It’s not about Islam, it’s about Syria

I was trying to put together some thoughts on the election when the news came in from London. Three nobodies run amok in the heart of the city, people mown down in the streets, women stabbed to death. They murdered the innocent and said they were doing it for God. The script’s become familiar but the horror never gets any less. Fifteen years ago I was covering this sort of madness in the Middle East; now it’s come to Europe and no one seems to know what to do about it.

Enough is enough, things need to change. The politicians speak the tired lines, and everyone agrees: something has to be done before it’s too late, but nobody knows what. Deport them? They’re British. Tougher sentences? They’re ready to die. And people begin to speak the unspeakable: it’s the Muslims, they say, the problem’s Islam. But I don’t think it is. And I don’t think we’ll get to grips with this until we do something about Syria.

First, though, a strange interlude. I was still coming to terms with the grim news when Donald Trump decided this was the moment to get into a pissing contest with the Mayor of London. Even as Sadiq Khan tried to offer some comfort and reassurance to Londoners in their hour of need, he had to contend with the supposed leader of the free world sniping at him on Twitter. Well, I thought, at least we’ve still got the Special Relationship.

It seems Trump objected to Khan telling people not to be alarmed if they saw more armed police on the streets than usual. Donald Trump does not want us to Keep Calm and Carry On; he thinks it’s the time to lose your head and run around screaming like fools and cowards. I’ve long given up trying to understand how Trump’s mind works: I can only imagine he saw the news and felt some desperate infantile need to insert himself into it. All I can say is that Americans may have voted for him, but we didn’t, and we’re under no obligation to respect him.

Enough of Trump: we have serious matters to deal with here, and he is not a serious man. But before we leave him behind, he did say one thing that caught my attention: in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, he described the men who carry out these attacks as “losers”. And though I think he intended it as little more than an insult, he may have hit upon an important truth. Because they invariably are losers. Nobodies. Young men with nothing going for them. Anis Amri, the Tunisian who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin was a rejected asylum-seeker who tried to make a living as a drug dealer until he was injured in a fight and got scared. Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was a drop-out described by friends as “not very bright”, sent to special classes for “people of exceptionally low level”.

They never seem to get the girls. At one point Abedi is said to have punched a young woman in the head because he didn’t like what she was wearing. Didn’t like it, or didn’t like that he couldn’t have what was under it? A pattern is forming here. The young returned jihadi who told a German court he went to Syria to join Isis because his girlfriend rejected him. The others who said they went because they were promised wives. Young men who can’t get what they want: girls, money, respect. They can’t even get noticed. Look at the footage of Khuram Butt, one of the London attackers who was filmed in a documentary about jihadists for Channel 4. Look at the vanity in his eyes when he stages his little stunt with the black Isis flag in Regent’s Park. This is not some fearsome holy warrior in his robes, this is a little boy playing dress up, screaming for attention.

You see where this is going. They’re exactly the sort of young men who have always joined gangs, become separatist guerrillas or mafia enforcers. They are looking for a big identity to hide the littleness they see in themselves. Amri even tried to make it as a drug dealer, but he couldn’t cut it: he became a jihadi because he wasn’t tough enough. Today, if no one else will take you, you don’t go out to the jungle and become a Maoist, you become a foot soldier for Isis.

I don’t think God has anything to do with it. Years ago, in Sri Lanka, I interviewed a Black Tiger: a Tamil Tiger who had sworn to carry out a suicide bombing. The atheist Tamil Tigers were  doing suicide bombings long before any Muslims got wind of the tactic. What happens to you after you die, I asked him. “Nothing,” he said. “That’s the end. There’s nothing after death.” Then why do you do it, I asked. “For the cause,” he said. “The cause is more important than me.” The other Tigers were looking at him with a sort of awe, and he was bursting with pride. The truth was he wasn’t interested in what happened after he died, only in what it meant to be a Black Tiger while he was alive.

That’s why I’m not sure it will do much good demanding British Muslims condemn the attacks. Don’t get wrong, I think it’s admirable that 200 imams have refused to say funeral prayers for the murderers of London, I think it would be commendable if the British Muslim community took to the streets to say this is not what Islam is about. But I don’t think it would stop the attacks. Most of these young men are rebelling against their families, against their conservative Muslim fathers. Several of them have got into fights with imams who preached against Isis.

And it’s not a problem that’s confined to the immigrant Muslim community. Several prominent jihadis have been born to Christian or atheist Western families and chosen to convert to Islam. For an entire generation, this is the ultimate act of rebellion, of rejection. Sure, the majority are born into Muslim families: they have less far to travel.

They hate us for our freedoms: George W Bush said that first, and now everyone repeats it, but I don’t think it makes it any truer. It’s not that sophisticated: they just hate us because our society never gave them the attention they crave.

Why, though, has an extremist puritan form of Islam become the lightning conductor for these feelings? That’s where I think Syria comes in. Until 9/11, Islamic extremism was just one in an array of vicious hopeless causes peddling their perverted messages. 9/11 put Islamic extremism at the top of the pile, only for the West’s response to knock it back off again. It’s often overshadowed by the disastrous invasion of Iraq, but the 2001 war in Afghanistan dealt a death blow to the original al-Qaeda.

There was a reason there were relatively few big attacks in the years that followed 9/11, and it was the military defeat al-Qaeda suffered in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda died in Tora Bora: he wanted to face the Americans on the battlefield, but his prized fighters were picked off like rabbits.

I saw al-Qaeda’s light go out in the Middle East. I saw how bin Laden’s picture was quietly taken down from Pakistani shop walls. I remember asking Palestinians what they thought of bin Laden in 2002, and them laughing. “He can’t even take care of himself,” they said. I saw al-Qaeda’s light go out, and I saw it come on again in Iraq, as the Americans got bogged down fighting a Sunni insurgency that was increasingly inspired and led by a new generation of al-Qaedas.

And the most virulent of all was Isis. Which brings us to Syria. Because bitter and disaffected young men do not have to look far for inspiration to commit terrible deeds today. They need look no further than Syria, where Isis has been thumbing its nose at the West for years, beheading our captured citizens, burning our allies’ soldiers alive, crucifying Christians, raping Yezidis, while we do nothing. They just have to tune into the modern version of rebel radio in the form of the internet, where Isis actively recruits them to carry out monstrous attacks like the one in London.

We always make the mistake of trying to refight the last war. We learned too late the folly of the Iraq invasion, and took from it the lesson that we should never get embroiled in the Middle East. Sound thinking, if we’d followed it in the first place. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a vile place but it was no threat to us. But by invading and letting Iraq slide into civil war we set off the chain of events that led to Isis.

Unlike Saddam, Isis are our avowed enemies. They control a swathe of territory which they are using as a base from which to wage war upon us. They are recruiting our disaffected youth as their foot soldiers. And we are content to launch the odd air strike and support their rivals in Iraq, while we do nothing against them in Syria for fear it would help the odious regime of Bashar Assad. This is not a policy, it’s gross negligence.

Letting Isis fester in Syria does no one any good. It’s not helping the Syrians who have to live under the barbaric regime, it’s doing nothing to stem the flood of refugees still streaming towards Europe, and it’s allowing the men who were behind what happened in London to sleep quietly in their beds at night.

Angry young men will always be with us. But if we can dismantle Isis, al-Qaeda and their imitators, we can stop our disaffected youth flocking to their banner.





  1. Very interesting analysis indeed. Most of the guys that left UK to fight in Syria and elsewhere had social problems and family related issues. These are always over looked in favour of a blanket term Islam and Islamism.

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