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?

Stern: I think poverty, in and of itself, we pretty clearly can't say is a cause of terrorism. There are many causes. Terrorists are different. Even individuals within a single terrorist organization often have different motivations, and their motivations change over time. I have seen, in some of the poorer countries such as in Pakistan, that some terrorists seem to be doing it for the money. More than one has told me they can't afford to leave their jobs as terrorists.

Reason: Like that guy who wanted you to help him find a publisher so he could transition into a writing career?

Stern: Yeah, he was quite a character. I think he's still alive. We've also seen upper middle class kids join these groups. If I had to say what are the most important elements that are shared across the board, they would have to do with a feeling of humiliation and a desire for a clear identity, more than poverty or lack of education.

But you know, if you look at the macro picture, some econometric studies have shown that low GDP is a pretty good indicator of risk of internal war and terrorism. But I haven't done that. I've only looked at the level of individuals. And at the individual level, poverty plays a role, but not always.

Reason: Christopher Hitchens promotes a term, "Islamo-Fascism," that has gained popularity even though it no descriptive value at all—or at least none that couldn't as easily be expressed by saying "Islamo-Communism," which most people would recognize as silly. Do you think in America we have a very clear popular understanding of the religious-militant threat we're facing, and of what this enemy is like?

Stern: No, I don't think we understand what this enemy is like. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, but it's still puzzling to me.

I think this enemy is about absolute rage. In some cases that rage is about what we are, but it's also about what we do. But the ideology is very chameleon-like. Some of my colleagues say al Qaeda is all about a political objective, and that objective is to force us out of Saudi. They see bin Laden and al Qaeda as rational in the sense of having a rational goal and going after it in the most cost-effective way they can. I don't think that's really true. First of all, their purported objective changes regularly. We saw an attack in Saudi very shortly after the Pentagon announced it was moving almost every soldier out of Saudi. Another big complaint was the sanctions on Iraq, and their effect on children. The ideology at this point is so broad it can bring in a wide variety of extremists because the mission has become opposition to the New World Order.

Reason: The U.S. does a pretty appalling job of advertising itself overseas. Theoretically, we should be able to make a great case for ourselves as a friend of Muslim populations. We put lives and treasure on the line to protect Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. We give a ton of money to Arab countries through USAID. Muslims from all over the world have found peace and prosperity here. Why doesn't any of that sink in?

Stern: Many Pakistani jihadis complained about our ignoring Muslims in various parts of the former Yugoslavia. And once we actually tried to help them, it didn't make much difference. There was another reason to hate the West. There are so many reasons to hate America and the West. We have done, sometimes, very good things, and we're not very good at selling that, it's true. Who should be the next Charlotte Beers I can't say.

Reason: Well how about a Muslim? We aren't even very good at getting people to speak on our behalf.

Stern: We do have a lot of people talking about how great it is to live here, but the common answer to that is, "Of course it's great for Muslims to live in America; the problem is what the United States is doing to Muslims outside America."

One thing that's important is exchange. It's very important for westerners to be regularly exposed to Muslims from south Asia as well as the Middle East. At the moment, when we're making it so hard for people—well, for young men—from Muslim countries to get visas, unfortunately this is the time when it's most important that they be coming to America, and Americans be going there. I have a student who's having trouble getting a visa. Believe it or not, this guy is Jewish, but he comes from Iran. It's hard to get the balance right in terms of how much we want to protect ourselves from terrorist infiltrators and how much we want to have this important exchange.

Reason: Let me reverse that question now: Ultimately, how important is it to understand the motivations and dynamics of these groups? After all, one of the reasons George W. Bush is an effective leader is that he deals with problems in simple terms, without a lot of nuance.

Stern: It's not just George Bush who has that view. As you're probably aware, among people who study terrorism these days there is a big divide between the people who study terrorists and their motivations, and those who concentrate on the weapons. I have heard one person who has a very senior position in the Bush administration talk about how unimportant it is to understand terrorists' motivations. What matters is that they will get access to WMD and we need to do something about it.

