Brotherhood of the Dispossessed

A reporter’s close-up focus on young Muslim jihadists world-wide

Timed for release with the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Michelle Shephard’s Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone ploughs through the world of terrorism over the decade since. Shephard, the Toronto Star’s national security correspondent, travelled widely through the hotbeds of discontent from Pakistan’s federally administered tribal agencies to Mogadishu and on through the no man’s land of Yemen gathering material for this compelling volume. She was fearless and intrepid in following leads and tracking down radical ideologues, then worming her way into their reality. She finds the guilty among the innocent and the innocent among the guilty.

One can taste the sand between one’s teeth, so vivid is Shephard’s language and so compelling her interlocutors. She presents them largely as they are, ideologues ready to die for a cause while offering the coffee and hospitality traditional in the regions she travelled through, then attempting to buffalo their way through interviews, some shielding themselves from too overt an admission that their loyalties make them the prisoners of the most violent of Islamists.

Even close associates of Osama bin Laden tried to bamboozle Shephard through the haze of double speak. “Sharif became frustrated when I mentioned comparisons between the ICU [Islamic Courts Union] and the Taliban during our interview.” This reporter stays on task: ask the question and then ask again. Either you will get a more fulsome response or enough to draw your own conclusions. In the same interview, Sharif denied claims that foreign fighters were training recruits at ICU camps and said he had nothing to do with recent audio statements about their “brothers” in Somalia. “It was what we expected him to say and it was clear he would offer little else.”

Others were openly candid, sometimes eerily so. “So, it is a well-known thing that we [were] fighting a noble war in Afghanistan against the Russians. If killing Russians was permitted because of our faith, then the faith is the same. Why, after all, today the same faith does not allow us to do the same thing to the Americans?” Their rationale: in a world where they feel the overwhelming weight of decades of humiliation and frequent betrayal, radical Islam has become the means to reclaiming their identity and defining themselves with pride against what they see as exploitative colonialists who too often propped up dictators friendly to their own interests at the expense of these men, the men in the street. In their struggle to fight this humiliation they found that religion can be harnessed to soothe the soul, turned into a motivator and used as a weapon, for and by the frustrated and disenchanted. Islam speaks to them of dignity.

The thorny issue of integration of young Muslims into new societies is, I think, much greater in Europe where often both governments and peoples prefer “apartheid” to anything resembling equal participation in society. These economic migrants become the “wretched of the earth,” suffering continuing humiliation on the streets of Amsterdam and Paris, as with the battle of the burka. With social isolation comes radicalism. Young and not so young Muslims gravitate to the mosques just as other disenchanted and isolated youths from various backgrounds gravitate to street gangs in order to find community and social acceptance, safety and meaning. Therefore it should come as no surprise that with mosques as the only real place of refuge comes the brotherhood of the dispossessed, aided by funding from radical Saudi sheiks who defy their own governments for the satisfaction extremism offers.

North Americans have not experienced extreme Islamaphobia as it manifests itself on Rotterdam’s streets, perhaps because both Canada and the United States are countries founded by and reliant on immigrants. We nevertheless suffer from an inability to accept comfortably the most recent wave of newcomers, which breaks sharply with former groups from Europe. Accommodating the “other” is often no easy task. In this, Shephard demonstrates a real desire to understand the complex world and mindset of these unfortunates. She believes even kids on the streets of Toronto make easy converts as homegrown radicals, these children of recent immigrants often left alone in new and unwelcoming surroundings by their hard-working parents, having to find their own way in a new land. For them, just as in Europe, the mosque becomes the hangout that defines their identity and gives them a cause, enabling them to cope with their sense of alienation in a threatening world, offering an assurance of dignity whether in this life or, more importantly, the next.

Shephard’s text, at the same time, is full of anecdotes and personal encounters that deliver a “here and now” atmosphere at its most compelling:

We picked up Abu Jandal on a street near his home in Saawan, a dusty neighbourhood punctuated by concrete barricades, which made it feel as if you were driving through a pinball machine. Abu Jandal was standing on the street, checking his watch, as we approached … more business executive late for a golf game than the fabled jihadist.

Unfortunately Shephard sometimes cheapens her achievement by being too cute: “One of his hands slipped down slowly under his leg, which crossed with his ankle resting on his other knee. From that little triangle of space near his crotch his hand emerged with a point-and-shoot camera … Just as he was about to snap the money shot, I drew back sharply.” Respecting a senior CSIS agent: “old-school—blunt, crude, he wore cowboy boots and had an ass-kicking personality.”

The last comment refers to Jack Hooper, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. To be fair, Shephard devotes almost equal time to western responses to the jihadist challenge. She consistently looks for a Canadian angle through the stories of Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, the Toronto 18, CSIS and the RCMP. She is highly critical of how the government dealt with the Khadr situation in Guantanamo and Canada’s playing into the hands of the Americans respecting extraordinary rendition. However, both accused and accuser in Canada generally get by with a relatively benign, even understanding, approach from this author.

