Talking With Terrorists

Jessica Stern's new book reports from the front lines of the War on Terror.


For the last five years, Jessica Stern has been interviewing terrorists for her new book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Ecco). The book is a synthesis of the often-sensational popular literature on terrorism that has bloomed after the 9/11 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 1999 book The Ultimate Terrorists examined both fringe and state-sponsored groups in the era of weapons of mass destruction. She spoke with reason's Web editor, Tim Cavanaugh, in August.

reason: You draw on literary and historical material to contextualize the attraction of martyrdom. What light does that shed on contemporary problems?

Jessica Stern: 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 [by others] in the past. 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: Your book is very ecumenical, profiling Jewish and Christian militants as well as Muslims. Some readers might say: Come on, the mortal threat to this country isn't coming from Jews or evangelicals or Shintoists. It's coming from Muslims.

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. Christian extremists are supportive of September 11 and of some of the objectives of the Islamist extremists. The possibility that white supremacists and Christian extremists could aid in some way the more professional Islamist extremists I find alarming. 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: Virtually everyone believes that better economic conditions will remove the incentive for terrorism. You reject that kind of "root causes" explanation. What are the general factors that breed terrorism?

Stern: 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. We've also seen upper-middle-class kids join these groups. The most important elements that are shared across the board have to do with a feeling of humiliation and a desire for a clear identity.

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. 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 Arabia. 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. Their purported objective changes regularly. We saw an attack in Saudi Arabia very shortly after the Pentagon announced it was moving almost every U.S. soldier out of there. 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: How important is it to understand the motivations and dynamics of these groups?

Stern: It is important 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 the U.S. in the Arab world, it's frightening how low it's gotten. For terrorist groups to succeed in Morocco and Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, they need support. You can't have the terrorists themselves and nobody else; there is a [necessary] support base. We need to understand the message they're trying to sell. We need to undermine that message.

reason: At several points in your talks with Jewish terrorists you confess to feeling some attraction to their Manichean, traditionalist view. 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?

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, 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: In your discussions with Islamists, most cite the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan as their formative experience. 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, we don't. It was the revival of the notion of an international jihad. As far as [militants are] 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 it would be easy to do that sort of thing again in Iraq. Policy remedies tend to have unfortunate side effects.

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'm hearing Hezbollah 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.

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.