Straight Outta Waziristan?

The Strange Rap-Jihadi Connection

Cherif Kouachi was an aspiring rapper. A German rapper joined ISIS. One of the Tsarnaevs was heavy into rap. That's three; it's a pattern!

01.17.15 11:45 AM ET

If having an engineering degree or a career in medicine was a strange prerequisite for 9-11 involvement, an affinity for rap music may be the common denominator for today’s Western jihadists.

Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers responsible for the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris the other week, was, according to ABC News, “briefly featured in a 2005 French television documentary as an aspiring rap musician-turned-jihadist.” (As CNN noted, “A report from the TV network France 3, which apparently first aired in 2005, described Kouachi as a young fan of rap more interested in chasing girls than going to the mosque.”)

We’re not talking about some sort of propaganda rap music used as a recruiting tool by Islamist groups (though that surely exists), but rather, a trend whereby American or Western rap music serves as a gateway drug to future terrorism. And the most recent case is not an isolated incident.

As fears about homegrown terrorism grow, examples mount. Take, for instance, the case of a German rapper who joined ISIS—or Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was reportedly “heavy into hip hop.” This seems odd to us, because we are familiar with the ethos of American rap, the stereotypes of which include a bacchanalian existence typified by videos of scantily clad girls on yachts, and the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and drugs. This would seem to be the opposite of what you would expect to motivate someone to pursue an extreme fundamentalist religious doctrine.

And yet, there is clearly a connection. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or explanations, but a recent interview between Maajid Nawaz, author of the memoir Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism and NPR’s Terry Gross, may help shed some light. Here’s an excerpt (courtesy of NPR):

… I got into American hip-hop and listening to American hip-hop, in fact a bit like the Kouachi brothers, listening to heavily politicized American rap in what’s known as its “golden era” in the ‘90s.

I got into groups such as Public Enemy and Chuck D… and I got into N.W.A. I got into all sorts of hip-hop that was heavy on social commentary, whether [it was] N.W.A. and commentary heavy on some of the crime, the gangs and the racism that they faced on the streets of Compton, or Public Enemy, which was very heavy politically. And hip-hop in the ‘90s began moving towards the nation of Islam and the 5 percenters, black nationalist movements, very much so these movements embraced a form of Islam, Malcom X’s form of Islam prior to his change.

What this music did for me is it gave me a sense of empowerment. It gave me a voice.

This is not to suggest that everyone who listen to hip hop will become radicalized. If that were the case, Marco Rubio would be in trouble. Nawaz, who grew up a British Pakistani, tells Gross there were stages to his radicalization, but that rap music helped foster “a perceived sense of grievance.”

Later, an actual recruiter came along and exploited this bitterness, and completed his transformation into a radical Islamist. (For what it’s worth, Nawaz never supported the kind of terrorism that took place in Paris. Instead of supporting vigilante acts, he wanted to establish a Caliphate where such blasphemers would get the death penalty. To many, this is a distinction without a difference.)

If anyone doubts the power of pop culture—that it matters what kinds of media we consume—it’s worth noting that not only did rap music help indoctrinate him into radicalism, but, as he tells Gross, George Orwell’s Animal Farm helped him escape it. Nawaz is now running for parliament in the UK as a Liberal Democrat.

A hip hop lifestyle and radical Islam might appear to be completely at odds, but there are obvious similarities, especially when it comes to “gangsta” rap. Both speak to dispossessed and disillusioned young men, offering them the chance to cast off the shackles of their current existence, and seize an exciting life outside the constraints of normal society. They can quickly go from being a victim to being a man of action. Both have strong strains of misogyny, and both promise the young man he can gain respect and earn a sort of heroism—where the protagonist is rewarded with a taste of fame, money, and booty (or, as it were, 72 virgins).

What else could a young man want?