burning bright

“Ask where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was that I had such friends.”

- Yeats

Again, it was the eleventh day of the month. But this time it was only the third month of the year. Although in the end, these temporal facts didn’t determine much at all. Yet time did play a role that day. More specifically, time spent waiting.

Like city-dwelling commuters stuck in morning rush-hour delays the developed world over, some of the Spanish men, women, and children riding the trains that day were angry, cursing, frustrated. Others were napping. Some were chatting on their cell phones, having no idea what the same high-megahertz frequencies they were using would shortly bring. But none of them had any idea how good they had it. How lucky time would make them that day.

It had all started in front of a television only five months earlier, in the closing months of 2003. On October 19th al-Jazeera released a pair of audiotapes recorded by Osama bin Ladin. In the first he praised the Iraqi insurgency for its attacks against the American occupation, and invoked imagery of Vietnam by claiming that the Americans were “mired in the swamp of the Tigris and Euphrates.” The second audiotape was directed at the United States and addressed more to Muslim militants outside Iraq. After mocking George W. Bush and wallowing in the American setbacks in Iraq, he reached out to Muslims inhabiting nations that were supporting the war in Iraq, claiming al-Qaeda had the “right to respond when and where we see appropriate against all the countries that participate in this unjust war.”1

And, for the first time, he mentioned Spain as one of the nations that was in line for retribution. The next day, on October 20th, a group of minimum-wage employees that included a bricklayer, a waiter, a courier, construction workers and several petty criminals went to work putting their plan into motion. In less than five months they would devastate Madrid’s early-morning commute and, for the first time in the modern era, swing an election in favor of terrorist demands.

The socio-economic background of the men who would become Madrid’s first Muslim terrorists is all kinds of important. To a man they were North Africans who’d come to Spain years ago in search of the white collar jobs a booming Spanish economy had in abundance. Most were Moroccans, although there were Tunisians and others thrown into the mix. Spain hadn’t had many Muslims since the purges of the Reconquista back in the 15th century, and since it wasn’t until 1975 that there was any measurable Muslim presence they were highly aware of their minority status and their lowly rung on the social ladder. But this status wasn’t the singular cause of militant Islam finding root in Spain.

The Godfather of militant Islam in Spain had been a Syrian, Abu Dahdah, who came to Spain in the mid ’90s not to attack her citizens but to recruit young Muslims in Spain to fight the ongoing jihads being waged in Afganistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. Abu Dahdah gained the reputation of a learned imam and established a healthy practice of recruiting fighters, selling cars for funds, and distributing propaganda from bin Ladin, Hamas, and other militant Islamist groups.

However during the investigation that followed 9/11 the plot’s route was traced through Madrid, and Abu Dahdah was implicated in facilitating meetings between the plot’s masterminds. He was arrested along with ten of his associates, and the Spanish authorities relaxed. They believed they’d shut down any possible threat to Spain posed by militant Islam. But they’d missed one very important man.

The man they called El Tunecino because of his Tunisian origins was born Sarhane Fakhet, and he’d been one of Abu Dahdah’s closest disciples. Following the Casablanca bombings in the spring of 2003 there was an intense, finely collaborated effort by Spanish and Moroccan authorities to crackdown on suspected militants since during the bombing’s investigation it became clear the plot had strong ties to Spain’s small but potent Muslim diaspora.

Specifically to Abu Dahdah, and so anyone with ties to him was immediately subject to scrutiny. Fakhet was one of the men who fell under the purview of the police crackdown, as he had been one of Abu Dahdah’s principle followers. But in a way the authorities were too late, he and his best buddy Jamal Ahmidan had already began to come together with a group of Muslims, watching and listening to the tapes released by various militant Islamist groups. Ahmidan was known as El Chino – “The Chinaman.” But his nickname wasn’t given because he was of Chinese origin, he just had really slanty eyes.

El Chino had given up his drinking, smoking, and nightclub-going and converted to salfi Islam in a setting that is as linked to the history of fundamentalism militant Islam as it is vital to its future. He’d come to hear the call of salfi Islam from behind the bars of a prison cell, an occurrence that would soon begin to echo in the present as loudly as it did in the past. Before long their group, and every other Islamist in Spain immediately felt beleaguered by the upped attention. And yet beleaguered doesn’t really even begin to cover it.

Living as a distinct minority now under suspicion within a Spanish society that is highly class- and race-conscious softened the men who would come to comprise the Madrid cell for the coming changes. It begun to foment a shift that is perhaps the single most instrumental facet in the formation of a virulent terrorist cell. The importance of a bond that is “more powerful than class, nationality, or education” and is created from “the acute feeling of living in a hostile environment” cannot be overstated.2

This bond forms a protective membrane around the group, both holding them together as a unit and selectively keeping them from interacting with the society around them. It fuses them together with the flame of shared experience. It makes sure they know damn well they’re different from everyone else around them. It binds them together as a whole and makes sure each understands that his survival is tied to the survival of the man next to him. Everything outside of their group is to be feared, only those within the group can be fully trusted.

