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What Makes a Terrorist? By: James Q. Wilson
City Journal | Tuesday, January 13, 2004


Until the nineteenth century, religion was usually the only acceptable justification of terror. It is not hard to understand why: religion gives its true believers an account of the good life and a way of recognizing evil; if you believe that evil in the form of wrong beliefs and mistaken customs weakens or corrupts a life ordained by God, you are under a profound obligation to combat that evil. If you enjoy the companionship of like-minded believers, combating that evil can require that you commit violent, even suicidal, acts.

The Thuggees of India during their several centuries of existence may have killed by slow strangulation 1 million people as sacrifices to the Hindu goddess Kali. The Thugs had no political objective and, when caught, looked forward to their execution as a quick route to paradise.

In the Muslim world, one kind of terrorism, assassination, has existed since shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Of his early successors, three were killed with daggers. The very word “assassin” comes from a group founded by Hasan Ibn al-Sabbah, whose devotees, starting in the eleventh century, spread terror throughout the Muslim world until they were virtually exterminated two centuries later. They killed rival Sunni Muslims, probably in large numbers. Perhaps one-third of all Muslim caliphs have been killed.

The Assassins were perhaps the world’s first terrorists in two senses. They did not seek simply to change rulers through murder but to replace a social system by changing an allegedly corrupt Sunni regime into a supposedly ideal Shiite one. Moreover, the Assassins attacked using only daggers, in ways that made their capture and execution, often after gruesome torture, inevitable. Murder was an act of piety, and as Bernard Lewis has suggested, surviving such a mission was often viewed as shameful.

In modern times, killers have taken the lives of the presidents of Syria and of Sri Lanka; two prime ministers each of Iran and India; the presidents of Aden, Afghanistan, and South Yemen; the president-elect of Lebanon and the president of Egypt; and countless judges and political leaders.

But religiously oriented violence has by no means been confined to Islam. In the United States, abortion clinics have been bombed and their doctors shot because, to the perpetrators, the Christian Bible commands it. Jim Jones killed or required the suicide of his own followers at his camp in Guyana, and David Koresh did nothing to prevent the mass death of his followers at Waco. As Blaise Pascal put it, “men never do evil so openly and contentedly as when they do it from religious conviction.” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, found that suicide attacks kill four times as many people per incident as do other forms of terrorism; since September 2000, they have taken about 750 lives—not including the 3,000 who died from the 9/11 suicide attacks. Of course, most religious people have nothing to do with terror, and in the past many important instances of suicide attacks, such as the Kamikaze aircraft sent by the Japanese against American warships, had no religious impulse. Terrorists among the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were not driven by religion. Today, however, religious belief, and especially a certain interpretation of the Muslim religion, has come to dominate the motives of suicide terrorists, even when religious aspirations do not govern the organizations that recruit them. Some Middle Eastern terrorist groups, such as Fatah, are secular, and some people join even fundamentalist terrorist organizations for non-religious reasons.

Terrorism, however motivated, baffles people, because they cannot imagine doing these things themselves. This bafflement often leads us to assume that terrorists are either mentally deranged or products of a hostile environment.

In a powerful essay, Cynthia Ozick describes “the barbarous Palestinian societal invention”: recruiting children to blow themselves up. She argues that these are acts of “anti-instinct,” because they are contrary to the drive to live, the product of a grotesque cultural ideal. She is correct to say that this recruitment is not psychopathological, but not quite right to say that it defies instinct. It defies some instincts but is in accord with others.

To explain why people join these different groups, let me make some distinctions. One, suggested by Professor Jerrold Post at George Washington University, is between anarchic ideologues and nationalists.

Anarchist or ideological groups include the Red Army Faction in Germany (popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang), the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Weathermen in America. The German government carried out a massive inquiry into the Red Army Faction and some right-wing terrorist groups in the early 1980s. (Since it was done in Germany, you will not be surprised to learn that it was published in four volumes.) The Red Army members were middle-class people, who came, in about 25 percent of the cases, from broken families. Over three-fourths said they had severe conflicts with their parents. About one-third had been convicted in juvenile court. They wanted to denounce “the establishment” and bourgeois society generally, and joined peer groups that led them steadily into more radical actions that in time took over their lives. Italians in the Red Brigades had comparable backgrounds.

Ideological terrorists offer up no clear view of the world they are trying to create. They speak vaguely about bringing people into some new relationship with one another but never tell us what that relationship might be. Their goal is destruction, not creation. To the extent they are Marxists, this vagueness is hardly surprising, since Marx himself never described the world he hoped to create, except with a few glittering but empty generalities.

