Joan Smith: Barot and Bin Laden are no more than death cult fantasists

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The most striking thing about Dhiren Barot, the Muslim convert who was jailed for 40 years last week, is the pleasure he seems to have taken in contemplating the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Barot's terror plots were on a huge scale, rivalling the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and included one to bomb a Tube train under the Thames. He fantasised about burning and drowning his fellow citizens, creating carnage on a scale even more horrific than the 7/7 bombings.

What these lurid dreams of destruction tell us about extreme Islam - Barot was described as an "associate" of al-Qai'da - is that it's a death cult. Such things are not uncommon and they've swept across Asia in recent years: the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, hard-Left hunger strikers in Turkish gaols, suicide-bombers in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. All these fanatics would argue that death is a means, not an end, but I'm not convinced.

Take the example closest to hand - the radicalised Muslims in this country whom the head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, warned about last week: their behaviour appears at first glance to be political, in the sense of being a response to the Government's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we live in a democracy, not a dictatorship, and millions of us oppose the war in Iraq without plotting to dismember our fellow citizens. The 1,600 individuals whom Manningham-Buller identified as under surveillance by the security service don't have to plant bombs or kill themselves to make their point - and does anyone really believe they'd return to normal life if British troops were brought home from Iraq? Or if Israel withdrew, as it so clearly should, behind its 1967 borders?

People who make such arguments need a reality check. Radicalised young Muslims display most of the signs of belonging to a cult, which recruits clandestinely and romanticises the idea of violent death. The recruiters set out to separate impressionable people from the wider community, stoking a sense of grievance and victimhood which hasn't much to do with the objective circumstances of their lives; they are brainwashed with images of death and destruction, desensitised to the consequences until some are capable of committing the atrocities we saw last year.

It's a huge mistake to think of Islamism as a coherent political programme. Its aims, which include the return of the medieval caliphate or Muslim empire, and the introduction of sharia (Islamic law), are neither reasonable nor realisable. I'm not even convinced it's what al-Qai'da is truly seeking to achieve; there's always been something of the ham actor about Osama bin Laden, and it's much easier to sit in a cave and enjoy the mayhem you've unleashed than to engage in serious political debate. The leaders of al-Qai'da seem to have a great deal in common with recent cult leaders such as Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple, who persuaded more than 900 of his followers to commit "revolutionary suicide" in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.

This type of man is in love with violence and power for their own sake. Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are seldom photographed without guns, symbols of the gruesome death they threaten us with, and yet there is a tendency to treat their followers as if they were rational people. The sooner we come to realise that they're brainwashed young men who get off on psychopathic fantasies of extreme violence, the sooner we will understand how to recognise and defuse them.