Shadowland: From Communism To Al Qaeda

Remember when "Carlos the Jackal" was Mr. Terrorist? Those were the days, in the 1970s and '80s, when America's chronic war was against godless communism, and Carlos was about as communist and godless as they got. The Venezuelan-born murderer and hostage-taker was a whiskey-swilling, Havana-smoking libertine; a self-described "professional revolutionary in the old Leninist tradition," he styled himself the playboy of the anti-Western world.

Well, Carlos (real name: Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) has just come out with a book, and it may be the first of many. He's now a lifer in French prison, he's only 53, he's got plenty of time to write and European publishers are hungry for his tales of booze, babes and bombings. But Carlos, for the moment, wants us to believe he's found God. Or Allah, if you will.

The title of his tome translates as "Revolutionary Islam," and parts of it read like fan mail to those Muslim heroes who replaced Marx and Lenin on the Jackal's hit parade. No. 1, of course, is Osama bin Laden, whom Carlos calls "luminous" and "the living symbol of Jihad." Writing of September 11, the Jackal says "the collapse before the cameras of those insolent twin towers, which stood there in defiance of the Third World's misery [shook] the West out of its somnambulant torpor."

Frankly, the Jackal's book put me in a somnambulant torpor. (Don't look for excerpts in Maxim anytime soon.) Carlos gives only a quick glimpse of his own career as a freelance terrorist who did most of his work for Palestinian paymasters. There are a few modest teases about his life with his lovers. London, Moscow, Budapest, Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Paris are cities "that will be part of my spirit always, because they're definitely linked with the four great loves of my life, and no two loves are the same." But Carlos, nine years into his prison term, is courting French intellectuals these days.

They're vulnerable targets. When the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, it crushed their comfortable left-wing prejudices, and many French intellectuals have been more than a little frustrated ever since. Bereft of a credible ideology, they embraced negativism and nihilism, mainly in the form of anti-Americanism and no-globalism. So why not Islamism, which is, God knows, capable of being all those things?

Carlos, the gnomelike little man who once held OPEC ministers for ransom in Vienna and shot down unarmed French policemen in Paris, certainly thinks that way. The Jackal spends page after page juxtaposing arguments for dialectical materialism (whoa! only in France ...) and the quasi-apocalyptic rhetoric of the jihadists: "The Third World War has begun, but the United States was the sole initiator. America declared war on humankind." Yet even the French aren't buying this stuff. The book appeared in late June and since then has sunk without a trace.

American right-wing intellectuals, on the other hand, probably will love it. Carlos's book is written testament to the notion, increasingly popular at the American Enterprise Institute and in the pages of The New Republic, that today's Islamists draw their inspiration not from old-time religion (which is, er, good) but from old-time leftists (who are, emphatically, bad). And while neocons may not yet be reading the Jackal, they're eating up the work of French scholar Olivier Roy like so much chicken soup for the soul. Al Qaeda, writes Roy, is "a junction of a radicalized Islam with a shrill anti-imperialism reshaped by globalization." As spun by the neocons, this "neofundamentalism" suggests a seamless skein of conspiracy: communists inspire Islamists; the evil empire morphs into the axis of evil.

Right. In fact there's less here than meets the eye. Yes, politicians are always looking to freshen their message, and terrorist leaders are, for better or worse, would-be politicians. Western-educated (or at least Western-experienced) Islamist ideologues are trying hard to expand their appeal beyond the mosque. They want the cover of intellectual respectability. And they want to recruit on the streets of Paris and London, of Jakarta and Detroit. But the power of dialectical materialism ain't going to do that job. And neither is "neofundamentalism."

Many things may drive young recruits to become the cannon fodder of terrorist organizations: poverty, humiliation, frustration, thwarted hopes, the deaths of relatives. But what's most likely to pull them in is the promise of adventure, of glory--of sex, guns and heavy-caliber rock and roll, plus God's blessing, of course.

When it comes to sex, we're not only talking about those mysterious houris (those supposed black-eyed virgins) that the Qur'an promises in the afterlife. At least since the 1980s, recruiters for the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical organizations have exploited the frustrated lust of young Muslim men by promising them easier paths to marriage than traditional materialistic society allowed them. No need to buy your wife an apartment and show you could support her, as her parents demanded; being a good Muslim was enough. Hizbullah went one better and endorsed the notion of short-term marriages of convenience, which in some cases amounted to religiously sanctioned prostitution.

Then there's the Hollywood angle: the inspiring experience of guts and glory on the big screen with Surround Sound. Or, for that matter, on home video. When members of Hizbullah held the British professor Brian Keenan hostage in the 1980s, he observed them watching "Rambo" movies over and over again. Never mind that the good guy was killing bad guys much like them, they loved the action and identified with Sylvester Stallone. In Mogadishu last year, big crowds turned out to watch "Black Hawk Down," sharing vicariously in the big-screen carnage that some of them may have lived firsthand a few years before.

Mohammed Atta and his cronies who executed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon visibly drew more inspiration from Bruce Willis movies than they did from the ancient texts of Islam. "Terrorists very much see themselves in that hero mindset," a British researcher on terrorist psychology told me during a conference at St. Andrews University in Scotland last weekend. "Look at September 11," he said, "that was pure Hollywood."

So maybe we should be thankful that Carlos is bogged down in dialectical materialism and theories of Islamic revolution. Terrorism, for the terrorists themselves, is not the intellectual exercise that the left, the right, or the Jackal seem to think. If Carlos starts writing in earnest about booze, babes and bombs, on the other hand, he might just win the ranks some new recruits.