You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Soul of a Jihadist

The radical evil behind the terrorist attacks on Paris.

AP Images

Five years ago, I went to study abroad in Paris. Unlike most students who flock to France each semester, I spent my first few weeks living with a Pakistani uncle in Villepinte, a rugged suburb located 22 miles from the heart of the city. This commune was filled, as many of the suburbs are, with immigrants and Muslims—a collage of faces representing the diaspora of the post-colonial world. 

Making the 40-minute journey to and from a university in the aristocratic Quartier Latin was like crossing a hostile border between two countries. One of these countries was teeming with riches and monuments; the other seething with neglect. What struck me was not the commonly cited poverty or religiosity in the suburbs, but the brutalizing aimlessness that afflicted the town’s young men. That a poisonous ideology could spring from such a well was almost expected.

There are human beings in crowded French hospitals who have just taken their last breath. There are eyes that have shut for the last time, worlds extinguished like candle flames. Information about the Paris murderers is only just beginning to come out, and it will take time to stitch together their histories and attempt the familiar task of drawing lines of causation between their biographies and their terror. Whether they were under the command of ISIS-central or ISIS-local remains unclear, and is, in any event, a distinction without much difference. What we do know is that the terrorists who massacred concertgoers and people enjoying a night out were themselves young men in their twenties. In an alternative universe, they might have been the ones in the concert hall or at the bar when the blasts erupted. 

The perpetrators all shared a mindset that has become commonplace. The Charlie Hebdo terrorists had it. Mohammad Merah, who killed three French soldiers (all of them Muslim), a rabbi, and three Jewish children (the youngest just three years old) in 2012, had it. The terrorists who attacked Bali and Beirut and Bombay and Boston had it. These young men embody the banality of violence—organized, premeditated, routinized violence explicitly religious and political in its aims and apolitical in its targets. Except for the deep void they all share, these were otherwise ordinary individuals. “He was like a random guy holding a kalashnikov,” one of the survivors noted last week.

It needs saying, even if it is painful to hear, that the men who carried out these attacks were Muslims. But our description of them cannot end there because that’s not all they were, and reducing this to Islam is as intellectually shallow as excluding Islam from the conversation altogether. They were also murderous fanatics. Perhaps they were devout and prayed five times a day like many Muslims I know, including members of my own family. Perhaps they rarely prayed. Neither scenario would explain what made these outwardly normal men simultaneously open their Korans and reach for their kalashnikovs. Clearly something happened in their heads before they touched the scriptures. 

Radical jihadists are often described as nihilists. The senseless nature of their carnage and the incomprehensibility of their bloodshed all stretch the English language to its limits, so “nihilism” has become a catch-all term to describe any act of mass violence that defies our basic morality. If our vocabulary exists to provide form to thought and to reality, it lacks a precise term for such killers because they are still a relatively new phenomenon. But nihilism is not an accurate term for them. Properly defined, nihilism is the rejection of all moral and political principles, the annihilation of all meaning. The radical jihadist does not lack principles; he has a plethora of them and he sticks to them with a pathologically extreme certainty. James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” What of a man who thinks he has everything to gain by pulling the trigger?

The radical jihadist, full of resentment and lusting for eternal glory, has a set of goals that are absurd for their contradictions: the imposition of a worldwide theocracy as well as a plan to kill every person who would actually inhabit such an empire; the desire to recreate a fabled seventh-century utopia and the desire to escape from the world at the earliest possible date; the willingness to straddle the line Islam draws between suicide, which is punished with eternal damnation, and martyrdom in holy war, which is blessed with eternal reward. “The suicide bomber,” Bernard Lewis observed, takes “a considerable risk on a theological nicety.” Only a man so certain of his principles, and so devoid of critical thought, would take such a gamble with hell and heaven.

All of these goals ultimately pull Islam and history backwards and forwards at the extremes, so that the theocratic utopia is only a prelude to the end of times, when the one-eyed anti-Christ (known as Dajjal) will return and the world will face the Day of Judgment. 

The jihadists kill expecting rewards in heaven, and with full appreciation for the vast mayhem they are causing. Osama Bin Laden: “These youths love death as you love life.” Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, in a note found in his suitcase: “Be happy and cheerful, be relaxed and feel secure.” And from a popular jihadist text titled The Management of Savagery, widely read by ISIS cadres: “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring.” 

The Koran and Hadith go into graphic detail about what happens to evildoers when the world ends, yet the radical jihadists don’t seem to think their actions are anything but just. They want the impossible, believe it to be inevitable, and will do the unthinkable to get it. When utopia is sought, everything becomes permitted.

With each additional slaughter of ordinary citizens by formerly ordinary people, it is becoming clear that the modern world, for all its science and technology and industry, has created an entirely new kind of man. He is a jihadist because he wishes to be a martyr and he is a radical because he wants to return to the “root” of all things—in his case, Allah. 

He is at once like the totalitarian monsters of the 20th century but is also distinct from them. The psychologist Eric Fromm thought that the totalizing ideologies of the previous century “offered the atomized individual a new refuge and security.” Radical jihad does the same, except it is far more diffuse. The evil embodied in a Hitler or a Stalin or any other grim-faced officer of a fascist regime operated behind a mass bureaucracy of violence claiming to represent the General Will. This new kind of evil, highly individualized and spiritualized—what Hannah Arendt called “radical evil”—is embodied in the 20-year-old who will smoke pot on Monday and detonate a suicide vest on Friday. He is capable of conceiving, coordinating, and carrying out the murder of as many people as he can before he is killed, all while eluding the most advanced surveillance bodies in history. Hitler and Stalin went to great lengths to keep the outside world ignorant of their racist massacres; the radical jihadist does everything he can to publicize them, reminding everyone, everywhere, that they may be next. 

In a world where the executioners are not in the secret police but lurk in the shadows and basements like rats, it becomes vital to differentiate between the radical jihadist and the law-abiding Muslims thrown into a hell of somebody else’s making. That Muslims, too, are in pain, having witnessed the massacre of innocent citizens by terrorists claiming to speak on behalf of their religion, that they must perpetually distinguish themselves from executioners, has largely been lost in the aftermath of this tragedy. “I feel bad and sad,” my mother texted me after the news broke. In combatting radical evil, it would be prudent for us not to fulfill its prophecies.