The War Nerd: Who exactly are the Jihadis (and why aren’t there more of them)?

By Gary Brecher , written on March 28, 2014

From The War Desk

Last week the feds pulled a guy named Nicholas Teausant, who looks sort of like Napoleon Dynamite would if he was getting chemotherapy, off a bus going to Canada and charged him with planning to join the jihadist group I.S.I.S. in Syria. Nicholas (pictured above) had pretty much made their case for them by writing online comments like...

"I despise america and want its down fall but yeah haha. Lol I been part of the army for two years now and I would love to Allah’s army but I don’t even know how to start" and adding modestly that he planned to become a "commander…in front of every single newspaper in the country."

Lol pretty much sums it up.

Stories like this show up every few weeks, allowing thousands of Homeland Security people to justify their paychecks, and helping the terminally timid to remain frightened, which is their preferred state. But nobody bothers to ask the obvious questions about this alleged "homegrown jihadi" threat – questions like, "How many of these guys are there, actually?" and "What’s their real combat value?"

The answers to those two questions are simple: "Remarkably few, actually" and "Nil, as long as they’re fighting in a conventional war like Syria."

To see what’s really going on—and, more importantly, what’s not going on—you need to look at the stats, to see who becomes a jihadi. And those stats turn out to be very tricky. For starters, what does "jihad" mean? There are a lot of wars going on in the Muslim world, but most of them are Muslim-on-Muslim. In many of those wars, ethnic identity draws the battle lines between groups who share the same faith. In Darfur, for example, everyone fighting and dying is a Sunni Muslim, but some call themselves "Arabs" and some are defined as "black Africans." In theory, Islam calls for peace between believers, but you’d have a very hard time finding any period in the history of the Islamic world, or the Christian world, when appeals like that made any difference to the armed men on the ground.

Even if you define "jihad" as Muslims fighting against "Kufr" or "infidels," you find there are some jihads that interest the Western media and some that don’t. Syria, for example, gets a whole lot of attention, even though it’s only marginally explainable as a fight between Islam and Kufr, because young men from around the world have migrated there to fight. That’s what excites the media, this notion of traveling warriors, especially when they’ve left the comfort of the West to fight in Syria.

So let’s restrict our look at jihadis to those who migrate to another country to fight for Islam-- if only because it’s the men who fight in someone else’s country who get all the press, and who seem to scare Western audiences most.

Even after narrowing the search to migrant fighters, you find that "the typical jihadi" is very hard to profile. In fact, as I tried to research the backgrounds of a typical jihadi, I kept remembering Mark Ames’s great work in debunking the facile profiles of rage murderers. As he argued, context is what’s most important in explaining violence, and context is always local.

The one thing you can say about jihadis from all contexts might seem too obvious to mention: Most of them are young men.

I once asked an Australian Women’s Studies prof, "Who was responsible for wiping out the Tasmanian Wolf?" and she surprised me by saying, "Men." She had a bit of an anger problem like a lot of those Aussie Gender-Studies profs, that woman--but her answer is worth remembering. Jihadis are young men. Violence is a young man’s game.

But once you get past the testosterone tilt of jihadi stats, you find that country by country, region by region, there are huge variations.

In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, jihadis are mostly from successful families.

In Australia, though, studies have shown that those who join jihadist groups are generally poorer and less-educated than the norm.

And in the US, where jihad is not just eccentric but reviled, recruits are very scarce, with the few who do appear falling into two groups: A few are serious young men with a family connection to jihad, and the remainder, those who have no family or ethnic link to jihad, are, to put it bluntly, scraped off the bottom of the barrel.

There’s one simple generalization you can make from these stats: Jihadis from Muslim-majority countries are generally higher-status than those from countries where Muslims are a minority. That makes intuitive sense; when jihad is very close to the national cause, as it is in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are both pretty much defined by their Islamic identity, you get prime recruits, whereas in countries like the US and Australia, you get more marginal specimens. This is confirmed by a careful study of jihadi demographics: "Converts to Islam [who became jihadis] came from the lower classes…but, overall, about three-fourths of global Salafi mujahedeen were solidly upper or middle class…"

Thanks to a lucky find made by US forces in Iraq, there’s some good information about the origin of the "foreign fighters," or jihadis, who fought in Iraq. In 2007, American troops raided a house in Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq up agains the Syrian border.

They found a list of about 700 jihadis who were fighting with ISI, the parent group of ISIS, the Iraqi/Syrian jihadi faction that controls most of the countryside in eastern Syria. Brian Fishman, one of the better American analysts, co-authored a report based on 606 jihadis’ personnel records.

Some of the results are not surprising, like the fact that Saudis made up 41% of the names on the Sinjar List. Saudi Arabia is in a world of its own, as I’ve written before—and fighting a losing battle to maintain that world against a global mall culture.

