The president has described the Boston terrorists as “self-radicalized,” and his voice is but one in a great chorus insisting that we face a major threat from Americans gone bad, almost entirely on their own, and certainly without any input from foreign countries or terrorist groups. Some of these voices can be heard in a front-page “analysis” by Scott Shane in the May 6 New York Times, whose title says most all of it: “A Homemade Style of Terror.”
The Boston bombers, Shane tells us, weren’t radicalized or trained in some al Qaeda camp; it happened online. They didn’t smuggle bombs into the country; the components were commonplace, and their purchase didn’t make anyone suspicious. As for ideology, Shane quotes experts dismissing its importance. One, according to the Times, says “the brothers might have as much in common with self-radicalized terrorists of completely different ideologies—say, white supremacism or antigovernment extremism—as with the committed Qaeda operatives.” Another insists that “the key point was not that [Tamarlan Tsarnaev]had embraced radical Islam but that he planned to travel to Russia to join underground groups.”
There is a substantial cottage industry manufacturing experts on self-made terrorists, and it’s puzzling that its practitioners are rarely asked to justify the theory, since it’s logically incoherent and factually unsubstantiated. How, exactly, does a person radicalize himself? Is it, as the language suggests, the result of communing deeply and passionately with his navel? No doubt that has happened. The first terrorist wasn’t recruited; he was truly self-radicalized, as the Unabomber was. But it’s hard to find such cases in contemporary America, where terrorists, as they proudly and aggressively tell us, are members of a group, whether it be jihadist or something else. Indeed, even if we accept the (invariably dubious) claim that the only contact with the terror network consisted of listening to incendiary language and studying bombing instructions on the Internet, the very claim undermines the self-radicalization meme. Doesn’t the Internet create communities?
The New York Times can’t come up with a single convincing example of self-radicalization. Four photos labeled homegrown terrorism appear above the text: Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City), Major Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood), Faisal Shahzad (Times Square), and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. None qualifies as self-radicalized. McVeigh was recruited by the Klan and joined other nativist groups. He was recruited by Terry Nichols (now in prison for life), who frequented a college campus in the Philippines well known for Islamic radicalism. Major Hasan was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical imam who befriended two of the 9/11 killers and other terrorists, and was subsequently killed by an American drone in Yemen, where he had lived for 11 years as a teenager and whence his parents had come to New Mexico. Shahzad was a Pakistani who lived there for almost 20 years, went back and forth numerous times, and confessed to having been trained in an al Qaeda camp in his native land. Tsarnaev was apparently recruited by his older brother, who in turn had contacts with radical Islamists in Russia, as the Russians informed both the FBI and the CIA.
So why has self-radicalization become conventional wisdom? Its main feature is the dismissal of ideology, whether religious or political. The terrorists are all tossed in the “extremism” bag, and we don’t have to bother parsing specific doctrines to understand or combat them. This is very handy for the multiculturalists. If all cultures have equal standing, and all people are basically the same, then it’s either stupidity or bigotry to insist on listening to what they say about themselves.
The other big reason for the proliferation of the doctrine of self-radicalization is that it firmly blocks any effort to single out the followers of any given ideology, and thus rejects the very idea of a war against terrorism. Defense of the homeland becomes a quest to identify alienated loners whose ideas have nothing to do with terrorism, especially radical Islamic terrorism. As Shane’s expert says, they can latch onto most any doctrine, from white supremacism to bin Ladenism, once they’ve radicalized themselves. Who cares what they say about themselves?
But the ideas often matter a lot. The ideas, in fact, give meaning to the terrorists’ lives. Read Bernard-Henri Lévy’s biography of the man who organized the kidnapping and beheading of Daniel Pearl, for example. Omar Sheik was a well-educated Briton with Pakistani roots who came from a good family, went to good schools, and was moving steadily up the ladder. One day he went into a radical mosque, and became a convert to the ideology of jihadism. His life acquired greater meaning, and killing a Jew fulfilled him.
Omar Sheik didn’t radicalize himself, any more than McVeigh, the Tsarnaev brothers, Major Nidal, and Faisal Shahzad. They were all recruited, and all were converts. To deny that, as the president and so many self-declared experts maintain, obscures the motives of terrorists and thereby adds significantly to our peril.
Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author, most recently, of Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles.