When I first started talking to ISIS propagandists and supporters, I was much impressed by one of their favorite Koranic verses: “We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.” The verse is a reminder of God’s omnipresence, and his Santa Claus-like awareness of our deepest selves, our sins, and our good deeds. In time, I came to associate that unsettling proximity (He is closer than you think) not only with God, but also with ISIS. They too were less distant than they seemed. What seemed at first like a movement of barbarians with alien origins and impulses looked increasingly like a human phenomenon, with human flaws and virtues (mostly flaws). The more I investigated the group’s supporters, the more I found people who at one point had shared my culture and community, even if they tried to throw it all away in the service of something wicked. In the end I discovered that one of the most important figures in the Islamic State, a mysterious ideologue named Yahya Abu Hassan, was not Syrian or Iraqi at all, but a 33-year-old American, a dope-smoking theological prodigy from my own hometown.
The executive order President Donald Trump is expected to sign on immigration and refugees promises, according to a draft that leaked Wednesday, to suspend for 30 days the issuance of visas to citizens of a short list of scary-sounding “countries of particular concern,” likely including Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. Conspicuously absent from this list are the countries whose nationals have actually perpetrated the most ghastly attacks on Western targets, and on some non-Western ones. Nearly all the attackers in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 carried European passports. The ringleader of the attack on diners at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh in July of 2016 was a Canadian citizen, and the attackers all Bangladeshi. The San Bernardino shooters were an American man and his Pakistani wife, and the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen a native-born American of Afghan descent. The ISIS sympathizers to whom I spoke in researching my book, The Way of the Strangers, were European, British, Japanese, Egyptian, and American. These foreign members of the group differ from the Iraqis and Syrians in the intensity and form of their zeal. They often viewed Iraqis and Syrians as good people—but in need of theological correction and radicalization.