Last week, five young men from northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., were arrested in Pakistan, alleged to have been eager volunteers for a terrorist-linked militant group in a region rife with insurgency. The facts remain sparse so far, but this would not be the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that Americans have left their country to heed al Qaeda's call to arms.
These men, however, look different -- at least from the outside. The FBI explained that the five don't fit the typical profile of a militant supporter of al Qaeda, the Christian Science Monitor reported. They were from the middle class, educated, and not visibly marginalized from American society. Their grievances were not readily apparent.
In fact, these men fit exactly the profile that the FBI and the world should now come to expect: no profile at all. A militant's profile lies not in his age, race, culture, or education; anyone can join or be adopted by the al Qaeda network, the only prerequisite being a willingness to accept the group's radical, cult like ideology. So if there is a lesson to be learned from these recent arrests, it is that profiling won't work. We need something better.
According to family members and those who knew them, the five were hooked in by radical messages of precisely the sort that al Qaeda is known for. They are thought to have watched the militant rhetoric on YouTube, enough to encourage them to take the trip abroad. Across the world, al Qaeda encourages could-be recruits to do exactly the same -- to become muhajiroun or "émigrés" who move away from non militant communities, families, and friends to join the brotherhood of armed jihadists. Indeed, one of the young men abandoned his career in dental school; another left his family only a farewell video promising to defend Islam.
Such a desertion seems at first unfathomable. But al Qaeda succeeds because, for more than two decades, the network has waged a successful information campaign that pushes its message out to the world as effectively asymmetrical as its use of suicide bombers on the battlefield. Al Qaeda has dominated the battlefield of the soul among the disaffected, disenfranchised, and dissatisfied. It promises action instead of discussion. It avows to defend Islam through suicide bombings and mass murder. (Recovered jihadists are often horrified to learn, with the help of mainstream clerics, that they have been duped by a fantastical corruption of Islam, best called bin Ladenism.)
Indeed, so persuasive is the rhetoric that al Qaeda regularly convinces converts to reject 1,431 years of Islamic teachings in favor of a mission whose intention is the destruction and re-engineering of Islam itself. Osama bin Laden has managed to replace fear of God and adherence to the Quran with his philosophy of jihad above all else. What's behind that facade is the true philosophical intentions of al Qaeda: the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate that will defeat democracy as the greater of the two political orders. Al Qaeda's leaders seek to reverse what they claim are corrupt Islamic practices bookended by the Mongol invasions in 1256 and Ataturk's ending the caliphate in 1924. Theirs is a fight to turn Islam's clock back to the time of Prophet Muhammad's original followers.