May 12, 2004
Stern, Author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"A few years ago I decided to do something scholars rarely do: I decided to talk with terrorists," is how Jessica Stern begins her remarkable book.
Stern, an expert on terrorism and a lecturer on the subject at Harvard, did something no one else has done. She decided to learn more about what makes terrorist ticks by going to the source and interviewing them. Stern, in her introduction, is frank about her goals and her fears in traveling around the world, at risk to herself, in order to first hand talk with individuals who "kill in the name of God." And she is an equal opportunity researcher: she interviews Christian, Jewish and Islamic terrorists.
As someone who from time-to-time consults for the government, Stern doesn't have a partisan political agenda. We interviewed her and the name of Bush hardly came up, if at all. But she does have the desire to understand the motivations of terrorists in order to better fashion an effective strategy to reducing their omnipresent threat.
In short, although Stern doesn't take political sides, she does take a strategic position. And her position, after interviewing terrorists and gleaning insights, is that trying to reduce terrorism requires a thoughtful, multi-faceted approach, because the causes of terrorism and the motivations of terrorists are varied.
Although Stern noted in our BuzzFlash interview with her that military action is sometimes necessary against terrorist command posts (although she opposed the invasion of Iraq), she asserts that "The terrorism we are fighting is a seductive idea, not a military target....I have come to see terrorism as a kind of virus, which spreads as a result of risk factors at various levels: global, interstate, national and personal."
The book is all the more compelling because it debunks the neanderthal "bring 'em on, wanted dead or alive" approach of Bush without being a polemic against him.
"In the end, however, what counts is what we fight for, not what we oppose. We need to avoid giving into spiritual dread, and to hold fast to the best of our principles, by emphasizing tolerance, empathy, and courage."
As Stern recounts her meetings with terrorists, she is remarkably candid in discussing her personal emotions and thoughts. Her extraordinary courage has yielded an invaluable insight into why we need a government with brains to take on terrorism and not a government of simple-minded radical zealots.
In a recent book about George W. Bush, written by sympathetic authors from the Hoover Institute, one unnamed Bush relative is quoted as saying that Bush sees the war on terrorism ''as a religious war'': ''He doesn't have a P.C. view of this war. His view of this is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.''
"Terror in the Name of God?" Who could be more ill-equiped to conduct a war against those who commit terror in the name of God than a man in the White House who commits terror in the name of God? What happens when the people conducting the war on terror conduct torture and light the fire of humiliation and anger that creates more terrorism? What happens when the anti-terrorist becomes the terrorizer? (This is completely BuzzFlash's assessment, not Stern's.)
These are not Jessica Stern's questions. They are ours. Stern's focus is on the terrorists and their motivations. She wants to gain information that can help save our lives. Our focus is on Bush's ineffective, incompetent, simple-minded response to terrorism.
After reading "Terror in the Name of God," it becomes even clearer to us that Bush's only dubious accomplishment is the implementation of policies that create more terrorism, not less. That's because, based on Stern's analysis of religious-based terrorism, Bush responds to terrorism exactly as terrorists would want him to, thus playing into their hands.
He becomes the evil that he beholds.
"Terror in the Name of God" is not likely to become a bestseller. It presents insights into fighting terrorism that are too complex for most Americans -- and an administration -- who want to bludgeon a problem to death.
Too bad. We are all less safe as a result -- and we are losing the battle against terrorism, because it requires a multi-pronged strategic approach, not just daisy cutter bombs and mercenary torturers in an Iraq prison.
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BuzzFlash: In your Introduction to "Terror in the Name of God," you have a statement that is startling in its simplicity. You say, "I have been studying terrorism for many years in various capacities -- as a government official, a scholar, and as a university lecturer. A few years ago, I decided to do something scholars rarely do. I decided to talk with terrorists." And then you proceed in a very frank way to talk about your concerns about personal safety and so forth, but you decided to go ahead and do this over a course of four years.
You approach this in an equal opportunity way, looking not just at Islamic terrorists, but at Christian and Jewish terrorists. What patterns do you find that are common to terrorists who kill in the name of God?
Jessica Stern: One thing they have in common is a frustration with establishing a clear identity. What religious extremist groups offer -- and that can even include groups that donít get involved in terrorism-- is a very clear identity. Itís very clear who we are, and itís very clear who the outsiders are, and what makes us different from them. And one of the primary tasks of a religious terrorist leader is to capitalize on some feeling of humiliation, often related to identity, that they find in potential members. It could be a personal feeling of humiliation, or it could be civilizational, national. They make their followers feel that the way to forge a new identity is by getting involved with this violent group.
