs and Turks and a few Chechens.  In August 1999 Basayev and Khatab triggered the Second Chechen War when they raided into Dagestan.  Then the jihadis organized a number of terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities.  When the Russians counter-attacked into Chechnya in 1999, Basayev and Khatab led the guerrilla war fought in the Chechen mountains.

Eventually, the Russkies got fed up with trying to kill Khattab by ordinary means.  Khattab was a good son: he regularly corresponded with his mother in Saudi Arabia, using a courier named Ibragim Alauri.  The Russian intelligence service tracked down Alauri and “turned him.”  In March 2002, Alauri arrived in Chechnya with letters to Khattab.  He met with Russian intelligence officers.  They sprayed the letters from his mother with sarin, a fast-acting poison, then sent Alauri on his way.  Khatab died on the night of 19-20 March 2002 from touching the letters.[3]

When the war went badly for the Chechens, Basayev organized acts of large-scale terrorism: the seizure of a Moscow theater, and “Black Widow” suicide bombings by women in burkas from 2002 through 2004.  In July 2006 he was killed in the explosion of a land-mine.

[1] The Red Army didn’t train Chechens to be fighters.  1.) Why bother?  It’s in their blood.  2.) You’re just storing up trouble for later.

[2] A “Khatabka” is a Russian and Chechen slang term for a home-made hand grenade.

[3] Alauri was killed in April 2002 in Baku by agents sent by Shamil Basayev.


Chechnya is a little place in the North Caucasus mountains.  Russia is to the North, Turkey is to the Southwest, and Iran is to the Southeast.  A lot of the country is mountains.

In the 15th Century, faced with pressure from the Christian Russians, the pagan Chechens converted to Sunni Islam to win the support of the Muslim Ottoman Turkish empire.  However, the Chechens weren’t very good Muslims.  Paganism remained powerful until early in the 1800s and Chechen Islam absorbed a bunch of pagan practices: mosques were built near streams and Allah was often referred to as Deila, the head god of the pagan Chechens.  Furthermore, Muslim religious-based law conflicted with traditional law and people didn’t always think that “sharia” was better.  Even today, Chechen Muslims like and continue to use alcohol and tobacco.

After that, Chechnya remained independent—backward as all get-out, but independent—until the end of the 18th Century.  At the start of the 19th Century the Russkies started pressing again while the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  From 1834 to 1859 an imam (Muslim cleric) named Shamil led a guerrilla war against the Russians.  The Russkies won, but the whole region of the North Caucasus saw repeated rebellions for the rest of the century.  The whole region tried to set up an independent country after the Russian Revolution (1917-1921), with the grandson of the Imam Shamil among the leaders.  That didn’t work: the Reds got control of the place by 1922 and Shamil’s grandson ended up in Germany.  The Soviets promised the Caucasus peoples autonomy, but soon reneged on that promise.  Discontent bubbled until a new insurgency broke out from 1940 to 1944.  The Soviets defeated this rebellion, then deported all 500,000 Chechens to Central Asia.  Perhaps 120,000 of them died in the process.  After the death of Stalin in 1953, the survivors were allowed to return.

Chastened by this hard experience, the Chechens kept their heads down until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.  Then the Chechens again declared their independence.  Their leader at the time was Dzhokhar Dudayev.  The Russians, under Boris Yeltsin, declined to accept Chechen succession.  If the Chechens bailed out, then lots of other people would bail out.  Two years of incredibly brutal and devastating war followed.  Chechens won their independence, but the price was extremely high.  The war had wrecked much of the country.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees had been driven out of the country.  The guerrillas who had fought the war had become radicalized as exponents of “jihad” and had a hard time returning to civilian life, such as it was.  The country collapsed into chaos, with kidnappings for ransom becoming the only growth industry.  (About 1,300 people were kidnapped for ransom in four years.  Mostly, they got out alive, if not all in one piece.[1])

