National Security

The Lies American Jihadists Tell Themselves

On faking blackness, dickriders, basic training, and the sad fabulist and wannabe-warrior-of-Islam, Nicholas Teausant.

Just three days before Nicholas Teausant tried to leave the United States -- allegedly bound for Syria, where the 20-year-old American planned to join one of the world's most feared jihadist groups -- he took time to speak with local media about a minor controversy unfolding on a community college campus in Stockton, California.

A man had been showing up on the campus of San Joaquin Delta College in a military uniform, even though he apparently had never served. Real soldiers were outraged, and Teausant, a National Guard reservist, was among them. "Until you've gone in through basic training, had a drill sergeant yelling at you, doing pushups," he told Stockton's News10, "until you've put blood, sweat, tears, missed your family, missed your girlfriend ... until you've done that, you have no business to be wearing that uniform."

It's a vivid statement. But there was just one problem: Teausant, who was arrested this week near the Canadian border as he began his journey, never went through basic training. The criminal complaint filed against him, on the charge of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, notes that as of last December the National Guard was in the process of releasing Teausant because "he did not meet the minimum qualifications to continue." The complaint states that his "training was minimal," and, in particular, notes that due to Teausant's "lack of required academic credits, he never attended basic training."

A quick look at Teausant's Twitter feed -- a blend of Islam-related musings, auto-generated tweets about his progress in the Android game The Tribez, and Seattle Seahawks fandom -- makes it clear that he didn't attend. He seemed to be looking forward to it: On New Year's Eve in 2012, Teausant tweeted that he would "leave for basic training in 5 days." Four days later, he directed a tweet toward the National Guard, saying: "I'm leaveing to Fort Jackson,SC jan 7th,2013 I'm so excited to serve!!"

Alas, something apparently went awry in the interim. In the days when Teausant had been scheduled for training, he was instead tweeting about watching football, listening to Tim McGraw's "Truck Yeah," and attending Freemason meetings.

In short, Teausant was a fabulist. This rite of passage that was so central to his identity as a soldier -- about which he could expound on at length and with such a sense of righteousness -- was one he had never gone through.

Teausant is not alone among young Westerners who have joined the jihadist movement in generously sprinkling elements of the less-than-factual into their self-image. The first "homegrown" jihadist whom most Westerners learned about was John Walker Lindh, a young man who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks. Lindh, before his turn toward radical Islam, used to post regularly on hip-hop message boards in the adopted persona of a racially-conscious black hip-hop artist (Lindh is white, from the wealthy northern California region of Marin County). Daniel Boyd, arrested for his role in a terror plot in North Carolina, told rather elaborate stories about fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan -- though he didn't actually arrive in South Asia until after the Soviet Union had already withdrawn. Isa Abdullah Ali -- a figure so interesting that a movie has been made about his jihadist career - periodically claimed to be a Vietnam War veteran. In fact, he had been assigned to South Korea -- as a cook.

Why are there so many fibbers among the ranks of these converts? Several studies point to the possibility that identity crises -- which can shake up belief systems and leave once-stable individuals feeling unmoored -- may make people particularly vulnerable to extremist ideas. An identity crisis can be of the kind that might first prompt a jihadist-to-be to first try on several personas for size before settling on that of radical Islamist. As the NYPD's study Radicalization in the West puts it, sometimes an "individual is looking for an identity and a cause," and "finds them in extremist Islam."

Indeed, for those lost souls without a strong sense of self, there are few identities as all-encompassing as that of Salafi radical, with its emphasis on complying with voluminous and often obscure rules. Teausant, for example, seemed to relish these tenets, explaining on his blog why he considers celebrating Valentine's Day and dating to be prohibited by Islamic law. On Facebook, he pondered the perceived religious obligation to eat with one's right hand: "So if we eat and drink with our right hand should we not push the button on a drinking fountain with our right also?"

Lindh was similarly thorough in his obedience to the minutia of a literal interpretation of Islamic law. Journalist Mark Kukis wrote that after his conversion to Islam, when he was studying Arabic in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, other students saw his behavior as that of "a walking caricature of a Muslim, someone who strutted every Islamic stereotype."

But before his turn to Islam, Lindh tried a very different identity on for size -- that of the hip-hop artist. He used to post regularly on hip-hop message boards, initially claiming to be "A Famous MC Who Shall Remain Anonymous Due to Dickriders."

We can all, of course, appreciate the occasional need for anonymity due to the prospect of dickriders. However, what stands out most from a survey of Lindh's online activities was how the young man made constant reference to being African-American and hating sellouts who compromised their blackness.

One particularly thorough article published in the East Bay Express more than 10 years ago notes a 228-line rap Lindh posted in June 1995, when Lindh was 14. The online version of Lindh took potshots at groups that would have included the real-life John Walker Lindh: "Too $hort is wacker than Marin County Caucasians" was one ironic example; he also dissed Dr. Dre, calling the famed rapper "a disgrace selling out to the talcum" -- that is, to whites. "He'll be left dead and naked in the outcome," Lindh continued. "Word to brother Malcolm."

Later, Lindh excoriated lyrics posted by one J-Dogg, accusing him of not actually being black. Lindh, at the time a 14-year-old white kid, wrote, "When I read those rhymes of yours I got the idea you were some thirteen-year-old white kid playing smart. That whole rhyme was saying essentially that all black people should just stop being black and that'd solve all our problems. Our blackness does not make white people hate us; it is THEIR racism that causes the hate."

