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.