The same cannot be said of Washington, particularly the Bush administration post-9/11, a period during which Shephard believes George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were wildly misguided in their “war on terror.” She in no way denies the legitimacy of the emotions Americans, and indeed Canadians, felt after 9/11 but is convinced that the Bush “war” led to the triumph of fear and vengeance over reason, creating a new generation raised on rhetoric and revenge, exacerbating the challenge of radicalism rather than muting it.

In my view, what Shephard neglects in her perhaps too sensationalist search is the influence of the neoconservative philosophy of those surrounding the president, such as Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol. These men brought the power trio of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to assumptions respecting American values and exceptionalism that led to the belief that American moral and technical superiority gave Washington the right, indeed the duty, to reform the world in its own image, an image that proclaimed that democracy, freedom and material wealth were there for the taking.

The Project for the New American Century, the neoconservative manifesto, legitimized, at least in the eyes of its authors, the right to do the necessary to create a better world. What Bush took away from this utopian thesis was the following: “We will rid the world of evil-doers” in “this crusade, this war on terrorism.” Anything was acceptable in combatting tyranny and terror, hence the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their consequences in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Too easily the thesis is twisted in the popular mind and becomes a “war against Islam.” This is such a convenient phrase that it almost certainly became the operational, if never quite articulated goal, of the neocons. Sadly this unspoken descriptor made its way to the western street and with it the fear that “our way of life” was at risk. Such widely held beliefs may well lead us down the path to the very thing we fear most, a particularly nasty self-fulfilling prophesy.

The “wise” men of Washington never made much effort to understand the social, political and emotional climate in which terror planted its seed. They were either unaware of or indifferent to the reality in which others lived, so comfortable were they with their own ideologies and fantasies. Ultimately, the “tough” guys, who interpreted questioning as weakness, woke up to find they had built their own wonderland with the president as Alice, blissfully unaware of what the Mad Hatter had to say.

With Guantanamo itself, Shephard pulls no punches. She cites Cheney’s derisive comments about the Geneva conventions and waterboarding—that times had changed and in order to ensure American security one had to work on the “dark side”—reminding us that Guantanamo was so attractive to American decision makers because it was out of reach of the American court system and the rights afforded the detained on sovereign American turf. This inevitably leads her to the sad tale of Omar Khadr, the Toronto-born child soldier and detainee.

For her public stance in support of Khadr, Shephard reports that she was called a “terrorist lover.” In her journalism for the Toronto Star, she questioned the withholding of blankets, appropriate footwear, toiletries, books and television from prisoners. To her credit, she tried for a balanced approach, reporting on the prisoners’ being latterly well fed and provided with excellent health care, even if the doctors involved helped devise interrogation techniques and sanctioned forced feeding. But she is extremely clear regarding her primary concern: that the prisoners had not been convicted of any crimes.

The results of the war on terror as conducted by the Washington coterie have, according to Shephard, been, inter alia, a series of important “gifts” to terrorist recruiters: the Iraq war, the abuse of prisoners, the burning of Korans, predatory drones, faulty intelligence, the American rhetoric of hate. All have been enlarged and presented to would-be terrorists as evidence of the challenge the Islamic world faces with the West, further evidence of the West demeaning and negating generations of learning and tradition. In a last chapter, the author makes a preliminary effort to judge the impact of the current Arab revolt against authoritarian governments and the consequences for the western interface with the Islamic world.

There seem as yet no clear answers, nor will there be for some time, if ever, but certain things seem clear to Shephard: bin Laden may be dead but the ideas he represented are not and will not be unless there is real change, democratization in the Muslim world and increased understanding of different cultures and societies along with palpable respect from the western world, that violent Islam will start to lose its appeal. In my view however, and I think in Shephard’s, this is a long shot. Attitudes, culture and narratives have dug so deep into the psyche of both sides that the concept of the “other” so permeated the soul of the players that such thinking will not change, even if new technologies give western intelligence agencies, those tasked to be the guardians of law and order, the technological advantage. How long will that advantage last?

Not that the reader is likely to be the victim of a suicide bomb or extraordinary rendition, as deadly serious as these threats may be. This is a tragic story with massive misinterpretations and threats on both sides of the equation. But just as Shephard allows herself the luxury of slipping into banter from time to time, I will do the same and end this review on a slightly lighter note: caution is required when reading this tome in hardcover, as a few of us Luddites still do. Douglas and McIntyre should look for a new printer. My hardback fell to pieces as I read it, the binding seemingly incapable of holding the pages in place.

In the end, though, this was a small price to pay for a good, worthy and far-reaching read, respecting a very serious subject.