I think it is important to understand motivations because we want to understand the potential appeal of this ideology. I don't think we're ever going to persuade hardened terrorists to change their minds by changing our policies—not that I'm recommending changing our policies in response to terrorist complaints. But we can have a very significant impact on those who would become sympathizers. If you look at the popularity of United States in the Arab world, it's frightening how low it's gotten. For those groups to succeed in Morocco and Indonesia and Saudi, they need support. You can't have the terrorists themselves and nobody else; there is a support base. We need to understand the message they're trying to sell. We need to undermine that message—and as you pointed out, we're not very good at undermining it, but we need to try.

Reason: You spend a lot of time on the concept of "leaderless resistance," which would presumably require having fairly skillful individuals who are able to think and operate without a formal command structure. The U.S. armed forces have arguably the best-trained and motivated enlisted people in the world, yet employ layers of logistics, redundancy and command and control that would astound most civilians. Is it really possible to make an effective organization based only on the resourcefulness and initiative of underlings?

Stern: No. That's where very powerful weapons that can be used by a single person become important. But leaderless resistance won't work for a September 11-type attack. Leaderless resistance in a way you could say is a sign of weakness. But in a law-enforcement rich environment, when a group evolves to incorporate some aspects of leaderless resistance to compensate for weakness in some areas, I don't feel relieved and think, Oh, we're winning. I think this is an organization that learns and will continue to find new ways to operate. The scariest organization as one that incorporates both a terrorist army type of structure and broader virtual networks.

Reason: Does al Qaeda count as that type of organization?

Stern: No but they incorporate aspects of it. You can have a terrorist army thrive in a failed state or in states where some parts of the government help them. In a law enforcement-rich environment they need to organize themselves in a different way. Virtual networks have become a pretty effective way to organize. They're more robust in that it's more difficult for law enforcement to penetrate that kind of group, but they're not as equipped to carry out high-intensity attacks. Unless a small group has access to really powerful weapons.

Reason: That's really an efficiency or optimization question. The September 11 attackers seem to have solved that problem by weaponizing the civilian space.

Stern: Yes, September 11 was an example of a group that was both hard to detect and capable of causing massive destruction.

Reason: How about terrorists who still pursue more recognizable weapons? If every individual terrorist had an atom bomb, we'd be in trouble, but atom bombs are hard to get.

Stern: I don't think we're anywhere near to individuals having atom bombs. I strongly suspect individuals can acquire relatively effective biological weapons. It's still quite hard, unless the individual is a molecular biologist.

Reason: Do you have any particular person in mind?

Stern: No!

Even when individuals do find it easier, though, how effective can an attack be? After all the buildup, it really seemed like the anthrax attack was kind a dud. I don't want to treat it lightly, but only five people died and there hasn't been much long-term paranoia even though the perpetrator was never caught.

Stern: I completely disagree with your interpretation. Think about what this guy did—or woman, but most likely a guy. He wrote in the letter, "You have been exposed to anthrax." If you were using a weapon like that just to kill people, you wouldn't do that. He wanted to get attention.

I've always thought a relatively small-scale attack was what we had more to worry about. This person used an extremely low-tech delivery device that nonetheless could have been quite effective. It would not have been a catastrophic scenario, and not as lethal as biological weapons are theoretically capable of being. But in the case of the anthrax attacks, not only was the perpetrator not looking to inflict mass casualties, but we were really lucky that people knew what to do, and that it turned out antibiotics were effective after exposure.

Reason: One of the striking things about your discussions with Islamists is that practically all of them cite the jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan as their formative experience—either literally fighting there or viewing it as their spiritual awakening. That's not too surprising when you're talking about Pakistanis, but it also applies to Kashmiris, Palestinians, Indonesians, Chechens, Saudis—just about everybody. Do you think Americans, even now after it's been in the air for a few years, really grasp the magnitude of what we helped create in Afghanistan?

Stern: No. I think we don't. It was the revival of the notion of an international jihad. As far as they're concerned it was very effective. They feel they vanquished an international superpower. They forget how much money we and the Saudis and others poured in to help them vanquish that superpower. But we played a very significant role in the creation of the enemy we face today. It's very distressing because I think it would be easy to do that sort of thing again, for example, in Iraq. Policy remedies tend to have unfortunate side effects.

Reason: So we're about 20 years removed from the height of the war in Afghanistan. What blowback can we expect to see 20 years from now?

