The few converts to Islam who join jihadist groups reveal social, not religious rationales for their decisions

John Walker Lindh, otherwise known as ‘the American Taliban’, was recently released from Terre Haute Penitentiary in Indiana, serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence after being captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

Back then, Americans were astonished as to how a 20-year-old man, who grew up in a tranquil suburban setting in northern California, could join the Taliban.

The circumstances of his conversion to Islam and his life trajectory, taking him from California to Yemen to Afghanistan, are worth examining today, as his case foreshadowed the trend of converts to Islam eventually joining the ranks of Al Qaeda and Daesh.

Furthermore, his release provides is an unprecedented case. Lindh apparently remains committed to the cause he joined, raising fears and questions as to how he will adjust to life after prison, and whether he will pose a threat.

The Life of John Walker Lindh

Lindh grew up in the Nineties in Marin County, a scenic and affluent area north of San Francisco. He converted to Islam in his teens, and in his twenties went to study in Yemen, then in the religious schools of Pakistan, and finally went to Afghanistan, then under the rule of the Taliban, where he joined their fight against the beleaguered Northern Alliance.

After the US toppled the Taliban in October 2001, he was found in December following an uprising in a camp holding militants. He was sent back to the US and sentenced to 20 years on terror-related charges. He was released three years earlier for ‘good behavior’.

Graeme Wood of the Atlantic corresponded with Lindh while he was in detention and concluded that during his 17 years in captivity he transitioned from being an Al Qaeda supporter to a Daesh supporter.

It has been reported that Lindh will reside in Virginia, where he was sentenced. US President Donald Trump objected to his release and Senators Richard Shelby and Maggie Hassan wrote to the Bureau of Prisons to asking what “policy, strategy, and process” were in place to ensure that a terrorist can “reintegrate into society”?

The senators’ question raises a more significant question, as to what led to Lindh’s choice in the first place and can such a strategy be developed.

Understanding Lindh’s Motivations 

The French academic Olivier Roy, in his 2017 Guardian article, ‘Who Are the New Jihadis?’, examines how converts to Islam may be susceptible to join jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh. In his article, he examines French converts who joined Daesh, but his theory also has applications for understanding American converts like Lindh.

His argument is that a small segment of “second-generation” French Muslims of immigrant families and “native” French converts comprise a generational revolt against their parents. Converts to Islam have ruptured with their parents, whether they be Catholics or secular, and then seek out a new family if they are disowned from or disavow their biological family.

Many converts to Islam do have the support of their family or find a new family in their local Muslim community, or simply raise families on their own. Few converts seek familial ties and brotherhood in groups like Daesh.

Lindh had the support of his family when he decided to convert. Nonetheless, he disavowed them and sought out belonging in Afghanistan.

From a French academic to an American country-folk singer, Steve Earle also provides analysis of Lindh’s motivation in his song, John Walker’s Blues. The lyrics are written from the perspective of Lindh, and the song generated a great deal of controversy in the US. Critics argued the singer had sympathised with Lindh.

Rather, Earle had empathised with him. He did not condone Lindh’s decision, but sought to question how Lindh’s fate could have happened to any youth growing up in America.

The opening lyrics read:

I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads
But none of ‘em look like me.
So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

In this case, Earle highlights the alienation and apathy that could be felt by any youth coming of age and seeking meaning higher than life itself. 

Another example who fits this pattern was Adam Pearlman, otherwise known as Azzam al Amriki, who emerged as the English spokesperson for Al Qaeda. He grew up in southern California and was a death metal fan before converting in 1995. Twenty years later he was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.

Scott Atran, a French-American anthropologist, in a testimony before the American Senate, analysed what would attract such alienated youth to jihadist militancy:

When you look at young people who journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran 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 that they will never live to enjoy.

The key takeaway is that examining faith as the causal variable that inspired Lindh, or the other youth who would join Al Qaeda and Daesh misses the point of secular reasons for joining these groups.

As Roy writes, this trend is not so much a product of the “radicalisation of Islam,” but the “Islamisation of radicalism”.

Converts to Islam and Global Terrorist Networks

Most converts to Islam, whether it be in the US or other countries lead mundane, banal, peaceful lives. The case of Lindh and few others are an aberration rather than the norm.

There is no standard profile of how individuals are attracted to terrorism, a search that has been as elusive as the holy grail. There is no apparent single, simple solution to the deradicalisation and rehabilitation of terrorists either. Thus, Lindh’s future after incarceration remains uncertain. In retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, the only solution would have been approached by Muslim peers to Lindh in his formative, younger years.

However, by examining Lindh’s life trajectory and his motivations, we can better understand others in similar circumstances who joined Al Qaeda or Daesh. This issue is paramount as countries, particularly in Europe are grappling with what to do with its citizens who joined Daesh and are either incarcerated there or in Syrian and Iraqi prisons.   

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