Saudis, especially Saudi men, feel surrounded by creeping heresy, and resort to some strange measures to resist it. For example, there’s no such thing as a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia. And Jews, those notorious "rootless cosmopolitans," are forbidden to enter at all. The first thing you see on your Saudi visa application is "Jews are not permitted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

The Kingdom’s dislike of heresy extends even to the past; ancient churches and synagogues show up fairly often during excavations, especially along the Red Sea coastline, but they’re bulldozed as fast as they appear, because the Saud family doesn’t like to be reminded that other faiths ever had a foothold on the Peninsula.

So it’s not surprising that so many Saudis find a career in jihad. What is surprising is that Saudi Arabia was only the second-ranked country on the Sinjar List, per capita. Libya, with a population less than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s, contributed 18.8% of the fighters on the List. Even more impressive, almost nine out of ten Libyans listed their role in Iraq as "suicide commando," rather than mere "fighter."

Most surprising of all, the #1 hometown for jihadis on the Sinjar List was Darnah (sometimes spelled "Derna"), a small city in Eastern Libya. 52 of the 606 jihadis on the List were from Darnah. Riyadh, the second-ranked home town with 51 volunteers, is more than 70 times bigger than Darnah, so there’s very clearly something special about Darnah. Writers from western media booked tickets there after the Sinjar List’s breakdown was publicized, hoping to find what made this "sleepy town" such prime territory for jihad, and came up with various answers ranging from the total absence of a local economy to the region’s long tradition of resistance, including the honor of being among the first places invaded by the USMC during the Barbary Coast wars (Remember "the halls of Tripoli"? Darnah.)

But there are plenty of Middle Eastern towns that are just as "sleepy" as Darnah, just as economically stagnant, sharing the same dubious honor of having been invaded by everyone from the Greeks to the Americans. Like most of these attempted profilings, the attempts to isolate what made Darnah a jihadi breeding ground aren’t very convincing. Or rather, the reasons that young men from Darnah went to fight for Islam in another country are clear enough. What’s not so clear is why the millions of other young men from equally stagnant towns, raised on the same legends of resistance, taught in the same atmosphere of feverish Sunni revival, didn’t end up on the Sinjar List. Like I said, it’s not the few jihadis who are the anomaly, it’s the millions of non-jihadis who share the same background and were exposed to the same stimuli. The stats from Sinjar seem to show there’s something special about Darnah, and a few other such hot spots for jihadist recruits, but so far, no one’s done a very convincing job of explaining what that special ingredient really is.

As far as I can tell, the ingredients for a much, much bigger, scarier jihad are everywhere in the Muslim world. For a male raised to expect the eternal validity of partriarchal norms, the shocks are non-stop. You don’t even know you’re shocking the local sensibilities until you see the reaction. I saw a Western woman, unveiled, sit down on a bench in the Najran airport. She wasn’t trying to make a gesture or strike a blow against patriarchy; she was just hot and tired after flying from London to Riyadh, then getting dumped at the end of the world to wait for a van to pick her (and the rest of us) up from the airport.

But there was an old man on that bench, also waiting to be picked up. He was at one end and she sat down at the other—there was nothing like physical contact, as we would define it. But he was so outraged that he got up, leaning on his cane, and stood a few meters away, clearly in pain but preferring to stand on his one good leg rather than share a bench with an unveiled female.

Multiply shocks like that by the hundred, day after day—every commercial your kids are watching, every movie they rent, everything they learn at school—and you get a sense of where jihad comes from—or could be expected to come from. Because it just isn’t happening to the extent you’d expect. If my culture had to undergo that level of constant alienation…well, I don’t think we’d put up with it. The population crisis would be solved in a matter of minutes--let’s just put it that way.

Potential jihadis, then, are probably typical young men, maybe a little less well-settled into their home lives than others, but not unusual otherwise. They travel to find a war because they didn’t happen to have a war at home when they reached the age at which young men want to make war. So the Libyans who had to travel to Iraq in 2007 were just born too soon; in 2011, when the revolt against Qaddafi began, they could have had jihad without leaving home, since Darnah was one of the first places to start fighting Qaddafi’s mercenaries.

The appeal of jihad is universal. And when I say that, I mean "even in the Central Valley towns of California and the Home Counties of England." Stories about wannabe jihadis from both those places have been in the news lately, getting a lot more publicity than they really deserve.

The jihadi recruits who get the most publicity are white guys from non-Muslim backgrounds, like Nicholas Teausant. You can take your own shot at psychoanalyzing or profiling Mr. Teausant, because he was on camera, talking his fool head off for the local TV news, just three days before the Feds yanked him off a bus on his way to the Vancouver Airport. Here he is, with his retro-Punk studded leather jacket hanging off his chicken-like shoulders (but already sporting the Salafi look—shaved head and Abraham-Lincoln beard), bragging about his military background and passing judgment on another student for "inappropriate" behavior. It feels like one of Reno 911’s less believable skits, but it’s all too real.