A further distinction: in Germany, left-wing terrorists, such as the Red Army Faction, were much better educated, had a larger fraction of women as members, and were better organized than were right-wing terrorists. Similar differences have existed in the United States between, say, the Weather Underground and the Aryan Nation. Left-wing terrorists often have a well-rehearsed ideology; right-wing ones are more likely to be pathological.

I am not entirely certain why this difference should exist. One possibility is that right-wing terrorist organizations are looking backward at a world they think has been lost, whereas left-wing ones are looking ahead at a world they hope will arrive. Higher education is useful to those who wish to imagine a future but of little value to those who think they know the past. Leftists get from books and professors a glimpse of the future, and they struggle to create it. Right-wingers base their discontent on a sense of the past, and they work to restore it. To join the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation, it is only necessary that members suppose that it is good to oppress blacks or Catholics or Jews; to join the Weather Underground, somebody had to teach recruits that bourgeois society is decadent and oppressive.

By contrast, nationalistic and religious terrorists are a very different matter. The fragmentary research that has been done on them makes clear that they are rarely in conflict with their parents; on the contrary, they seek to carry out in extreme ways ideas learned at home. Moreover, they usually have a very good idea of the kind of world they wish to create: it is the world given to them by their religious or nationalistic leaders. These leaders, of course, may completely misrepresent the doctrines they espouse, but the misrepresentation acquires a commanding power.

Marc Sageman at the University of Pennsylvania has analyzed what we know so far about members of al-Qaida. Unlike ideological terrorists, they felt close to their families and described them as intact and caring. They rarely had criminal records; indeed, most were devout Muslims. The great majority were married; many had children. None had any obvious signs of mental disorder. The appeal of al-Qaida was that the group provided a social community that helped them define and resist the decadent values of the West. The appeal of that community seems to have been especially strong to the men who had been sent abroad to study and found themselves alone and underemployed.

A preeminent nationalistic terrorist, Sabri al-Bana (otherwise known as Abu Nidal), was born to a wealthy father in Jaffa, and through his organization, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, also known as the Abu Nidal Organization, sought to destroy Israel and to attack Palestinian leaders who showed any inclination to engage in diplomacy. He was hardly a member of the wretched poor.

Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova have come to similar conclusions from their analysis of what we know about deceased soldiers in Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored Shiite fighting group in Lebanon. Compared with the Lebanese population generally, the Hezbollah soldiers were relatively well-to-do and well-educated young males. Neither poor nor uneducated, they were much like Israeli Jews who were members of the “bloc of the faithful” group that tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem: well paid, well educated, and of course deeply religious.

In Singapore a major terrorist organization is Jemaah Islamiyah. Singaporean psychologists studied 31 of its members and found them normal in most respects. All were male, had average to above-average intelligence, and held jobs ranging from taxi driver to engineer. As with al-Qaida and Hezbollah members, they did not come from unstable families, nor did they display any peculiar desire toward suicidal behavior. Though graduates of secular schools, they attached great importance to religion.

Of late, women have been recruited for terrorist acts—a remarkable development in the Islamic world, where custom keeps women in subordinate roles. Precisely because of their traditional attire, female suicide bombers can easily hide their identities and disguise themselves as Israelis by wearing tight, Western clothing. Security sources in Israel have suggested that some of these women became suicide bombers to expunge some personal dishonor. Death in a holy cause could wash away the shame of divorce, infertility, or promiscuity. According to some accounts, a few women have deliberately been seduced and then emotionally blackmailed into becoming bombers.

That terrorists themselves are reasonably well-off does not by itself disprove the argument that terrorism springs from poverty and ignorance. Terrorists might simply be a self-selected elite, who hope to serve the needs of an impoverished and despondent populace—in which case, providing money and education to the masses would be the best way to prevent terrorism.

From what we know now, this theory appears to be false. Krueger and Maleckova compared terrorist incidents in the Middle East with changes in the gross domestic product of the region and found that the number of such incidents per year increased as economic conditions improved. On the eve of the intifada that began in 2000, the unemployment rate among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was falling, and the Palestinians thought that economic conditions were improving. The same economic conditions existed at the time of the 1988 intifada. Terror did not spread as the economy got worse but as it got better.

