How can we counter educated, eloquent, well-connected Islamists?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 12 2010 10:04 AM

Meet the New International Jihadist Elite

How can we counter educated, eloquent, well-connected Islamists?

Defne Bayrak. Click image to expand.
Defne Bayrak

Somehow he conned the Jordanian secret service into thinking he was its agent. Then he conned the CIA into thinking he was its agent, too. After that, he conned both the Jordanians and the Americans—his "enemies,"he told Al Jazeera —into believing he could track down leaders of al-Qaida. Nevertheless, by far the most intriguing thing about Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi—the suicide bomber who killed eight people at a CIA base in Afghanistan two weeks ago—is his wife, Defne Bayrak.

"My husband was anti-American; so am I." That was what Bayrak told the editors of Newsweek's Turkish edition last week. Bayrak is a 31-year-old Turkish journalist and Turkish-Arabic translator who says she met her late husband in an Internet chat room. Her publications include articles for Islamist periodicals as well as a book called Bin Laden: Che Guevara of the East. Unlike others in her family, she wears a black chador, which in Turkey is not merely religious clothing but a political symbol. She is no shrinking wallflower. "I am proud of my husband. He carried out a great operation in this war. I hope Allah will accept his martyrdom, if he has become a martyr," she told reporters in Istanbul.

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Bayrak is a shining example of what might be called the international jihadist elite: She is educated, eloquent, with connections across the Islamic world—Istanbul, Turkey; Amman, Jordan; Peshawar, Pakistan—yet not exactly part of the global economy, either. She shares these traits not only with her husband—a medical doctor and the son of middle-class, English-speaking Jordanians—but also with others featured recently in the news. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family, studied at University College London, and then tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day. Or Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (Sheik Omar), who was born in Britain, studied at elite high schools in Pakistan and Britain, dropped out of the London School of Economics, and then murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Or even Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who was born in Arlington, Va.; graduated from Virginia Tech; and did his psychiatric residency at Walter Reed before killing 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood.

These people are not the wretched of the earth. Nor do they have much in common, sociologically speaking, with the illiterate warlords of Waziristan. They haven't emerged from repressive Islamic societies, such as Iran, or been forced to live under extreme forms of sharia law, as in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, they are children of ambitious, "Westernized" parents who sacrificed for their education, though they are also often people who, for one reason or another, didn't "make it" or didn't feel comfortable in their respective societies. Perhaps it sounds strange, but they remind me of the early Bolsheviks, who were also educated, multinational, and ambitious and who also often lacked the social cachet to be successful. Lenin's family, for example, clung desperately to its status on the lowest rung of the czarist aristocracy.

Bayrak draws a similar kind of comparison by linking the names of jihadist guerrilla Osama Bin Laden and Communist guerrilla Che Guevara. Alas, I haven't read her book, but I can see what she means: Both Osama and Che claimed to fight in the name of the poor and oppressed, meanwhile appealing very deeply to the wealthy and disgruntled.

In recent years, the emergence of this international jihadist elite has often been blamed on European immigration and assimilation policies, or rather the lack of them. Several of the 9/11 bombers were radicalized in Hamburg, Germany; the London Tube bombers were born in Britain; and there are other European examples. But the case of Bayrak, who was educated in a secular Muslim society—and that of Hasan, who is American—suggests that this elite has a much broader base, and radical Islam potentially a much wider appeal.

The case of Bayrak and her ilk also suggests the need for another kind of anti-terrorist strategy. Too often, we think of public diplomacy as a sort of public relations activity, the "promotion" of American values. Instead, we should be thinking about it as an argument. The Bayraks and Balawis of this world are engaged in constant debates—in Internet chat rooms, in the halls of publishing houses, in mosques. Are they hearing enough counterarguments? Are we helping the people who make the counterarguments? I suspect that they don't, and I'm certain that we aren't—and that has to change. Intellectuals may wear glasses and read books, but neither attribute prevents them from throwing bombs—or from strapping them inside their underwear if need be.

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