Anyone surprised by the recent murderous attacks in Brussels has not been paying attention. Per capita, Belgium is Europe’s hotbed of young Muslims who travel to Syria to fight alongside the militant group (Daesh) and then return home, often ready to kill. But these European residents are a different kind of extremist. They aren’t your dad’s Al-Qaeda and aren’t really even Daesh; pretending they are ignores the reality of the threat and provides the group with a propaganda coup it does not deserve.
Many of these new-age killers were small children when the World Trade Center fell in 2001 and have spent much of their lives watching major wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. Their knowledge of Islam is limited; they are more like jihadi hipsters than dedicated Muslims, or what some experts in the intelligence community call “jihadist cool.” They celebrate what the Dutch coordinator for security and counterterrorism has called “pop-jihad as a lifestyle.”
These are youths who gather socially, in friends’ houses or in organizations such as the recently dismantled Sharia4Belgium. They chat in invitation-only Facebook groups. They know more about Tupac Shakur than they do about Osama bin Laden; Belgians who travel to Syria to fight often revere the deceased American rapper on social media, identifying with his lyrics about life in America’s inner cities. But these attackers also have their own rap music, hip clothes popular with young Muslims that are sold by companies like Urban Ummah and slogans akin to what might be found on a bumper sticker (“Work hard, pray hard”). Their tweets often end with hashtags like #BeardLife and #HijabLife. From Syria, they send selfies to their friends showing themselves wearing kohl, a traditional Middle Eastern eyeliner.
In other words, these are not studious Muslims with long beards and Quran in hand; labeling them jihadis or radical Muslims falsely suggests they have the knowledge they feign. In another time or another circumstance, these young people would be called losers or narcissistic punks.
These shallow Islamists have proved to be a challenge for European countries that use a traditional de-radicalization program for Muslims lured into the world of radical fundamentalists: It’s hard to re-educate people about Islam when they knew almost nothing to begin with, such as the two British Muslims, both 22, who purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies in August 2014, just before heading to Syria to join Daesh fighters.
The number of young European Muslims who have traveled to Syria to fight alongside Daesh is frightening. Recent intelligence estimates peg it at more than 5,000, with about 470 coming from Belgium. While that is the largest number per capita of any country in the European Union, France is the leader in raw numbers, with 1,700 travelers to Syria.
What lures these youths into the brutal culture of radicalism? The answer, according to intelligence officials, would be laughable if it were not so often deadly: peer pressure and what might be called Rambo-envy. “For foreign fighters, the religious component in recruitment and radicalization is being replaced by more social elements such as peer pressure and role-modelling,’’ said a January 18 report by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, which deals with militant networks. “Additionally, the romantic prospect of being part of an important and exciting development, apart from more private considerations, may play a role.”
Here is where things always get politicized. Trying to stop this conversion of young European Muslims into attackers requires understanding what underlies that change. Political blowhards, unable to tell the difference between hard-core radicals and practitioners of pop-jihad, rage that trying to figure out ways to intercede in that transformation amounts to excusing the attackers, an argument that plays well for the ignorant but leaves intelligence officials fuming. Proclaiming, “This was Daesh!”—when it was just punks inspired and trained by the group, rather than acting on its instructions—grafts the perception of worldwide power onto the organization, making it seem stronger than it actually is. That, in turn, makes it even more attractive to young Muslims seeking adventure and attention, which is why Daesh takes credit for attacks it might not even have known were coming.
Let the blowhards blow. Here is what needs to be understood about the murderous practitioners of jihadi cool. Based on interviews with European Muslims returning from fighting in Syria, intelligence agencies estimate that about 20 percent of them were diagnosed with mental illnesses before they left for the Middle East. A large percentage of them have prior records for both petty and serious crimes. And the vast majority comes out of urban neighborhoods torn apart by economic hardship.
The attackers in Brussels show traits of pop-jihadis. The brothers identified as being two of the bombers—Ibrahim El Bakraoui and his younger brother Khalid—were described by neighbors as never having been particularly devout Muslims. They ran a café that sold alcohol. Both had criminal records and grew up in a tough, urban neighborhood near Brussels. A photograph of Ibrahim and two other extremists just before they set off bombs in Brussels’s Zaventem airport suggest their knowledge of Islam was minimal. The three are slovenly; two have bushy hair, while at least one has an overgrown mustache. But suicide bombers well-versed in Muslim tradition—including the 9/11 hijackers—always engage in a ritual purification in final preparation for their attacks, by closely trimming their hair, mustaches and beards; shaving their bodies; washing themselves thoroughly; and even clipping their nails. This is a demonstration of personal purity so that, as Islam dictates, they are clean when they get to heaven.
Militants with knowledge of Islam who plan to kill themselves fear they will be barred from paradise if they fail to show respect to Allah by conducting this formal cleansing.
Rik Coolsaet, a professor of international relations at Belgium’s Ghent University and a senior associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Relations, recently wrote about the environment that has nurtured in his country the development of this youth subculture of Muslim extremists with little understanding of Islam. Young Belgians, faced with a bleak job market, have higher suicide rates, and there are more high school dropouts, compared with most member states of the European Union. “Youth representatives in Belgium recently warned that many young people are depressed and feel hopeless,” he wrote.
Intelligence analysts say the European Muslims who become Daesh fanboys are taking not a rational stand but an emotional one. “Areas where there are close-knit groups of susceptible youth, often lacking a sense of purpose or belonging outside their own circle, have proved to generate a momentum of recruitment that spreads through personal contacts from group to group,” says a report by the Soufan Group, a private intelligence analysis and security company.
In other words, attraction to Daesh among European Muslims is like a virus, where proximity to the infected leads to getting sick. And locations where the beliefs are spreading are as easy to find as the sites where a disease emerges; in November 2015, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon identified Molenbeek, a poor immigrant quarter of Brussels, as a hotbed for young Muslims traveling to Syria and back. So it should come as no surprise that the investigation into the Brussels attack immediately tracked suspects to Molenbeek.
And this is what’s so frustrating about the new hipster pop-jihadism. Intelligence officials know most everything about it. Belgium publicly identified where potential terrorists were most likely to be living. On January 25, Europol announced that the threat of an attack was at its highest level in a decade, warning that both France and Belgium were at the highest risk of an attack by those attacking soft targets in the heart of a large city.
Even with all that knowledge, however, disrupting an attack by this new breed of Islamic fans—rather than religious devotees—is enormously difficult. These are small cells of like-minded young people with operational autonomy, not some organization with top-down leadership, like Al Qaeda. Many of them travel to Syria to learn tactics from Daesh before heading back home. All it takes is some guns, some homemade bombs and some desire for fame to transform a loser into a hero among his friends and allies. And then the world eagerly attributes the attack to Daesh, which takes a bow for an attack its leaders probably knew nothing about and thereby earns more cred, which it uses to attract even more devotees.
So the answer for solving this problem is quite different from the military strategy needed to deal with Al Qaeda. Europe and America can’t simply attack Daesh and expect the problem to be solved, not unless the Western nations want to start bombing neighborhoods in their own countries. This time, it is a law enforcement matter, one requiring sources, informants and sting operations, along with economic plans to create some hope among Europe’s youths.
Or the bombastic politicians and talking heads can continue perpetuating ignorance, raging that the phenomenon of European pop-jihadis is about a clash of civilizations; riling up the public about a vast, Daesh-controlled network; and ignoring the less-dramatic solutions that need to be pursued. The West is facing a threat from a few of its own residents hoping to be Rambos. Politicians eager to respond like their own action hero leave the problem to fester.