Terrorism as male bonding

Some years ago, Columbia University Professor Richard Bulliet was engaged by several British police forces to review and write reports about allegedly jihadist materials seized during investigations in the cities of Leicester and Edinburgh ...

"The Leicestershire constabulary liked my report, recommended me to Edinburgh, Edinburgh obviously did not like my report and Edinburgh never paid me," the professor said in his lecture series, History of the Modern Middle East, "and since that time, no one has sought my expertise.

"I think it's because I said 'most of this literature is aimed at the overthrow of the Algerian government and I don't see anything wrong with that,'" Bulliet said to a hall full of laughing Columbia University students.

If you're new to Algeria, it might help to know that "official" (read, lowballed) unemployment figures in the country were put at 10.2 per cent last year, but unemployment among university graduates has hit 23.5 per cent, with 71,000 Algerian university graduates estimated to have moved overseas between 1994 and 2006.

(Imagine what the real figures are.)

As part of his work for the police, Bulliet said he watched 20 to 30 video tapes put out by various unidentified Islamic groups, advertising their militant activities and looking for recruits.

He also listened to audio tapes and reckoned, "There's a special genre of Jihadist music. I don't think anyone has really studied it, but it's rather interesting.

"It has to be unaccompanied male voices ... it'll start out with a baby crying, gunfire, bombs in the background, then this really jaunty melody will come along."

Aside from the tapes opening the professor's eyes to the musical abilities of jihadists, he had something of an epiphany about what the attraction was to young men for the work done by militant Islamic groups.

The tape he found most "suggestive" was a video made in Algeria, of which he saw more than a dozen different copies, some edited slightly for length.

"It was called The Ambush, one of the few that had a title. You start out tracking a handful of college-age men, and they're going up into the mountains ... They get up into the camp, and most of the film is related to life in the camp. You see them baking bread and sewing equipment and having a good time. It's basically like Outward Bound, combined with a US Army ad.

"The whole idea is you're with the other guys ... you're there, it's male solidarity and finally you load up, you go down the mountain and you blow up an Algerian army convoy, then you zoom in on all the weapons you've captured and then, finally, you show the martyrs.

"And there you see, in split screen, the guys on your side who were killed, lying on their backs, faces up, pieces of white cloth tying the head, and then, on the other split of the screen, you see them back at the camp, joking and singing and baking bread.

"It's really a notion of male solidarity, that you are with the youth and you were together, you camped together, you got to shoot guns together and some guys died and that's sad and maybe it's my turn next but there isn't a mention of Islam, at least not a strong mention of Islam, anywhere in the tape," Bulliet said.

As with my post last week about the Muslim Brotherhood, I guess what I'm trying to illustrate is how little separates your average Aussie bloke from your average Muslim from the Middle East or North Africa - even a so-called terrorist.

Imagine if Australia had a shitty, violent, corrupt, repressive government and you couldn't find work, let alone go out on the piss and get silly - and it had long been this way.

Then you hear about a group which says, "Hey, let's change this. Let's go blow up some of the people who repress us, shoot some guns, but most of all, hang with all your mates doing cool shit!"

You can't tell me there wouldn't be plenty of takers in Australia: you could fill a bus at most pubs, I reckon.

Now imagine that's all you know; you're unemployed, you're no one, Islam isn't some weird foreign thing, it's the very crucible of your life, it's the thing you respect more than anything, that gives you some structure and direction in the world.

And then there's this group of dudes who are heavy, serious, respected and they respect you, they give you juice, they give you gravitas and they let you blow up shit.


I'm in no way trying to justify terrorist acts against innocent people - but there's "terrorism" like the Bali bombing or 9/11 and then there's trying to overthrow a repressive government like they have done in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and are attempting to do in Syria.

Up until a year ago, the dudes in the mountains blowing up the army convoys of any of these governments were called "terrorists" - so you be the judge of how porous that definition is.

And then think about how different you, me and them really are.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.