Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Hajar Boughoula of Tunisia writes a message on the ground with chalk near a makeshift memorial for fallen MIT police officer Sean Collier on the school’s campus in Cambridge. Photo by Steven Senne/The Associated Press
It seemed surreal during the Boston area lockdown last month when my cell phone rang and two inmates at a jail in Morocco were on the line asking if I was safe. The two, accused by the Moroccan law enforcement of recruiting for jihad, had followed news of the marathon bombings and their aftermath. The call gave me flashbacks about the meetings I’ve had around the world with young men who have become radicalized.
I have known the inmates in Morocco for a couple of years now, ever since my colleague Michael Moss and I worked on a series for the New York Times called “Inside the Jihad.” Our aim was to take the reader into this world, explain the mindset of radicalized men, their recruiters and the reasons they had chosen this path. Reporting on jihad has taken me to the back streets of Zarqa in Jordan, where militants discussed beheading my reporting colleague as we sat for an interview, to neighborhoods in Hamburg, where women can’t easily go, to the barren tribal areas of Waziristan, Balouchistan and Iraq. I have visited places where the smell of gunpowder hangs permanently in the air. I have looked into the eyes of thousands of young men, suddenly hardened, and old men speaking in strident and martial tones.
“See, we have told you, as long as America will not stop their war against Islam, they will never be safe,” said one of the inmates on the phone.
There it was again, the argument I had heard so often from radicalized men, in North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and, increasingly, in the West, where I had interviewed an increasing number of young people who had either been born or at least grown up most of their lives in Britain, Germany, France or the U.S. According to newspaper reports, it was the same argument given by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving marathon bombing suspect.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reminded me of Arid Uka, a man from Kosovo, who grew up in Germany and at 19 was convicted of killing two U.S. soldiers and injuring several others in Frankfurt. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Uka was a model youth in the eyes of his family and friends, never in trouble with the police, soft spoken. But there came a moment when he couldn’t keep up in school. One of his teachers told me she had the impression that Uka was confused; she suggested he see a psychiatrist. He seemed disorientated and very disappointed with his schoolwork, according to some of his friends. He began participating in Islamist Internet forums and, during his trial, said that through these forums he came to believe that the United States was at war with Muslims.
It was around that time that he started watching YouTube videos of radical preachers speaking in German. Uka later said in court that he decided to kill U.S. soldiers after seeing a YouTube clip purporting to show the rape of Muslim women by U.S. soldiers. The link had been posted by several radical forums. German investigators found that the clip was from a movie, not an actual event. Uka thought it was real.
When I interviewed his family, I found his mother in tears and his father expressing with tears in his eyes how sorry he felt for the families of the killed and injured soldiers.
When reporting on terrorism, people I interview always ask me, “Why do they hate us so much?” The first time I had heard that question was from the wife of a 9/11 victim. She added that she held the U.S. government and the media accountable for not telling the public how men like Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers felt about the West and why. Now, after the Boston bombings, I have been asked that same question again.
There aren’t easy answers, but there are examples that can help explain the process of radicalization. And Muslim journalists have a key role to play in reporting this. All of the radicalized young men I interviewed had been recruited in moments of personal doubt or identity crisis. Recruiters use this moment of vulnerability to show support and understanding, listening to the young men’s problems while cutting them off from their usual environment.
After covering radicalization in Western countries, I began to recognize some of the arguments and the feeling of alienation. I grew up in Germany as the daughter of a Moroccan father and a Turkish mother. My parents were so-called ‘guest workers.’ I am Muslim. To many of these young men, my role in the U.S. media did not fit their view of the West. ‘So, you are Muslim, and the Americans allow you to work as a journalist?’ was a question I heard often.
Without meaning to, I became a counter-example to their prejudices about the West. Often we would also talk about religion, and it turned out that many of them accepted the interpretations presented to them by radical preachers as the one and only truth. Given my own religious background and my studies, they listened when I argued against that view. “It is not like some Westerner coming to tell us what is right or wrong, as they always like to,” said Abu Talha, an Algerian who had supported Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
I am a feminist, too, and some of the questions about women’s rights turned into long and deep exchanges with these radicalized men. There were questions about whether women should veil their faces. I argued that they should not and that, according to Islam, even during the pilgrimage to Mecca women are not supposed to cover their faces.