Stern: I think we're going to see blowback way before 20 years. I'm hearing Hezbullah is very active in Iraq. There are other things that are at the level of hearsay. A very well-connected contact of mine is saying he's meeting Iranians interested in fighting Americans in Iraq. Guerrillas who claim to be part of al Qaeda are taking credit for some of the attacks in Iraq. Are they part of al Qaeda? No, but you can see the enemy of my enemy idea: In a way, we're pushing together groups that we wouldn't expect to see working together. We've given them something that really brings them together.

Reason: These are cases where people are reacting to the U.S. as an enemy. But in Afghanistan it was a matter of our assisting in the creation of something that later became an enemy. What is something we're creating right now that looks like a good solution but could come back to bite us?

Stern: For the moment we're creating chaos, although our intention is to create a functioning, liberal democracy. The likelihood that we're going to pull that off anytime soon doesn't seem very high to me. I actually think the best argument against the war in Iraq was made by one of its biggest supporters, Kenneth Pollack in his book The Threatening Storm. He argued that it's imperative to go in there, but that if we don't do it right we're going to make it worse. And we're not doing it right. Or at least, we can see the Pentagon was very surprised by the chaos.

I continue to believe many of the arguments for the war. I'll be very surprised if we don't eventually find evidence of weapons of mass destruction; my prejudice is that Iraq was doing everything possible to reconstruct that program. And I'm no longer skeptical of the links between bin Laden and Saddam; I don't buy that bin Laden considered Saddam such an infidel that he would never cooperate with him. I think this debate about the sixteen words is silly. Well, let me take that back: I think it's important because it tells us something about this administration's regard for the truth, but it's not something that would make me change my opinion.

But because so much of the value of bio-weapons rests in expertise rather than in actual materials, and because nuclear materials may actually have been spread as a result of the war, I'm not persuaded that we'll be effective in knocking out the WMD. And whatever loose cooperation between al Qaeda and supporters of Saddam existed before will be strengthened.

Reason: There's a "Roach Motel" theory of Iraq making the rounds these days, where our presence draws international Islamists into the country where we have a huge army waiting to defeat them. That strikes me as something only a maniac would think was a good plan. Is there anything to it?

Stern: If the terrorists being mobilized by the situation in Iraq would operate only in Iraq then perhaps that argument would make sense. But they will not operate only in Iraq.

Reason: You were a Soviet expert during at least part of the Afghan jihad. What did you think about U.S. support for the mujahideen then?

Stern: I wasn't a Soviet expert, but I lived in Russia in the early eighties. I was a chemistry major, and wasn't that politically aware.

Reason: In hindsight, was it worth doing, to bring the USSR down?

Stern: That's too hard a question. I do believe the Soviet Union was an evil empire. Reagan got that right. But we didn't foresee and couldn't foresee the monster we were helping to create. And we could do it again. For perfectly understandable reasons we like to use locals to fight our and their battles. But I can't really answer that question.

Reason: There's a popular argument that our real error in Afghanistan wasn't funding the jihad but failing to clean up afterward. But then, fixing Afghanistan wouldn't have done anything about some jihadi who learned his skills and then went back to the Philippines or Indonesia, or Saudi.

Stern: It's true that it's a bigger problem than just failed states. But I think we have learned—and it's in the new national security doctrine—that failed states are more than just a humanitarian problem. We say that anyway, but if you look at what's going on in Afghanistan today, there's not much evidence that we have learned. It would be criminal to let this happen again.

Reason: Another striking thing was how many Islamic militants you spoke with at least pay lip service to the idea of separating the U.S. government from the American people. Bin Laden has said just the opposite: that American civilians are legitimate targets because the United States is a democracy and we're responsible for the government. Which of those views gives a more accurate idea of how these guys think of themselves?

Stern: When bin Laden made that shift in 1998, some members of his organization quit. Some were very uncomfortable with the shift, and I think that's quite interesting. I don't think either of those views more accurately reflects an Islamist perspective. Hamas, for example, says every Israeli is a soldier, was a soldier or will be a soldier. But there are some extremists who don't think that way. I don't think there's one true view.

Reason: Most people in the Islamic world speak very highly of democracy as a concept, and most people everywhere claim to want democracy. How many of the militants you talked with claim that they're fighting for democracy?

Stern: None. I can't think of any who did. It's much more likely they'd tell me they oppose it.

