The Magazine

Holy War in Europe

From the March 29, 2004 issue: Is al Qaeda a Eurocentric organization?

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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ON AUGUST 26, 1995, a militant Islamic group led by a 24-year-old French Muslim named Khaled Kelkal attempted to blow one of France's high-speed trains off its rails. Luckily, the bomb's detonator, which used an ordinary 12-volt battery, failed. Later that fall, other bombs would go off in France: two in double-decked commuter rail cars in Paris, one in a trash can along the very bourgeois Avenue de Friedland, another in a Parisian open-air market, and one more in a provincial Jewish school. In all there were nine attacks in three months, which killed 10 people and wounded 114.

The bombings in 1995 provoked a widespread awareness for the first time in France that the country had a radical-Muslim problem, which was increasingly homegrown and not imported. Kelkal moved to France from Algeria when he was one month old; not known for being religious in his troubled youth, he became an Islamic militant in a French jail, as have hundreds of highly Westernized French Muslims. Many more thoroughly secularized French Muslims, who did not have crime-filled youths, have become Islamic radicals, culturally at war with the society that made them. Zacarias Moussaoui, the "twentieth hijacker" of 9/11, is the most notorious example of an areligious Frenchman who became intoxicated with the holy-war ideology preached in many radical mosques throughout Western Europe.

This phenomenon of highly Westernized Muslims and converted Christians becoming radicalized believers has happened throughout Western Europe. Relatively few Turks have joined radical Islamic organizations allied with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, even though Turkish fundamentalists are numerous and often hardcore. At home and abroad, they are perhaps more numerous and better organized than are fundamentalists of any other nationality. But the Turks who have been arrested for association with al Qaeda usually share one bond: They were either born or raised in Germany and are culturally more German than they are Turkish Muslim. These young men are part of what the Iranian-French scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar has called the néo-umma guerrière--"the new holy-war community of believers" that recognizes neither national nor ethnic identity nor traditional Islamic values. Their Islam is "a new type of Nietzscheanism" where suicide and murder become sacred acts of an elite, self-made race of believers who want to bring on a purifying Apocalypse.

A small cadre of European scholars, mirrored by a small group of European internal-security and intelligence officials, have followed the growth of Islamic radicalism in Europe for nearly 20 years. They know, even if European politicians do not, that Europe's most fearsome Muslim true believers are not products of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, or the First Gulf War, or the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia after 1990, or the Algerian civil war, or the Bosnian war, or the strife in Chechnya, or the Hindu pillaging of mosques, or the war in Afghanistan, or the second American war against Saddam Hussein, or the globalization of American culture. These events are banners that men who are already converted to jihad wave as they march to give battle. The holy warriors in Europe do not want to see peace in Palestine any more than Hamas's spiritual chief Ahmad Yassin or Osama bin Laden or Iran's clerical guide Ali Khamenei wants to see Israelis and Palestinians solve their problems in two separate, peacefully coexisting states. They do not care about Israeli settlements.

Europe's jihadists are born from their imperfect assimilation into Western European societies, from the particular alienation that young Muslim males experience in Europe's post-Christian, devoutly secular societies. The phenomenon is vastly more common among Arabs than among African or Asian Muslims. The reasons why these young, predominantly Arab males are drawn to the most militant expressions of Islam are complex and always personal. But their journey--which they usually begin as highly Westernized, modern-educated youths of little Islamic faith and end as practitioners of bin Ladenism--is a thoroughly European experience.