The profiles of the suspects behind the Paris terrorist attacks reflect a pattern often seen among perpetrators of previous atrocities—a group of guys who turned from drugs and petty crime to terrorism. What’s new is the potency of the movement that mobilized them.
To many in the West, Islamic State represents a medieval-style death cult. To its sympathizers, estimated to number in the thousands or even tens of thousands in Europe, its radical message of reviving the Sunni Muslim caliphate is strengthened by the fact that it already rules over territory.
Scott Atran, a Franco-American academic who has interviewed hundreds of radical Islamists over years, likens the rise and allure of Islamic State to the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks in czarist Russia and the National Socialist Party in Weimar Germany.
It wasn’t police, intelligence services or military that finally defeated the anarchist movements that sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, but the Bolsheviks. Similarly, he says, Islamic State is eclipsing older jihadist movements including al Qaeda, in large part because of its hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.
“What destroyed [the anarchists] was the Bolshevik movement, which was just more brutal,” he said. “It was territorially based….They could say ‘We’re going to change the world just like you guys want but we have the real means to do it.’”
The existence of a “caliphate”—whose creation and expansion Islamic State fighters see as reflecting the divinely ordained Muslim conquests of the seventh century—provides the basis for a more hopeful message for followers than al Qaeda’s mostly negative motivation of punishing the West for oppressing Muslims.
“It creates this much more dynamic impetus among these would-be young world-savers, much like the National Socialist movement—which wasn’t the case of al Qaeda,” Mr. Atran said.
Despite that difference, much about the Paris attacks replicates the “groups of guys” phenomenon identified by Marc Sageman, a former officer in the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Brussels-based suspects, like the attackers in 2004 in Madrid and in 2005 in London, were rebels on society’s margins, generally in their 20s and mostly without religious parents. They converted late, often after dissolute or aimless teenage years when they may have indulged in drugs and petty crime.
They aren’t at the bottom of the social ladder; the most humiliated in society tend not to join such groups, though they may be sympathizers. In fact, some of the Paris suspects came from families with some means, owning local shops, bars and sizable houses. Having access to resources allowed them to pay to travel to and from Syria, rent cars, and buy weapons and bomb-making materials.
Such such individuals suffer from a double alienation: from their often nonreligious parents and from the Western societies where they grow up and founder.
“The young kids, instead of getting their knowledge and their morals and their values and their dreams in life filtered through [their parents], are going out horizontally and connecting with one another,” Mr. Atran said.
Social networks and the Internet connect them to a transnational underground jihadist culture. Instead of broadening their minds, the Internet funnels them into a narrow worldview that resonates. Their parents are oblivious or, if they suspect something is afoot, often reluctant to turn in their children.
This generational divide is strongly evident in Molenbeek, the mostly Muslim neighborhood of row houses in Brussels where the suspected plotters were raised.
One local shopkeeper said the generation gap was exacerbated by young men’s use of the Internet, where online videos posted by groups like Islamic State fuel radicalism.
“This is not us; it comes from elsewhere,” the shopkeeper said.