With so many terrorism cases emerging in the U.S. in the past nine months, experts are trying to understand why so much is happening now. One explanation has less to do with religion than with adventure. The latest wave of jihadists traveling to Pakistan and elsewhere for training may have been motivated by a sense of jihadi cool.
The recent Jihad Jane case may be the latest example of this trend.
Colleen LaRose, 46, was a housebound woman from the Philadelphia area. She converted to Islam, but investigators say she was never connected to any particular mosque. Even her live-in boyfriend says he didn't know she was Muslim.
And yet, she is accused of calling herself Jihad Jane in Internet chat rooms, and soon after her conversion allegedly went trolling for people who might join forces with her to wage jihad on behalf of other Muslims.
Recruitment More MTV Than Mosque
That's a far cry from what is seen as the traditional route to jihad. It used to be that jihadi recruitment videos opened with the call to prayer and readings from the Quran.
These days, many of them are decidedly less religious. They look more like something that would appear on MTV.
If you type "jihadi rap videos" into any Internet search engine, you'll find dozens of videos with thumping bass lines and forced rhymes about beheading non-Muslims and making them pay for the indignities they have leveled against Islam.
The productions are clearly aimed at young people nursing resentments and looking for thrills. One video raps about the "angels in green, helping the mujahedeen" while cutting to photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and homemade videos of holy warriors firing rocket-propelled grenades in the desert and shooting up cars with machine guns.
'A New Generation Of Lazy Muslims'
Intelligence officials say there is a wave of young people who are attracted to the adventure of jihad but would like to skip all the rigors of Islam, such as reading the Quran and fasting.
"I think what we are seeing is sort of what I like to term a new generation of lazy Muslims," says Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer and the former national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"These are people who might not be theologically devout or even have a sound religious foundation, but they are using this new jihadi cool to justify criminal acts of terrorism," Iftikhar says.
Experts who study these kinds of movements say that while religion may be an initial motivation to sign up, in the fullness of time, it becomes less important.
Consider the case of the two dozen young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis who were recruited to join a militant group in Somalia a couple of years ago.
Initially, investigators say recruiters used a religious pitch. Ethiopians — who were largely Christian — had invaded Somalia, a Muslim country. The young Minnesotans were told it was their duty, both as Somalis and Muslims, to go to Somalia and fight there for an Islamist group called al-Shabab.
When the Ethiopian troops withdrew, FBI officials say the pitch changed. Recruiters told the young men that going to Somalia would be, in their words, fun. The young men would get to shoot guns. They would become jihad warriors. It would be cool.
Christine Fair is a professor at Georgetown University who is an expert in these kinds of religious movements. She says jihad chic is not so unusual.
"We have ethnographies where they actually ask militants what drew you to this movement," she says. "The top three answers were motorcycles, guns and access to women. You had to go pretty far down the list to get to religious motivation."
The Web And Jihad Warriors
The Internet appears to have made signing up for a holy war infinitely easier — and because it is open to all comers, the standards have dropped. People who might not have even considered becoming a Muslim, much less turning to jihad, can do both with just the click of a mouse.
That's what officials think happened with Jihad Jane. They allege that she trolled the Internet while she was housebound, caring for her boyfriend's ailing father, and that signing up for a holy war was something that attracted a lonely woman. It gave her something to belong to, officials say.
"Just putting my human hat on, I don't think it is remotely remarkable that Jihad Jane happened," says Fair, who is also a fellow at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.
"In fact, if you sort of think about misfits — I'm a social misfit so I feel somewhat comfortable saying this — the Internet is one of the best places for social misfits to reside," Fair says. "They can be whomever they want to be, so I am just surprised we haven't had more Jihad Janes."
This is not to minimize what is going on for the past year on the terrorism front. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 2009 was the busiest year for U.S. counterterrorism officials. They prosecuted more than a dozen cases; the annual average is generally one-third of that.
FBI Director Robert Mueller says the Internet is partly to blame for speeding up the recruitment process. He says the Web now not only radicalizes young Muslims but helps connect them to organizations that launch attacks. Jihadi cool may be a different motivation for taking up arms, but it isn't necessarily any less lethal.