BuzzFlash: We tend to focus now, because of 9/11, on Islamic terrorism. You donít read much about domestic terrorism. But you do interview a domestic terrorist in this book. And weíve seen reports in the last couple of years of law enforcement officials stopping acts of domestic terrorism. Of course, Timothy McVeigh is an example of a successful domestic terrorist.
Jessica Stern: We have many examples. They donít get the same kind of press coverage, but there are many examples.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think they donít get the same kind of press coverage?
Jessica Stern: Well, especially in the wake of 9/11, weíre just focused so much on Islamist terrorists. I just want to find the name of this -- itís a very, very interesting case in Texas. His name is William Krar. Itís extraordinary how little attention that case has gotten. Apparently he had 60 pipe bombs, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and enough pure sodium cyanide, quote, to kill everyone inside a 30,000 square foot building, according to federal authorities. Thatís a pretty big deal. Imagine the kind of press coverage a case like that would get if he were purportedly a member of al-Qaeda.
BuzzFlash: And what was his motivation?
Jessica Stern: He seemed to have links with anti-government, neo-Nazi groups. But I think itís rather unclear exactly what he had in mind.
BuzzFlash: And yet you really had to read through the papers to find it.
Jessica Stern: Right, right.
BuzzFlash: One of the key things that comes across in your book is the complexity of terrorism. The war on terrorism is being waged almost purely as a military campaign. Yet the way your book is structured indicates the grievances that give rise to a religious terrorist are complex and varying -- humiliation, demographics, history, territory. Any individual terrorist may have one or a combination of these. And then you say, on page 283 of your book, that the terrorism we are fighting is a seductive idea, not a military target. Terrorist leaders tell young men that the reason they feel humiliated personally and culturally is that international institutions are exploiting them, and that in many cases, although not exclusively, the enemy is modernity.
Given that itís a seductive idea and not a military target, how do we respond? You do come to some suggestions at the end, but currently weíre being told by the Bush administration that itís virtually purely a military response.
Jessica Stern: I donít mean that there arenít some military targets. There are some important military targets. For example, I think it was important to destroy al-Qaedaís headquarters in Afghanistan. But that is just a short-term measure. Over the long term, what should trouble us more than anything is what is coming out of the Pew polls, showing that the level of antipathy to the United States is continuing to go up, especially after the Iraq war, especially in the Islamic world, but not exclusively in the Islamic world.
In one of the Pew polls -- not the last one, but I think the one before that -- there was a finding that a number of Islamic-majority countries, more people have confidence in bin Laden as a leader than in President Bush. The word was confidence, not faith. To me, that is an extraordinary vulnerability. If I were advising the President, I would see that as a very significant threat to U.S. national security because, as Mao said, terrorists swim in a sea of ordinary people who are their supporters and provide logistic support. Terrorists need that support. And when thereís so much hatred toward the United States, theyíre going to get that support. And theyíre going to be more successful also at recruiting.
So I think whatís most important is that we try to undermine the false idea that the al-Qaeda movement is promoting that the U.S. is out to humiliate the Islamic world. Thereís no military target there; indeed, military responses largely feed into that false idea. When military action is necessary, I think it ought to be as covert as possible. And I think we ought to be focusing on penetrating the groups more than killing operatives.
BuzzFlash: You point out in your book that it is an erroneous concept to think of al-Qaeda as a closed group of people -- and that you can cut off the heads of the leadership and then al-Qaeda will sort of dissolve. But thatís really not the case. In fact, terrorism -- Islamic terrorism, in any case -- is becoming more decentralized and not as dependent upon Osama bin Laden as leader. Others have also suggested that the extent of connection to Osama bin Laden among some of the terrorists is not always as direct as some government reports indicate.
Jessica Stern: Yes, yes.
BuzzFlash: If that is the case, and weíre seeing more dispersed terrorist cells, what plan of action works against that? Clearly itís not military because thereís not necessarily a headquarters. So how does one begin to grapple with that? Let me add that from reading your book, what seems most apparent to us is that there isnít a simple military solution -- one needs to approach the whole terrorist issue with a great deal of nuance, complexity, subtlety, and multi-pronged approach. I donít know if Iím answering the question I asked.
