Twenty years ago, he would have become a militant anarchist, and you’d have found him throwing a bomb in a capital city somewhere. But that’s no longer the fashion.
— Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head, 1931
In the mid-1970s, Americans searching for missing children sometimes found their way to my office in Beirut. Having tried the American embassy without success, the American Broadcasting Company’s news bureau must have been an obvious next port of call. There wasn’t much I could do.
Hundreds of youngsters had come to the Middle East to become revolutionaries. At that time, idealists were disappearing in General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and young people were committing murder for Baader Meinhof in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Japan. Those in Lebanon were usually in their late teens or early twenties who joined one of the many Palestinian commando groups. To those who thought of themselves as Marxists, liberated Palestine, like liberated Vietnam, was a step on the path to world revolution.
Most were disaffected from their families and sought meaning in a struggle that had little to do with them. I remember the brother of one woman who spent months searching for his sister through Palestinian contacts he met through me and other western journalists. There were false leads, dashed hopes and frustrating delays for information that turned out to be useless.
Forty years on, a 15-year-old girl, Sharmeena Begum, was confronting a personal crisis when she left Britain for Syria late last year to join ISIL. She felt abandoned after her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage. Her pilgrimage to Syria was a quest for belonging in a world that seemed to exclude her, a trope that resonates with adolescents in Los Angeles who find in street gangs the security and companionship lacking elsewhere. Thousands of young people have made their way in the past few years from the US and Europe to fight or become brides of fighters in countries, Iraq and Syria, they knew nothing about. Iraq and Syria have become the stage on which they act out their traumas, with Syrians and Iraqis their victims.
It is a rare epoch that has not witnessed some movement or other attracting youngsters to violence, whether organised by the state in armies or by dissidents in gangs. Think of the 13th century Children’s Crusade, when Europe’s lost adolescents went east to liberate the Holy Land and ended up as slaves long before they reached Jerusalem. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a perverse form of anarchism rallied the industrial revolution’s victims. Self-described anarchists assassinated presidents Sadi Carnot of France and William McKinley of the US. They blew up cafes in Paris and the opera house in Barcelona, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. One night in 1919, they set off explosions in seven US cities and attempted to assassinate attorney general A Mitchell Palmer. Panic brought inevitable reaction in the US with the deportation of left-wing activists and harassment of trade unions.
After the First World War, Europe’s misfits formed fascist groupings that seized power in Italy, Germany and Spain. In Britain and the US, the disaffected joined fascist organisations that made trouble on the streets. In Germany, murders that would once have been condemned and punished by the justice system became state policy. Anarchist Mario Buda set off the world’s first car bomb that killed 40 people on Wall Street in 1920. Mike Davis, in his brilliant Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, charts the line from Buda’s Wall Street outrage to Menachem Begin’s underground terrorists. Begin’s comrades perfected Buda’s car bomb techniques against Arab civilians in Haifa and Jerusalem, and murdered British soldiers. Unlike Buda and the anarchists, Begin’s Irgun helped to expel an indigenous population and establish a settler state. Begin also attracted the disaffected, many of them traumatised by suffering they endured at the hands of the extremists who took power in Germany and most of Europe.
Allied victory in the Second World War put an end to the Nazi terror in western Europe. Later, estranged western youth, fed up with American war crimes in Vietnam and European acquiescence to them, harked to the messianic call of Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof and other ultra-leftists whose mission was to terrorise the powerful. They terrified the less powerful as well and had no roots among the workers they claimed to represent. The Red Brigades’ kidnapping and murder of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 failed to provoke the public against the state. “The Aldo Moro kidnapping succeeded in outraging the people of Italy,” wrote philosophers Philip Devine and Robert Refalko, “but it united them in their opposition to the Red Brigades.”
So it is with ISIS, which co-opted Syria’s revolution against president Bashar Al Assad and capitalised on the discontent of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs with the partisanship of the Shiite governing parties in Baghdad. It has recruited, according to a report by the Soufan Group in June 2014, Foreign Fighters in Syria, 12,000 foreign militants from 81 countries. It has embued them with a fanatic ideology that justifies the destruction of civilisation’s earliest antiquities, the enslavement and rape of women, the murder of homosexuals and the decapitation of prisoners and hostages. Their actions have revolted most people, especially Arabs and Muslims in whose name these crimes were ostensibly committed.
In the late summer of 2013, the US was on the verge of bombing the Syrian Army over its alleged use of chemical weapons. Thanks to the rise of ISIL, the US has stopped calling for the overthrow of the Syrian president. It now sees greater danger from the fanatics that it encouraged to destroy the regime than in the regime itself. They are like those that America’s longshoreman-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, described in his book The True Believer in 1951: “When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk. The first glimpse of the face of anarchy frightens them out of their wits. They forget all they said about the ‘poor simple folk’ and run for help to strong men of action – princes, generals, administrators, bankers, landowners – who know how to deal with the rabble and how to stem the tide of chaos.”
CIA director John Brennan said on March 13 that the US did not want the Assad regime to collapse. Three days later, secretary of state John Kerry called for discussions with Mr Al Assad rather than, as in the past, his resignation. This was anathema until the fanatics of ISIS unleashed their terror on the region. Apart from setting most of the world against it and bringing succour to the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad that ISIS wanted to destroy, ISIS provided a haven for insane youth from much of the world. If ISIS falls, where will they go?
Charles Glass is a publisher and the author of several books on the Middle East, including The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary.
This article originally appeared in The National.