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The New Wannabe Jihadis

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By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby

Ten years ago in South Africa, the biggest, baddest gangs in Cape Town were called "the JFKs" and "the Americans." Every day, you'd see murals promoting 2Pac and Thug Life. American inner-city gang life was providing a form of expression for South African anger and discontent.

Gangsta rap and "thug life" has become a dominant way for young people in America and around the world to express resentment, anger, and discontent. But these days, it feels like jihad is the new gangsta rap.

Islamic extremism is not a monolith: it's a mix tape. There's the global domination track of al-Qaeda, the Persian Empire resurrection song of Ahmadinejad, the radical liberationist cut of Hamas. These are all parts of the twenty-first-century soundtrack of fanaticism. And there are those who want a piece of it for themselves, who adopt its guise to catch some of the glamor of the original.

Consider some of the biggest news stories recently. One week we have Jihad Jane, a Pennsylvania woman who lived a double life plotting international terror attacks, and the next its Chechen rebels in Russia targeting commuters in subway suicide bombings.

Colleen LaRose, known now as Jihad Jane, was an unlikely candidate for radicalization -- the new face of jihadi cool. A 40-something woman living in a small Pennsylvania town, her live-in boyfriend claims he didn't know she was Muslim. Neighbors claim they never saw a religious book in her house, nor did she attend mosque or show other signs of her devotion. What she did was visit jihadi websites and post comments and videos, using these online tools to recruit women and men to plan violent attacks in South Asia and Europe.

This isn't a young Muslim seeking a way to assert an identity and prove ultimate devotion. This is middle-class ennui seeking adventure and stardom through militant Islam.

Last week we heard from Doku Umarov, a former Chechen separatist who has breathed new life into a suicide battalion. His latest accomplishment is masterminding the two gruesome subway attacks in Moscow that killed dozens. The New York Times describes Umarov and his group of nationalists as seeking something "more grand, more heroic" than their previous separatist campaign. And today, that translates to one thing: the notoriety of Islamic terrorism. Commentators are already comparing his relative symbolic status against the gold standard, bin Laden.

One of the most chilling parts of this story is a photograph that has haunted both of us over the past few days: a 17-year-old wearing an abaya, holding a gun, shoulders encircled by another "freedom fighter." Maybe she saw Public Enemies, the recent American film on John Dillinger. Maybe she thinks the new version of gangsta is jihad. Maybe she thinks a movie will be made about her.

We're not suggesting that people don't have grievances (some real, some imagined). But these aren't soldiers in the clash of civilization. Call them Chechen separatists or new world order gangstas, but don't call them jihadis. They're just wannabes who have adopted the guise of Muslim extremism because they know it gets the global attention of the original.

(Originally posted on The Washington Post's "On Faith", Faith Divide)