The man on the French train with a Kalashnikov last week has become a symbol of the new terrorism across Europe. Three young Americans thwarted his attempt to murder his fellow passengers on the Amsterdam-Paris Express but this private act of bravery only emphasized the helplessness of civilization in the face of freelance terror.
"We are still vulnerable," President François Hollande of France said. It didn't much matter whether the gunman turned out to be ISIL-connected or ISIL-inspired. In either case, he had all the people on the train at his mercy. He carried nine magazines of 30 bullets each for his gun. He was part of the emerging style of terrorism, attacks by single assassins on "soft targets," like trains or shopping malls. Western intelligence services are better prepared to protect large institutions; disabling them requires teams of terrorists, whose numbers and internal communications make them vulnerable to the usual mistakes of gangs.
Ayoub El Khazzani, a 26-year-old Muslim, was known to Spanish and French police for his drug-dealing convictions and his frequent attendance at a radical mosque. A Morrocan, he had a Spanish residency card allowing him to travel freely throughout the European Union. He was on watch lists, but the lists contain far more names than police can track.
The ideology of ISIL creates people like Khazzani. Equipped with ISIL belief systems, a murderer can kill in good conscience because he thinks he's fulfilling the wishes of God.
A sense of divine justice provides moral strength, even when victims are fellow Muslims.
ISIL can acquire murderous followers without meeting them or knowing their names. The chief of ISIL and the caliphate, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, may well hear of atrocities committed in his name and wonder at the identity of the perpetrators. It may be that psychopaths adopt ISIL beliefs to justify their own murderous instincts.
We are baffled by a form of evil that believes in its moral superiority and proudly advertises its crimes by video. Civilization has little experience with that attitude. The Nazis did not acknowledge the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia muffled news of arbitrary executions and the gulag.
Our failure to comprehend these random killings is so far-reaching that even in Canada there are politicians who believe we do not need to fight ISIL.
What makes ISIL uniquely dangerous is its appeal to some small but still considerable number of people throughout the world. Its publicity has been adroitly designed as an airborne plague, able to leap borders, continents and oceans through clever, attentive use of the Internet. We can even imagine local branches evolving into new social forms, perhaps to the alarm of the leaders who invented ISIL.
It has an appeal to the young, female as well as male. Of about 4,000 recruits who have left Europe to join ISIL, more than 500 are women and girls, according to a recent New Times story. ISIL attracts them by appealing to their rejection of the loose sexual morality in the West. A recent post from the Islamic State parodied a L'Oréal makeup ad with the image of a girl in a head scarf: "COVERed GIRL. Because I'm worth it."
Sasha Havlicek, who runs the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank opposing extremism, believes the ISIL appeal to women is a perversion of feminism.
"For the girls, joining ISIL is a way to emancipate yourself from your parents and from the Western society that has let you down," Havlicek says, "For ISIL, it's great for troop morale because fighters want Western wives."
Last winter three 15-year-old Muslim girls became a sensation in Britain when they vanished from their homes in London's Bethnal Green district and turned up in Syria.
They were brighter than their male counterparts, well-spoken and likable, and in many ways typical young people. One of them considered Keeping Up With the Kardashians her favourite TV show. A Twitter posting from one girl displayed her discomfort with the sexual freedom of the West: "I feel like I don't belong in this era." Once, young people usually demanded more freedom. ISIL recruits want less. Apparently all three girls have married, under ISIL auspices.
In most cases we understand, or partly understand, the roots of ideologies we find abhorrent, but the ISIL era has plunged us into a sea of ignorance. ISIS upsets all our assumptions by acting outside what we have always considered human possibility. Understanding what makes it function, and keeps it growing, will require an exceptional reach of the imagination.