This study agrees with the view of Franklin L. Ford, whose book Political Murder covers terrorist acts from ancient times down to the 1980s. Assassinations, he finds, were least common in fifth-century Athens, during the Roman republic, and in eighteenth-century Europe—periods in which “a certain quality of balance, as between authority and forbearance” was reinforced by a commitment to “customary rights.” Terrorism has not corresponded to high levels of repression or social injustice or high rates of ordinary crime. It seems to occur, Ford suggests, in periods of partial reform, popular excitement, high expectations, and impatient demands for still more rapid change.

But if terrorists—suicide bombers and other murderers of innocent people—are not desperate, perhaps they are psychologically disturbed. But I cannot think of a single major scholar who has studied this matter who has found any psychosis. Terrorists are likely to be different from non-terrorists, but not because of any obvious disease.

In short, recruiting religiously inspired or nationalistically oriented terrorists seems to have little to do with personal psychosis, material deprivation, or family rejection. It may not even have much to do with well-known, high-status leaders. Among West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, for example, there is broad support for suicide bombings and a widespread belief that violence has helped the Palestinian cause, even though as late as June 2003 only about one-third of all Palestinians thought Yasser Arafat was doing a good job. Indeed, his popularity has declined since the intifada began.

The key to terrorist recruitment, obviously, is the group that does the recruitment. Jerrold Post interviewed for eight hours an Abu Nidal terrorist named Omar Rezaq, who skyjacked an airliner and killed five passengers, two of them women, before an Egyptian rescue team captured him. The interviews sought to test the defense counsel’s claim that Rezaq suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and so did not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions. Post found no such disease.

He met instead a thoroughly calm, professional man, who, after a happy childhood devoid of poverty, had moved with his mother to a refugee camp following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. At school he encountered a radical Palestinian teacher (and PLO member) who imbued him with a hatred of Israel and helped him join a camp where, at age 12, he began receiving military training. From there he went to a technical school sponsored by the United Nations. After being drafted into the Jordanian army, Rezaq deserted and joined Fatah, where he learned about Zionism and got more military training. He was sent on military missions against Israel, but periods of inactivity made him discontented. In time, searching for a stronger commitment, he joined Abu Nidal.

Abu Nidal ordered him to seize an airliner and hold it until Egypt released certain activists from prison. After the plane he seized landed in Malta, Rezaq began executing passengers, beginning with two Israelis (they were the enemy) and three Americans (they supported the enemy). Before he could kill more, a rescue team stormed the plane and captured him.

Rezaq spoke to Professor Post in a calm, orderly, unemotional way. He thought of himself as a soldier and of the people he shot as enemies. He realized that his actions were crimes—that was why he wore a ski mask—but he did not think they were wrong: he was, after all, fighting Zionism. The notion that he was mentally ill was absurd: Abu Nidal, a highly professional group, would have long since weeded him out. Abu Nidal had killed or injured many people in massacres at the Rome and Vienna airports and gravely wounded the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain: you do not accomplish these things by relying on psychotics.

While some suicide bombers have been the victims of blackmail, and some have been led to believe, wrongly, that the bombs in their trucks would go off after they had left them, my sense is that most recruitment today relies on small-group pressure and authoritative leaders. Anyone who took social-science courses in college will surely remember the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram. In the 1960s, Milgram, then a professor at Yale, recruited ordinary people through a newspaper ad offering them money to help in a project purporting to improve human memory. The improvement was to come from punishing a man who seemed unable to remember words read aloud to him. The man, a confederate of Milgram’s, was strapped in a chair with an electrode attached to his wrist. The punishment took the form of electric shocks administered by the experimental subjects from a control panel, showing a scale of shocks, from 15 to 450 volts. At the high end of the scale, clearly marked labels warned: “Danger—Severe Shock.” As the subject increased the imaginary voltage, the man who was supposed to have his memory improved screamed in pretended pain.

About two-thirds of the subjects Milgram had recruited went all the way to 450 volts. Only two things made a difference: the absence of a clear authority figure and the presence of rebellious peers. Without these modifications, almost everybody decided to “follow orders.” This study suggests to me that, rightly managed, a cohesive group with an authoritative leader can find people who will do almost anything.

Terrorist cells, whether they have heard of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority or not, understand these rules. They expose members to unchallenged authority figures and quickly weed out anyone who might be rebellious. They get rid of doubts by getting rid of the doubters.