Worse followed.  In 1999, rebel bands attacked into the neighboring Soviet Union; and a series of bombings of Russian apartment buildings killed about 300 civilians.[2]  This set off the Second Chechen War.  This time the Russkies beat up on the Chechens and re-gained control of the country—sort of.  It also set off a civil war between “opportunist”/Sufi Muslim Chechens who supported the Russians and Wahhabist jihadis who fought them.  The Kadyrov family, father and son, led the Sufi faction.  In 2004 the jihadis killed the father–Akhmad Kadyrov.  In 2007, the son—Ramzan Kadyrov—became President of the Chechen Republic.  This guerrilla war continued until 2009.  Kadyrov takes a dim view of Wahhabism, and of jihadis.

[1] Clip from “Proof of Life.”

[2] The Russians blamed these on Chechen terrorists, but a lot of people think the Russian secret service did them as a justification for war.  So, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dad said that some secret service had framed his kids for the Boston Marathon bombing, , that’s where he was coming from.

Look at what I almost stepped in.

Western European countries needed extra workers during the great economic boom that took off after the Second World War.[1]  They imported these workers from the old empires and other developing areas.  Then the European Union allowed a considerable mobility of the immigrants after they arrived.  Generally, these countries didn’t give any thought to the assimilation of the immigrant “guest workers.”  Either it was assumed that they would go home after working in Europe or the possibility of problems didn’t occur to any government official.  So, all countries now have a problem with the descendants of the immigrants who never went home and—often—did not assimilate.

Belgium brought in lots of Turks and Moroccans.  Today there are about 640,000 Muslims living in Belgium, where they make up about 5 percent of the population.  Belgium turned out to be a particularly difficult country for assimilation.  It is, in a sense, a “made-up” country created for the convenience of other countries back in the 19th Century.[2]  It is divided between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings.  Efforts to pacify the factions produced competing and overlapping government bureaucracies. Quarrels between the two groups continue, so no one gave much thought to the immigrants and the immigrants had no clear national identity to try to join.

Then the oil shocks of the 1970s heralded a period of economic troubles that included the dying of the coal and steel industries in which the immigrants and many native Belgians labored.  The immigrants and their descendants adapted less well to the changes than did the native Belgians.  Poverty and isolation compounded each other.  Now Belgium has a large population of citizens who are considerably angrier with their country than are the supporters of Donald Trump.  Many of them turned to petty crime and drugs.  In these miserable conditions, street preachers arose and won followers by preaching that their victimization arose from their faith.  An uncertain share of them has embraced radical Islam.[3]  Even when not violent activists themselves, many Belgian Muslims are so estranged from Belgian society that they are willing to turn a blind eye to the violent among them.

Then came the Islamic State.  Some 560 Belgian Muslims are believed to have gone to fight for the Caliphate. Belgian cops were glad to see them go.  Belgium’s counter-terrorism forces are under-staffed and overwhelmed.  Maybe the Islamists would get killed.  Many did die in all likelihood.  Now, some 120 of the veterans have returned.  They have been at the heart of the recent spectacular terrorism: the guns for the January 2015 “Charlie Hebdo” attack came from Belgium; the November 2015 Paris attack was planned in Belgium; and the March 2016 attack in Brussels was carried out by Belgian-born Islamists.[4]

Now Belgium is trying to make up a lot of lost ground in both security and assimilation.

NB: The title to this piece is the punch-line to a French “Belgian joke,” equivalent to the one-time Polish or Blonde jokes in the United States.

[1] In Germany it’s called the “wirtschaftwunder” (the Economic Miracle); in France it’s called “Les trente glorieuse” (the Glorious Thirty [Years].”

[2] The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) redrew the map of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.  To guard against a resurgence of French imperialism, the Congress tried to strengthen the countries on France’s northeastern and southeastern borders.  In one case this meant adding the Catholic former Austrian Netherlands (today Belgium) to the Protestant Kingdom of Holland.  The Catholics rebelled against Protestant rule in 1830.  Rather than  resist this by force or partition the territory between France and Holland, the Great Powers accepted independence.  Ooops.

