The French Path to Jihad - John Rosenthal

How does one become a jihadist? Just how unprepared Americans have been to confront this question was made embarrassingly clear during the recent trial of Zacarias Moussaoui as large parts of the established media dwelt thoughtfully on Moussaoui’s broken family and childhood spells in an orphanage — as if such banal details could somehow account for the behavior of a man who has pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, been found guilty of plotting to fly a jetliner into the White House in connection with the 9/11 plot, and testified to his readiness to kill Americans “anytime, anywhere”3 every day until his death. Moussaoui was apparently supposed to be just like you and me — the defense witness who recounted for the court the allegedly sad story of young Zacarias was a social worker from Greenville, South Carolina — only not as well-adjusted. At the other extreme, a current of opinion has emerged that is widely represented in the “new” media and that offers a ready-made and conveniently foreshortened answer to the question: one that spares the investigator all need to enter into the details of individual life histories. How does one become a jihadist? By being a Muslim. For the representatives of this current, whose more or less openly avowed “Islamophobia” can easily degrade into simple racism, the jihadist threat is entirely a product of Islam or the “Muslim world” and consequently wholly alien to “the West.”

It is a pity that, in effect, none of the media — neither the old media nor the new — took advantage of the unique opportunity provided by the Moussaoui trial to seek more convincing answers. To this day, for instance, despite the sensation created by Moussaoui’s decision to take the stand, the full transcript of his testimony has never been published. If Americans were able to consider the portrait of Moussaoui that emerges from his own words, what they would discover is a figure who is neither so familiar as the sympathetic psychotherapeutic accounts in the old media suggest nor so alien as the theories of the new media pundits would lead one to assume. Of course, it would be hazardous to attempt to generalize from the single case of Zacarias Moussaoui. But a just-published collection of interviews with suspected members of al Qaeda in French prisons, Quand Al-Qäida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux (When al Qaeda Talks: Testimonials from Behind Bars), provides us with an unprecedentedly large body of evidence on the backgrounds, worldview, and motivations of those who make the choice for violent jihad in the name of Islam.