Jessica Stern: Yes, you are right. I wrote about that in a piece in Foreign Affairs in July of 2003. Itís called "The Protean Enemy." You can just Google "The Protean Enemy" and my name. But yes, I think that that is a big problem. And in that article, I talk not only about the kinds of groups that weíre reading about now, including the individuals involved in the attack in Spain, but also various movements that are not terrorist groups per se, but that are being taken advantage of as sources of operatives and support. There are Islamist movements that claim not to be involved in violence at all that are beginning to play an important role as feeder organizations into violent groups.
BuzzFlash: Your book is so extraordinarily insightful. It opens a whole door which we donít normally see because the media coverage is simplistic. Weíre waging a military war and thatís pretty much as far as it goes. Your book opens a window into the extraordinary challenge and complexity of dealing with terrorism, and the motivations of terrorists.
Jessica Stern: What we need to do in the very short term to prevent an imminent terrorist strike is probably going to be counterproductive in the long term. So thereís always this trade-off: A military response may, at times, be required in the short term. But a military response may also just unify our enemies to recruit new followers and to energize the movement against us.
BuzzFlash: Such as the bombing of the mosque in Fallujah.
Jessica Stern: Right. Thatís a very, very good example.
BuzzFlash: After finishing your book, I felt like this is such an extraordinary challenge because youíre dealing with something like what causes an earthquake. Thereís two great forces pressing against each other. You have modernity pressing against a people who are reacting to modernity overall by finding refuge in religious zealotry, regardless of the religion in question. This seems to be one of the most consistent themes among the different religious groups -- the Jewish terrorists you talked to, the Islamic terrorists, and the Christian terrorists.
But you also talked about the lone terrorist, the man who shot up and killed people as they were driving to CIA Headquarters, whoís sort of acting on his own. How does one even deal with something like that, where you basically have a criminal act that is terrorism, but the act had no strategic relationship to any terrorist group?
Jessica Stern: Thereís a spectrum between what I call a commander-cadre
organization -- a kind of terrorist army; and virtual networks,
which consist of individual cells that have no connection with
one another. The most extreme case is the lone wolf avenger who
takes action partly mobilized by some terrorist ideology, and often
partly by something going on personally. Al-Qaeda is becoming a
kind of hybrid organization -- a network of networks that encompasses
both commander-cadre organizations -- often groups with regional
agendas; and virtual networks. The mission that al Qaeda espouses
has become a popular dystopioc ideology among a surprising array
of groups and individuals.
BuzzFlash: Then itís a probably domestic terrorism, and it was committed by an American, it seems.
Jessica Stern: Right. That seems to be the leading hypothesis.
BuzzFlash: Because of 9/11, many Americans have demonized that this is something thatís Islamic. But you have people like an American doctor who immigrated to Israel, who kills many Palestinians with a machine gun because of his feeling that the West Bank was the greater land of Israel, and that was a terrorist act. Itís getting back to this point that itís not exclusive to any one religion, and, therefore, the battle against it isnít a crusade -- quote, unquote -- because there are many more common factors between terrorists of different religions than terrorism as defined within a religion.
Jessica Stern: But thereís something about whatís going on in the Islamic world. Islamist terrorist leaders are able to raise large armies. As you know, we donít see Jewish terrorists able to raise large armies, and we donít see Christian terrorists able to raise large armies. I think it is because there are a large number of humiliated young men in the Islamic world. Terrorist leaders capitalize on this humiliation -- they try to strengthen it, and urge their followers to take action against the entity purportedly responsible for humiliting them. I have a very famous colleague who likes to accuse me of having a Prozac approach to terrorism.
BuzzFlash: A Prozac approach?
Jessica Stern: Because I focus so much on humiliation. But thatís what they talk about, and not just in conversations with me. In fact, on the Web, you can look at what Ayman al Zawahiri says about humiliation in his writings
Every religion is vulnerable to this kind of selective reading. Every group is susceptible to a selective reading of history -- portraying, for example, that this mosque, if you go back to year X, was built on top of a Hindu temple, and therefore we should destroy the mosque. Or if we go back to year Y, this mosque really was a Jewish temple. And every religion is susceptible to that. But the only religious terrorist groups that are taking off numerically at this point in history are the Islamic ones. But at other points in history, other religions have been more susceptible to this kind of abuse -- to using religion to justify evil acts.
