With Russian and foreign students seeking to join ISIS, the Kremlin and the world should reassess their approaches to fighting international terrorism in the age of globalization.
Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: AP
The story of the failed attempt by top Moscow college student Varvara Karaulova to join the jihadi frontline will perhaps one day be made into an action movie. Who knows, it might even become a blockbuster hit at the box office.
Today, the acronym ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria] is on everyone’s lips, and the rapid metamorphosis of an exemplary female student into a potential terrorist presents a fascinating psychological case study. Many journalists and experts are racking their brains over how such a transformation could have occurred. The fact it could happen at all seems to be causing something of a sensation.
On June 12 Mariam Ismailova, a 19-year-old student at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, went missing. Ismailova was believed to be trying to reach ISIS through Turkey, via the same route as Varvara Karaulova, who was detained with a group of other people crossing the Syrian border.
But the newsflash about “A-student Varvara” is far from being the first such instance. The republics of the North Caucasus have seen more than a few cases of young and by no means poor, often successful and affluent, men and women rejecting business or college in favor of armed jihad.
However, it would be wrong to limit the analysis of such a complex issue to Russia. Many citizens of Europe are abandoning European values and swearing allegiance to “Islamic State” (whose geographical association with Iraq and Syria is becoming increasingly nebulous).According to a study by British university King’s College, ISIS has more than 3,000 citizens of the West in its ranks, including 320 from Germany and about a thousand from France. Others came from across Europe.
In August of last year Spanish intelligence, together with colleagues from Morocco, smashed a recruiting ring operating out of the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa and the neighboring Moroccan territories. The jihadi hunters’ “prey” included subjects of the Spanish crown.
In February 2015, Norway’s Oslo District Court saw the start of the first lawsuit against ISIS militants — Norwegian citizens of Somali and Albanian origin who had supposedly been handed a lucky ticket to one of Europe’s most socially generous countries.
At the same time it is tempting - but wrong - to link, as some observers do, the "Islamization" of Western countries with the wider issue of immigration. The Kouashi brothers, Said and Cherif, suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack, although having Algerian roots, were born in Paris. According to French commentators, they started out no different from other French youths into the rap scene. Before meeting imam Farid Benietou, their knowledge of Arabic was poor.
Nowadays, a good number of publications on terrorism focus on social disadvantage as the primary vehicle for choosing armed violence as a guiding philosophy, although many past and present terrorists have not lacked education.
Take Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance. In 1981 this certified physician, writer and theologian was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Interestingly, after this tragic incident the authorities hired sociologists to study the "collective make-up" of the conspirators. They found a significant percentage of them had higher education in intellectual disciplines. Al-Zawahiri went on to become a leader of al-Qaeda, an organization in which the ideal warrior combines a high level of theological training with knowledge of a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Hence, it would be delusional to use social background and education as yardsticks by which to judge a person’s propensity for political moderation or radicalism. More often than not the roots of extremism lie not in poverty or lack of knowledge, but in the desire to dismantle the existing socio-economic and political models.
This assertion is no apology for barbarism as a means to restructure the world. But it is impossible not to see that today’s radicalism, however perverse it may be, is merely a response to globalization and the laying down of common standards in which secularism and relativism of values plays an increasing role.
It is impossible not to notice, too, the utter rejection of hypocrisy, which under the guise of "political correctness" is becoming a kind of entry ticket to the "civilized world." Meanwhile, jihadists in the Middle East, the North Caucasus and Central Asia appeal to the ideas of social justice and speak of a "third way" between capitalism and socialism, with no counter arguments from those who should provide them.
It should also be noted that religious radicalism could spring forth without a visit to a "hot spot" or a personal acquaintance with influential warlords or the social turmoil of the Arab and African world. It is enough simply to communicate with people who do not talk of the fight between “good” and “evil,” but outline clear principles, programs and views of the world. Such intimate conversations can produce a significant effect on people who harbor inner doubts.
Yet despite the lively rhetoric about "Crusades" and the "conflict of civilizations," there is no ready prescription for curing such ills. The very real and present threat of Islamic radicalism and extremism does not mean that the confrontation is drawn along clear-cut religious lines.
Within Europe itself there are serious divisions between secularists and supporters of traditional Christian values, while in the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia Islamic radicals and extremists have long been waging war against Muslims who support a secular model in which religion does not replace political and social diversity.
In the fight against terrorism, strong-arm tactics, although important, are not the key element. It is far simpler to arrest or eliminate radicals than to minimize the symptoms of the disease. It turns out, in fact, that openness and transparency give rise to higher levels not only of tolerance, but also of ethnic nationalism, religious radicalism and xenophobia (on the part of both minority and majority groups).
Consequently, to defeat the purveyors of destruction the battle for hearts and minds must be won, and the superiority of choosing non-violence over barbarism conclusively demonstrated. The key idea here is choice, and it must be a clear and persuasive one. That means fewer reports about the successful march of democracy that bring to mind the triumphal communiqués of Soviet congresses.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.