Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Article excerpt

I had an interesting discussion with my friend Aidan Hartley earlier this week about whether the young men fighting for the so-called Islamic State are psychopaths. (This was before the news broke of Steven Sotloff's beheading.) Aidan is better placed than most to answer this question, having worked as a war correspondent for many years and written a classic book on the subject called The Zanzibar Chest.

His view is that the Islamic radicals attracted to IS are not run-of-the-mill jihadis, but a particularly nasty sub-species. Without in any way trying to defend the activities of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, whose handiwork he's witnessed close up, he thinks of them as being more like the IRA. That is, their adherents are motivated by a toxic cocktail of political and religious ideology which sanctions the murder of civilians as a means to an end.

The members of IS, by contrast, aren't ideological fanatics so much as bloodthirsty monsters. They've travelled from places like Sydney and Manchester purely because they want to chop people's heads off. Their talk of wanting to reverse the Sykes-Picot Agreement and create a caliphate joining Iraq and Syria is just so much rhetoric. In reality, they're evil predators who've flocked to the killing fields so they can indulge their sick fantasies.

Now, I can see why Aidan has reached this conclusion. The actions of some members of IS, such as tweeting pictures of their children holding up severed heads, is so shocking that they do seem different in kind from other jihadis, not just different in degree. It's as if the part of the human brain that recognises such behaviour as abhorrent is missing and, for that reason, their behaviour is more disturbing than hijacking a plane and flying it into a skyscraper. It's a step beyond terrorism into something closer to insanity -- Mr Kurtz territory.

Still, I think Aidan is wrong about IS. To begin with, I don't think there's a significant difference between these Islamists and their counterparts in groups like al-Qa'eda or Boko Haram. They are no less murderous, no more merciful. When it comes to non-Muslims, they are all completely indiscriminate about whom they maim and kill: women, children, the disabled -- it makes no difference. If you want to call the jihadis in IS 'psychopaths' I think you have to apply the same label to the al-Shabaab terrorists who murdered more than 50 people at the Westgate shopping centre. …

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