Since it’s been a while since I kept up with what you krazy kidz are up to, I asked one of your own to help me out by watching Napoleon’s—I mean Nicholas’s—moment of TV glory. This friend of mine is about Nicholas’s age, way too smart and pissed-off for his own good, and honest to a fault. Also violent to a fault, but we’re more concerned with his brains and honesty here. So here’s what he had to say about Nicholas’s interview—oh, and if you’re not a Fight Club fan, you need to watch this clip to know what he means when he calls Nicholas a "snowflake":

The first thing that stands out (20 seconds in) is his comfortability (apparently that isnt a word but we'll forge on) with the camera, his pride in his aesthetics, his general confidence with being 'alt'.

Ok, the next telling moment is when he does the enormous shoulder shrug and goes "I avoid confrontation as much as possible". Kinda hilarious statement from a future failed jihadi, ja? Fuckin Sesame Street shit teaching him how to talk to the cameras. Guy is playing by every single fucking rule we were taught growing up.

Third thing:

"Inappropriate". . .the most beloved word of my generational compatriots. UGH!

This fuckstick, with his idiotic 'snowflake' clothing, his pompous 'snowflake' attitude, his middling use of grownup words to explain himself and seem like hot intellectual shit. . .its a disastrous indictment of what we have done to ourselves and what our parents did to us.

Then again, I am fuckin wasted right now. You’ll notice that my friend’s comments, wasted or otherwise, keep coming back to how ordinary Nicholas the Jihadi really is: "Guy is playing by every single fucking rule we were taught growing up." If there’s anything unusual about Nicholas the Wannabe Warrior, it’s that he’s a poor specimen. He needed to look all the way to Syria to find some way to make a "snowflake" of himself. Most find a sanity-saving fiction nearer home—but then most didn’t have to live in a trailer in Acampo. That’s where Nicholas was living when he came up with the idea of making his name with I.S.I.S in Syria, and if you know anything about the boondocks of California, "Acampo" tells you a lot. Remember the Creedence song, "Stuck in Lodi Again"? Well, Acampo is on the outskirts of Lodi. People in Acampo would give anything to be stuck in Lodi; it’s like downtown Tokyo compared to Acampo. It’s not easy to be Nicholas Teausant of Acampo. Fight Club again: "We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives."

For me, the weakest clause in that quote has always been "Our Great War’s a spiritual war…" It just doesn’t compare to the parallel clause, "Our Great Depression is our lives." The need for a war is a given, in that quote, but the answer, "…a spiritual war," sounds lame. Unless, like Nicholas, you take what you read in Dune and apply it to what you hear about Syria. Voila, a "spiritual war" in a satisfyingly literal, noisy, gory sense—a jihad.

Once again—and I know I keep repeating this, but it’s something standard media rules make it almost impossible to acknowledge—once again, it’s not why Nicholas took to jihad (or tried to, the poor fool); what’s amazing, what’s odd, is that there are so few Nicholases signing up. What gravitational field keeps them in Acampo? There are ten thousand towns like Acampo in America, and hundreds of thousands across the Muslim world that make Acampo look like Palm Springs—but they’re not delivering a flood of jihadis.

It’s true there are some real jihadis going to Syria, fighting and dying there, but the numbers are very small—probably between 5,000 and 10,000 on the Sunni side, and fewer than that fighting with Hezbollah for the Alawites.

The scare headlines you see about the increase in their numbers comes from one of the oldest tricks in the statistician’s book: If the raw numbers are tiny, any increase is going to sound huge if expressed as a percentage. If I have one lousy jihadi fighting for me, and he talks his unmarriageable cousin into joining him, I can claim a 100% increase in jihadi support. Of course there’s another way of inflating your numbers, beloved of military propagandists everywhere: Just plain lie, claim to have a lot more men than you really do. That’s another standby in Syria, where every faction has its video team and PR flack, lovingly filming every dead enemy and tweeting ridiculous claims about your casualties (what casualties?) and theirs (thousands, nay, millions).

The other question war reporters should be asking about jihadis is, "So what?" Or, to amplify, "What is the real military value of a few hundred foreign amateurs in a conventional war like Syria?"

My answer would be, "Their net value is a negative integer, a large one." Foreign troops aren’t easy to like, especially when they think they know how you should live. And foreigners who’ve only taken up arms for ideological reasons, with no particular skill in using them, are not much a help. Anyone with two arms can fire an AK, but that doesn’t make him a useful soldier—and most of the jihadis who end up in Syria are not ex-military but ordinary urban young men (again, their ordinariness is their key trait), with no special skills to contribute. So their inevitable alienation of Syrian civilians most likely outweighs their very marginal military value.