The Western jihadist is often seen as a frightening figure -- the ultimate wolf in the henhouse. But focusing on the histories of these men as fabulists -- as liars, phonies, and frauds -- helps demystify individuals like Teausant and Lindh and expose some of their sheer ridiculousness. Writing in the Atlantic in 2010, Daniel Byman and Christine Fair made the case for calling terrorists nitwits, revealing "the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality." There is merit to their argument.

Nitwits can be dangerous too, but Teausant's fabrication of his persona, even as he prepared to leave for Syria to embrace his new, violent identity, is both sad and somewhat hilarious. It should also give other potential extremist recruits pause, as they contemplate that the man who'd portrayed himself as a ferocious warrior is, in reality, a buffoon.

SHAWN THEW/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

China's Empty Cities and the Law of Supply and Demand

Why Beijing needs to keep on building, snarky bloggers be damned.

An old friend of my mother had a saying about cooking for guests: "If there isn't too much food, then there isn't enough." Most mathematically inclined people would agree that the chance of guessing exactly the right amount of food to leave everyone at a dinner party full and happy -- that is, on a continuous spectrum ranging from no food to infinite food -- is virtually zero. But the analysis of economic growth, and China's urban planning in particular, has not always heeded this simple insight.

On March 16, the Chinese government released a seven-year plan for the continuing urbanization of its population. So far, the process has been an important engine of China's growth, making workers more productive by giving them better access to capital, services, and economies of scale. There have been plenty of bumps in the road, though, with huge urban districts built under government orders still waiting for their first inhabitants.

This is where the adage about cooking comes in. How likely was Beijing to guess exactly the right size and number of cities to house its enormous population? Just like having food left over at the end of a meal, the risk-averse strategy was to build a little extra, in case the technocrats didn't guess correctly the first time.

This situation repeats itself millions of times every day around the world, and it's not unique to planned economies. Almost any industry, let alone the economy of an entire country, involves myriad decisions about how much to invest, produce, sell, pay, or save. It's inevitable that some of those decisions are wrong, and a few are inevitably wrong in a big way.

As the Great Recession took hold in the United States, thousands of new homes were left vacant or abandoned -- notably in Florida, but in many other states as well. Spain today also has hundreds of thousands of empty properties, as jobs are much scarcer than newly built apartments. And booming Australia may have as many as 125,000 unneeded houses.

Whatever the economic system, whatever the point in the economic cycle, the market for newly constructed buildings does not always clear. Developers make bets based on expectations that turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes, they might not even expect the market to clear right away; they might want to build property while construction is cheap, even if the right time to sell might be a few years away. But other developers may simply overestimate demand. Indeed, it would be astonishing if all of their forecasts for demand were correct, all the time.

And yet that's what pundits seem to expect. The results of overbuilding are easily visible, and just as easy to poke fun at. But if China's overbuilding is the worst planning mistake in its past quarter-century of economic development, I call that not too bad at all. Moreover, it's not as though those empty buildings will have zero value for eternity. Just consider what happened with fiber optic cable.

During the previous recession in the United States, after the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000, the fiber optic cable industry suffered almost as much ridicule as China's ghost towns. Firms like Global Crossing built enormous fiber networks on the "if you build it, they will come" theory, but not enough people came. That has started to change. Last June, fiber accounted for almost 8 percent of broadband connections in the United States, after growing 12 percent in the previous 12 months, far outpacing the overall increase in broadband penetration of less than 4 percent. Today, major cities are posing like contestants in a beauty contest in hopes that Google will choose them to launch its ultra-high-speed fiber hook-up.

By the same token, Chinese people may yet move into some of those empty districts, especially if the relaxing of the one-child policy and increased immigration lead to higher population growth. Changes to China's strict internal migration rules, which are likely to occur as part of the agenda released this week, will help as well. In the grand sweep of China's post-reform growth, any waste associated with overbuilding will probably end up as a footnote -- just like those vacant condos in South Florida and the Great Recession.

Of course, being out of phase with demand is not the only reason why an industry might suffer a gap between investment and revenue. Sometimes the pace of innovation is out of step with consumers' preferences, necessary infrastructure, or the economy's absorptive capacity. In recent times, these factors combined to create decades-long delays between the invention and mainstream adoption of personal computers, mobile phones, and electric cars, to name a few.

But innovation can also lag behind the economy's wants and needs. We don't have good synthetic substitutes for copper and rare earth metals, so their availability can be a constraint on the size of electric grids and the production of electronics. Supply can fall short of demand in traditional markets, too, where innovation is hardly an issue. For instance, as incomes rose in the last global boom, people wanted to buy more food. Harvests couldn't just expand instantaneously, though, and the slow response of supply to higher demand led to higher commodity prices and shortages.

These are normal growing pains in a world economy that is complex and full of frictions. In the short term, they can result in odd mismatches of supply and demand. In the long term, however, they tend to smooth themselves out. The critical question is whether it's worse to have too much of something or too little.

In the case of Chinese housing, the answer is clearly too little. Empty cities might spawn a thousand jokey articles in the Western media, but they don't spawn many riots or rebellions at home. Millions of homeless Chinese, who can find jobs but not a place to sleep, might be another story. So get back into that kitchen -- the guests will be here ... eventually.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images