In his 1988 book “Seductions of Crime,” UCLA sociologist Jack Katz devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the “ways of the badass.” “In many youthful circles,” he writes, “to be ‘bad,’ to be a ‘badass’ or otherwise overtly to embrace symbols of deviance is regarded as a good thing.”
According to Katz, there are three elements to being a badass. First, he is cold, “not easily influenced,” indifferent to others, unmoved by emotion. Second, he is alien, embracing “ways of living that appear hostile to any form of civilization.” And third, he is mean, engaging in violence “without the limiting influence of utilitarian considerations or a concern for self-preservation.”
“Seductions of Crime” has an exotic cast of criminal characters, including novice shoplifters, gangbanging street elites, stickup men, righteous killers and cold-blooded murderers. But it is the badass who most fascinates us, who draws us in and shakes up our senses. We like Tony Soprano, Keyser Söze and Walter White’s alter-ego Heisenberg, to name just a few, albeit fictional, folk devils. They are strange, awesome, larger than life. And this is precisely why we like them — and why they terrify us.
“Seductions of Crime,” published 13 years before 9/11, was written for a very different world from the one we inhabit today. But the paradigmatic badass is still with us, only now he doesn’t have a gangster face; now he has a jihadi face. For the ultimate badasses are the caliphate-invoking, kafir-hating, sword-wielding men in black of Islamic State. This is in no way to glamorize the group. But it may be the key to understanding why some young men from the West give up everything to join it or affiliated groups.
Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old British rapper from London, is a case in point. This is the man British officials suspect may be the killer of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The killer, masked and dressed like a ninja, was seen in the shocking videos of Foley’s and Sotloff’s beheadings. Abdel Bary — a.k.a. Lyricist Jinn a.k.a. L Jinny — recently tweeted a picture of himself apparently holding up a severed head. The caption read, “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.”
Last year Vice magazine published an article on the use of social media among British jihadis in Syria. In countless “selfies” you can see these young men proudly posing in military apparel with guns at the ready. There are loving, close-up shots of personal hardware, including a chrome AK-47 with the caption “Rolling wit d chromey homey.” These jihadis seem more like frustrated high school actors, desperate for attention, than bona fide badasses.
Who, really, are these young men? We still know dismayingly little about them. But we do know something about the jihadi groups they are joining. Despite the divisions and fractures within their ranks, their goal is to seize political power. They want to establish an Islamic state or, more ambitiously, a caliphate incorporating many Muslim-majority states.
And for all their ideological differences, these groups are united in what they’re against: America, Jews, apostates, gays, women’s rights, religious freedom, materialism, free speech, secular democracy, alcohol, pork and on and on. We also know something about what these groups demand of their members: discipline, physical courage, piety, murderous violence and self-immolation.
In his research on jihadi terrorist attacks and plots in Europe from September 2001 to October 2006, Edwin Bakker found that of the 242 jihadi terrorists involved in 31 incidents, a clear majority were first-, second- or third-generation immigrants from Arab countries in North Africa or with roots in Pakistan. Many had come from the lower strata of society, and significantly, at least a quarter had a criminal record. Almost all were male and most were “born again” Muslims, discovering religion later in life.
It may be that the Western Europeans who reportedly represent up to 18% of the 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria share similar backgrounds. What little we do know, from news reports and social media, seems to confirm this, although there are some notable exceptions, including Abdel Bary himself, who scarcely grew up in hardship.
The attractions of jihadi groups to such men are clear. They directly answer to what is existentially missing from their lives: a sense of identity, belonging and purpose.
Furthermore, and as Quintan Wiktorowicz, former member of President Obama’s National Security Council, has convincingly argued, jihadi groups offer the promise of spiritual redemption. Join us and purge yourself of your sins. Join us and become a hero to your people. Join us and guarantee your place in paradise. This has a special resonance for gang members with a guilt complex, which perhaps explains why so many Western jihadis are former gang members and why Islamic State is directly targeting this group in its recruitment videos.
At the same time, jihadi groups emphatically answer to altogether more visceral desires: They promise excitement, adventure and unrestrained violence. Join us and strike terror into the hearts of infidels everywhere. Join us and prove your worth. Join us and become a martyr. Join us, in other words, and become the ultimate badass.
Islamic State’s propaganda — especially its notorious execution videos — is saturated in badass iconography. Look at this material — if you dare — and you will see unspeakably terrible things. Men brandishing AK-47s, handheld rocket launchers or large, curved machetes, glistening with intent. Men gunning down defenseless victims or holding aloft decapitated heads. And you will see the look of frenzied delight as they go about their work. Unquestionably, these men project — in Katz’s phrasing — the “awesome, ominous presence” so integral to the aura of the badass.
The former CIA operations officer and terrorism scholar Marc Sageman coined the phrase “jihadi cool.” But “jihadi cool” isn’t quite right: Jihadi groups are not cool; they are bad. But they are also cloaked in a mythology of righteousness. They are good, fighting the forces of evil, or so their adherents believe. It is this combination that explains Islamic State’s seductive appeal, especially for Western gang members in search of redemption and ever more spectacular forms of violence and excitement.
Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at University of Kent in Britain. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. His book “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam” will be published in November.
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