[3] See:

[4] “Belgium’s jihadi problem,” The Week, 8 April 2016, p. 11.


The Wahhabist and Deobandi sects of Islam are particularly puritanical. The have important followings in Pakistan. However, Pakistan is a country of emigration and many people leave for Britain in hopes of finding more economic opportunity.   There are about 750,000 people of Pakistani descent in Britain, out of a total Muslim population of 1.8 million. However, that doesn’t mean that they want to become “British” or that they find opportunity. There are two themes here worth exploring a little.[1]

First, the lack of opportunity. Many of the immigrants settle in the decayed industrial towns of the Midlands where there is little opportunity. As a result, while the general unemployment rate in Britain is a low 5.5 percent, the unemployment rate among young male Muslims is a very high 22 percent. Second, there is the refusal of assimilation.   A recent survey found that 37 percent of young Muslims would rather live under a strict Muslim legal system. Many Muslim immigrants retain their traditional beliefs about gender roles. Many Muslims disdain the cultural and moral liberalism that characterizes British life.

These factors have contributed to a very uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, some immigrants have turned to the extremely puritanical forms of Islam from a combination of alienation and hope to save themselves from poverty, drugs, and crime. In a few cases, this turn toward religious radicalism has led to political radicalism. In July 2005 four Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 Londoners; in 2006 British authorities foiled a plot by 23 British Muslims to bring down twelve airliners over the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, Britons have grown leery of Muslims. Anyone on the Tube reeking of perfume and muttering to himself, with his wallet shoved into his sock, might be a suicide bomber. (Or another “victim of Thatcherism.”)

After the July 2005 bombings, Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a program called “Prevent.”[2] The goal is to encourage people to identify potential jihadis in their community and then to intervene with voluntary anti-radicalization programs. Then, in 2015, four girls from Bethnal Green (see: Jack the Ripper) did a bunk and ended up in the ISIS Caliphate. If “encouraging” didn’t produce satisfactory results, the government would “require” schools, hospitals, social service agencies, and local government authorities to report extremist behavior. The government issued a list of 22 “contributing factors” that might make Donald Trump look over his shoulder.[3] School computers track student searches, with little alarms going off if someone Googles “How to make a suicide vest out of materials in your Dad’s garden shed.”

These efforts arouse all sorts of civil rights concerns. What is “extremist behavior”? Especially in a young person? What sort of person is willing to “nark on” someone they know?   Who is willing to empower the neighborhood gossip? (See: “Brooklyn” for one example.) Isn’t this just profiling poor, conservative Muslims? Will stigmatization by an alien community just increase radicalization? Muslim communities have not supported “Prevent.”

On the other hand, in truth, how many people destined for Oxbridge or Silicon Valley are going to be attracted by ISIS? Then, school teachers, as opposed to London lawyers, aren’t necessarily concerned. They’ve been dealing with issues like the forced marriage of Muslim female students. Others have been threatened. “You are on my beheading list,” reported one. Naturally, some of them favor a “counter-narrative” to the ISIS recruiting media. I would.

[1] “Britain’s restive Muslims,” The Week, 4 May 2007, p. 17.

[2] Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “British Effort to Identify Potential Radicals Spurs Profiling Debate,” NYT, 10 February 2016.

[3] However, they appear to have been boosted from drug abuse awareness leaflets.

Africa Adio.

A while ago, you wouldn’t have thought that Sub-Saharan Africa would become a hot-bed of Islamism. In culture, it was African, rather than Arab; in religion it was Sufi, rather than Wahhabist.[1] Sufi leaders—many of them not particularly well-educated and perhaps similar to the village priest of the European Middle Ages or the mountain reverend of the Appalachians–preached accommodation with formally secular governments and co-existence with Christians. People sought the consolation of religion mainly when they grew older.

