"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Super-Lawnmower Death Cars and the Banal Petulance Of American Jihadis

So the new Inspire is out (Aaron has it easily accessed at Jihadology), and the biggest story that seems to be coming out of it is of the American jihadi Samir Khan, who seems to be more important to the magazine than even Anwar al-Awlaki.  Most stories I have seen focus on him, and how he escaped the FBI and was able to travel easily to Yemen even though he had been writing about jihad for some time.  I agree that it is a failure, and one for which people need to be held to account, even though I have a feeling he is inflating his own derring-do.

What I want to focus own though is not how he did it, but who is is, and do so by looking at his writing and the magazine.  There is no doubt that the magazine is technically sophisticated and shiny and an appealing, easy read.  There are a lot of exciting pictures of explosions and short articles and little nuggets of infotainment*, which can suck in an internet-addled mind.  I think that is the point of this: despite its sophistication, it is childish and patronizing and seductive to people who desire to be told what to think. 

There is a little picture, for example, of President Obama, clipped and ragged to look like it was cut out of a magazine, with a quote by him saying "Our enemies are al-Qaeda who are trying to kill us but who have killed more Muslims than just about anybody on earth", followed by a parenthetical comment that he is "(speaking as if America hasn't killed more than a million Muslims in Iraq (before the invasion) and don't have blood on their hands from Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan and elsewhere.)"  Underneath that, looking like it was tacked on, in what looks to be like a psuedo-Arabic comic font, is the addition of "JUST RIDICULOUS!"   The whole page smacks of a combination of office bulletin board and irritating, shrill political blog. 

This is the point, though- it isn't for sophisticated jihadists, or even for people with particularily well-developed minds.  They aren't the potential recruits in America or the West.  The recruits are people who are bored, pathetic, juvenile, and lonely.  The kind of people who watch Fight Club and see themselves in it, desperate for some excitement.  They blame society for rejecting them, and take their outsider status as proof of greatness, even though they generally lack any ability or inspiration that creates real, artistic or political outcasts.  

You can see this pretty clearly in Khan's writing.  There is a lot of inflated self-importance mixed with classic teenage-like, petty-reactionary bullshit.  There is a railing against people who work 9-5 jobs, who define themselves by what they buy or what they do.  There is a pervasive feeling of "I'm better than you", which you can find in all sorts of unformed and scared minds, whether they take solace in Atlas Shrugged or On the Road (though the people who take only that message from On the Road are reading it wrong- as I did the first time, and as millions do.  Khan's take is Kerouak as read by Qutb).   I understand the appeal of this kind of thinking.  I was 17 once as well.  We live in strange times, and people want to latch onto something. 

There is an easy correlation between these thoughts and violence.  The desperate mind looks to violence as a way of making yourself greater and finally shaking off the shackles imposed on you by the norms and the Rotary Club and all those fucking jocks.  I'm going to quote some of Khan's writing, which I think goes a long way of showing the child-like infatuation with violence that is inherent in most radicals, and particularly jihadis.  

I am acutely aware that body parts have to be torn apart, skulls have to be crushed, and blood has to be spilled in order for this (a caliphate) to be a reality.  Anyone who says otherwise is not prepared to make sacrifices that heroes and champions make.  

One has to say: come on.  Skulls have to be crushed?  This is not a serious person, but rather one with deep-seated issues and a desire to be remembered no matter what.  Heroes and champions?  Please.  Throughout the article he uses the a language mashed-up from comic books and revolutionary tracts, with talk of blood-suckers and parasites and the glory of violence.  Of course these people are dangerous, but they are not super-terrorists. 

This is also illustrated in what has been a much-discussed section of Inspire, the Open-Source Jihad, which gives tips to people in America who want to act on their own.  The tip this issue?  I wish I was joking when I said it was for "The Ultimate Mowing Machine".  The picture is of a huge Ford pickup roaring through a storm, awesomely lit by lightning and looking for the world like it is just going to burst through your screen and drink your beer and take your woman, you Vespa-riding pansy.  I am willing to bet it was taken directly from Ford- death to America, indeed.

Anyway, the tip is to attach some kind of blades to the front and just plow right the fuck into a crowd of people, mowing them down.  No doubt this would be scary if someone could get it to work.  But come on: this isn't how to sneak plutonium in though Canada.  This is something a 9th-grader doodles while thinking about gym class.   This is just stupid violence-porn, the kind of thing that Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris might dream up.  It is sick and twisted and simple enough to work, maybe (I don't know how exactly, but then I feel a sense of pride when successfully changing a tire, so what the hell do I know?).  But we really can't afford to spend too much time worrying about al-Awlaki or Khan or Inspire helping people bring us down from the inside.  Fighters and real jihadists are far more worrisome than the sugar-high ravings of outcasts.  Just give them some time and they'll find out about The Doors, and their minds will be open, man. 

(Note: there is of course a real threat, particularly from disaffected Muslims, especially in this strange time of Muslim-baiting by the right, but for terrorism to work you have to be terrified, and Inspire is more ridiculous than anything.) 

*It is strange to me that spell-check accepts "infotainment" but rejects "derring-do".  There is a broader point here, but it mostly makes me sad as an old-timey kind of guy.


  1. You're on fire today, Doctor.
    But now tell me something: Nobody really takes this mag seriously, do they? Your description above, while detailed and thoughtful, was actually too kind. This is school paper nonsense! (nothing against former school paper writers). Nobody looks at this as real potential threat stuff, do they? That being said, your Columbine reference is well taken. If somebody is looking for an easy justification, this might be all it would take to push them over the pipe bomb edge. But no way real terrorist stuff.
    Also, I added “old-timey” to my spell check. Good call. Bully to you!

  2. Some people do, but no one who really knows what they are talking about. I mention this a little bit in the post above, but the big danger is over-reacting and helping AQAP with their publicity goals (which essentially means recruiting real jihadis who can fight).

  3. I think you may be buying into a strange kind of American exceptionalism here. The truth is that adolescent angst is not the exclusive domain of American youth. Rather, young people (and some older people) all over the world share similar tendencies, and are equally vulnerable to the kind of appeals you mock in Inspire. Note also that many young people who join the armed forces -- in the US and elsewhere -- are similarly motivated, and just as some of those young soldiers grow up to be officers, some of the desperate and ridiculous kids who today fantasize about lawnmower death trucks may soon grow up to be "real jihadis."
    More importantly, I would argue that one of the main aims of terrorism is provocation. Even if you find shooting up a Pier 1 or a high school to be a deplorably unsophisticated tactic, the truth is it would only take one Muslim teenage school shooter with vague Yemen ties to provoke an absurdly excessive American reaction. It may not mean victory for global jihad, but it would mean a lot of dead Yemenis.

  4. Point well taken, Mr. Picard. I wouldn't put any appeal out of acceptance to an angry young man. Younger minds are especially open, often to the first thing they read on a subject. I was thinking more that no one in an official capacity would spend any resources on the people or ideas involved with Inspire. The driver of the death car or Pier 1 shooter don't need Inspire to get them there; it can push them, but it is a symptom, not the problem. As the author said, "But we really can't afford to spend too much time worrying about al-Awlaki or Khan or Inspire helping people bring us down from the inside." I'm worried about some kid following the example from inspire, but I'm more worried about the powers-that-be chasing their tail at every shadow lurking behind the corner.

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