News / archive

Analysis: Alienation Draws Some Vulnerable Immigrants to Jihad

Masked militants from Islamic Jihad are seen during a training exercise, (File photo).
Masked militants from Islamic Jihad are seen during a training exercise, (File photo).
Reuters
In the United States, two Chechen immigrants are accused of the Boston Marathon bombings. In Canada, a doctoral student at a Montreal university is one of two non-citizens accused this week of plotting to derail a passenger train.
 
The headlines in North America in the past week echo an issue that authorities have been grappling with for more than a decade: why do a tiny minority of men in immigrant communities in the West appear to be drawn to Islamist violence.
 
In many cases, the motives need to be sought as much in psychology or sociology as in politics or religion, said Raffaello Pantucci, a counter-terrorism specialist at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) security think tank.
 
"It's a complicated mix of reasons, usually as much personal as they are transnational or global," he said.
 
Young men could become vulnerable if they felt they were not advancing in society, or wanted to do something for their community and found a misguided means of doing so.
 
"The broad conclusions are that they tend to be under a certain age [40s] and are Muslim males, though none of these are hard and fast rules - we have seen women involved and very recent converts. There is usually some kind of outside contact that pushes them along in the process," Pantucci said.
 
Some may have come into contact with radical Islamists on trips abroad, a possibility investigators are exploring in the case of the elder of the two Chechen brothers - 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a firefight with police.
 
Some fit the description given to his younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, well-liked and hard for those who knew him to imagine turning to violence.
 
Take Omar Sheikh, for example, one of the earlier British men drawn into global jihad. As a schoolboy in north London, he loved to arm-wrestle in smoky pubs - drinking only milk - or play chess with friends. The son of a clothes' merchant who had spent part of his school years in Pakistan, he was obsessed with academic success and dreamed of going to Harvard.
 
"Omar was very likeable in lots of ways. When he was younger, he had this very roguish charm and was full of adventure," said Daniel Flynn who was in his class at school.
 
"He wouldn't often fight but when he did, he would fight to stick up for other people. If any of the younger boys were being bullied, he would stand up for them," said Flynn, now a Reuters journalist.
 
Many years later, Omar Sheikh, now in jail in Pakistan, became infamous after he was convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002.
 
Then there was 23-year-old French-Algerian Mohammed Merah, who shot dead seven people in France last year before being killed by police. He came from a broken home in the poor suburbs and a background of petty crime, and preferred to visit nightclubs than going to the mosque.
 
He was initially described as a "lone wolf," but French police later said he had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had been interviewed by intelligence officials after a 2010 complaint for showing a young boy a video of beheadings.
 
"We don't have the capability to watch all of them," France's top anti-terrorist judge Marc Trevidic told Reuters earlier this year. "We accept that there are 4,000 deaths on the road every year, that there are serial killers... It's really the only form of criminality where 100 percent success, 100 percent prevention, is demanded."
 
More recently, three men from the English city of Birmingham were convicted in February of plotting attacks which prosecutors said would have been the biggest since the July 7, 2007 London transport bombings which killed 52 people.
 
Young British Pakistanis, they had been influenced by the American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a U.S. drone attack in Yemen in 2011, and by the magazine he created, Inspire. The men were recorded discussing some of the plots mentioned in the magazine, including the idea of driving a harvester machine re-fitted with swords or blades into a crowd.
 
Like some of the London transport bombers, they had travelled to Pakistan for training. But unlike the four suicide bombers in London, they had little support once they returned home - al-Qaeda, according to Western intelligence officials, has lost its capacity to provide direction from a distance.
 
And then there are those who seem to have no direction at all, like 25-year-old ethnic Chechen Lors Doukaev, a Belgian citizen, who accidentally blew himself up in a toilet in Copenhagen while preparing a bomb. He was convicted by a Danish court in 2011 of plotting an attack on the daily Jyllands-Posten whose caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed sparked violent protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006.
 
From ethnic conflict to gobal jihad
 
U.S. and European security agencies have been worrying for years about their citizens from immigrant communities travelling overseas, possibly coming into contact with frontline militant Islamist groups in their ancestral homelands.
 
Some from the large British Pakistani community were drawn initially to Pakistan-based groups focused on the Kashmir dispute with India, before crossing over into the orbit of al Qaeda with its more global anti-western ideology. To those studying it, the route became known as "the Kashmir escalator."
 
A flagship U.K. program to counter radicalisation failed to achieve its objectives, so much so that in 2010 British lawmakers said the policy had alienated those it was supposed to be winning over.
 
The Tsarnaev brothers would have been brought up in the shadow of the two wars their Chechen people fought against Russia in the 1990s, and were exposed to the spread of hard-line Islam in southern Russia since then.
 
"Early indications suggest a young member of a diaspora, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, disaffected, unable to fit in and unhappy with his life, who sought comfort and an explanation for his perceived troubles in an extreme and extremely over-simplistic ideology," said Stephen Tankel, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in the South Asia Program and author of a book on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.
 
"That ideology explained not only his unhappiness and perceived failures here in America in a way that gave him someone else to blame, but also connected him to those suffering in what for him was a, probably mythologised, homeland as well as to a wider community. If so we've seen that before."
 
If Western countries have gained experience in disrupting plots - through intelligence cooperation and domestic surveillance and policing - they have got little better at challenging the narrative which leads young men into jihad.
 
Big, complicated attacks may be more difficult for militant groups to organise, but al-Qaeda is encouraging like-minded people to conceive their own smaller-scale plots.
 
"There is no doubt the big sophisticated 9/11 type plot, 7/7 type plots, are much harder to organise," Stuart Osborne, Britain's Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, said last month. But he added that, "it would be fair to say that some of the al Qaeda leadership have sort of said: 'That's good if you can do it, but if not, any attack, whatever you can, at whatever size is useful.'"
 
A new generation is growing up, disconnected at home by urbanisation and in the diaspora by immigration, from its familial, ethnic, tribal or linguistic identity, but unable to identify with a westernised, irreligious elite, said Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani columnist for Dawn newspaper who has studied in the United States and lives in London.
 
"This generation has conservative values, and a deep experience of inequality and lack of identity that has not found political expression except through the narratives of extremist groups," she said.
 
"Instead of seeing the emergence of a new urban, middle-class political movement that simultaneously acknowledges 'Islamic values' and embraces modernity, globalization, and emphasizes middle-class aspirations, we're seeing new political actors echo the 'clash of civilizations’ narratives and isolationist posturing of extremist groups."
 
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may also have accelerated an already existing problem, said Pantucci.
 
"The post-9/11 wars maybe made it easier to persuade people that the narrative really was not only that the West didn't care about Muslims, but was actively going around the world trying to kill them."
 
That assessment was borne out talking to activists in city of Birmingham. While they believed al-Qaeda was no longer relevant after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, and stressed they themselves had no interest in violence, they also saw a need to stand up to a decadent and corrupt West.
 
"Al-Qaeda has been destroyed," said one young man, talking in a café in the inner-city suburb of Alum Rock. "This is not an Islamic struggle," he said. "It is a global struggle against corruption, imperialism and Zionism."

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs