Tête-à-têtes With Terrorists

Talking with militants about God and mass slaughter. A Reason interview

For the past five years, Jessica Stern has been talking with terrorists for her book Terror In the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. The book is an original synthesis of the narrative-driven, often sensational popular literature on terrorism that has bloomed after the September 11 attacks and academic attempts to understand religious militancy at an abstract level. By interviewing militants in Indonesia, Pakistan, the Middle East and even the United States, Stern, a former fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, provides a ground-level view of the tactics, philosophies and obsessions shared by faith-based terrorists from a variety of social, religious and national backgrounds.

Stern lectures on terrorism at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and is a faculty affiliate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her previous book The Ultimate Terrorists examined both fringe and state-sponsored groups in the era of weapons of mass destruction. She spoke with Reason from her office in Massachusetts.

Reason: You had been conducting interviews with terrorists for several years before the September 11 attacks. How much did 9/11 affect the writing of the book?

Stern: It had an emotional impact on my writing, but it didn't really change the book very much. Although I had someone conducting interviews in Pakistan and Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, I didn't go back myself. Mostly because of Daniel Pearl. But it didn't affect the writing of the book.

Reason: Did the attack itself surprise you in terms of the level of competence involved, and the effectiveness of it?

Stern: Yes. I had been thinking and writing about mass casualty terrorism for a long time. But that doesn't mean it didn't surprise me or in fact shock me. Just because you work on something like this doesn't mean something like September 11 would be any less emotional.

Reason: How about the method? One of the criticisms was that authorities had been thinking so much in terms of weapons of mass destruction that the idea of just a bunch of guys taking matters into their own hands in some innovative way slipped under the radar screen.

Stern: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I don't remember ever thinking about this type of attack myself. I know other people did, but I don't remember ever talking about it with other experts. I've always felt we should pay attention to low-tech delivery devices. The way anthrax was disseminated in the fall of 2001 was something that I'd been thinking about: low-tech delivery of a biological agent. September 11 certainly didn't give me an I Told You So feeling at all. But there are people who had thought about that this.

Reason: In both this book and your earlier book The Ultimate Terrorists, you draw on some literary/historical material—to describe historical paranoias about poison in the first book, and to contextualize the attraction of martyrdom in this one. How does that kind of material shed light on practical contemporary problems?

Stern: I think we often have the feeling that this is new, and we're shocked. We forget that it's not just Islamist extremists who do these horrible things, but that it's been done in the past. And in fact, one of the things I really tried to study in this book was how terrorists organize themselves, how they create an organizational weapon, a machine that produces suicide bombers. Although I don't think the Christian martyrs were in any way morally equivalent to suicide murderers, I think some of the ways martyrdom was encouraged in the early Christian era are surprisingly similar to what we see today.

Reason: The book is very ecumenical, profiling Jewish and Christian militants as well as Muslims. What do you say to the objection that, come on, the mortal threat to this country isn't coming from Jews or Evangelicals or Shintoists; it's coming from Muslims, and we shouldn't be PC about that? The Lou Dobbs argument, that this is a war against Islamic extremism and not against terrorism per se.

Stern: There's some truth to that argument. The Islamic extremists have developed an ideology that is very appealing today. Christian extremists were far more successful in earlier eras. For the most part they're not nearly as successful at being terrorists today as are Islamist extremists. One of the things I find alarming is the way Christian extremists are supportive of September 11, and of some of the objectives of the Islamist exremists. The possibility that white supremacists and Christian extremists could aid in some way the more professional Islamist extremists I find alarming. I talk about that in the last substantive chapter. There's this guy Horst Mahler, a fascinating character who started out as a leftist and then became more supportive of the radical right, and really came out in favor of September 11. They're not joining forces—I don't want to sound like this is a conspiracy. But al Qaeda and the International Islamic front are very good at taking advantage of naive people with the right passports.

Reason: After September 11 there was a widespread feeling that the whole country was searching its soul, that we'd gotten back to what's important and had "moral clarity" after a low, dishonest decade. So when these guys applauded the attack, how much of that was actual sympathy with the motives and how much was just an extreme version of, "Well, this country needed a wake-up call anyway"?

Stern: I think there's a widely shared discomfort with the so-called New World Order and globalization. That is what I think is appealing to Christian extremists about al Qaeda and related groups. You can see that in some of al Qaeda's rhetoric. Forget about whether it's Islamic—it looks a lot less Islamist than like a general feeling of rage about humiliation at the hands of the New World Order. One of the things that jumps out at me is how much Ayman al-Zawahari's writing, and even some of bin Laden's, sounds like anger at the oppressor class. The word "humiliation" comes up a lot in their writings. The Christian extremists frequently refer to international institutions as the Antichrist. Al Qaeda refers to them as the "evil instruments" of the New World Order.

Reason: Both the left and the right are to some degree tied to the belief that better economic conditions will remove the incentive for terrorism, though they have different ways of phrasing it. You give some attention to, but ultimately reject, that kind of neo-liberal "root causes"-type explanation for terrorism. After studying militants from a broad range of religious and social backgrounds, do you think there are any abstract terrorism factors that can be applied across the board?

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