However, the situation has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. As was the case before with post-liberation Arab states, Sub-Saharan governments have failed to deliver higher living standards or respectable authority. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has sponsored conservative Sunni evangelists throughout the Muslim world. Sub-Saharan Africa was no exception. Thousands of eager young theology students from the region have studied in Saudi “universities.” Modern telecommunications allowed for the rapid spread Wahhabist preaching.[2] As a result, in recent years vast numbers of the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa have switched affiliation to Wahabbism.[3] More mosques are attended by larger congregation of younger people.[4] Many of those mosques have been built with Saudi money.

Then the American overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 opened one pathway between the ISIS caliphate and Sub-Saharan Africa, just as it opened a pathway in the opposite direction for migrants driven by poverty between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean sea-route to Europe. The migration to Europe and the rise of Boko Haram are two sides of one coin.

As a result, pro-Western governments have been operating in an increasingly difficult environment. Boko Haram turned to armed struggle in northern Nigeria in 2009. In 2013, an Islamist movement partnered with an indigenous Tuareg rebellion in Mali.[5] French troops beat back that threat. When the president of Niger openly sympathized with the victims of the Islamist attack on “Charlie Hebdo” in early 2015, mobs burned down forty Christian churches and the French cultural center. Additional British, French, and American special forces soon joined the fight, while the US set up bases for observation drones in Cameroon and Niger. On the other hand, ISIS seems to have increased its support for the Islamists, both remotely through the Internet and directly through dispatching advisors. Driven off the battlefield, Boko Haram resorted to terrorism. In January 2016, Islamists terrorists killed 86 people in Dalori, Nigeria, 32 people in Bodo, Cameroon, and 30 people in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.[6] In early February Boko Haram suicide bomber killed 58 at a refugee camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.

Yes, these bastards need killing. However, mowing the lawn isn’t going to solve the problem over the long term. It will take sustained economic development and good government.

[1] Basically, esoteric (focused on individual communion with Allah and loosey-goosey about assimilating elements of traditional African religion), rather than exoteric (focused on the strict observance of rites).

[2] In a different context, the American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki offers a good example. See: “Just like imam used to make.”

[3] See Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2003).

[4] Would it force the analogy to see the supporters of Bernie Sanders and of Donald Trump in the same light? Angry or idealistic people who see the system as rigged against them is one common feature. That isn’t meant to denigrate either the young Islamists or the supporters of the American candidates denounced as “populists” in the mainstream American media. Nor is it an endorsement of their policies.

[5] See: “Sahel of a Good Song.”

[6] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Jihad Comes to Africa,” WSJ, 6-7 February 2016.


French Muslims have been bent out of shape for some time.[1] In theory, France is a “secular” country that pays no attention to religion and allows no obvious expression of religious affiliation. In 2004, the government banned the wearing of veils by school-girls. As an afterthought, they also banned the (visible) wearing of crucifixes and yarmulkes, but everyone knew it had been directed against Muslims. In 2005, rioting broke out in the Parisian “banlieues” (suburbs) after the police chased a teen-age punk to his death in an electrical power distributor.[2] More than 10,000 cars were burned in the rioting—unemployed young Muslims not owning many cars. In 2011, the government banned wearing the “niqab” or the “burka” (which cover a woman’s face). It is illegal to deny the Holocaust, but is acceptable to mock the Prophet Muhammad. In January 2015 came the “Charlie Hebdo” massacres and in November 2015 came the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Now, an estimated 1,200 French Muslims have gone to join ISIS. Is France a hot-bed of radical Islam, and, if so, why?