And in fact, some reporters are finally catching on to this, saying that the foreign jihadis in Syria have only been helping Assad hang on.

These foreign fighters are useful for showy, one-shot suicide operations, like the one carried out by a Pakistani-British man who blew himself up in a truck crashing the barriers outside an Aleppo prison camp -- but the military value of these one-shot stunts is very low, and the pool of foreign jihadis willing to volunteer for them is surprisingly small, once you look past the tabloids’ scare headlines. For example, the Briton who drove that up-armored truck into a prison wall in Aleppo turned out to be the former driver for the notorious "hate preacher" Omar Bakri.

If Bakri’s most high-profile recruit, after years of singing the joys awaiting jihadis in paradise, is his own ex-chauffeur, he can’t have been doing much of a job radicalizing the more than one million Pakistani Britons, let alone the broader Muslim community of about 2.7 million.

Most of the British and Western European jihadis you see in these over-hyped YouTube videos are even less effective, less serious, than Omar’s ex-driver. Here’s a typical video showing three British guys in black ski masks talking about their new life as jihadis, fighting Assad’s regime in Syria.

It was an instant hit among people who need something to be scared of, now that the commies have gone out of business and statins solved the cholesterol problem.

But you have to work pretty durn hard to work yourself into a panic over the idiots in this video. It’s closer to Ali G. than Osama bin L. In fact, it’s downright sad to hear the bumbling narrator whine that "the doors of jihad are still open" like he’s selling day-old bread. His biggest boast is that, "Thanks to Allah, we have managed to bring in three or four beloved brothers in Islam…" Well, first of all, "three or four"? Either he can’t count on one hand or he’s doing the kind of exaggeration you get in every fight-story ever told: "There were like four or five of ’em, but I just laid out the biggest guy, see…" When you hear "four or five" in those stories, you think, "Maybe there were two? Or one guy and a small dog?"

Even if we grant the poor fool his four recruits, the question is, once again, "So the fuck what?" What is the military value of four amateurs in ski masks? The Sunni in Syria don’t need more men with AKs, they need a unified command and a little goddamn discipline, and these goofy foreigners are about the last people to provide any of that. What they’ll do is whine about the food and the toilet facilities like first-worlders always do, then get impatient, shoot some civilian for not praying loudly enough—and in general, make Assad’s job a whole lot easier. Their military value is negative you-name-it.

As for the fabled white-convert jihadis, those unicorns of jihad, their value is even less than that of these second- or third-generation Pakistani-British volunteers. So why do we keep hearing about them? Because they’re white, for starters. And because they’re so unlikely. The media love anything unlikely and white and potentially scary, no matter how lame the scare is.

If you’re Nicholas Teausant, sitting in your trailer in Acampo, that sort of attention is the biggest incentive of all to Google "jihad" and pretend to be the next Osama. Losers have a long tradition of joining up with whatever scares the rubes most. For Lee Harvey Oswald, it was the commies, or the Russians, or both; he didn’t really know, any more than Nicholas Teausant knows anything about Islam.

A generation or so after Oswald made the news, a loser’s best option was to shave his head, buy a pair of Doc Martens, call himself a skinhead and spout illiterate racist clichés. Those skinheads were the next big thing. Skins were such a great media gimmick that Morton Downey Jr, a talk show host who found his ratings falling actually claimed he’d been attacked by skinheads in a men’s room at SFO.

Downey claimed these vicious hooligans cut his hair, the cruelest thing you can do to a TV personality, and drew little swastikas on his face with a marker pen. Of course it was a lie; Downey had done it to himself, humming away in a toilet stall as he snipped his own locks and tried to do swastikas on his own cheeks. Always a mistake, trying to draw swastikas on yourself. It’s a difficult design to duplicate, as the aspiring juvenile delinquents in my eighth-grade class always discovered when they tried to carve the Nazi symbol into lunch tables. They soon realized that "666" was much easier to carve or spray onto the public surface of their choice, and worked better anyway because it frightened the burgeoning Evangelical demographic, a much more gullible and easily terrified group than secular authorities.

Jihad is real, in a way that Satan and Nazis are not. But Western jihadis, as a group, are not much more real, or any more of a threat to the US, than skinheads or Satanists were. There are real jihadis, serious fighters, who grew up in the West—but they are classic second- or third-generation immigrants drawn to the ancient quarrels they learned about at home, raised in Muslim-majority neighborhoods in the outskirts of Europe’s big cities. The few recruits who came to jihad out of nowhere, with no family or ethnic connection to the wars of the Muslim world, are a curiosity, or objects of pity, but not a threat.

And the real jihadis, those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are notable most of all for their scarcity. The question isn’t why there are jihadis, but why there are so few of them.

[Image via KXTV]