Whenever I think of war, I think of this: It was 1982 or ‘83, I was in Northern Ireland, and a local reporter was showing me around Derry, then a center of the Protestant-Catholic conflict. The neighborhood we were in was beat up, poor, with Irish Republican Army graffiti on tired walls. There were some scraggly kids on the street.
Suddenly an armored British army vehicle slowly rounded the corner, and the street came alive with kids pouring out of houses, grabbing the heavy metal lids of garbage bins, and smashing them against the pavement. They made quite a racket.
A woman came out. She was 35 or 40, her short hair standing up, uncombed. It was late afternoon, but she was in an old robe, and you could tell it was the robe she lived in. She stood there and smirked as the soldiers went by. She’d come out to register her dislike for the Brits, and to show the children she approved of their protest.
As I watched this nothing sort of scene, I thought: That’s where it comes from. That’s what keeps it alive.
I knew what kind of person she was. She was lost, neglectful; she was what would come to be called dysfunctional, and whichever of the kids were hers you could tell she wasn’t giving them order or safety, not often.
But here at this moment she was being responsive to something—the presence of the enemy. And she was showing an emotion: hatred.
And I thought: Those kids banging the lids on the pavement, they are going to wind up like her, and for some utterly human reasons. To get her notice and approval. To ally themselves with her grievances—if they can’t have access to any other part of her, at least they can have her resentment. To be part of her world, of any world.
They would grow up and assign their misery to outside forces. The boy humiliated because he’s never sent to school with a clean shirt will turn that into “Britain Get Out of Ireland.”
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I know I’m being broad here. But we often think it is large and abstract forces that drive history, when it is personal forces, too. The headlines on today’s paper, whatever they are—stock market decline, bomb blast—are in their essence personal stories. Somebody bought, somebody sold, somebody made the fuse. People make history.
I remembered the woman in Northern Ireland this week while reading the New York City Police Department’s report “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” It is an interesting piece of work. (You can find the 90-page report here.)
We associate terrorism with a threat from overseas, but since 9/11, terror plots have tended to be planned by homegrown terrorists. These young men have tended to be “unremarkable” local residents who came to look to a radical form of Islam for inspiration and meaning. Terror acts are preceded by a radicalization process in which young men are recruited to jihad.
The report traces the creation and development of terror cells throughout the West—in America, Western Europe and Australia. Young recruits are often middle class, and their interest is often sparked by an immediate or protracted crisis—the loss of a job, a change in family circumstances. They do not necessarily come from anything particular lacking in the family, but they have nothing to hold onto until this absolute thing, this fundamentalist belief, and its grievances, comes by. Their rage is tended and encouraged by spiritual and operational leaders who offer a sense of community, of belonging and of approval.
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The report suggests an evolution in thinking. “We’re very good at capturing these guys after a terror incident,” John McLaughlin, former deputy CIA director, told me, “but in the past we haven’t spent as much time at the front end—how do they get to be terrorists.” He said terrorists “are changing their profile. . . . Al Qaeda knows what we’re looking for. They’re not dumb.” The terrorists of our future will likely be more credentialed, and here legally; they will be “integrated into American life.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told me, “I want a better understanding on the part of all law enforcement as to how radicalism takes place. This report connects the dots.” It is also meant to heighten awareness. If the terror of the future is homegrown, local eyes will see it first. Cofer Black, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told me that an important message of the report is similar to the signs on New York subways and in train stations: “If you see something, say something.”
Mr. Black repeated one of the report’s main warnings: about the increased use of the Internet in the radicalization of young men. Everyone knows about these sites, but recruitment videos have become “more extreme,” and their number has proliferated in only the past few years. More and more they feature “Hollywood techniques—music, heroic images—to basically seize the imagination of isolated youths.”
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All who follow American antiterrorism efforts closely wind up looking to what they call “the New York model.” The city consistently seems more advanced than the feds in this area. There are reasons New York is so good. They’ve already had a catastrophe, which sharpens the mind. They know they’re still and always a target. New York has a lot of money, a lot of cops, a lot of capability, and a citizenry with a heightened awareness. Because the city has a low crime rate, it can shift resources.
Part of the reason for New York’s effectiveness has also been solid leadership in the form of a popular mayor, Mike Bloomberg, and his police commissioner, Mr. Kelly. Mr. Black calls Mr. Kelly “hard charging and no-nonsense.”
So that’s the latest report on young men and how they become drawn to terrorism. It’s also the latest on what terror networks are up to, and how they’re planning to move. The only thing I’d add is that all modern young people come from two environments. The first is the immediate family, which is human and therefore by definition imperfect, sometimes to a serious and destructive degree. The other is the broader culture in which we all live, and which includes everything from schools to the neighborhood to the media. It’s not a new thing to say but it’s still true that the latter, which is more powerful than ever, is wholly devoted to the material. People are money winners or luxury item enjoyers. They just want stuff. It is soulless.
The view we show of life to ourselves, and to whatever lost young men are watching, is not broad and inspiriting. It is limited and dispiriting. It is every man for himself.
We make it too easy for those who want to hate us to hate us. We make ourselves look bad in our media, which helps future jihadists think that they must, by hating us, be good. They hit their figurative garbage bin lids on the ground, and smirk, and promise to make a racket, and then more than a racket, a boom.