Recent terror in Europe and U.S. has been ever more frequently committed by those who appear to have little motivation or connection to the "cause." Rather, motivation, as much as any, may be a sense that the perpetrator's life has been less than... Failures in personal relationships, social marginalization or serial run-ins with the law due to drug trafficking, pimping or violence are reflected in the CV of many if not most terror suspects. The Orlando attacker may have been a self-loathing gay man while the Nice killer had a combative divorce along with a long record of non-ideologically linked petty crimes. The subsequent terror may have been an effort to camouflage personal failures or doubts regarding identity and rationalize all in one final act that would overwhelm all the previous contradictions and perceived shortcomings whether in profession, family or righteousness. A BBC presenter perhaps instinctively labelled them as "Loser Terrorists."
Failures Recruited as Soldiers to the "Cause," after the Act
Subsequent to the fact, ISIS has claimed these terrorists as "soldiers" for the cause. However, this may be a highly convenient alignment of interests that has little to do with the stated goals of the so-called "Islamic State." ISIS offers not so much perceived salvation and over-emphasized heavenly rewards but rather a fresh identity to overwhelm the previous "loser" label and/or to camouflage doubts about self. Indeed, the "loser" label would readily fit many of ISIS's soldiers on the ground who have migrated to Iraq and Syria in a perverse pilgrimage to reverse a lifetime of a petty life. ISIS understands this appeal and views non-religious recruits as more desirable, in the least because they do not have to discuss, debate and/or justify theology.
This notion of a non-ideological, non-committed recruit seeking to turn around their life's failures and/or hypocrisies in one dramatic but easy moment though is not limited to ISIS or Muslims and in fact has been lionized and romanticized in almost all struggles for nation or religion. We have called them heroes, patriots or even saints. "Jihadist" unfortunately has become the aspirational lifestyle, or more accurately end of life moment.
The Dirty Dozen:
History is encrusted or littered, depending on your view of the cause, of demons becoming reborn crusaders/warriors for the cause. What is different is how broadly and quickly the new identity can be retooled via global media and even more a polarized segment of social media. I'm a supporter of and teach students/global citizens how to engage and find common ground through "digital-diplomacy." However, darker corners of the Internet have also been employed as echo chambers which can turn losers into apparent spokespersons.
Even among broader society, there is an inclination to romanticize the convert to the cause, or at least the criminal willing to become the soldier on behalf of a perceived broader good. "The Dirty Dozen" film with a studded cast of Hollywood heroes became a theater hit a half-century earlier. The title and romanticization resonates even more now. It lionized a group of murderers, rapists and violent criminals who never reformed their means but only volunteered for a suicide mission to employ their skills to kill Nazis. Like many of today's so-called jihadists, it was not though about the presented enemy but rather being able to extend their violence in the realm of a war, justified or not, waged against soldier or civilian.
"One Man's Hero" is Another Man's....
The notion of countering ISIS's deceitful as well as hateful presumably theological message is a worthy goal in the fight against terror. There are some who may be misled and inspired to act in what all extremists, from East, West, North and South, want to transform into a "war of civilizations." However, terror is increasingly conspired not among like-minded individuals but within the head of one loser. It also should be emphasized that any assault upon one's society, neighbors and/or civilians is more about the loser rather than any cause which might even remotely be considered.
History has shown that one person's terrorist may be hero or at least martyr to another. In the the 1840's a significant number of Irish immigrants recruited to the US Army rebelled against their overwhelmingly Protestant officers. These "Catholic Papists," (which included other immigrants from Poland, Italy, France, Scotland, Germany, Spain and other European states), were welcomed by Santa Anna's Mexico and then joined the Mexican Army as the Mexican-American War unwound. After Mexico lost the war, the Irish-Catholic "traitors" were hanged by the U.S., but they continue to be honored by Mexico as the " San Patricios" or Saint Patrick's Battalion. (The real life story was memorialized in a well-done film, that was not particularly well attended by audiences at least in part due to its conflicted subject matter, starring Tom Berenger and directed by Lance Hool, with whom I had the opportunity to share lunch -- (See: WikipediA "One Man's Hero")
The fight of American Revolutionaries against a monarchy, or French Resistance against Nazis, or Africans against colonialists has relied upon armed resistance and at times immense violence with conflicting views on the justification for such. As in the case of the San Patricios, hero or villain/terrorist may vary on the perspective. However, the inspiration of today's terrorist to be able to achieve name recognition or even re-branding from loser to terrorist is both degrading to those who fought for a greater good and misleading to the self-centered motivation of many of today's perpetrators.
