There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.
Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.
One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.
But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.
History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.