Ideologues and Idiots

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For almost half a century, the classic 1966 film Battle of Algiers has been required viewing for anyone wishing to make sense of terrorism. It has been used as training material both by security forces and by anti-government militants.

Terrorism, though, has moved on since then, and governments now confront decentralized groups very different from the highly organized secret armies of bygone years. We see instead tiny but lethal cells like the Tsarnaev brothers.

In understanding those newer movements, we can learn much from another very different film, which offers a bizarre mixture of wild farce and acute political observation. If you watch the 2010 British film Four Lions, you will see a bizarre comedy in which a would-be jihadi suicide bomber disguises himself by dressing up as an ostrich. You will also come away from the film vastly better informed about the realities of contemporary terrorism.

Four Lions portrays a group of Islamist extremists in the British city of Sheffield. Drifting to radical views, they form a cell pledged to destroy infidel society. Declaring such a goal, though is one thing, and realizing it is quite another. Each member has his own crazy idea about what to do: one wants to blow up the Internet. Another has grossly violated security by trying to buy silver nitrate from Amazon. As the cell's leader complains to his wife "I can't even get them to stir their tea without smashing a window." They ultimately plan a simultaneous suicide attack recalling the London subway attacks of July 7, 2005 -- "7/7." In a horrific prefiguring of recent American events, they target the London Marathon.

The uninitiated viewer might take all this as Monty Pythonesque satire, if it did not correspond so closely with the reality that emerges from surveillance of actual jihadi groups in Britain. Such recordings offer a chilling blend of bloodthirsty plotting, together with outright stupidity and unintentional humor, all delivered in working class English accents. (They all call each other "bruv," for brother). The film's writer Chris Morris reports having researched the work even before 7/7, but much of the dialogue uncannily echoes groups who came to light afterwards. My personal real-life favorite involves the jihadi who complains that he tried to establish Shariah law in his own home, but his wife wouldn't let him.

After a terrorist incident like the Boston bombings, media outlets argue at length whether perpetrators were highly-trained ideological professionals, or else confused inadequates lashing out at a society that had seemingly rejected them? As Four Lions suggests, they can be both and neither. A group might involve a spectrum of motivations and personality types, including individuals who in other circumstances might be charming friends and neighbors.

They are however subject to a group dynamic in which each person tries to prove his credentials, by offering suggestions even more outrageous than his colleagues. Think of it as a comedy of errors: you don't believe the monstrous suggestion you just made, I don't believe the even more extreme plot I just offered to top it, but together we will work each other up until we have concocted a homicidal scheme that we cannot cancel without ruining the images we have so elaborately constructed. Recalling many real life precedents, the worst blowhard among the "Lions" is an English convert to Islam, who is under special pressure to prove his status as a super-Islamic warrior.

Also uncannily true to life is the group's sexual outlook, and its obsessive focus on infidel sexual sins. As we so often hear in surveillance tapes, the West must be destroyed because it permits sexual freedom, and encourages women to dress and act like provocative "slags" (sluts). Extremists are tempted mightily by the sexual attractions all around them, and yet they know they must spurn and condemn them, and that raging conflict infuriates them. The film reminds us of the critical role played by ideas of gender and masculinity in drawing members to radical groups.

At the same time, Four Lions is perceptive in making the leader's wife such a key character. Indeed, she might be the smartest and most ideologically-driven activist in the whole network. In real life too, however hard their menfolk try to cover their tracks, wives, mothers and sisters often feature in jihadi plotting.

In organizational terms, Four Lions is instructive. It reminds us that even a tiny terror group can still do immense damage. In practice, any cell with more than five or six members is probably too large to maintain effective security and discipline. A movement with just eight or ten such five-man cells is potentially big enough to wreak havoc on a major Western nation.

Following an attack like Boston or 7/7, the question always surfaces: did they do it alone, or were they obeying orders from a wider structure? Were they al Qaeda? Four Lions suggests just how meaningless such questions ultimately are. Yes, this group has wider connections, and members travel to Pakistan to train in paramilitary camps. But once they are organized, they follow their own ideological dynamic, even if they never hear a word from an external control, or a superior officer. They are self-identified members of a global movement, and might claim the label of a particular franchise such as al Qaeda; but day-to-day supervision is wholly absent, and it's doubtful whether any larger organization has much specific idea what they are plotting.

It's all suitably post-modern, and extraordinarily difficult to combat. The only solution is excellent intelligence work, in maintaining close surveillance of known and suspected militants and their networks. And to hope that some day, perhaps one of them really will be dumb enough to buy silver nitrate from Amazon. Usually, such efforts work, but on rare occasions, intelligence slips up. Real-life "Lions" like the Tsarnaevs can then blunder their way to accomplishing an atrocity like Boston.

Earlier this year, a British court tried a group of extremists who had been plotting multiple deadly bombings in shopping centers and rail stations, with the goal of killing hundreds or thousands of British infidels. Repeatedly, the group's intercepted conversations echo Four Lions. In a touch that even Chris Morris's prophetic comedy could not invent, the group's leader was a 320-pound blimp who favored bomb-making because he was too fat to train with other weapons.

On this occasion, though, life followed art even more closely than usual. This particular group of jihadis had so enjoyed the film that they took its title for themselves. They called themselves the Four Lions.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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