In the wake of the killing of more than 80 people in Nice, France, by a disturbed man driving a truck, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have said the U.S. is at “war” with the Islamic State extremist group, while IS (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) itself has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Despite attempts to frame such increasingly common high-profile incidents of violence into a coherent framework of us-vs.-them, however, there is much evidence to indicate that ISIS “soldiers” carrying out symbolic attacks on the West are as much products of the culture they claim to despise as they are enemies of it. As Bosnian diplomat Muhamed Sacirbey writes in the Huffington Post following the Nice attack, “terror is increasingly conspired not among like-minded individuals but within the head of one loser.”
These losers, it seems, may be increasingly turning to committing terror attacks in the name of ISIS as a way to reconcile incompatible pieces of their identities. Certainly no genuine depth of faith or adherence to strict religious principles associated with Islamist jihad can be claimed as driving factors in many of the most catastrophic recent attacks on the West.
Despite the claim from ISIS that the Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was one of its “soldiers” conducting a “new, special operation using a truck,” there is reason to question Bouhlel’s religious convictions. Similarly to other recent headline-grabbing terrorists (but completely out of character given their supposed devotion to a Salafist view of Islam), Bouhlel reportedly “was bisexual, drank alcohol and smoked drugs.”
This seems to fit a familiar pattern. Florida nightclub shooter Omar Mateen made headlines last month not only for killing 49 people in the name of ISIS (and also expressing support for other groups including Hezbollah, a Shia organization) but for frequenting the gay club where he went on his murder rampage. While noting Mateen’s “general support for radical Islamist groups,” FBI Director James Comey has also said “there is confusion about his motives.”
“Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory,” Comey said following the Orlando attack. But Orlando wasn’t the first terrorist attack by any means in which the “jihadi extremist” attacker seemed to be anything but a sincerely devout religious believer.
An April article in Foreign Policy titled “Europe’s Joint-Smoking, Gay-Club Hopping Terrorists” profiled the Abdeslam brothers involved in last year’s attacks in Paris, and posed the question “What if ‘radicalization’ doesn’t look anything like we think it does?”
By all appearances, the Abdeslam brothers reportedly lived what seemed to be secular lives, spending their days playing PlayStation and smoking hash. Salah Abdselam was reportedly spotted at a gay bar just a month before the Paris attacks.
One explanation for this apparent discrepancy “is that the Abdeslam brothers were in the process of becoming radical jihadis and that their secular habits were a hangover from the previous lifestyles that they were trying to walk away from,” according to Simon Cottee, author of the Foreign Policy article. “Another is that they were, in fact, radicalized but living in a state of cognitive dissonance, drinking and dancing the one minute, and railing against the ways of the kafir the next, (…) But perhaps the more realistic — and in some ways more unsettling — scenario is that the Abdeslam brothers drifted in and out of jihadi activism and that this owed more to who they knew and how they lived than anything they believed.”
Questions about the sincerity of belief of ostensibly religiously-motivated terrorist operatives are not new. It has been known since shortly after 9/11, for example, that several of the supposedly devout Wahhabi Muslim hijackers visited strip clubs, drank and gambled prior to the attacks. But if Osama bin Laden delivering anti-American sermons while wearing a U.S. Army camo jacket blurred the line between Western civilization and its enemies, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of his “caliphate” even further confused matters. Baghdadi made his announcement dressed in black robes meant to evoke memories of the last caliphs to rule from Baghdad hundreds of years ago. He was also wearing what appeared to be either a Rolex, Sekonda or Omega luxury wristwatch worth thousands of dollars.
“Despite its seeming exotic otherness, and for all its theological quiddities, the world of the Islamic State is not wholly disconnected from that of our own,” writes Cottee. “Its ideals of heroic self-sacrifice, adventure, violence, and machismo are mirrored, albeit in a secularized and far more muted form, in our own culture; they find less constrained expression, for example, in our movies. In other words, the breach between those who join the Islamic State and ‘us’ is not as deep as we would like to think.”
The U.S. played a major role in destabilizing the region that has become the world’s greatest hotbed of terrorism. ISIS recruits social misfits with tangential ties to the region or to Islam, often with apparent identity conflicts that they hope to resolve through “martyrdom” – people who are increasingly to be found living on the fringes of society in the West. It propagandizes through American social media platforms, communicates using American-made encrypted messaging apps, and fights using American supplied weaponry. But given the level of effort the U.S. has put into forcibly reshaping the region of the world where Daesh holds territory in its own image, is it so surprising that those of our enemies living there have picked up on the American Way of winning hearts and minds?