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.
How does al Qaeda do it? The network has perfected the art of turning fantastically corrupt ideas into mainstream, cultist philosophy. Back when al Qaeda first began its campaign, it targeted individuals though face-to-face distribution of militant lectures on cassette tapes, locally produced books, and pamphlets. The network leapt at the opportunity to harness the Internet beginning around 1995, which al Qaeda used to spread its word unencumbered until 2001. The Web's endless reach magnified a once-localized message. Meanwhile, the message also became more universally appealing to the dispossessed: Come fight in a brotherhood of men who give up their homes, families, and lives to live as a nomadic knights. Be part of something. Return Islam to its seventh-century origins. Recruits would embody the mythology they were being told. And all they needed was a few household chemicals, a soft target, and the desire to die.
But bin Laden can be defeated by his own game. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, and Indonesia have successfully broken up al Qaeda wings using appeals to save the souls of the misguided, breaking recruitment and logistics support from within the community. These countries have realized that bullets cannot kill terror in their midst, and their rehabilitation programs are focused on training the militants with a counterideology. Mentors and counselors show deep concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of the former militants, asking them to debate with Islamic scholars who bring the ex-terrorists to see the cause itself as so un-Islamic that the end result in the next life could only be damnation. Militants meet with others who have renounced terrorism, and their redemption and forgiveness are linked with accepting a new worldview.
The arrest of these five in Pakistan is just one of several recent examples of the stakes. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, may also have found a path to militancy through Internet-disseminated rhetoric. Every such arrest should go one step further to disproving terrorist stereotypes. What's really at work here is not any one man's disposition; it's an ideology packaged to kill.