Foreign Policy Blogs

Homegrown Jihadis, Terror, and Modernity

The banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

The banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

On Nov. 15, ISIS beheaded a fifth western captive, aid worker Peter Kassig, who may have fought his killers and disrupted their filming of the event. The inevitable video features a familiar British-accented voice, of an ISIS member British media refer to as “Jihadi John.”

The presence of British, Americans, and other Western citizens in ISIS’ ranks continues to jar us. Also jarring are the lone-wolf jihadist attacks within Western countries, such as the Oct. 22 shooting spree that killed a guard at a Canadian war memorial.   Clearly there are commonalities among all these incidents.

A mother of one Western jihadist, who has searched for the reasons behind her son’s turn, reports her finding: “It’s the same story, over and over again…young guys looking for connection.” Marc Sageman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute reinforces the point that identity does more than ideology to turn young men, of all ethnicities, to violence.  They, like many of us, self-categorize into various group identities; these people choose groups with a dynamic that feeds on a sense of grievance, dehumanizing persons deemed to be the enemy. Violence becomes an almost inevitable, mandatory, course.

The advent of the internet offers new channels for disconnected persons to find a community, even if only in their own minds. Even in cold online contact, language and imagery that hits the right nerves can create a convert, and ISIS and other jihadists use the net as a recruiting tool.

This effect is not limited to radical Islamists. The Newtown, CT school shooter claimed he sought to surpass Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. Adam Lanza was another alienated young man, who used violent means in an attempt to furnish himself with some identity.

It is difficult to make one’s way in modern liberal societies. Historically, morals and ethics have been instilled through traditional mores — often attached to strict rules and creedal myth. Yet the liberal doctrine of limited governing authority attenuates the psychic force of the rules. Liberalism prescribes no specific articles of faith, but seeks to reserve space for individuals to choose their own.

This mindset has sparked social development, lifted oppression, and opened personal horizons. It also puts a burden on every free person to make their own choices guided only by one’s own wits and character. We have yet to gain deep facility with its freedoms. With greater leeway to question the rules and decide for ourselves, many treat this freedom as license. The lack of restraint leads to many ills of western societies, from political intransigence to financial indiscipline to rising social dysfunctions.

The dysfunctions are well cataloged. “Asian values” proponents, Chinese leaders touting the benefits of social discipline, and even Russian president Vladimir Putin, decry western rapaciousness and claim there can be “too much” freedom. Islamist jihadists, of course, denounce the West, with a virulence that appeals to the rebellious impulses of young people, while voicing guiding tenets that they may crave.

Westerners probably do not give themselves enough credit for the overwhelming success with which most people navigate the modern world. We see a proliferation of odd associations and ideas, but some are truly creative. Even those who adhere to the most prescriptive of creeds make a choice if only in shunning the alternatives. Most wrestle on an ongoing basis with questions of right and wrong, of existence and meaning, and carve out satisfactory lives.

For some, the burden is too much. They need a ready-made identity, and the menu includes associations of hate and violence. The cure homegrown jihadism, lone-wolf terrorism, or random mass shootings is not to limit the menu or repress freedom. Law enforcement is necessary, and better psychiatric treatment is needed for the weakest. But the long term answer is to inspire better choices, celebrating good uses of freedom, and promoting norms of positive aspiration.

As a starting point, we might consider the story of Peter Kassig. An ex-soldier, he certainly chose work that involves violence. He also became an aid worker, with a goal of helping others. The progression of his identity-building project, in the most perplexing part of a confusing world, shows the virtues of freedom and sets an example for free people to follow.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.