Posted: 6/14/2002 11:31:16 PM EDT
June 14 2002
Hoodlums Have Always Made Good Jihadis
By MARK ALMOND
At first sight nothing could seem further apart than the mentality of a suicide bomber ready to sacrifice his own life for "the cause" and that of the small-time hoodlum who uses violence for self-gain. The widespread view is that however cruel their murders and other crimes, suicide bombers of the al Qaeda and Palestinian ilk are not mere criminals.
But it is time to think again about this glib distinction between wicked but principled terrorists and petty but non-ideological criminals. Take the careers of Jose Padilla, arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport last month allegedly preparing to scout Washington D.C. for sites where he could explode a radioactive "dirty bomb"; and of the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, whose attempt on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami just before Christmas was foiled by passengers and crew.
If the charges against them are true, then the ease with which Jose Padilla could metamorphose into the jihadist "Abu Mujahir" or Richard Reid into the would be martyr-killer "Abdul Rahim" should give us pause for thought. Both were petty criminals who had had run-ins with the law since their early teens. The life of the French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, detained in the U.S. on charges of criminal conspiracy, follows the same pattern.
But suicidal terrorism is not quite the new phenomenon that it is sometimes thought to be today because of the unparalleled scale of the attacks on New York and Washington and the relentless wave of attacks in Israel. Nor are the links between ideological fanatics and habitual criminals without historical precedent. The current techniques -- crashing hijacked planes or exploding body-belt bombs -- are new, but the mentality isn't. Welcoming death for the cause has extended well beyond Islamic groups in the past. But so too has welcoming criminals into the ranks of the revolutionary cause.
Osama bin Laden's call for a global Islamic revolution against America and allies like Israel, as well as Muslim "puppet" regimes like the one in his native Saudi Arabia, may use religious rhetoric. But much of the resentment he appeals to is psychosocial. He may come from a privileged background, but his appeal is to the frustrated and the resentful. His thoroughgoing rejection of Western values jibes easily with those who have clashed with Western society's rules already, whether from outside or within.
A prison-doctor friend tells me that conversion to Islam is a fashion in Britain's prisons, as it seems to have become in America's too. Some of these convicts do indeed experience a religious revelation and adopt the Prophet's teaching out of a born-again desire to go straight along Islam's strict path. Sadly, too many others adopt an Islamic name and dress as a way of expressing their rejection of society. No doubt to the horror of many imams, Islam in the minds of criminals equals a denial of the legitimacy of the society that found them guilty and locked them up.
The rhetoric of extreme Islam has become the dystopian ideology of our age. A century ago it was a potent mixture of Marxist and Nietzschean denunciation of bourgeois hypocrisy. It fed the selfrighteousness of a criminal subculture that came to see revolution as justifying theft and worse, much worse, because the victim was the beneficiary of an unjust society and the criminal its true victim.
The Russian revolutionaries of the late 19th century who turned to violence to overthrow the czarist regime did too -- for all their liberationist rhetoric -- frequently welcome criminals into the ranks. The hoodlums of the day often possessed technical skills useful to illegal organizations, such as the ability to forge money or documents, or had the know-how to break into safes to get cash to fund the cause. But criminals also appealed to many intellectual Russian revolutionaries because their whole way of life was a rejection of what was to them a rotten society. Equally, the wholesale negation of the social order by so many in the Russian revolutionary movements rang to the criminals as a justification for their lives in conflict with the law for many criminals.
One Russian Social Revolutionary argued that "hardened burglars" were more use "on the barricades" than Marxist theoreticians. But the symbiotic relation was strong on other levels. Ideologues who denounce the legitimacy of society -- whether from an Islamic or a Marxist perspective -- bring sweet music to the ears of criminals. If property is theft, there is no crime in stealing.
All of this was understood at the time. The Liberal Peter Struve already was lamenting in 1907 the "blending of revolutionary and bandit." Two literary masters especially excelled at understanding the overlap between grand ideology and petty larceny than most sociologists and psychologists: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad. They both understood that the rhetoric of resentment knows no bounds and has no standards for its adepts except their bitterness and hate.
Just like today with jihadis, some historians have viewed the criminal element that joined up with the Russian Social Revolutionaries and Lenin's Bolsheviks as romantic Robin Hood figures, but their methods were murderous and their legacy sinister. Lenin himself may have never thrown a bomb or wielded a gun, but it is not by chance that Stalin endeared himself to Lenin largely because of his skill at organizing what communists politely called "expropriations."
In just one more example, Stalin recruited from the Georgian underworld men like the Armenian career criminal Kamo, who carried out czarist Russia's biggest-ever heist in Tbilisi in 1907. He was later arrested in Berlin with a suitcase full of dynamite en route to an unknown crime or revolutionary outrage. German psychologists diagnosed an mentally unbalanced potentially suicidal personality in Kamo. Nor was he alone among the ranks of Marxist revolutionaries.
Of course, petty criminals may turn into terrorists, but at heart they have their basic flaws. Lenin loved Roman Malinovsky, who had served three terms in prison for burglary before he turned to Bolshevism, but he was also a police informer. Malinovsky's asocial contempt for codes of honor extended to his new political affiliation. The FBI must hope that modern Islamist cons are just as fickle.
For all their professed revolutionary idealism, many Russian terrorists a century ago stoked up their commitment with heavy drinking and drug use. Mohamed Atta may have indulged in rather un-Islamic strip clubs and pornography before Sept. 11 simply to throw the police off any scent they had. But it is equally possible that like earlier generations of terrorists he felt above the petty moral constraints and taboos his ideology imposed on others. Petty criminals and terrorists both feel they are supermen beyond ordinary laws and obligations.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the contemporary alliance between fanaticism and petty criminality offers on a global scale much of the challenge faced by czarist authorities in Russia a hundred years ago. However, the West has obvious advantages. For all that Islamic extremists seek to draw on the well of psycho-criminal resentments existing in our societies, the depth of our democracies' political legitimacy is vastly greater than Nicholas II's regime. Terrorists are fish out of water in the West. The criminal underworld may offer them a few recruits and some cover, but they cannot come up for air into ordinary society, which reviles them, their terrible deeds and sinister ideology. Our modern misfits can mouth rhetoric and kill for it, but they are unlikely to convert society.
[b][i]Mr. Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford. His book, "Uprising," is published by Mitchell Beazley (London).[/i][/b]
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Updated June 14, 2002
Just a quick BTT. What can I say, I'm an attention whore. Or maybe a [moon][:O)]