Reason: As decadent?

Stern: I don't know whether decadent is the right word. It's more the belief that people don't know what's best for them.

Reason: A number of the jihadists in the book have become disgruntled or quit the cause out of disillusionment with the money-grubbing ways of their leaders. Is that corrupting tendency of a well-funded organization something that the U.S. could exploit in order to undermine these groups?

Stern: Yes. It's good news that some terrorists become interested in financial rewards, provided we can figure out how to take advantage of it.

Reason: Are there any instances where we have figured that out?

Stern: Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl was somebody who thought he wasn't being paid enough by bin Laden, and eventually became a witness for the U.S. I don't want to speculate, but that might be an example.

Reason: Most of the Kashmir jihadis claim the Indian army is so corrupt that they actually get their weapons from Indian army officers. Yet India continues to have the upper hand in Kashmir. How seriously do you take those charges of corruption? I mean, if they're so corrupt, why do they keep winning?

Stern: India denied that and came up with fairly persuasive evidence that it was untrue. The media in India love this kind of story, and if they could come up with a story that would embarrass the military, they'd love to do it. I'd doubt this happens on a very big scale.

Reason: Speaking of corruption, is there any way the ISI or any governmental agency in Pakistan can become a really effective force in fighting terrorism, given the history there and the low public opinion of the government?

Stern: That's a really important question. I think the ISI seems to be quite divided. Policy decisions taken at the top don't seem necessarily to filter all the way down. It doesn't seem everybody in the ISI was happy with the new policy Musharraf initiated in January 2002.

Reason: According to your interviews, the militants in Pakistan claim nothing has been done in terms of closing madrassahs, cracking down on militants, etc. Do you believe that?

Stern: Yes. From what we hear from the U.S. government, Pakistan has played a very important role in helping us find some very senior level al Qaeda members. But the fact that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was able to keep living in Pakistan is troubling.

Pakistan is a very complicated player. We desperately need Pakistan's help, but I think it's not a monolithic entity. We're not getting all the help we need, and I'm not optimistic that we will.

Reason: At several points in your talks with Jewish terrorists you confess to feeling some attraction to their Manichean, traditionalist view; one woman even predicts you yourself will make aliyah one of these days. Doesn't it make you despair of humanity to think that even with the proverbial 27 years of college, you yourself can still be touched by such a crude appeal? If it's true for you, what hope do we have of dissuading people who have no advantages in life?

Stern: I think there is an appeal to a simple, Manichean worldview. It satisfies some childish need to know who we are. We can't pretend that it isn't appealing. Maybe there are some people who went through 31 years of college and wouldn't feel that appeal. But it is appealing, especially for people who are troubled. And there are some parts of the world where large numbers of people are uncertain and unable to find their mission in life. In some parts of the world it's the most educated people who feel that way. So it's not at all a matter of education. If you look at some of the participants in September 11 and some of the people who have joined al Qaeda that we know about, it's not lack of education that made it appealing. It was a feeling of frustration and humiliation.

Reason: You refer several times to horrible, horrible freedom, the sense that modern life offers people too many roles they can try on.

Stern: I think it's hard for all of us. It's great to have that kind of freedom but it's also painful. I think everybody can understand the appeal.

Reason: In your policy recommendations, you say this stuff is not susceptible to military solutions. How true is that in cases where there is some state sponsorship? And if a state-dependant organization like Al Qaeda loses its sponsorship and has to change its tactics, isn't that a victory of sorts?

Stern: Oh yeah, in the case of al Qaeda that had to be part of the strategy. I'm not saying we shouldn't be involved militarily at all. There are some situations where the military response is required as part of a much broader strategy.

Reason: Jon Krakauer has a book out right now about homicidal Mormon zealots, which speculates quite a bit about religious fanaticism and violence. Everything that guy touches turns to gold. Are you concerned he's going to suck up all the oxygen for your book?

Stern: I don't know, maybe I should worry about that. It sounds like a really interesting book. He's focused on one religion; my book covers a few of them.

Reason: You and Condoleezza Rice had some interesting parallels in your careers: You both started out with an emphasis on Russia and are fluent in Russian, but then through circumstance shifted to an emphasis on terrorism. Do you ever look at her and say, "Goddammit, I should have that job"?

Stern: I think that's a really good job.