After the First World War France recruited a lot of foreign labor from southern and eastern Europe (Russkies, Poles, Spaniards, Italians) to make up for the huge wartime casualties.[3] After the Second World War, France recruited a lot of labor from its North African colonies to make up for a short-fall in births in the Thirties and Forties.[4]

France is a “secular” country that pays no attention to religion. So, it is hard to tell exactly how many Muslims live in France. The best guess appears to be about 7.5 percent of the population. That turns out to be about 5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Europe. So, 1,500 jihadists out of 5 million people is a pretty small share. Today there are about 1.5 million people of Algerian origins, 1 million of Moroccan origins, and 400,000 of Tunisian origin. Most of the so-needed immigrants ended up in the tower housing blocks on the outskirts of French cities, especially Paris.[5]

How well do European countries assimilate Muslims? It varies. If you look at unfavorable views of Muslims (not Islam), then 63 percent of Italians and 46 percent of Spaniards, but only 27 percent of Frenchmen have an unfavorable view. However, 74 percent of Frenchmen also thought that Islam is incompatible with France’s secular values. (Curiously, in November 2015, only 56 percent of Americans thought that Islam’s values were “at odds” with America’s values.[6] Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front party, compared the Muslim population to the German occupation of France during the Second World War.

This may be the source of concrete phenomena. One 2010 inquiry found that job applicants of African origin who claim to be Christian are 2.5 times more likely to be asked back for an interview than are Africans who claim to be Muslim. The national unemployment rate in France is 10 percent, but the unemployment rate in the “banlieues” heavily populated by the descendants of Muslim immigrants is 20 percent. The unemployment rate in the “banlieues” for those aged 15-24 is 40 percent. Some 60 percent of the prisoners in French prisons are Muslims. “Religion is all we have left,” said one French Muslim.

[1] “France’s alienated Muslims,” The Week, 30 January 2015, p. 11.

[2] As is the case in the United States, being a punk is not formally a capital crime.

[3] So much for the Republican chicken-hawk derision of France. “How many troops does it take to defend Paris? No one knows. It’s never been tried.”

[4] OK, French people who “aren’t in the mood” is not a cultural stereotype. Still, it happened.

[5] Just for fun, see, “B-13:”:

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 17.

The Islamic Brigades II.

In 2007, more than twenty men—most from the large Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis–went to join Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist militia. Federal authorities launched an investigation. They ended up prosecuting eight men as facilitators and recruiters.

In recent years, eight young men from the Norwegian town of Frederikstad have gone to Syria. Norwegian authorities have investigated the role of an Islamist group called Prophet’s Umma for its role in recruiting jihadis and facilitating their movement toward the battlefront.

Investigating the recruiters and facilitators is important to the fight against radical Islamism. So, too, is trying to understand why some people are open to recruitment. There aren’t any good answers here so far. Mostly, there are just some anecdotes about human beings. Can we learn anything from looking at them?

Two friends from the same neighborhood in Minneapolis; high-school drops outs; in minor trouble with the law; converts to Islam; and soldiers of jihad.[1]

Troy Kastigar (1981-2009) went from being a funny, energetic, boundary-testing kid to smoking weed, drinking, and failing his high-school classes.[2] He dropped out of high school, later got a G.E.D., and worked fitfully between bouts of unemployment. He went back to school to become an X-Ray tech, but he was told that it would be difficult for him to get a job in the field because of his criminal record. His friend, Doug McCain, also dropped out of high school, then had some run-ins with the law over drugs, moving violations, and theft.

In about 2004, both men converted to Islam. There is a large Somali community in Minneapolis, so Islam presented itself more prominently there than in many other American cities. After a while, they moved beyond Islam to Islamism. In November 2008, Kastigar went to Kenya. He said he was going to study the Koran. In fact, he soon crossed the border to join Al Shabab. He was killed fighting with the group in September 2009. In 2009, Doug McCain moved to San Diego. He had family out there, he worked in restaurants, and he took some classes at a community college. In 2014 he went to Syria. In August 2014 he was killed fighting with ISIS.

At least one other man from the same social circle also traveled to Syria. Abdirahmaan Muhumed, worked at the airport from November 2001 to May 2011. At different times he worked at refueling planes and on cleaning crews. Acquaintances had seen him as a more secular than a religious man. He worked out a lot and played basketball. Then he started to become exercised over the fighting in Gaza and in Libya. Muslim people suffering under assault from Western powers. Muslim or not, Muhumed drank—and to excess—on some occasions. Drinking just enflamed him all the more on the issues. He went to Syria and died in the same fight as did Doug McCain.

