TAHERI-AZAR WAS A VOLUNTEER to the cause of jihad. Nobody recruited him. No organization welcomed him. No comrades swore him to a bond of solidarity. Taheri-Azar encountered Islamist terrorism solely through the prism of the global media, but that was enough to convince him to sacrifice his life.
It didn't matter that his knowledge of Islam was limited and extremely confused. Taheri-Azar apparently couldn't tell the difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam and wasn't aware that al Qaeda and other Sunni militants would consider him non-Muslim because he is Shiite. Taheri-Azar knew no Arabic, and in his handwritten letters from prison he misspelled al Qaeda as "al-Quaeda." (The "e" is a legitimate English transliteration of Arabic script, but the "u" is simply wrong; he may have gotten the misspelling from Microsoft Word's autocorrect function, which Taheri-Azar apparently trusted more than any Islamic source.) Taheri-Azar drew his Quranic justifications from an English edition translated by Rashad Khalifa, who was assassinated in Arizona in 1990 -- a murder that Khalifa's followers blame on militants linked with al Qaeda. Taheri-Azar's prison letters listed his favorite songs and albums; Islamist militants frown upon Western music as frivolous and sinful. In other words, Taheri-Azar knew next to nothing about the Islamist ideology that he was willing to kill and die for.
If terrorists like Taheri-Azar can be recruited through the Internet and books, then why aren't there more attacks? What is stopping people? I propose five answers.
The first and most obvious answer is that most Muslims oppose terrorist violence. According to surveys by Gallup and the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for attacks on civilians is a minority position in almost every Muslim community. (By way of comparison, a 2006 survey found that 24 percent of Americans consider attacks on civilians to be justified.) But even if only 10 percent of the world's billion Muslims supported terrorism, we would still expect to see far more terrorist activity than we do.
The second answer is that much of the support for Islamist radicalism is soft. Al Qaeda and bin Laden may be "sheik" in the way that Che Guevara and Malcolm X are chic: objects of aspirational pop culture more than inspirations for revolutionary militancy. Terrorism expert Jessica Stern likens this to the fad for gangster rap: "Most of the youth attracted to the jihadi idea would never become terrorists, just as few of the youths who listen to gangsta rap would commit the kinds of lurid crimes the lyrics would seem to promote." This "radical sheik" was visible, for example, on Arabic-language bulletin boards telling the story of a vision that bin Laden was said to have had when he was 9 years old. In this dream, an angel supposedly told bin Laden that he would play a major role in a titanic clash with the West. Islamist revolutionaries were not the only ones to offer warm notes of appreciation for the story. One enthusiastic online response, for example, featured pictures of a woman with flowing black hair and a male model with blond highlights. "Hallelujah," wrote someone whose signature icon was a blond female with a bare midriff. This is radical sheik in action -- people who are impressed by bin Laden but do not share his conservative Islamic mores and are unlikely to translate their symbolic support into strategic action.
Even among militants who share the terrorists' goals of establishing a strict Islamic state, al Qaeda faces competition. Islamist revolutionaries are divided, and that is a third reason for their relatively small numbers. Al Qaeda's most effective rivals are local Islamist revolutionaries such as the Afghan Taliban and the Palestinian group Hamas, which shy away from al Qaeda's global agenda and siphon off its support and recruitment base. The Afghan Taliban and Hamas have specific territorial goals and do not wish to widen the conflict to include Western targets outside their territories.
In addition to revolutionary rivals, al Qaeda faces competition from more liberal Islamic movements. The fourth reason jihadi numbers are low is that the combination of democratic politics and cultural conservatism is far more popular among Muslims than the revolutionaries' anti-democratic violence. Pro-democracy Islamic organizations strike some observers as stalking horses for revolutionary violence, and in some cases they have been, but they are far more frequently the targets of revolutionary violence. In June 2009, for example, a young man armed with explosives walked into the Jamia Naeemia seminary complex in Lahore, Pakistan, just after midday prayers. He made his way to the office of the director, an Islamic scholar named Sarfraz Naeemi, and then detonated his bomb, killing Naeemi and several others, including himself. Naeemi was targeted for his outspoken opposition to Islamist revolutionaries. Several weeks earlier, he had participated in two large conventions of Pakistani Islamic scholars that condemned the "killing of those having dissenting opinion" as "manifestly against Islam" and complained about the assassination of Islamic scholars. And yet Naeemi was active in an Islamic political party that sought to implement sharia as the law of the land -- but through electoral politics, not through revolutionary means. That made him a threat to the revolutionaries.
Anxiety over their unpopularity has divided the revolutionaries. Some have responded by converting to liberalism, while others have turned to ever-more-heinous attempts to purify their societies through violence. They have targeted cafes that the revolutionaries consider decadent, weddings that do not observe the revolutionaries' rituals, and mosques that do not follow their creed. This escalation is an intentional attempt to "drag the masses into battle," according to al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. "We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next."
But this strategy has backfired. The more that terrorists target Muslims, the less popular the terrorists become -- the fifth reason that their numbers are so low. After terrorists bombed a wedding reception in Amman, Jordanians' positive attitudes toward al Qaeda plummeted by two-thirds. When terrorists bombed a cafe in Casablanca, Moroccans' confidence in bin Laden dropped by half. As terrorist campaigns have mounted in Pakistan, public opposition to violence against civilians has more than doubled. It is no surprise that the most popular revolutionary movements in the Middle East today are not Islamist terrorists but the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring, which offer the stirring narrative of ousting corrupt and oppressive rulers through peaceful protest. Why strap on a suicide vest when demonstrations and sit-ins are proving to be more effective?