Jihad, properly understood, involves a
personal struggle among one's impulses,
culture and understanding of Allah's desires. What's clear about Shelton Bell, the bearded-hipster-looking Jacksonville native who pleaded guilty last month to supporting terrorism overseas, is that his jihad was real.
At least to him.
His jihad: the existential struggle, the stranger in a strange land, the kid who felt so alone, so anonymous, that last year he started to use a test pattern as a profile picture on his Facebook page. Twenty years old, Bell is facing up to 30 years in federal lockup for committing several treasonous acts: for trying to join Al Qaeda and go to Yemen for jihad, for training to fight here in Florida, for recruiting others to join his cause.
What is known: He went to Englewood High School. Smart enough to fix computers from a flea market stall. Spiteful enough to jack those computers and cash from his partner and split. And to go to a cemetery by Craig Field, playing soldier-in-training and desecrating reliquaries on the grounds.
By the time they got a shot of him in the green jumper, ready for his close-up, he had the thousand-yard stare of a man who wanted all of it to be over. A federal prosecutor descibed him as ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die.
A test pattern: blank, signifying nothing.
Shelton Bell might have been ready to fight, ready to die, ready to kill. But why? His plea agreement says little about motivation, beyond that he "agreed with much [of the] Al Qaeda teachings" he'd heard from Anwar Al-Awlaki. He made a video at one point invoking Osama bin Laden and referencing a jihadi flag flying over the White House. "The message is, what are you doing for Allah?" he asked. "What lengths are you willing to go?"
Was it jihad? He said it was. After he was deported from Jordan in 2012, his plan to enter Yemen through Oman disrupted, he told federal agents, "If you ask me if I was going to jihad in Yemen, I say yes." But the jihad he was committing to was so clearly not his own. He may have been fighting his own demons instead, like so many men his age. The years between 18 and 21 are a time when schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or some other implacable demon sets in and imposes a metallic haze over one's consciousness.
One argument for this thesis: Bell immediately converted — not just to Islam, but to a radical variant — after reading a couple chapters of the Quran, childhood friend Teresa Gorzczya told the Associated Press last July, after Bell's arrest. "He said he just knew it was the way to go. … [His] goal was to reach Saudi Arabia so he could fight with his fellow Muslims to fight against their corrupt government."
Another argument along the same lines: The plea agreement makes it seem as if Bell wanted to be validated as a revolutionary more than he wanted to actually participate in revolution. Though he went to great lengths to appear like a jihadi badass, he never quite took the next step of taking up arms against his countrymen — something he could've done stateside much more easily than on the path he chose.
Given that, there's a case to be made that Bell's sentence is too harsh, that the feds sought to draw more blood than was necessary. Barely out of high school, Bell's consciousness was still in a formative stage when he traveled to the Middle East. Of course, you could say the same thing about frontline American soldiers in that part of the world.
And you could say that the soldiers, and Bell, were both fighting for abstractions: one for the illusive concept of American democracy, the other for the equally fictive construct of "pure" Islam as a logical reaction to American exceptionalism and the expansive foreign policy undergirding it.