For a long time, there was a meme going around atheist circles that showed the Twin Towers pre-9/11 that said something to the effect that if there was no religion, then the World Trade Center would still be standing. Like most memes, I think the “no religion, no 9/11” notion is rather facile, especially since being highly religious, even “fundamentalist,” in one’s thinking does not mean one is going to run off to join a religiously motivated terrorist group. ISIS is an excellent example of this, since many of their Western recruits know next to nothing about the religion they supposedly are going to fight for:
I am not arguing that ISIS is “not really Islamic,” but rather that it’s not always fundamentalists as commonly understood who commit terrorist acts under the name of ISIS. As the two articles linked above indicate, many ISIS recruits are petty criminals with little knowledge of Islam, but find ISIS to be a useful way of channeling their rage and disaffection with mainstream society into a supposedly righteous cause. In this sense, it’s not that much different from the Nazi Party’s SA “Brownshirts,” many of whom cared little about politics as such (but were convinced that Jews, socialists, and communists were the sources of their problems), but enjoyed beating people up as a recreational sport. As you may recall, Hitler eventually eliminated the SA during the “Night of the Long Knives” once he determined that they were a liability to his future goals. Similarly, I have no doubt that the men who actually run ISIS see these Western fighters as little more than cannon fodder who can provide free publicity for ISIS by self-immolating themselves, while they stay out of sight and administer ISIS-controlled territory.
One book that I’ve found helpful in understanding why ostensibly non-religious or religiously illiterate people would pledge allegiance to a group that calls itself the Islamic State is “The Making of Pro-Life Activists” by Ziad W. Munson (no, I’m not saying pro-life activists are the equivalent of ISIS, so get that idea of your head). Although the conventional wisdom states that pro-life activists are “religious zealots,” Munson illustrates that simply being religiously conservative and disliking abortion is not enough to inspire someone to make the shift from being personally against abortion to being an anti-abortion activist. Rather, anti-abortion activists tend to be find themselves slowly integrated into the movement through a chance encounter, often casual or social, with established activists before they have clearly defined views about abortion. Individuals who were at a crossroads in life (e.g.,, graduation, divorce, retirement, joining a new social circle) were particularly susceptible to be becoming activists, because it’s a cause that provides meaning to their lives. The subject becomes gradually more involved in anti-abortion activism (i.e., donating money to an anti-abortion organization), develop more defined beliefs about abortion, and then immerse themselves in the activist lifestyle.
Similarly, if we look at how many Westerners end up joining ISIS, we see a similar process at work: a turning point in life (e.g., being in prison, losing a job, starting high school or college, parents divorcing), a chance encounter with ISIS, usually through social media, developing strong jihadi beliefs, and then pledging allegiance to ISIS. A strong knowledge of Islam is not necessary to be inspired to fight for ISIS, according to this model, and since these Western recruits are just cannon fodder, I think ISIS leadership cares less about what these conscripts believe and more about what they are willing to do for the cause.
If we accept this mobilization model as true, then it becomes clear why the plan offered by Newt Gingrich et al. to put all mosques under surveillance is so ridiculous (aside from the obvious fact that doing so would be a major breach of the First Amendment and the “religious liberty” conservatives claim to love so much). None of the individuals who committed the high profile attacks in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, or Nice were affiliated with a mosque or religious organization of any type. If the individuals who are actually planning terrorist attacks aren’t attending a mosque, then monitoring this institution would be a colossal waste of resources. ISIS recruits aren’t interested in the Islam preached by mainstream imams or even the quietist brand of Salafism that eschews jihad in favor of personal moral development. While it is no doubt comforting for many people, regardless of their religious or philosophical equation, to think that we can increase our security just by targeting anyone in a hijab or a throbe, the real terrorists are walking among us in jeans, baseball caps, smart phones, and the other superficial markers of Western civilization.