I have spent hours listening to each of these men, searching their personal stories for the moment when they gave up on the societies they had spent most of their lives in and started believing in the preaching they heard from recruiters and on the Internet. There was typically a moment of confusion about where they belonged. There were the frustrating moments when they wanted to discuss what they called the “hypocrisy of the West”—for example, the West preached human rights, they said, but used torture and secret detention centers—but were stopped from doing so in school or in the mosques.
“Nobody wanted to listen, nobody wanted to talk about what the West is doing in our lands,” Denis Cuspert (aka Abu Maleeq) told me during one of our meetings in Berlin. Cuspert had been a rapper in Germany who then turned toward jihadi ideology and, according to German officials, became a recruiter, using his own story in YouTube lectures in German. He caught the attention of U.S. security officials because his stepfather was an American. Western intelligence services say he is now in Syria and has joined Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that claims it is allied with al Qaeda.
The Internet plays a big role in radicalization. There are websites that offer translations into English and Russian of preachers who argue that since U.S. drones kill innocent people in Muslim countries Muslims are justified in committing attacks within the U.S. “They got a voting system, so therefore the people in the West are responsible for their leaders’ actions,” one member of al Qaeda in Iraq explained to me during an interview after the 2004 Madrid bombings.
On September 30, 2011, drone attacks killed two U.S. citizens, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan. Awlaki had been on the most wanted list, intelligence services in the West and Middle East told me, because he spoke English and was believed to play a big role in recruiting in Western countries. Samir Khan had been publisher of English-language jihadist online magazine “Inspire”, where he published the speeches of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures in English. Law enforcement believe the Boston bombers were inspired by Awlaki’s speeches, which are still available online, and found instructions on how to build the bombs in Khan’s “Inspire” magazine.
Some jihadists saw these attacks as proof of America’s war against Islam. “See, they just killed [Awlaki] and Samir, even though they had U.S. passports. Didn’t they say they got a justice system and that anyone is not guilty until proven otherwise?” Abu Khalid asked me in London. Khalid was born in Britain of Pakistani parents and had been one of Awlaki’s students during the time he was in Britain giving lectures.
Some members of the Muslim community in Charlotte, N.C., where Khan lived, realized he espoused radical ideas and spoke to his parents, who tried to talk their son out of his ideology. But he wouldn’t listen. Because they feared law enforcement would link Khan’s ideas to the mosque, though, others in Charlotte preferred not to interact with him at all. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Samir Khan left the U.S. for Yemen in 2009.
Leaders of Muslim organizations and Muslim parents in the U.S. and Europe told me that one of their biggest dilemmas is what to do when they suspect someone of having radical ideas. “You cannot convict someone for having these thoughts, like in the case of Samir Khan, but if we interact too much with them, we might get accused as a mosque of promoting it,” one of religious Muslim leader in New York told me. On the other hand, if they push the person out of the community, he could simply turn toward radical preachers online.
What has to change so that Muslim communities feel freer to engage these men, countering their radical views, without fearing that the community itself will be labeled as supporting terrorism? If community leaders work officially with law enforcement, radicalized men will not reach out to them. Some Muslim leaders also fear some with provocative or radical ideas could also actually be law enforcement informants or agents.
The events in Boston, I believe, prove the importance of having Muslim journalists working on stories about Muslim communities and radicalization. We are able to access groups and societies that are closed to others. We are able to raise awareness about radicalized youth in the U.S. All the radicalized people who grew up in the West and whom I interviewed believed the West is fighting a “war against Islam.” The best way to prove them wrong is to include more Muslim voices and faces in the media.
Souad Mekhennet, the 2013 Barry Bingham Jr. Nieman Fellow, is studying how the uprisings in Arab countries in 2011 have influenced the long-term strategies of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and how Shariah (Islamic law) deals with human rights, women and democracy.