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.

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