Mr. Bean to Jihadi John
Western governments are sounding alarm bells about foreign fighters joining the Islamic State. But experts say that these would-be radicals are more often bumbling losers than bin Laden.
Throughout director Chris Morris's 2010 black comedy Four Lions, the would-be British jihadists who are the focus of the film engage in a running debate over what, exactly, they should bomb.
Throughout director Chris Morris’s 2010 black comedy Four Lions, the would-be British jihadists who are the focus of the film engage in a running debate over what, exactly, they should bomb.
Barry, a British convert to Islam, wants to bomb a mosque "to radicalize the moderates." Waj, perhaps the most dimwitted of the bunch, wants to blow up the Internet. Faisal, meanwhile, concocts a plan to train crows strapped with explosives to fly into "one of them towers full of Jews and slags."
Faisal does not live to see his plot come to fruition. He trips while running across a field, accidentally detonating the explosives he’s carrying. Barry, undeterred, proclaims him a martyr. "He disrupted the infrastructure," he explains to the group’s forever-exasperated leader, Omar. "He took out a sheep, magnificently took it right out.… Attacked the food supply."
If you haven’t seen Four Lions, think Monty Python and the hapless cockney criminals of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels planning London’s 7/7 terrorist attacks.
The film fell flat when released in the United States — grossing a scant $300,000 in ticket sales — but has since achieved a cult status among U.S. counterintelligence analysts. Today’s image of the homegrown extremist might be "Jihadi John" — the black-clad apparent executioner of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff who waved a knife while threatening the United States in a London accent. But for many U.S. and European officials grappling with this threat, the film’s portrayal of homegrown jihadists as bumbling operators with little knowledge of Islam rings closer to the truth.
"These are guys who haven’t had much in the way of any training," said Andrew Liepman, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. who previously served as the principal deputy director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and the deputy chief of the CIA’s Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis. "They have this stylized, romanticized vision of what jihad is.… The sad fact of the matter is that a lot of them won’t come home, simply because they’ll die."
Liepman thinks the threat of American homegrown jihadists is considerably lower than that faced by Britain, as the United States lacks the "cesspools" of radicalization that exist in London or Manchester. Of course, he says, there are examples of intelligent and deadly American jihadists: David Headley, for example, played a key role in planning the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the propaganda produced by now-deceased Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan has helped radicalize a whole generation of Western extremists. But for Liepman, the average homegrown jihadist is more akin to Colleen LaRose, known as "Jihad Jane," who converted to Islam after picking up a Muslim man in a bar and who subsequently tried to recruit an international terrorist cell; or Mohamed Mohamud, who tried to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, with fake explosives provided by the FBI.
Four Lions was the product of intense research by Morris and associate producer Faisal Qureshi into this particularly incompetent brand of jihad. According to Qureshi, their research extended over three years: Some of the books Morris relied on were Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks, and Yosri Fouda and Nick Fielding’s Masterminds of Terror. Morris also met with terrorist suspects detained under Britain’s Prevention of Terrorism Act and attended the court hearings associated with Operation Crevice, a British police raid that broke up a terrorist cell attempting to make giant bombs from fertilizer.
"What Chris found while attending that trial was how many of these little comedic moments were going on during the case," said Qureshi. "Some of the guys went off to Afghanistan to get trained up, but then when they came back, they forgot how to make the fertilizer bombs. So they called up their uncle, and they were going, ‘Listen, can you tell us what the recipe is again?’ He hung up on them."
Morris and Qureshi’s research into jihadi mishaps continually finds its way into the movie.
In Terry McDermott’s book Perfect Soldiers, which reconstructs the lives of the 9/11 attackers, he describes the lives of the young men who would become known as the "Hamburg Cell," led by Mohamed Atta. McDermott describes one scene in which Atta’s friends burst out laughing when they hear him loudly relieving himself. "When [Atta] emerged, he blamed the Jews for having built the bathroom’s too-thin door," McDermott wrote.
In Four Lions, the would-be jihadists’ plans to launch an attack are temporarily waylaid when the ratty car in which they are transporting the explosives breaks down in broad daylight. "It’s the parts; they’re Jewish!" an enraged Barry says. "Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic."
The fictional radicals’ motivations are a muddle: Omar occasionally recites stale rhetoric about dealing a wake-up call to Britain’s consumerist culture, Barry speaks about killing Jews and homosexuals, and the stupider members of the nascent terrorist cell are either pressured into going along or halfheartedly convinced into believing that a suicide attack is a fast track to paradise.
In real life as well, counterterrorism analysts have puzzled over what, exactly, makes homegrown jihadists tick. Liepman says that over his decades-long career, he saw multitudes of factors at work — but oftentimes, the would-be terrorists’ beliefs did not survive first contact with the battlefield.
Liepman said that he observed many foreign fighters travel to fight in Somalia — only to discover that they immediately wanted to head home. "Once you arrive, it’s hot, it’s filthy, and people are assholes," he says. "From a distance, cutting people’s heads off has this weird allure, but from close up, it’s not as pleasant. And I think the idea of jihad is a lot more attractive than the experience is itself."
There are stirrings of a similar dynamic in Syria: Dozens of disillusioned British jihadists have reportedly expressed a desire to come home. Meanwhile, many other foreign fighters continue to stream into Syria and Iraq to take up arms with the Islamic State.
Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, says that his London-based think tank classifies four types of people who go to fight in Syria: "jihadi missionaries" motivated by the stories of civilian suffering at the hands of the regime; "martyrdom chasers" who see the fight as a shortcut to heaven; thugs and gangsters who want to make up for past sins or are attracted by the masculinity of warfare; and people with deep radical associations who have a long-standing ideological interest in the fight.
These individuals might have left as hapless wannabes, Maher says, but the experience of fighting abroad can change them. "These guys are acquiring the skills; they are becoming hardened fighters and brutal individuals, desensitized to violence," he said. "So they are highly likely to pose a threat on return."
The Four Lions jihadists were "trained" on one short, abortive trip to Pakistan, where they only succeeded in firing a missile at Osama bin Laden. The actual foreign fighters who join the Islamic State today can spend months if not years on the battlefield, and they have the backing of an organization that has conquered thousands of square miles and is governed by an intricate bureaucracy. Jihadi John, in other words, might have begun like the bumbling terrorists in Four Lions, but he has become something far more deadly.
Still, Four Lions is a good reminder that these men start out as something that is more comical than nightmarish. In the end, it may have been the dimmest of the Four Lions jihadists, Waj, who put it best. "I’m sorry, lads," he says, right before detonating himself. "I don’t really know what I’m doing."
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