The nature of the bond’s selectivity is the single most important factor in determining the efficacy of any group’s violence. Understanding this bond, and the characteristics that smolder within it, can tell you everything about the nature and scope of a terrorist attack. What kind of target will be chosen, how much time will be taken planning the attack, and who its most likely perpetrators will be. And as incongruous as it seems, understanding the deaths caused by terrorist cells is not a matter of understanding their hate for the society around them.

It is a matter of understanding the love they have for each other.

We’d all like to think that there must be something terrible and horrible and wrong with the men who become terrorists. Because that would make them all somehow different from us. Not like us.

So long as becoming a terrorist was predicated on some childhood trauma or brainwashing or youthful indoctrination that we didn’t experience, then there would be a concrete way to differentiate them from ourselves. And, even better, it would allow us to pity them. To know that something was wrong with them. Because, of course, something would have to be wrong with you – something terrible – if you were willing to simply wipe away hundreds of innocent lives.

But the decision to join a terrorist cell, and in turn become a terrorist, is one seeped deeply in faith and friendship. It is almost never the case of one of the negative life-defining events mentioned above. All of the concepts that best apply to the process of becoming a terrorist in fact have a positive connotation: soul-searching, bonding, leaning on your friends, believing in something bigger than yourself. Because, for the person who decides to do it, becoming a terrorist is a wonderful thing.

The best way to describe the process of becoming a terrorist is one of conversion, which is apt since the process of religious conversion provides the most accurate model for terrorist conversion. Converts to religious sects, it’s recently been accepted in religious sociology, follow a set process: experiencing building tension and dissatisfaction with their religious lives, deciding because of this tension to become a religion-seeker, encountering a compelling ideology during this phase of seeking, bonding with others associated with that ideology, becoming detached from the society outside of this new ideologically-bound group, and finally deepening interaction and reliance on this new group for happiness and identity.3 As any new convert will tell you, there’s nothing as satisfying as religious sects.

Up until the point of actually encountering the ideology that eventually traps someone, the factors consist of general background conditions. They create a potential pool that can be drawn from and, at one point of their lives or another, often describe a rather large segment of any society. Some kind of religious upbringing is the norm, since the seekers feel “a discrepancy between some imaginary, ideal state of affairs and the circumstances in which they actually saw themselves.”4 But idealism wears many masks, so all that’s really necessary is sense that there’s some wrong that needs to be righted.

The rest of the steps to conversion are subject to “situational factors, where timing becomes significant.” Most important of these is that either before or at the same time as a pre-convert joins the group, his life must’ve reached a moment that he perceived as a turning point.5 This can be in the form of breaking up with a partner, beginning or ending college, losing his job, or – as is very likely the case for some of those in the 3/11 Madrid bombings – recent migration.

A turning point is significant to the process of conversion in that it both “increases the pre-convert’s awareness of and desire to take some action about his problems” and at the same time gives him “a new opportunity to do so.”6 Not only does moving away from home provide an opportunity, but it also reduces “the influence of former friends and family to restrain them from joining” a new group. Be it a religious sect, or a terrorist cell. With these prerequisites established, a prospective convert is now ripe for conversion. However it’s not a conscious decision to convert to a new ideology, to adopt it as your own knowing full-well all that will result because of your choice.7

Joining a terrorist cell isn’t a result of brainwashing, it doesn’t happen because your Daddy didn’t hug you enough or your Mom smacked you upside your head too much, it’s not that your brother was shot when you were little, and it’s not a result of being raised in some quirky cult. Just like religious conversion, joining a terrorist cell is best and most accurately understood as coming to accept the opinions of your friends. The ideology of the group is often still regarded as problematic, but regardless of how well-aware you are of the fact that you’re just taking an easy way-out of complex issues, this is subsumed by the fact that it’s what your friends believe.

And the more disconnected from society you are, the more beleaguered you feel, the closer you’ll become to your friends. In the case of religious conversion and in the case of joining terrorist cells, you’re not drawn to the objective Truth of an ideology but to the people who hold it dear. Once you start “a long period of intense day-to-day interactions with them” the bond you share with them begins “to take on a depth and uniqueness beyond their ties to outsiders.”8

At some point you can’t quite put your finger on, somewhere between the late-night religious discussions and the intense soul-baring, you become inculcated with the ideology of the group. Once the identity of the group has become your own, your purpose becomes to serve its purpose. You gain a passion for the success of the group that burns away any other desire you might’ve had before.

Then, just like that, all the socially-induced tension melts away and you become one with the group. Their fate is your fate. You’re as loyal to them as you are to the ideology that brought you together. And, as is the case for the ideologies that bring terrorist cells together, you’re soon more than happy to die. For a concept, in a way – but much more apparently, for them. Because you’ve found yourself something there’s no substitute for. You’ve found a way to conquer fear.

You’ve found yourself a pack.

Most of us would agree that one thing soldiers and terrorists have in common is that neither group of men has an aversion to killing. Faced with their enemy, historically the terrorist and the soldier alike have no trouble either pulling or pushing the trigger. You would, however, be wrong.

