“These lost, young guys see the resistance as heroic and glorious,” Mr. Atran said. “Don’t give them the thrill of fighting the greatest army in the world.”
The accused in recent plots aimed at the United States are a diverse group, including an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian ancestry spraying gunfire at Fort Hood, Tex.; a popular coffee vendor from Afghanistan planning to blow up the New York subway; the son of a prominent Nigerian banker trying to take down an airliner over Detroit; and Mr. Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who loaded his Nissan Pathfinder with fertilizer, propane and gasoline in fortunately ineffectual combination.
Yet they all appear to have imagined themselves as warriors against the enemies of their faith. Their national or ethnic loyalties had been supplanted by loyalty to their co-religionists, the global community of Muslims, known as the ummah.
Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people in the Fort Hood shooting spree last November, had quoted the Koran in a 2007 PowerPoint demonstration to explain why some Muslim American soldiers might feel conflicted: “And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell.”
“If Muslim groups can convince Muslims that they are fighting for God against injustices of the ‘infidels,’ ” Major Hasan wrote, “then Muslims can become a potent adversary; i.e. suicide bombing.”
But the path to violence appears to involve less scripture than solidarity. “We Muslims are one community,” Mr. Shahzad told the judge at his plea hearing, explaining why he felt obliged to defend strangers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza — as well as the United States, where he suggested that Muslims were singled out for government scrutiny.
Even as the Obama administration smoothly handled the McChrystal flap and regrouped behind its Afghanistan policy, word came in a report in The New York Times on Friday of diplomatic maneuvering between Afghan and Pakistani leaders that could result in a separate peace, potentially leaving the American generals with 100,000 troops and no one to fight.
Managed deftly, such a deal conceivably might allow Mr. Obama to exit Afghanistan without fear of a Qaeda haven. But since the notion of an American-led war on Muslims has gone viral, the virus would take years or perhaps decades to burn out.
The trouble with terrorism is what the theorists call asymmetry. Hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of troops, and the best generals on the planet can be undercut by a disgruntled accountant, commanding the world’s attention with a bomb that didn’t even explode.”