November 28, 2007


Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis (ANDREA ELLIOTT, 11/25/07, NY Times Magazine)

The people of Jamaa Mezuak were no strangers to militant Islam. A few years earlier, five other men from the neighborhood said their own goodbyes. They went to Spain to seek their fortunes. But they became famous as key suspects in the bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191 people on March 11, 2004. They called home a few weeks after the attacks, their voices urgent. They were hiding in an apartment on the city’s outskirts. As the Spanish police closed in, an explosion rocked the building. The men died instantly, in a ghastly group suicide.

In the years since Sept. 11, the question of what makes a terrorist has become ever more urgent. Much about young Muslim militants remains opaque, from the texture of their family lives to the full scope of their desires. Theories of radicalization have come and gone. Experts have variously blamed poverty, Arab nationalism, the Internet, geopolitics, alienation, charismatic sheiks, dictatorial regimes and youthful anomie. But in the study of contemporary terrorism, there has never been a laboratory quite like Jamaa Mezuak.

Perhaps no theory could have predicted Jamal Ahmidan, a mastermind of the Madrid bombings. He was a feisty drug dealer with a passion for motorcycles and a weakness for Spanish women. His fellow plotters from the old neighborhood in Morocco included petty criminals and a candy vendor. If they seemed a poor fit for militant Islam, so were the young men from Jamaa Mezuak who eventually left for Iraq. One styled his hair after John Travolta. Another was a frustrated comedian. They had yearned for a life in Europe, it seemed, not death in the Middle East.

What, then, caused them to embrace violent jihad? In a city flooded with televised images of civilians dying in Iraq, the forces of politics and religion surely weighed on these men’s lives. For some of them, public outrage merged with personal grievance. One man lost his job and left for Iraq six months later. Another was forbidden to marry the girl he loved. The drug dealer had languished in a Moroccan jail, separated from his young son.

Yet individual experiences and ideological convictions can only explain so much. Increasingly, terrorism analysts have focused on the importance of social milieu. Some stress that terrorists are not simply loners, overcome by a militant cause. They are more likely to radicalize together with others who share the same passions and afflictions and daily routines. As the story of Jamaa Mezuak suggests, the turn to violence is seldom made alone. Terrorists don’t simply die for a cause, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who studies terrorism, told me. “They die for each other.”

There is nothing isolated about Tetouan. This city of 400,000 on the northern tip of Morocco sits just miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It has long been a crossroads between Africa and Europe, a place steeped in many cultures. Today, some of its streets still carry the Spanish names of their colonial past. Men sip espressos in weathered cafes. The city is a short drive from Tangier, the onetime retreat of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, where the Spanish coastline glimmers seductively on clear nights from across the Strait of Gibraltar. It is a constant reminder of what lies just over the horizon, the promise of a different life.

The neighborhood of Jamaa Mezuak rises up over a meandering, muddy river on the western side of Tetouan, at the foot of a craggy mountain. Lines of parched clothing crisscross the rooftops, sharing space with satellite dishes. Much of the area was once farmland owned by a wealthy man who built the first local mosque, or jamaa, in 1933 and gave it his family’s name, Mezuak. Squatters eventually populated the area. Thousands more poured in from the nearby Rif Mountains after a devastating drought in the early 1980s. Many of these farmers and peasants struggled to adapt to city life and would feel alienated for years to come.

Their neighborhood is a cacophonous blend of urban and rural. Sheep spill down alleys, weaving around oncoming traffic. At night, the animals scuttle into converted garages, watched over by aging shepherds with wooden canes. No one knows exactly how many people live in Jamaa Mezuak — the mayor of Tetouan puts the number at 6,000, though others insist that it is triple that. But the streets teem with life. Drug dealers idle near butcher shops, where plucked chickens hang limply for sale. Boys in soccer jerseys linger on stoops. Their uncles gamble in Cafe Chicago, smoking cigarettes rolled with hashish. Weddings are held at the Palace of Peace, a catering hall aglow with glass chandeliers. Down the street, bearded men in djellabas, the hooded robes, gather outside a mosque as women pass by in whispering clusters and slip behind the mirrored doors of beauty salons.

If there is one outlet for the neighborhood’s wellspring of male energy, it is soccer.

Say no more.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2007 7:26 AM

The outlet isn't dating and trying to find a girl. That isn't allowed. And for all the Spanish girls they may date, there aren't many they can actually take home and marry.

Notice there aren't many studies on that predicament and how that may influence the wanna-be Jihadi.

Posted by: Mikey at November 28, 2007 3:45 PM