March 21, 2014 | Foreign Policy

The Lies American Jihadists Tell Themselves

Just three days before Nicholas Teausant tried to leave the United States — allegedly bound for Syria, where the 20-year-old American planned to join one of the world's most feared jihadist groups — he took time to speak with local media about a minor controversy unfolding on a community college campus in Stockton, California.

A man had been showing up on the campus of San Joaquin Delta College in a military uniform, even though he apparently had never served. Real soldiers were outraged, and Teausant, a National Guard reservist, was among them. “Until you've gone in through basic training, had a drill sergeant yelling at you, doing pushups,” he told Stockton's News10, “until you've put blood, sweat, tears, missed your family, missed your girlfriend … until you've done that, you have no business to be wearing that uniform.”

It's a vivid statement. But there was just one problem: Teausant, who was arrested this week near the Canadian border as he began his journey, never went through basic training. The criminal complaint filed against him, on the charge of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, notes that as of last December the National Guard was in the process of releasing Teausant because “he did not meet the minimum qualifications to continue.” The complaint states that his “training was minimal,” and, in particular, notes that due to Teausant's “lack of required academic credits, he never attended basic training.”

A quick look at Teausant's Twitter feed — a blend of Islam-related musings, auto-generated tweets about his progress in the Android gameThe Tribez, and Seattle Seahawks fandom — makes it clear that he didn't attend. He seemed to be looking forward to it: On New Year's Eve in 2012, Teausant tweeted that he would “leave for basic training in 5 days.” Four days later, he directed a tweet toward the National Guard, saying: “I'm leaveing to Fort Jackson,SC jan 7th,2013 I'm so excited to serve!!”

Alas, something apparently went awry in the interim. In the days when Teausant had been scheduled for training, he was instead tweeting about watching football, listening to Tim McGraw's “Truck Yeah,” and attending Freemason meetings.

In short, Teausant was a fabulist. This rite of passage that was so central to his identity as a soldier — about which he could expound on at length and with such a sense of righteousness — was one he had never gone through.

Teausant is not alone among young Westerners who have joined the jihadist movement in generously sprinkling elements of the less-than-factual into their self-image. The first “homegrown” jihadist whom most Westerners learned about was John Walker Lindh, a young man who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks. Lindh, before his turn toward radical Islam, used to post regularly on hip-hop message boards in the adopted persona of a racially-conscious black hip-hop artist (Lindh is white, from the wealthy northern California region of Marin County). Daniel Boyd, arrested for his role in a terror plot in North Carolina, told rather elaborate stories about fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan — though he didn't actually arrive in South Asia until after the Soviet Union had already withdrawn. Isa Abdullah Ali— a figure so interesting that a movie has been made about his jihadist career – periodically claimed to be a Vietnam War veteran. In fact, he had been assigned to South Korea — as a cook.

Why are there so many fibbers among the ranks of these converts? Several studies point to the possibility that identity crises — which can shake up belief systems and leave once-stable individuals feeling unmoored — may make people particularly vulnerable to extremist ideas. An identity crisis can be of the kind that might first prompt a jihadist-to-be to first try on several personas for size before settling on that of radical Islamist. As the NYPD's study Radicalization in the West puts it, sometimes an “individual is looking for an identity and a cause,” and “finds them in extremist Islam.”

Indeed, for those lost souls without a strong sense of self, there are few identities as all-encompassing as that of Salafi radical, with its emphasis on complying with voluminous and often obscure rules. Teausant, for example, seemed to relish these tenets, explaining on his blog why he considers celebrating Valentine's Day and dating to be prohibited by Islamic law. On Facebook, he pondered the perceived religious obligation to eat with one's right hand: “So if we eat and drink with our right hand should we not push the button on a drinking fountain with our right also?”

Lindh was similarly thorough in his obedience to the minutia of a literal interpretation of Islamic law. Journalist Mark Kukis wrote that after his conversion to Islam, when he was studying Arabic in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, other students saw his behavior as that of “a walking caricature of a Muslim, someone who strutted every Islamic stereotype.”

But before his turn to Islam, Lindh tried a very different identity on for size — that of the hip-hop artist.

He used to post regularly on hip-hop message boards, initially claiming to be “A Famous MC Who Shall Remain Anonymous Due to Dickriders.”

We can all, of course, appreciate the occasional need for anonymity due to the prospect of dickriders. However, what stands out most from a survey of Lindh's online activities was how the young man made constant reference to being African-American and hating sellouts who compromised their blackness.

One particularly thorough article published in the East Bay Express more than 10 years ago notes a 228-line rap Lindh posted in June 1995, when Lindh was 14. The online version of Lindh took potshots at groups that would have included the real-life John Walker Lindh: “Too $hort is wacker than Marin County Caucasians” was one ironic example; he also dissed Dr. Dre, calling the famed rapper “a disgrace selling out to the talcum” — that is, to whites. “He'll be left dead and naked in the outcome,” Lindh continued. “Word to brother Malcolm.”

Later, Lindh excoriated lyrics posted by one J-Dogg, accusing him of not actually being black. Lindh, at the time a 14-year-old white kid, wrote, “When I read those rhymes of yours I got the idea you were some thirteen-year-old white kid playing smart. That whole rhyme was saying essentially that all black people should just stop being black and that'd solve all our problems. Our blackness does not make white people hate us; it is THEIR racism that causes the hate.”

The Western jihadist is often seen as a frightening figure — the ultimate wolf in the henhouse. But focusing on the histories of these men as fabulists — as liars, phonies, and frauds — helps demystify individuals like Teausant and Lindh and expose some of their sheer ridiculousness. Writing in the Atlantic in 2010, Daniel Byman and Christine Fair made the case for calling terrorists nitwits, revealing “the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality.” There is merit to their argument.

Nitwits can be dangerous too, but Teausant's fabrication of his persona, even as he prepared to leave for Syria to embrace his new, violent identity, is both sad and somewhat hilarious. It should also give other potential extremist recruits pause, as they contemplate that the man who'd portrayed himself as a ferocious warrior is, in reality, a buffoon.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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