BuzzFlash: Letís talk about what you did. In your Introduction, you explain that your goal was to get inside the heads of terrorists to understand them, and it had nothing to do with any sympathy whatsoever. This was simply a way for you, given your specialty, to begin to understand the way they think and gain better insight into the psychology of terrorism. Describe your feelings as youíre interviewing these people. Because you really took some risks.
Jessica Stern: It was only after Sept. 11 that I realized the nature of the real threat I had taken. For example, I did talk at length to the leader of a Pakistani jihadi group who is personal friends with bin Laden, and his group is very closely aligned with al-Qaeda. I knew that I didnít want to present myself to bin Laden. I thought that was not a very good idea, given my government experience. I mean, Iím not a reporter; I didnít think that was something that would be a good idea for me. But I didnít realize just how close I was getting. And of course, I did exactly what Daniel Pearl did.
I think part of it is that Iím a woman, and part of it is that I was doing this before Sept. 11, when I think things really changed. And I would not, myself, repeat what I did in the post-Sept. 11 environment.
BuzzFlash: And you are, as you say in your book, Jewish, which certainly among the Islamic terrorists would seem to put you at higher risk, as Daniel Pearl was.
Jessica Stern: Yes, although it came up sometimes in the conversations, most of the time it wasnít really that big an issue. I think it also made me a bit more exotic. Iím not sure that it was always a disadvantage, and my exoticism to the group was definitely something that was in my favor, It made them extremely curious about me.
BuzzFlash: What was in it for the terrorists in talking to you?
Jessica Stern: Part of it was the curiosity that I just mentioned, and part of it was they wanted to use me to get their message out. I thought it was important to understand their perceptions of the world, so I didnít mind the fact that they were trying to use me in that regard. They want people to understand what theyíre all about. In my view, they have some misperceptions of the world, and I think itís important for us to understand how they see the world, so that is fine. In some cases, they were trying to use me because they thought I was working for the U.S. government, and they wanted to get a message to the U.S. government. And sometimes a lot of it was, I think, just loneliness or curiosity -- they liked the idea of a woman sitting down and being so curious, not interrupting them, hanging on their every word.
My colleagues have told me that they canít believe -- they say they couldnít do it -- that I am capable of sitting down and talking to someone whose views I reject completely, and, during the conversation, try to enter that personís head. Try to really almost be that person for the period of the conversation, in terms of their thought process -- to follow along with how they see the world. Itís not just a matter of not expressing disapproval, but not allowing myself to think of disapproval.
BuzzFlash: Itís sort of a suspension of your critical stance.
Jessica Stern: Itís pure listening -- and pure following, and Iím really trying to follow where they go completely. Thatís what I mean by empathy, trying to sense what it is that they feel and think, to see the world through their eyes completely, and not judge.
BuzzFlash: One of these interviews, because of Islamic perceptions about the relationship with women, took place through a screen. How was that?
Jessica Stern: I was often aware of the theatre, the image that was being presented to me. It might have been just scowling on the faces of the guards, or guns salute as I would come in, or a show of force, or certain outfits. In this case, I did feel that the idea that he couldnít look at me and I couldnít look at him was part of a theatrical performance. Thatís not really, I think, how most Islamists feel. I was completely covered, number one, much more so than their translator, who was Indonesian. But if he really thought that it was too dangerous to look at me -- covered as I was -- he could have covered his eyes, rather than speaking behind a screen.
BuzzFlash: The issue of why Ja'Far Thalid is in Indonesia, heís a leader of a kind of splinter terrorist group. Itís an interesting study because you really go into depth about the Christian population overtaking the Islamic in a certain area, and the threat of Islamic displacement evolved into a terrorist movement. It was sort of a microscopic analysis of the birth of a terrorist organization.
And again, he spoke to you quite willingly. Terrorism is an act that is an explicit attempt to get sensational media coverage, in a way.
Jessica Stern: Right, right. And it is theatre.
BuzzFlash: And messaging, in its own perverse way. Speaking to you, the gentleman in Indonesia clearly was messaging.
