This past week in a Montreal courtroom, a 29 year-old Canadian Muslim, Ismael Habib, made headlines with his attention-grabbing we-love-death pronouncement as he was questioned about his radical views and newfound ideology in Shariah Law. Apparently, his greatest desire is to fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Habib further alleges that while he was visiting Syria in 2013, he hung out with “real” Chechen jihadis and whipped a Syrian prisoner accused of rape. That was the life. Anything else, perverse. Canadian Muslims are not “true” Muslims.
Habib’s life wasn’t always this way. He was likely raised in a moderate household surrounded by family and friends that hold similar views to other Canadians on society and life. I am willing to bet his upbringing was similar to most Canadians that grew up in a religious household: a different belief system, but his parents were teaching him respect, obedience, values, and love. Habib has never been charged with a crime against a fellow citizen, let alone anyone else in the world. Yet, he became radicalized at the age of eighteen. Even now, though, he suggests he holds no ill-will toward Canadians.
And he’s not the first young Canadian to become radicalized and want to join the Caliphate. For whatever reason, these children are not content in their current lives and get caught up in the fantasy of fighting for what they’re told is a true and noble cause; of sacrificing their lives for a cause which is greater than themselves; of controlling a gun, tank, fighter jet, or the detonator on a suicide-vest making them important and powerful decision-makers over life and death; of winning virgins for eternal life. It may sound absurd, but take away the realities of war and conflict, and one can see the romance in it: the choice between a typical Canadian life or, like the fantastical storybooks, a real adventure for a true hero or heroine.
In reality, however, those that travel to these foreign lands to exact jihad on non-adherents or live in the Caliphate, quickly find disillusionment rather than enlightenment. One woman fled the United Kingdom with her five children for this probable paradise only to regret her decision because the people she trusted are “not Islamic.” Now she wants to come home. Most of the boys that fall for the same fantasy will spend their time as lookouts or guards in unimportant towns, as cooks or lowly servants schlepping food and clothing to ISIS’ real heroes. Similarly, for the girls, they will be married-off to men acceptable to ISIS and their greatest and only role is to provide children to both an adherent and the movement. If ISIS can’t win the hearts and minds of the locals, they will just repopulate it with the indoctrinated.
It’s all so less romantic. And it’s no wonder Habib didn’t stay in Syria to take up the fight when he initially travelled there. Yes, he whipped a Syrian prisoner and has the video (read: t-shirt) to prove it. He was hanging out with jihadis – real ones, he swears. He was one of them. Accepted. And he demonstrated his conviction with the lash. But when given the chance to join their ranks, he chose to return to Turkey to his wife and children. He could have sent for them, but he’s a family-man first. Against his will, the jihadi-in-waiting was sent back to Canada by Turkish officials after his return from war-torn Syria. Who would have seen that coming!? And it was back on Canadian soil, safe from the realities of actual sacrifice, that Habib decided it was his “duty” to fight with ISIS. Clearly, Habib loves death more than life.
Perhaps Habib’s life is better understood in the context of a boy wanting to live the “fantasy” without actually putting his life or real values on the line for his “radicalized” beliefs. Look at Habib’s picture above. Really look at it. Or this one. In both pictures, there is a lost, scared boy feigning strength; a serious threat; a possible recruit; a guy that can live the life of a would-be defector without actually doing it. Habib holds a gun, puffs out his chest, and strikes what he considers to be a serious terrorist pose. He’s tough. A menace to society. He embodies rebellion and anti-establishment views. Come to think of it, he looks like a Canadian teenaged boy thinking about living the gang lifestyle. All bravado and no brains.
After all, Habib is now facing serious charges in Canada with real consequences. He was quick to point authorities toward a local Montreal Imam that he alleges is responsible for radicalizing Muslim youth. Being an ISIS recruit, shouldn’t Habib protect his radical sources so they can continue with their Canadian contributions to the Caliphate? Besides, the police are well aware of this particular Imam. With manipulative repentance, Habib sounds like a petulant child telling mommy that his older brother was doing something worse, hoping it will lessen his meted-out punishment. And wouldn’t this local Imam already have trusted sources to help boys-turned-radical-soldiers leave Canada for the frontline of their holy war? Instead, Habib was speaking to an unknown asset, an undercover RCMP officer, about leaving the country, as well as demonstrating his terrorist “street-cred” through home video. Pretty easy to be a tough-guy when your opponent can’t fight back. And this time, Habib really meant it. He really wanted to go back to Syria and take up arms. Scout’s honour.
Habib wants Canadians to know that he is connected, in-the-know, an important cog in the wheel of a local terrorist cell. He’s been caught and he will go to jail. Knowing that’s the worst that can happen to him, and in the relative safety and comfort of a Canadian courtroom, he can meekly pound his chest and spew sensational rhetoric. He is defeated. At least he is not dead. And he will be able to continue his personal narrative of being a would-be-terrorist to impress the impressionable. Other children.