Joan Smith: Lost boys at war with modernity

What is striking about these Islamists is that they are educated and very middle class

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Much as I dislike long flights, it has never occurred to me to board a plane with 80 grams of Semtex- derivative sewn into my knickers. Like most passengers, I read paperbacks, walk up and down the aisle a few times, and pick unenthusiastic- ally at the in-flight meals; I'm not sure how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab chose to pass his nine-hour flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, but he must have been conscious that if he succeeded in his alleged purpose, none of the passengers around him was going to survive.

As the world now knows, the previously obscure Abdulmutallab was removed from Northwest Airlines flight 253 with third-degree burns to his legs and groin after passengers spotted flames and dragged him from his seat.

Although it has been reported that he shouted slogans about Afghanistan as he tried to trigger the device, 23-year-old Abdulmutallab does not fit the stereotype of a poverty-stricken jihadi; he is the son of a former chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and lived in an up-market flat in London while he studied for an engineering degree at University College. Yet again, an alleged terrorist has turned out to come from a background lacking in the commonly assumed triggers for Islamist radicalisation: poor family, lack of education, the grinding frustration of growing up with too few choices.

That is the situation of millions of young men (and women) in the Middle East and Africa, but the vast majority don't become bombers. Indeed what is striking about the recruits attracted by the Islamist ideology of al-Qa'ida and its offshoots is that so many of them come from the educated middle class.

Mohamed Atta, who piloted one of the planes which flew into the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, was a trained architect, while Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed, who launched the failed attacks in London and Glasgow in the summer of 2007, were a doctor and an engineer respectively. Omar Khyam, one of five men jailed after Operation Crevice uncovered plots to blow up Bluewater shopping centre and the Ministry of Sound nightclub, came from Crawley, West Sussex, where he captained his school cricket team; much later he travelled to Pakistan to train in the camps where two of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, were taught to make bombs.

So where should we begin to look for an explanation of the mechanisms which draw these young men into a secretive world of intolerance, hatred and violence? It is a very obvious point but insufficient account is taken of the fact that they are young and male; female suicide-bombers are rare, not because women are inherently nicer but because Islamism is an ideology which isn't much interested in (and has very little to offer) the female half of the human race. But if you are a troubled teenage boy or twenty-something, it offers a "warrior" identity which is at once exciting and promises to obliterate the complexities of the modern world at a stroke.

This much is evident from the "martyrdom" videos made by the 7/7 bombers and other British-born jihadists. The whole business would be risible if the intended consequences weren't so deadly. These young men are desperately searching for an identity and they think they've found it in an ideology which reinforces their loathing for everything they find threatening. In that sense, Islamism resembles other extreme sects, religious or secular, in that it creates an "in" group whose members are encouraged to feel antagonistic to anyone who doesn't belong.

In the 20th century, communist organisations were notoriously (and lethally, as Trotsky found out) fissiparous, while the enmity of competing groups within religions leaves outsiders baffled. The Islamist "club" excludes aspects of the modern world which are troubling for young men who feel torn between two cultures. Time after time, bombers display a similar set of characteristics: they take advantage of what modernity has to offer, becoming engineers or doctors, but reject great swathes of modern ideas.

Osama bin Laden's pitch is a return to "traditional" values in which women and gay people disappear, along with anyone who doesn't subscribe to the Islamist's totalitarian world view. One of the mistakes that 21st-century commentators make is to treat Islamism as a new phenomenon, when there are instructive examples in history of a resort to hyper-masculine identities; in the Sixties, the leadership of the Black Panthers in the US created the paradox of a "liberation" movement that was a response to genuine grievances but disfigured by disgusting misogyny and homophobia.

Mohamed Atta's misogyny emerged in his will, which stipulated that his corpse should not be touched by women. One of the would-be bombers caught in Operation Crevice suggested bombing the Ministry of Sound because it was full of "slags" enjoying themselves. Abdulla and Ahmed parked a car full of explosives outside a venue popular with hen nights. In the case of Abdulmutallab, friends could not recall ever seeing him with a girlfriend and one said he was "not a party boy. He'd never go to the disco". Of course no one has to like parties, but hatred and fear of women is one of the defining characteristics of Islamism.

What's so depressing about the profile of these young would-be jihadists is that they exist at a moment of unparalleled opportunity, but they have been manipulated and turned against it. Abdulmutallab's father was so worried by his son's growing radicalisation that he reported his fears to the US embassy in Nigeria, but clearly the family had no idea how to counter it. No doubt the same conundrum is vexing millions of people who have read about the alleged attempt to kill almost 300 people on a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.

Terrorism is protean, changing its form as the security services struggle to use their knowledge of the last attack to predict where the next will come from. But some things are clear: Islamism is a symptom, not a remedy, and any programme to counter it needs to focus on making insecure individuals feel more at ease with themselves. Islamism has no coherent alternative to equality, free speech and democracy, and its offer is a literal dead end: a pantomimic version of masculinity perfectly symbolised by a young man boarding a plane in exploding knickers.

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