ISIS: Berks with MANPADS?

Mehdi Hasan writes: [R]ead the books of the forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman; the political scientist Robert Pape; the international relations scholar Rik Coolsaet; the Islamism expert Olivier Roy; the anthropologist Scott Atran. They have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of gun-toting, bomb-throwing jihadists and they all agree that Islam isn’t to blame for the behaviour of such men (and, yes, they usually are men).

Instead they point to other drivers of radicalisation: moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose. As Atran pointed out in testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “… what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world.” He described wannabe jihadists as “bored, under­employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer … thrilling, glorious and cool.”

Or, as Chris Morris, the writer and director of the 2010 black comedy Four Lions — which satirised the ignorance, incompetence and sheer banality of British Muslim jihadists — once put it: “Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.”

Berks, not martyrs. “Pathetic figures,” to quote the former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove, not holy warriors. If we want to tackle jihadism, we need to stop exaggerating the threat these young men pose and giving them the oxygen of publicity they crave, and start highlighting how so many of them lead decidedly un-Islamic lives.

Just to be clear — since berk is a British expression some Americans may have never heard — berks tend to be harmless. They typically draw scorn from others because they have a habit of becoming the victims of their own foolishness.

I haven’t seen Four Lions yet but these clips and Chris Morris’s description of his own research make it clear that he took his subject seriously. Even though he chose a comedic form, he endeavored to give the issue an honest representation.

Accurate as Four Lions might be in its characterization of some of the individuals who might have been inspired to travel to Syria to join ISIS, this doesn’t really make the current picture less disturbing.

The capacity of ISIS to recruit berks doesn’t diminish the threat it poses; on the contrary, it means that ISIS commanders have a plentiful supply of cannon fodder.

It’s reported that in the battle to capture the Tabqa air base, 346 ISIS fighters were killed — twice as many casualties as there were among government forces.

For Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an abundance of berks in the lowest ranks of ISIS probably looks like one of his army’s greatest strengths.

But ISIS also has lots of other strengths — its successes can’t all be attributed to its ability to intimidate its adversaries through sheer brutality.

One of the photographs that showed up on Twitter soon after ISIS took control of Tabqa showed a fighter carrying what looks like an SA-24 MANPAD — one of the most sophisticated Russian-made antiaircraft missile launchers available.

Even if none of these berks know how to use it, it’s reasonable to assume that their commanders are currently interrogating prisoners with the promise that a would-be trainer can be assured that he won’t be decapitated — just yet.

Whether a guy wielding a MANPAD happens to be a berk is of less consequence than the fact that the weapon he is holding can strike an aircraft at 20,000 feet.

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