Do gyms breed terrorists?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 1 2006 12:20 PM

Killer Workout

Are gyms, not mosques, the main breeding ground for Islamic terrorists?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

There have been three major terror attacks in the West over the past five years—9/11, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and the 7/7 suicide attacks on the London Underground. For all the talk of a radical Islamist conspiracy to topple Western civilization, there are many differences between the men who executed these attacks. The ringleaders of 9/11 were middle-class students; the organizers of the Madrid bombings were mainly immigrants from North Africa; the 7/7 bombers were British citizens, well-liked and respected in their local communities. And interpretations of Islam also varied wildly from one terror cell to another. Mohamed Atta embraced a mystical (and pretty much made-up) version of Islam. For the Madrid attackers, Islam was a kind of comfort blanket. The men behind 7/7 were into community-based Islam, which emphasized being good and resisting a life of decadence.

The three cells appear to have had at least one thing in common, though—their members' immersion in gym culture. Often, they met and bonded over a workout. If you'll forgive the pun, they were fitness fanatics. Is there something about today's preening and narcissistic gym culture that either nurtures terrorists or massages their self-delusions and desires? Mosques, even radical ones, emphasize Muslims' relationships with others—whether it be God, the ummah (Islamic world), or the local community. The gym, on the other hand, allows individuals to focus myopically on themselves. Perhaps it was there, among the weightlifting and rowing machines, that these Western-based terror cells really set their course.

The British government recently published its Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005. It reveals that three of the four members of the 7/7 cell seem to have become radicalized in gyms rather than in mosques. Mohammed Sidique Khan, leader of the cell, worked on his protégés in "informal settings," primarily at a local Islamic bookshop where they watched radical DVDs and at local gyms, some of which were based in rooms below mosques. According to the report, "Khan gave talks [at the gyms], and worked out." He set up two gyms, one in 2000 with local government money—which means that government officials unwittingly funded one of the settings for his efforts—and another in 2004. Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old who seems to have been the second-in-command of the 7/7 cell, "got to know [Khan] again (having known him a little as a child) through one of the gyms." Indeed, Tanweer was as much a fitness fanatic as he was a religious one. Shortly after 7/7, one of his former friends told the Guardian: "Shehzad went to a few mosques around here but he was more interested in his jujitsu. I trained with him all the time. He is really fit." Jermaine Lindsay, another of the 7/7 bombers, has also been described as a "fitness fanatic." A report published by the Terrorism Monitor at the end of July 2005 said that he "met his fellow bombers while attending one of the gyms set up by Khan."

According to the British government's report, one of Khan's gyms was known locally as "the al-Qaida gym." Khan also seems to have used outdoor sporting activities to win over and indoctrinate recruits, and the report suggests that other alleged terror cells in the United Kingdom may have done so as well. "Camping, canoeing, white-water rafting, paintballing and other outward bound type activities are of particular interest because they appear common factors for the 7 July bombers and other cells disrupted previously and since." The report asks if such outings may have been used to "help with bonding between members of cells."

Khan seemed to view gym and sports activities as more than an opportunity for physical bonding; he also appeared to consider them moral and pure, an alternative to the decadent temptations of contemporary society. Healthy living, as a doctrine, appears to have been close to his radical heart. In Khan's talks to young Muslims and potential recruits, he reportedly made numerous references to keeping fit. His talks "focused on clean living, staying away from crime and drugs, and the value of sport and outdoor activity," says the British government's 7/7 report. Perhaps it was the gym setting that nurtured the 7/7 cell's combination of arrogance and fury, its seeming belief that they were good and the rest of us were rotten.

One of the chief suspects in the Madrid bombings, Moroccan immigrant Jamal Zougam, was also known for his devotion to keeping fit. Zougam ran a mobile-phone shop in an immigrant quarter in Madrid, and he is thought to have provided the mobile phones for the remote detonators that exploded the bombs and killed 191 commuters in March 2004. According to reports, he was a "gym-loving man." The French newspaper Le Monde reported that his friends and acquaintances were shocked to discover Zougam's involvement in the Madrid bombings, because he liked nothing better than attending the "gym or the discotèchque." The bomb that did not explode, and that subsequently led police to Zougam's shop, had been planted in a gym bag. It is also reported that Zougam and Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the Tunisian ringleader of the Madrid bombings who blew himself up when surrounded by Spanish police a few weeks later, attended gym together and sometimes discussed politics there.

The 9/11 hijackers spent a great deal of time in gyms. Mohamed Atta joined one in Hamburg in 1999. Upon arrival in America in 2000, he and other leaders of his cell—Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi—signed up for gym memberships. When the "muscle hijackers" from Saudi Arabia, whose job was to use physical force on 9/11, joined the ringleaders in the United States, they were encouraged to find housing close to gyms and to get gym memberships. In the first week of September 2001, five of the muscle hijackers—Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salem al-Hazmi, Majed Moqed, and Hani Hanjour—were regularly seen training and talking at Gold's Gym in Greenbelt, Md.

The 9/11 hijackers needed to be reasonably fit for their operation. They had to overpower airline staff and passengers in order to commandeer the jets. Yet there seems to have been more to their interest in gyms than building up muscle. One gym owner said the men seemed to gather for "social reasons." And it was Atta, Jarrah, and al-Shehhi, the pilots of 9/11 who would spend that fateful morning locked inside the cockpit, who seemed most keen on keeping fit. According to Complete 9/11 Timeline, published by the Center for Cooperative Research, Jarrah "train[ed] intensively" from May to August 2001 and Atta and al-Shehhi "also took exercising very seriously." The muscle hijackers, meanwhile, tended to "simply cluster around a small circuit of machines, never asking for help and, according to a trainer, never pushing any weights."

Perhaps the ringleaders of 9/11, like one of the prime suspects in Madrid and three of the four 7/7 bombers, had a penchant for healthy living. Certainly Atta seemed to be obsessed with bodily appearance. He advised his team of hijackers to shave off their pubic hair and to douse themselves in cologne the night before the attacks, to ready themselves for arrival in paradise. Islamic scholars have pointed out that these stipulations have little grounding in Quranic law. But they do reflect our keep-fit age. Bodybuilders, among others, are known to shave off their body hair in order to make the contours of their bodies look more impressive.

Today's gym culture seems like the perfect vehicle for nurturing the combination of narcissism and loathing of the masses necessary to carry out a terrorist suicide mission. If some of these attackers viewed their own bodies as pure instruments, and everyone else as wasteful and deserving of punishment, they could just as well have come to that conclusion through absorbing the healthy-living agenda of the gym as by reading the Quran. At the gym, Atta, Khan, and the others could focus on perfecting the self, the body, as a pure and righteous thing—and hone their disdain for others.

So, should we shut down all gyms in the name of fighting terrorism? Of course not. It's a ludicrous idea. But no more ludicrous, perhaps, than the infiltration of Western mosques.

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked in London.