Sunday 18 August 2019

We all knew girls like Hasna, the idiot jihadi

In all the apocalyptic panic, it's easy to forget that in many cases jihad is just about young, lost souls high on their latest cause, says Brendan O'Connor

Scared Kid: the death of Hasna Ait Boulahcen and the terror that reigned in Paris are as much to do with youthful rebellion as with crazed religious fundamentalism
Scared Kid: the death of Hasna Ait Boulahcen and the terror that reigned in Paris are as much to do with youthful rebellion as with crazed religious fundamentalism
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We all knew girls like Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the young woman who was killed during a showdown between police and a terrorist cell in Paris last Wednesday. After her parents split up when she was very young, Hasna grew up in care and foster homes. While she had periods of stability, in recent years her life was characterised by instability. It has been said she was mistreated, rejected and subjected to violence as a child. Her brother says she never received the love she needed.

Hasna was a Muslim by birth but does not seem to have been in any way engaged with her religion for most of her life. Not only did she never go to the mosque or read the Koran, she was a party girl. Those who knew her recalled last week how she dressed like a typical young western girl. She was known by some as 'Cowgirl' because of her predilection for cowboy hats. She enjoyed a drink and a smoke and a night out. There have even been suggestions she was a heavy cocaine user up to her death. She liked boys too. But nobody special it seems. She was extrovert and outgoing, with one person who knew her saying she was a bit clueless. She was also described as a fantasist and a bit crazy. She might appear in front of you rapping. People spoke of her as a girl who always had some kind of life project on the go, but it sounds like she drifted between them, moving on quickly from one phase to another. One relatively recent project seems to have been a plan to become a gendarme or to join the French army.

We all knew girls like Hasna. In Ireland she'd be described as someone who had a bit of a want in her. She was looking for something, that love and security she never got as a kid. The love and security it was too late to get when she re-established a relationship with her birth father in recent years. And she clearly skipped between various things, looking for something that would fill whatever void there was in her. Looking for it in drink, in clubs, in boys. She was a classic case of someone who would join a cult or go into a religious order. She was looking for something, and perhaps she would find that sense of belonging, that sense of a home, that sense of control, in committing to some kind of strict creed or lifestyle. People like her, who are wild and rootless, are often the very people who crave the certainty of a life of strict rules and definite answers. You can see why the army may have seemed attractive to her. And clearly hard-core Islam offered that certainty.

Hasna's path to Allah and to Jihad is still unclear. Her brother only dates her devotion to a month ago. But it seems that she adopted the nijab, a type of headwear that leaves only the eyes exposed, after the Charlie Hebdo killings. It also seems as if her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the so-called mastermind of the Paris attacks, may have drawn her into jihad. Certainly Hasna's mother says that Abaaoud brainwashed her daughter.

Hasna typifies, in one sense, the kind of secular generation that believes in nothing and is therefore willing to believe in anything. We see a version of it here in this country in those who grew up disregarding the Catechism that passed for a religious education, but were left, in its absence, with no spiritual beliefs. I saw the most anti-religious people of my generation become devotees of the Eastern Mysticism section in Waterstones through our college years. Adrift, with no core beliefs in anything much, they read books like Siddharta and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and gravitated towards a kind of secular Buddhism or some kind of mish-mash of anything that wasn't Catholicism. I saw people who partied hard settle down and look for meaning in ascetic lifestyles and universal consciousness. They had thrown the baby of an inner life out with the bathwater of Catholicism and they had a void that needed filling. And then, some people like Hasna, just stayed off the rails, lurching from one 'next big thing' to another, with each 'next big thing' being the one that was going to save them. The worst that happened most of them was that they stayed a bit lost all their lives, or at worst, they destroyed themselves. They may have caused a certain amount of chaos in their own lives and the lives of their families and the people around them, but nothing like the chaos that Hasna would cause with her latest next big thing, Jihad.

Hasna was not someone who took an interest in the news. She never talked about Palestine or these matters. But as a lost, empty vessel, she was ripe to be filled up with some kind of creed. We can make the mistake in all this of thinking that we are dealing with a great evil, a serious bunch of people who are deep, thoughtful and religious, people who are more committed to their religion and their way of life than we are, people who are devout and driven by a powerful connection with their God and their beliefs.

And there is no doubt that somewhere in all this there are powerful, even learned, religious leaders.

There is a coherent creed here too - just read the piece opposite about the crazed 'philosophical' underpinnings of the caliphate. But we are also dealing, on another level, with youthful rebellion and young idiots. The Paris killers seem, in the main, to be young petty criminals, wasters who have suddenly had their petty criminal tendencies put on steroids with an injection of ersatz religious fervour.

While Jihadis are fighting for what Isil sees as the purest form of Islam, they seem to indulge in the kind of casual drinking and drug-taking that more moderate Muslims would have nothing to do with. So while they are high on extreme religion and the mad ideals Isil espouses, they aren't so hot on the basic practices of their religion. Extremism is much more exciting for lost young people than the mundanities and sacrifices of moderate religion.

In a sense, what happened in Paris was delinquency gone crazy, Mad mullahs taking advantage of the void that can exist in young people, offering answers to the disenchantment of young people, making young people who feel marginalised, feel instead special and important. But, behind it all, we are just dealing with scared kids here. Look at Salah Abdeslam, one of the surviving Paris attackers, who is now apparently on the run not just from the authorities but from his masters in Isil, his crime being that he chickened out of fulfilling his destiny, having realised too late, as he is reported to have said to a friend, that it went too far.

Friends and family thought Hasna's new interest in Islam was another one of her phases. And possibly it would have been. But she never got to move onto the next phase. This one was terminal. She never had the time to realise it had gone too far. Or perhaps she did realise it, but too late.

There is no doubt that the seed of Hasna's ending up lies in Syria, in truth probably planted there more by the oppression and murder conducted by the Assad regime than anything the West did.

But in Paris, Hasna's death, and the terror that reigned there the week before her death, are as much to do with youthful rebellion and madness and criminality gone too far. It is, at heart, as much an issue of law and order as it is anything else.

This is not the end of the world. This is not the collapse of Western civilisation as we know it. This is not a clash of civilisations. While 24-hour news and the internet feeds an apocalyptic panic, we would perhaps do well to reflect that it is also a nuts-and-bolts security problem, albeit a new kind, and it can be dealt with through security measures. But in our narcissism of thinking that we are responsible for everything that happens in the Middle East and our liberal distaste for tough law-and-order measures, we tend to lose sight of that.

Sunday Independent

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