Published 18 Jun 07
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
The Terrorist Next Door
Part One: Profiles No More
Some time in the late 1990s, a friend and I took an impromptu three-day trip to Istanbul. As we stood at the airport waiting to check in, a pretty, dark-haired woman, probably in her mid-thirties, approached us, excused herself, and asked if perhaps we might be willing to be of help. Her mother – she gestured to an elderly Turkish woman in a headscarf and long coat and laden with cheap, plastic travel bags – had more luggage with her than the airline would permit. Since my friend and I had just one small suitcase each, would we be willing to check some of Mamma's luggage in under our names?
The poor mother looked frightened. Here she was, returning home after a visit with her daughter in a foreign country where she didn't speak the language, facing an overweight luggage fee she clearly couldn't afford. I started to step forward to assist when I felt my friend's elbow smack against my rib.
"Are you crazy?" she whispered, "Did you see Midnight Express?"
Apologetically, we turned the woman down.
These days, of course, no one is likely to ask a stranger to be responsible for another person's luggage – let alone assume the risk of doing it – but on another recent trip to Istanbul, I thought of that mother and her daughter, and wondered how I would respond if the same request were made of me today. Most likely, the conversation in my own head would run something like this:
"She's an old lady. She's harmless."
"She's a conservative Muslim from Turkey asking you to take her luggage on the plane."
"Don't be a racist. She's an old woman."
"You should never take another person's luggage anyway."
And if I was being honest enough with myself, I would acknowledge that it was, indeed, the fact that she was a non-European Muslim that made me nervous, and the fact that she was elderly and female and wore a soft, shy smile, that made me think she was okay.
On both counts, I'd be wrong.
This past April, Michael Chertoff expressed concerns about European Muslims, who have visa-free entry to the US, indicating a long-overdue awareness within the U.S. intelligence and government agencies of the fact that Islamic extremism is no longer limited to Africa and the Middle East.
In fact, a Dutch report counted 31 planned attacks by European Islamists in the years from 2001-2006. Surprisingly, most suspects were Algerian, not, as many have thought, Saudis and Moroccans.
Moreover, as Yassin Musharbash observed in the German weekly der Spiegel, according to the report, jihadists in Europe "radicalize with little outside interference, … often together with friends and family members." "What this boils down to," writes Musharbash, "is that these Euro-terrorists are recruiting themselves."
Even more startling are the figures explored in Hebrew University professor Raphael Israeli's book, The Third Islamic Invasion of Europe. According to a review of the book in the Jerusalem Post, Israeli has counted "as many as 100,000 French and British citizens [who] have converted to Islam over the past decade." Islam has also become chic in Germany, where 4,000 people converted to Islam between 2004 and 2005. And whereas in the past, such conversions usually took place when a non-Muslim and Muslim wed, Mohammad Salem Abdullah of the German Islam Archive told der Spiegel that most of the recent conversions came "of their own free will." While converts typically remain female, they increasingly include middle-class, male university graduates, as well.
This is not to suggest that conversion to Islam or the expansion of the religion is, in itself, a threat. But many experts acknowledge that new converts tend, like those who have recently stopped smoking, to be the most adamant and conservative in their views, less tolerant of digression from the pure laws of the religion. They have not yet grown comfortable enough with it, wearing it not like an old, beloved leather jacket that has stretched over the years to accommodate their bodies and their movements, but more like the brand new one – still stiff, still just out of the box, still so shiny and new they shrink from anything that could mar its unsullied perfection.
That same close adherence to rules often betrays an uncertainty and unfamiliarity with Islam. And because new converts are less knowledgeable about the religion, and because they tend often to be especially eager to please, they can easily be swayed by one or another interpretation of the Koran. As Magnus Ramstorp, a Swedish terrorism expert told the Christian Science Monitor, "New converts feel they have to prove themselves. Those who seek more extreme ways of proving themselves can become extraordinarily easy prey to manipulation."
But it is the women who increasingly are causing counter-terrorism officials to worry as they being to play a greater role in the jihadi movement. Farhana Ali, an expert on women and terrorism at the Rand Corporation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. , counts off a series of recent female suicide bombers: one the previous Tuesday in Iraq. Seven others in Iraq. At the end of May, Turkish officials detained a woman planning to bomb the 1700-kilometer long Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. "And these are the ones we know about, but there are others which are not known," she says. "You'll see messages in Sunni insurgent web sites that say ‘blessed be the sister who…' – but this is never revealed in the Western media." One female Muslim leader has even stated that while it is primarily a man's role to fight jihad, if women have to play a role, they will.
"And if we can't identify the men," she adds, "how much more difficult would it be to identify the women?"
Ali, who is herself Pakistani-American and a Muslim, calls these women "the untouchables." Because they are female, they are not searched by men at airports, and therefore often pass without being searched at all. One Marine officer also pointed out that most in the military are men, says Ali, which also limits their engagement with Muslim women. "We're not even supposed to look at them, and we respect that," she says he told her. "So what do we do now that we suspect more female bombers?"
What, indeed, do we do – now that the radical Muslim in our communities, praying in our local mosques, riding on our public buses, sitting beside us on commuter trains, is increasingly as likely to be named Sarabeth as Fatima, as likely to be Barnaby or Roger as Mohammed or Ahmed? (Or perhaps not: "Mohammed" has now replaced "Jack" as the most popular boy's name in the U.K.)
"We are so consumed with reports that come out in the papers about ‘know our enemy,'" says Farhana Ali. "But we are not clear on our enemies. It used to be the Sunni insurgencies, and now you have the Shiite insurgents, and in Pakistan there's been a tidal wave since the Afghan war. What we're seeing now is the explosion, these explosive events and these women with their batons threatening the government with suicide." That fact, she says, "is even more alarming and dangerous and threatening to international security." But Ali believes only other Muslims can effectively change the situation. ""We have no entrée," she says. "These people don't want to talk to Westerners. They feel exploited. They believe that the message they would impart will be misconstrued, misrepresented by Western reporters. " But not enough Muslims, she says, are willing to get involved, "perhaps because they understand, or because they don't want to be implicated, associated with these people."
And without that information, without a sense of pattern or structure, old-fashioned profiling – long a standard, if controversial, security mainstay, is of no use anymore. Airline security restrictions continue to be relaxed. Train stations continue to offer no security screenings whatsoever. In Istanbul, shops, hotels, even some restaurants, require patrons to pass through x-ray upon entering, but in the West, we repel from the idea. Yes, there are more dangers there. But what do they know that we should know? Why is security seemingly more important to the Turkish people than our own?
There is no doubt that the systems currently in place in Europe and America are woefully insufficient. Inevitably, many readers will disagree with me on this, calling "ludicrous" many of the kinds of safety measures that have been put into place already; how often have I heard businessmen groan at the idea of having to take their shoes off for X-raying by a TSA agent at the gate? What we need most, though, is not more X-ray machines at airports, but more honesty in the media and a better-informed public. We need more women inspectors at the airports – and, please, at bus and train stations, as well. We need those Muslims who believe their religion has been hijacked to take new converts under their wings and guide them and protect them from the influence of radicals and the often-alluring offers of recruiters for jihad. We need to face the truth that stands, however veiled, before us.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2007 Abigail R. Esman
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