The little town of Frederickstad, Norway, is south of Oslo. It is a more diverse place than one might expect of a small town. The Muslim community is largely made up of Somali refugees, but there also are immigrants from Algeria, Pakistan, Kurdistan, and Chechnya.[3]

The Chaib family came from Algeria to Frederickstad. Their son Abdullah (1989-2012) grew into a popular figure in his school and neighborhood. His ability at soccer enhanced a general “cool guy” demeanor.   At some point and by some means, Abdullah Chaib became committed to jihad. A then-radical Norwegian Muslim who visited Frederikstad recalled Chaib as “a real fanatic…[who] talked about jihad all the time.” In November 2012 Abdullah Chaib went to Syria. In December 2012 he died fighting there.

Chaib’s death in battle set an example for some other boys in the town. Among them was Adu Edelbijev. His parents came to Norway from Chechnya in 2002. He attended the same school as Chaib and, like Chaib, was a good athlete. He didn’t feel estranged from Norway, but his hopes to join the army were foiled by bad eyesight. He began to take religion seriously. By 2013 he had begun to prepare to go to Syria. He left in August 2013. In November 2014, he died while fighting with ISIS near Kobani.

Rebecca Sanchez Hammer was a Filipina who came to Norway and married a Norwegian who later died. They had a son, Torlief Sanchez Hammer. A group of goofy dopers used Torlief Hammer’s basement as a place to bake their heads. For several years, the police regularly broke up their parties and confiscated their drugs and pipes.

When, before he left for Syria, Adu Edelbijev lectured Torlief Hammer about his bad habits, the boy listened. Hammer converted to Islam, took the new first name Abdul, and suddenly stopped using drugs. His run-ins with the police ended, but his satisfaction with life did not improve. “”I have no friends, no job, nothing,” he told his mother. This did not cause him to reject Islam however. It only deepened his commitment. In December 2013, the young man took the road to Syria.

The parents of Samiullah Khan (1991- ) came from Pakistan to Norway, but did not prosper. His father murdered someone, did a stretch in prison, then accidentally killed someone else while driving drunk. This background left Khan feeling marked and excluded by native Norwegians and Pakistani immigrants. He went to fight in Syria, was wounded, returned to Norway, and was arrested for belonging to a terrorist organization.

It is easy to write off these people as failures who made foolish—and fatal–decisions. But is it possible that there foolish and fatal decision reflected an aspiration for a more satisfying life than what the larger societies in which they lived could offer?

A friend of Kastigar and McLean argued that “They just wanted to be a part of something. They were just trying to find something that just accepted them for who they were.” A friend of Abdirahman said that “He always wanted to be a freedom fighter, he always wanted to be a hero,” recalled a friend.

“None of them ever even mentioned religion when we knew them,” recalled one policeman speaking about the group around Torlief Hammer. “The only thing they had in common is that they did not function in society. But they wanted to be able to do something, to be good at something.” Torlief Hammer told his mother that “he wanted to fix himself after too much disco, too many girlfriends and too much smoking.”

In March 1940, George Orwell published a review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In it, Orwell argued that Hitler “has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”[4]

As the United States lugubriously embarks on the election campaign of 2016, will any of the candidates offer voters “struggle and self-sacrifice”? Or will they promise “ease, security and avoidance of pain”? That is an easy question to answer. But what if there are a lot of people who would never consider radical Islam, yet still feel some longing for something more ennobling than the next entitlement or the next tax cut?

[1] Jack Healy, “For Jihad Recruits, a Pipeline From Minnesota to Militancy,” NYT, 7 September 2014.

[2] I wondered if these were signs of Depression. His mother describes him as having had a “sadness and a darkness” move into his life.

[3] Andrew Higgins, “A Norway Town And Its Pipeline to Jihad in Syria,” NYT, 5 April 2015.