PHOTO Credit: Crime Scene Database: Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting
This is not just limited to Muslim perpetrators or ISIS -- from the Oklahoma Federal Building bomber, murderer of Sikhs at Wisconsin Temple, or Norway's 2011 mass murderer who systematically killed 69 children. As a general practice, we increasingly refrain from repeating the name of these perpetrators as not to perpetuate their individual recognition, and more frequently than not we do not identify them as "terrorists" but as killers or simply criminals. The term "terrorist" though is increasingly reserved for those who have some identity connection to Muslim. There is an immediate search for links with terrorist groups as soon as a perpetrator is potentially of Muslim identity or roots. By contrast, the term "crusader" is never used, something that at least some of these Christian losers aspire to, from Norway, Bosnia, Ukraine or US. "Jihadi" and "Crusader" have similar connotation within Muslim and Christian terminology respectively.
Jihad can be employed as notion of self-improvement as much as "Crusade," even as the latter is linked to a historical event for which Pope John-Paul II perceived as needing an apology. In today's environment, labeling one as a crusader or jihadi can be seen as bestowing a badge of honor in the eyes of some as well as successful re-branding from "loser." Further, even the term "terrorist" may now be perceived as legitimizing actions within political and/or theological shroud rather than being seen as an extension of a petty, narcissistic, violent life now seeking some perversion of redemption via a last chapter of mass killing.
Painting Humanity with the Banners of Conflict
As far as ISIS is concerned, the label "radical" or "extreme" Islam on theological basis may be deserving, and desired by its leaders. However, the term extremist can be associated with actions of those presumably acting on behalf of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu... identity/cause or simply. Nationalism/Patriotism have also too frequently been expressed in xenophobia, intolerance and violence, and religion frequently serves as tool of exclusion rather than inclusion. The challenge to Islam though may be greatest today, as Christianity for example has faced it during the Inquisition, and it most often comes from within. While in Muslim majority states that have suffered from terror as Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, the "terrorists" are more likely to be labelled as "criminals." By contrast, there may not be adequate self-evaluation in some as to whether theology can be misused to promote authoritarian or intolerant tendencies. The response in the Muslim world has varied as much as there has been a reflexive response in political debate in the West.
Efforts to paint the Muslim world in homogeneous light are not only inaccurate but counterproductive in the fight against terror. Candidate Donald Trump and others have fed the narrative of ISIS and other extremists on all sides, out of ignorance or perhaps other motives. (See: "More American than @realDonaldTrump?")
President Obama has avoided employing the term "radical Islam" as to negate ISIS's claims to the religion. However, there is another reason to employ a whole new terminology as to deny the aspirational motivations of a loser seeking redemption in mass killing. Media as well as political figures are too quick, even eager to identify the perpetrator with some political or particularly religious cause linked by nothing more than a thread of presumed identity. Some on either side of a theological delineation would like to polarize democratic, secular society into groups of obedient "believers," followers. Perhaps the only draw to my/your religion is focusing on the perceived inconsistencies, flaws of the other, (ignoring the shared Old Testament roots, progressive or regressive, among monotheistic faiths.) Religion as concept will be judged and perhaps survive in modern society on basis of contribution to overall good rather than promise of rewards or punishment beyond this world. (See: "The Decadence of Persecuting Deviance")
Denying ISIS the Dead Recruit as means to Counter Efforts to Attract new Support?
When ISIS adopts and embraces a dead "terrorist," it keeps part of its bargain with the "lone-wolf" by completing the re-branding from "loser." This also enhances the perception and thus eventual reality of ISIS reach, potency and importance. As part of the fight against terror, we must deny both the perpetrators and those who would enhance their potency via the deed, including after the fact. There is no redemption or re-branding via terror, and those who aspire to something else by a continuation of the petty, narcissistic and violent will be forever associated with label of "loser."