Are the Virginia Tech murders the latest expression of a strain of violence embodied in radical Islamist terrorism? Post 9/11, terrorism inspired by al Qaeda has been devolving in a progression that can best be described as from the caliphate to Columbine. That is to say, from a pseudo-religious political movement to nihilist acts of destruction. Welcome to the McJihad.
Osama bin Laden and the other founders of al Qaeda are now more destructive as a global brand than they could ever hope to be as tactical terrorists. After al Qaeda’s success on 9/11, the media and the Internet presented them a global platform on which they have been shrewdly marketing their anti-Western bile and seductive perversion of Islam. The videos and writings of Bin Laden are devoured by entire communities of angry young men in the Arab world, but also throughout the West.
Internet chat rooms are buzzing with calls to jihad and technicians helping teens learn how to kill. From dark corners of the web, the terrorists’ marketing is winning minds from Florida, to Iraq and maybe to Virginia Tech. Some readers are identifying with the Islamist propaganda and mystique, but not because they hope to emulate Saladin, but rather because it stands as a paradigm of defiance to anything the reader finds oppressive. Al Qaeda is the new Che Guevara: a hip tee shirt, a motto, a symbol of rebellion and resistance.
The Virginia Tech killer’s suicide video offers a striking parallel to an Al Qaeda bomber’s shaheed (martyr) video. We know that other young Americans appear to have largely ignored al Qaeda’s ruse of being about Islam but still have absorbed its methodologies, its nihilism, and its ever escalating body count. With a camcorder and a modem (or willing accomplices in the media), an al Qaeda suicide terrorist can air his grievances to the world, gain instant fame and rightly expect some infamous immortality. Why not an unhinged college student or a jilted lover?
The face of terrorism has changed dramatically in just five years. Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Zawahari take credit for a grand Muslim “awakening” post 9/11 in which all of the Muslim world will violently overthrow their infidel nations and live together under a corrupted version of Islamic law in one great land, the Caliphate. But the real awakening has been of violent, nihilist individuals and groups who pay no real allegiance to al Qaeda or its goals for this caliphate. More often, Bin Laden and the terrorist propaganda serve as an excuse and inspiration for deranged people who fetishize about, and sometimes commit, mass violence.
Al Qaeda’s marketing has been so pervasive that it has served as an excuse for violence by angry young men who were not practicing Muslims. In January 2002, 15-year-old Charles Bishop crashed a small plane into an office building in Tampa, Florida. He had no connection to al Qaeda but nonetheless his lengthy suicide note praised Bin Laden, 9/11, and threatened a nuclear explosion at the Super Bowl. Though he ultimately killed only himself, on his suicide flight he aggressively buzzed a loaded Southwest Airlines passenger jet just as it was taking off from Tampa airport.
The Virginia Tech tragedy, carefully documented by its perpetrator and Bishop’s suicide flight may be al Qaeda’s newest, though unintended, product. This latest iteration of terror will likely be characterized by individuals and groups recruited via the advertising of al Qaeda. They may completely ignore the pseudo-religious veil and adopt only its mythology of personal grandeur and pathology of violence.
How can we hope to stop lone lunatic killers bent on their own McJihad? Certainly police and faculty must be trained as “First Preventers” who can identify precursors of such violence, but even then there may be few clues before hand. This battle needs to be waged in the information domain both locally and globally.
Locally we must squelch violent speech and bloodthirsty ideation when we see it and we can not let mistaken views on privacy stand in the way. We now know that numerous teachers, fellow students, therapists and even judges were terrified by the potential for violence from the Virginia Tech murderer. His school counselor was so concerned he would attack her during their sessions that she arranged a panic code word with her assistant. In late 2005, a judge wrote that he “presents an imminent danger.” Yet, no preventive action was taken.
On the global stage, governments and media should join forces to present a counter-narrative to al Qaeda’s seductive marketing. Simple steps include challenging imams who preach hate and using technology to reduce violence’s free range of the web. More challenging, but also more critical, is to market the truth about the promise of the West, and to reveal the nihilism of al Qaeda and their betrayal of Islam.
– R. P. Eddy, a former director at the National Security Council, is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, where he is executive director of the Center for Policing Terrorism.