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We need a smarter way to fight the jihadi elite

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A17

Somehow, he conned the Jordanian secret service into thinking he was their agent. Then he conned the CIA into thinking he was their agent, too. After that, he conned both the Jordanians and the Americans -- his "enemies," he told al-Jazeera -- into believing he could track down leaders of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, by far the most intriguing thing about Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi -- the suicide bomber who killed eight people at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, two weeks ago -- is his wife, Defne Bayrak.

"My husband was anti-American; so am I." That was what Bayrak told the editors of Newsweek's Turkish edition last week. Bayrak is a 31-year-old Turkish journalist and Turkish-Arabic translator who says she met her late husband in an Internet chat room. Her publications include articles for Islamist publications and a book called "Bin Laden: Che Guevara of the East." Unlike others in her family, she wears a black chador, which in Turkey is not merely religious clothing but also a political symbol. She is no shrinking wallflower. "I am proud of my husband, he carried out a great operation in this war. I hope Allah will accept his martyrdom, if he has become a martyr," she told reporters in Istanbul.

Bayrak is a shining example of what might be called the international jihadi elite: She is educated, eloquent, has connections across the Islamic world -- Istanbul, Amman, Peshawar -- yet is not exactly part of the global economy. She shares these traits not only with her husband -- a doctor who was the son of middle-class, English-speaking Jordanians -- but also with others featured recently in the news. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied at University College London before trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day. Ahmed Saeed Omar Sheikh ("Sheikh Omar") was born in Britain and studied at elite high schools there and in Pakistan and dropped out of the London School of Economics before murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan was born in Arlington, graduated from Virginia Tech and did his psychiatric residency at Walter Reed before killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood.

These people are not the wretched of the Earth. Nor do they have much in common, sociologically speaking, with the illiterate warlords of Waziristan. They haven't emerged from repressive Islamic societies such as Iran, or been forced to live under extreme forms of sharia law, as in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, they are children of ambitious, "Westernized" parents who sacrificed for their education -- though they are often people who, for one reason or another, didn't "make it," or didn't feel comfortable, in their respective societies. Perhaps it sounds strange, but they remind me of the early Bolsheviks, who were also educated, multinational and ambitious, and who also often lacked the social cachet to be successful. Lenin's family, for example, clung desperately to its status on the lowest rung of the czarist aristocracy.

Bayrak herself draws a similar kind of comparison, by linking the names of jihadist guerrilla Osama bin Laden and communist guerrilla Che Guevara. Alas, I haven't read her book, but I can see what she means: Both Osama and Che have claimed to fight in the name of the poor and oppressed, while simultaneously appealing very deeply to the wealthy and disgruntled.

In recent years, the emergence of this international jihadi elite has often been blamed on European immigration and assimilation policies or, rather, the lack of them: Several of the Sept. 11 bombers were radicalized in Hamburg; the 2005 London Tube bombers were born in Britain. There are other European examples. But the case of Bayrak, who was educated in a secular Muslim society -- and that of Hasan, who is American -- suggests that this elite has a much broader base and radical Islam potentially a much wider appeal.

The case of Bayrak and her ilk also suggests the need for another kind of anti-terrorism strategy. Too often, we still consider public diplomacy to be a sort of public relations activity, the "promotion" of American values. Instead, we should think about it as an argument. The Bayraks and Balawis of this world are engaged in constant debates -- in Internet chat rooms, in the halls of publishing houses, in mosques. Are they hearing enough counterarguments? Are we helping the people who make the counterarguments? I suspect that they don't and I'm certain that we aren't -- nearly a decade after Sept. 11 -- and that has to change. Intellectuals may wear glasses and read books, but neither prevents them from throwing bombs -- or from strapping them inside their underwear.

applebaumletters@washpost.com

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