Jessica Stern: Sure. And in some cases, I felt that in Pakistan theyíd been briefed by their handlers about how to talk to me. In the case of the gentleman in Indonesia, Ja'Far Thalib, he was clearly, as you say, controlling the message that he wanted to get across very carefully. But as he became more relaxed, he starting contradicting his earlier lies. In an interview, people will come in and out of feeling relaxed and willing to share the truth, and feeling they need to, well, either lie or tell partial truths. It required some patience, and also some technique, initially, trying to focus on questions where they wouldnít feel any desire to lie to me, where there would be absolutely no reason to lie to me, so that they sort of got into a mode of not lying, as opposed to starting out with questions where they might feel they had to be political.
But all my interviews are a mixture of that posturing, that theatre, and that desire to polish their image in the media, and surprising, bizarrely revealing comments about their own motivations. In one case -- you may remember I got to meet the wife of a leader and see that he lived in a gigantic mansion with servants, even though his offices were completely decrepit and designed to make it look as though -- well, like an NGO that has no funding, where it turns out the head of the NGO that has no funding is living in a LA-style mansion, which happens. But it was very impressive to see that. And I think that he apparently didnít realize what precisely it was that he was actually showing me.
BuzzFlash: Your book is divided into two major parts. I havenít talked about the second part, which is the different organizational structures of terrorism and further revelation as to the complexity of what weíre dealing with. Let me ask you about one of the major themes we touched upon earlier, which seems, on the surface, to be sort of an intractable problem -- this collision between modernity and religious extremists. Western society is a modern, secular society that is increasing exponentially -- in terms of its technological advancement and social mores -- and completely at odds with fundamentalists. While there are economic factors that relate to terrorism, and yes, there are funding factors relating to Saudi Arabia, the fact remains that even if you take all that out of it, modernity is going to continue to be a psychological dislocation and threat to many geographical sections of the world.
Jessica Stern: I think youíve really put your finger on a major problem. But I think itís important to remember that thereís no one cause. And itís out of the question that we would change our position on womenís rights.
And itís out of the question that weíre going to stop the process of globalization that is so troubling not only to the Islamists that weíre fighting, but also to a number identity Christian groups inside the United States. Still, I think itís important for us to try to lessen the numbers of people who feel disenfranchised by the process of globalization.
BuzzFlash: And how do you do that?
Jessica Stern: We can try to get better at trying to reduce some of the downsides of globalization. And also I think we can get better at not feeding into this notion that what globalization means is the humiliation of the Islamic world by being more aware of how weíre perceived in the Islamic world.
That is the reason why I oppose the Iraq war. I thought that whatever benefits there might be -- and certainly there were many; most importantly, the removal of the vicious tyrant who was doing the most horrific things imaginable to his own population, horrible human rights violations that are only just beginning to come to light -- nonetheless, the downside is so profound, particularly going into that war without international support.
BuzzFlash: Your book is not politically partisan. You focus very much on the terrorists. Thatís what you do.
Jessica Stern: Yes, thatís right. Iím not political at all in the book. Suddenly because of my position on the Iraq war, I think that Iím now seen as partisan.
BuzzFlash: I think your book is a tremendous asset because of that. In your exploration of the psychological terrain of terrorism, you focus on long-term prevention by reducing the number of terrorists in the world, which implies a very complex and nuanced approach.
Jessica Stern: Youíre right. Itís obviously not at all partisan. Itís a problem that none of us knows how to solve. We have to do our best, but it would be inappropriate to claim that weíre failing for partisan, political reasons. I believe that weíre making some mistakes that we donít have to make. But at the same time, it doesnít mean that if we didnít make those mistakes, that we would succeed in putting a stop to terrorism. Itís such a difficult problem that weíre going to have to keep struggling. And the truth is that itís hard for either political party.
BuzzFlash: Finally, how did you become to be an expert in terrorism?
Jessica Stern: I studied chemistry as an undergrad, and then when I lived in Russia, in the Soviet Union, I started inevitably thinking about national security. It was hard, in the mid-80s, living in Russia, not to think about that. I wanted to find a way to combine my interest in chemistry and national security affairs, and ended up working on chemical weapons and the possibility that terrorists would use chemical weapons. I took a post-doctoral fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I looked at political developments that could put nuclear weapons or materials at risk for terrorists acquiring them. I just ended up kind of falling into working on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
In the beginning of the book, I explain my interest in the problem of terrorism. I was so curious that I just decided I have to do this project, even though I wasnít trained to do it. Iím not a psychiatrist, or an anthropologist, or a sociologist, or an expert on comparative religions, but it seemed that the terrorists felt comfortable talking to me. And so I did it on that basis.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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