What Drives the 'Lone Wolves'?

Where do their ideas come from?

If you can kill a kafir [a person who does not believe in Islam] American or European…then rely upon Allah, and kill them in any manner possible.
--Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State,  Issue 12, November 18, 2015

ISIS—the Islamic State—may be losing territory in Iraq and Syria, but it has spread its influence across the world, reaching Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Ohio State University, and now Berlin.  How?  ISIS has turned murder into a DIY phenomenon.  A phenomenon filled with what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the organization that morphed into ISIS, called “the ecstasy of self-sacrifice and the pleasure of Jihad.”

The “caliphate” has used the Internet to reach out to people from 15 to 35 years old, instructing them on how to be a part of something we all need—something idealistic, something bigger than ourselves, something that gives our lives meaning, something that makes us heroes in the eyes of our fellow humans and gems in the eyes of whatever God we are devoted to. 

But jihadist Islam is able to offer something more: an express ticket to paradise.  The means to that palace in the heavens with rooms “made of green emerald and red ruby” and your very own 72 maidens whose virginity is instantly restored after the sexual act? “Kill and be killed.”  And where does the imperative to “kill and be killed” come from?  From Muhammad, the one true prophet of the only god, Allah.  It comes from Muhammad’s quandary in 625, a dilemma that Muhammad faced at the Battle of Uhud, his second military engagement.

Muhammad was utterly unlike previous prophets.  He did not call himself a prophet of peace.  He called himself “nabiyyu ‘l-malhamah,” “the Prophet of War.”  Muhammad was the only prophet to command 65 military campaigns.  He was the only prophet to personally lead 27 of these military operations.  And he was the only prophet to conquer 317 square miles a day for eight years running.  How did Muhammad get into the business of killing?

Muhammad started out as a solid citizen of Mecca, a town in the vast barrens of what is today western Saudi Arabia.  When he was 40, Muhammad was sleeping in a mountain cave where he’d  gone to meditate for Ramadan when a force grabbed him around the ribs and crushed him three times so hard that, “I thought it was death.” A voice told him to read.  It was, he eventually concluded, the angel Gabriel delivering messages directly from God.

When Muhammad went home to Mecca and started preaching his Godly communiques, his fellow Meccans regarded him as a nuisance and a threat.  They conspired to kill him while he slept.  So Muhammad fled to the town of Yathrib, 280 miles up the road.  And a handful of followers fled with him.

To support his believers and to repay the citizens of Yathrib for their hospitality, Muhammad made a decision that would change the course of history.  He turned to violence. The caravans of Mecca carried precious cargos that included “frankincense, silk, precious metals and leather” 1,893 miles from the Indian Ocean ports of Yemen in the south across the barren sands and northwest to Damascus in the neighborhood of the Mediterranean Sea.  On their way home, the caravans carried their profits.  There was a popularly accepted taboo in the Arabian desert against attacking these lifelines of income.  And that taboo was multiplied when it came to the sacred months, a period of the year too holy for war.  But Muhammad decided to break with custom and raid these long lines of camels, cash, and a handful of merchants and  slaves.  Then some of his followers went the Prophet one better.  Writes Ibn Ishaq, the members of one of Mohammed’s raiding parties “agreed to slay as many of the” caravan riders “as they could.”  And they performed this killing despite the fact that it was a holy month in which killing was normally forbidden.  

Surprisingly, Muhammad did not chastise his men for this unnecessary slaughter.  He praised it.  He transformed killing innocent men into a holy and noble deed.  How? The victims were kafirs, unbelievers.  Thus was the virtue, the exaltation, and the godliness of killing those who do not believe in Islam established.

The owners of the caravans just happened to be the leading folks back in Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca.  These town fathers decided to stop Muhammad’s raids by eradicating the raiders.  But a strange thing happened when the Meccans, highly experienced in war, rode to Yathrib and attacked.  They were defeated.  Utterly.  Many were killed.  To add insult to injury, Muhammad had the bodies of the Meccans thrown into a well.

So the Meccans planned a second assault, this time with their numbers strengthened by allies.  Muhammad knew the Meccans were coming. He donned two coats of mail and a helmet held on with an iron-chain chin strap, strapped on his sword, his bow, and his bulging arrow case, then positioned his forces with their backs to a mountain.  But there was a problem.  The mountain of Uhud had a double hump.  The Meccans could come through the pass between the two humps and attack Muhammed’s men from the rear.  So Muhammad positioned archers at the pass.

At first, Muhammad’s troops drove the Meccans from the battlefield.  Exultant with their victory, Muhammad’s warriors stooped to strip the Meccan bodies of their expensive weapons and clothes, a “gift” Muhammad in the Qur’an called “Bounty from Allah.” Plunder and its distribution would become so important to Islam that it is the subject of an entire chapter of the Qur’an, Chapter 8—Al Anfal, “The Spoils of War.”  When Muhammad’s archers saw their fellow soldiers scooping up the loot, they ran to the battlefield to pluck their share before nothing was left.  This was a mistake.  The Meccans doubled around the mountain, filed through the pass, and descended on the Muslims from behind.  What did Muhammad’s stalwart troops do?  They fled, leaving Muhammad alone on the battlefield with only one body guard. 

How could Muhammad prevent future disasters like the Battle of Uhud?  How could he make sure that his men stayed on the battlefield killing the enemy even if it meant certain death?  Muhammad (or Allah) came up with the idea of an express ticket to paradise for men who die “killing and being killed.”  Specifically, killing kafirs, unbelievers.  And Muhammad added one more vital detail.  The Muslim paradise was not like the dull and boring Christian heaven where you sat at the feet of God singing his praises day after day.  Muhammad said that, “chairs made of pearl are arranged for the martyrs and the maidens with big lustrous eyes will get down from their upstairs rooms.”   These “large-eyed maidens” will be more delicious than anything you’ve ever seen on earth.   They will be “beautiful,”  “full-breasted,”   “eternally young,” with “wide and beautiful/lovely eyes”  Muhammad put sex in paradise.

And more.  The Prophet made killing a pleasure. He said, “I wish I could be killed in the Way of Allah, then live again so that I may be killed again, then live again so that again I may be killed, then live again so that again I may be killed.”  Why?  Added Muhammad, killing unbelievers and using “great slaughter” to “thoroughly subdue the land” pleases God.

Holiness, righteousness, manners, and decency in Islam are based on the example set by Muhammad.   According to one of Muhammad’s many Islamic biographers, “Sincerely tread the footsteps of Allah’s final Messenger [Muhammad]… observe his glorious actions and attitudes, and most important of all follow them.”  

Today, hundreds of millions of Muslims model their lives on the example the prophet set during his years of peace.  They model themselves  on the tolerance and pluralism Muhammad showed in the days before his move to Yathrib and the commencement of his military campaigns.  But others model themselves on the period of the Prophet’s life in which he became addicted to the systematic use of what he called “slaughter” and “terror.”

No wonder ISIS is able to motivate Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, Omar Mateen in Orlando, Abdelhamid Abaaoud in Paris, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel in Nice, Abdul Razak Ali Artan at Ohio State, and Anis Amri in Berlin to use trucks, knives, guns, and explosives to perform what Dabiq proudly calls “massacre.”  No wonder these young idealists value death more than you and I value life.

These warriors are following the example of Muhammad, "by whose sword Allah exalted the light of Islam."


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