The historical evidence of a reluctance to kill begins at the Battle of Gettysburg, where out of the 27, 574 muskets that were recovered, nearly 90% were still loaded – 12,000 of them with double loads, and 6,000 of them with between three and ten rounds stuffed in their barrels. And even the ones that were fired were likely aimed by a man intentionally trying to miss, as a preponderance of evidence points to the fact that even when their loaded muskets were fired, many of the Confederate and Union soldiers were intentionally firing over the head of their countrymen.8.1

More concrete evidence of this puzzling phenomenon was gathered by WWII historian Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall. Whether a battle raged for one day or several, only between 15% and 2%0 men on the frontlines ever actually “took any part with their weapons.” During the Korean War, this percentage only rose to 50%.

All of this has lead the world’s foremost leader on battlefield psychology to argue that there is a “simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” This instinct is in fact so strong that “throughout history, the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives or the lives of their friends.”8.2

That is, until Vietnam, where the effective firing rate rose to 90%. This drastic increase has been attributed to the change in how the US Army drilled and trained its soldiers, putting advances in psychology and the new knowledge of classic and operant conditioning into practice on the firing range and in boot camp. With the enemy dehumanized, and soldiers programmed to kill when given the order, the stage was set for a much more lethal fighting force.8.3

And once technology allowed men to kill from a distance – shooting at mechanical vehicles instead of the whites of another man’s eyes, or dropping hellfire on tiny inhuman gameboard-like cities below them – the resistance to killing all but disappears.8.4 This information sheds invaluable light into terrorism’s dark mind – it helps explain why so often terrorists target impersonal buildings and structures instead of crowds, it increases the importance terrorist footage of gruesome and brutal attacks has in preparing prospective cell members to shed innocent blood, it provides insight into why bombs triggered with remotes or timers have so often been used.

And it begins to illuminate what exactly it means when a terrorist is willing to walk unto a crowded city bus, look at the common humanity he’s surrounded by, feel their lives flowing and surging around himself, hear the laughter he’s about to forever silence, and coolly end his own life along with as many of theirs as he can.

The explosions that ripped across the Spanish suburbs on that unassuming Thursday morning of 3/11 were meant to kill many thousands more than they actually did. Before they occurred, one by one the men who’d been forged together as the Madrid cell by a shared ideology of embattlement and alienation from the society around them boarded different train-cars all destined for Madrid’s main rail junction: Atocha Station.

Garbed in anonymous wool caps and drab scarves, each man quietly grasped its leather handles and slid a blue sports bag loaded with 22-pounds of Goma-2, an extremely high-yield plastic explosive, that was armed with a cell phone-trigger beneath his seat. Then, at the next stop, each bomber would simply walk off the train. And so every train-car a bomber boarded that morning became an unwitting time-bomb, ticking its way toward Atocha Station, just another cog in the regular Spanish rush-hour commute.

Fully unraveling how the 3/11 attacks are bound to the tangle of militant Islamic fundamentalism is a monstrous task. The bombing is significant in how it desired to link to a larger movement that it had no known human ties to, in how the men involved didn’t die in the attack but did die because of it, in how it managed to do much more than just induce fear and actually influenced the political realm, in the way the men who carried it out were integrated into the society they were targeting even though they felt they were outsiders, in how the timing of the attack was skewed and the largest target missed.

And, oldest and maybe most tenuous – but certainly the most ironic, this attack can be linked to the history of militant Islamic extremism in the way the bombing was financed. The explosive used in every bomb, Goma-2, was purchased via the sale of just sixty-kilos of a decidedly un-Islamic item. It’s a good that’s been the subject of books, movies, songs, and several decades-worth of popular counter-culture. It can, just to touch on a few of the possibilities, be passed, packed, baked, smoked, toked, lit, puffed, coughed, piped, and bonged.

Hashish, different parts of the same plant that gives the world marijuana, has played many roles in history. But its most important role, certainly in terms of terrorism, has been providing the moniker for a group of men who forever changed the way violence and politics relate to each other. By selling hashish to provide the capital used to purchase the explosives used for 3/11, Jamal Ahmidan gained honorary membership in a group whose antecessors would eventually take the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Ferdinand, several Popes, Yitzhak Rabin, JFK, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and scores of others. But, before they became an inextricable part of our language, they were just an idea in the head of the Old Man of the Mountain.

There’s also a second group whose name could also be applied to the Madrid cell, but along a much shiftier etymological path. This group also started off as a localized religious sect and gained notoriety through their efficacy in violence and courage in death. Though – as a small sect which was part of a larger religious group that’s today best known for its penchant for frugality, piety, and bagels – it seems a lot more quirky to label the cell members of that group.

But, when you know their histories, it makes about as much sense to label the 3/11 terrorists zealots as it does to curse them as assassins. And not simply because all the explosives used in Madrid were financed by the sale of hashish, the drug of choice for some of history’s most notorious and accomplished killers.

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