DEEP IN THE SWELTERING jungles of the Amazon, embedded within bird droppings, are eggs belonging to a nematode worm known as Myrmeconema neotropicum. Soon, ants from the species Cephalotes atratus will come along and take the droppings to their nest.
The ants feed the excrement to their larvae, causing them to inadvertently swallow the eggs. Inside each larva's abdomen, the eggs hatch, and as the larva develops into a young ant, its occupants also begin to develop.
The nematodes change the ant. It begins to act like an outcast, regularly leaving the nest, wandering through the jungle on seemingly nonsensical routes. Its abdomen swells and becomes bright red like a berry. When the ant is ripe, it will even begin to act like a berry, sticking its abdomen in the air and falling still. A frugivorous bird will then flutter to the ant, and, thinking it has chanced upon a sweet morsel of fruit, devour it. When the bird next defecates, the cycle will continue.
I will now argue that this nematode worm's life cycle is central to understanding every terrorist attack in history, and acquaint you with an invisible monster that hijacks minds and turns people into zombies. Somewhere within this argument, there may be a final cure for extremism.
For over a year I've been chasing jihadis in the town of Luton, England--often voted the UK's worst place to live.
Among those I've investigated are the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood, the Stockholm bomber Taimour al-Abdaly, the leader of the toy car bomb-plotters Zahir Iqbal, the jihadi-turned-CIA-mole Morten "Danish" Storm, and the Buckingham Palace swordsman Mohiussunath Choudhury.
I visited their old streets and spoke to their neighbors. They generally said the same thing: "He was a nice man, quiet, polite, I just don't understand how he could've done something like that..."
I approached Farasat Latif, a senior imam at the Luton Islamic Center, which counts among its former worshippers Storm, Masood, Iqbal, and al-Abdaly. I had a series of long conversations with Latif during Ramadan in June, and he told me much about Masood in particular, whom Latif got to know well at the center and also at a college funded by the mosque.
Latif told me he thought Masood had felt like an outcast, and that he was particularly touchy about race, feeling that being black separated him from his mostly Asian co-religionists. On one occasion, Latif and Masood visited Green Lane mosque in Birmingham to attend a talk. Masood was edgy throughout, glancing around, and when Latif asked him what was wrong, Masood whispered, "everyone here is Asian."
Another time, Masood was in the local gym when he heard someone refer to him as "kala" (a non-derogatory way to describe a black person in Urdu). Masood apparently flew into a rage and attacked the man.
Digging deeper into Masood's past, I discovered he had a long history of violence, much of it race-related. In August 1998 Masood (then known as Adrian Elms) was rejected by a woman and said that she didn't like him because he was black. She stated it was his attitude and not his ethnicity. They argued, and Masood spat at her and punched her in the face. Two years later, Masood and a cafe owner got into an argument that apparently had racial overtones. Masood ended the argument by slashing the cafe owner's face with a knife. His early life was filled with stories like this, in which he would lash out with paranoia at those around him, as though his pride were perpetually cornered.
Masood is believed to have converted to Islam in prison. When he later moved to Luton in 2009 with his favorite daughter Aisha, who was recovering from a horrific car crash, he told Latif he had come to redeem himself from his troubled past and dedicate himself to Allah, whom he regarded as having mercifully spared his daughter's life. This may be why it was in Luton that he fully abandoned his former name and assumed the Islamic Khalid Masood. Luton was apparently his intended chrysalis, from which he would emerge as a pure and devout Salafi Muslim. But he came to Luton at the wrong time, just as it was riven by tensions between the nascent far-right protest movement called the English Defence League and the terrorist group al-Muhajiroun, both of which were trying to incite a war between the town's Muslims and non-Muslims.
The leader of Lutoris al-Muhajiroun cell was Mohammed Istiak Alamgir (aka Saif al-Islam: "The Sword of Islam"), a tempestuous street-demagogue with a beard forked like a serpent's tongue. He would set up stalls outside Masood's workplace and gym on Leagrave Road, and with his booming voice he'd tell passing Muslims that all non-Muslims were racists out to get them. He likened British Muslims to al-Ghurabaa ("the Strangers")--noble outcasts presaged in Islamic prophecy...