This is not very different from how the military maintains morale under desperate conditions. Soldiers fight because their buddies fight. Heroism usually derives not from some deep heroic “urge” or from thoughts of Mom, apple pie, and national ideology, but from the example of others who are fighting.

Milgram did not train terrorists; he showed that one instinct Cynthia Ozick neglected—the instinct to be part of a team—can be as powerful as the one that tells us to be decent to other people. But suppose Milgram had been the leader of a terrorist sect and had recruited his obedient followers into his group; suppose teachings in the schools and mass propaganda supported his group. There is almost no limit to what he could have accomplished using such people. They might not have been clinically ill, but they would have been incorporated into a psychopathological movement.

The central fact about terrorists is not that they are deranged, but that they are not alone. Among Palestinians, they are recruited by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, among others. In Singapore, their recruitment begins with attendance at religious schools. If ardent and compliant, they are drawn into Jemaah Islamiyah, where they associate with others like themselves. Being in the group gives each member a sense of special esteem and exclusivity, reinforced by the use of secrecy, code names, and specialized training. Then they are offered the chance to be martyrs if they die in a jihad. Everywhere, leaders strengthen the bombers’ commitment by isolating them in safe houses and by asking them to draft last testaments and make videotapes for their families, in which they say farewell.

Given its long history, one must wonder whether terrorism accomplishes its goals. For some ideological terrorists, of course, there are scarcely any clear goals that can be accomplished. But for many assassins and religious terrorists, there are important goals, such as ending tyranny, spreading a religious doctrine, or defeating a national enemy.

By these standards, terrorism does not work. Franklin Ford concluded his long history of political murders by saying that, with one or two possible exceptions, assassinations have not produced results consonant with the aims of the doer. Walter Laqueur, in his shorter review of the matter, comes to the same conclusion: of the 50 prime ministers and heads of state killed between 1945 and 1985, it is hard to think of one whose death changed a state’s policies.

Bernard Lewis argues that the original Assassins failed: they never succeeded in overthrowing the social order or replacing Sunnis with Shiites. The most recent study of suicide terrorism from 1983 through 2001 found that, while it “has achieved modest or very limited goals, it has so far failed to compel target democracies to abandon goals central to national wealth or security.”

One reason it does not work can be found in studies of Israeli public opinion. During 1979, there were 271 terrorist incidents in Israel and the territories it administers, resulting in the deaths of 23 people and the injuring of 344 more. Public-opinion surveys clearly showed that these attacks deeply worried Israelis, but their fear, instead of leading them to endorse efforts at reconciliation, produced a toughening of attitudes and a desire to see the perpetrators dealt with harshly. The current intifada has produced exactly the same result in Israel.

But if terrorism does not change the views of the victims and their friends, then it is possible that campaigns against terrorism will not change the views of people who support it. Many social scientists have come to just this conclusion.

In the 1970s, I attended meetings at a learned academy where people wondered what could be done to stop the terrorism of the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades. The general conclusion was that no counterattacks would work. To cope with terrorism, my colleagues felt, one must deal with its root causes.

I was not convinced. My doubts stemmed, I suppose, from my own sense that dealing with the alleged root causes of crime would not work as well as simply arresting criminals. After all, we do not know much about the root causes, and most of the root causes we can identify cannot be changed in a free society—or possibly in any society.

The German and Italian authorities, faced with a grave political problem, decided not to change root causes but to arrest the terrorists. That, accompanied by the collapse of East Germany and its support for terrorists, worked. Within a few years the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades were extinct. In the United States, the Weather Underground died after its leaders were arrested.

But Islamic terrorism poses a much more difficult challenge. These terrorists live and work among people sympathetic to their cause. Those arrested will be replaced; those killed will be honored. Opinion polls in many Islamic nations show great support for anti-Israeli and anti-American terrorists. Terrorists live in a hospitable river. We may have to cope with the river.

The relentless vilification of Jews, Israel, and Zionism by much of the Muslim press and in many Muslim schools has produced a level of support for terrorism that vastly exceeds the backing that American or European terrorists ever enjoyed. Over 75 percent of all Palestinians support the current intifada and endorse the 2003 bombing of Maxim, a restaurant in Haifa. With suicide bombers regarded as martyrs, the number of new recruits has apparently increased. The river of support for anti-Israel terror is much wider and deeper than what the Baader-Meinhof gang received.

Imagine what it would have been like to eliminate the Baader-Meinhof gang if most West Germans believed that democracy was evil and that Marxism was the wave of the future, if the Soviet Union paid a large sum to the family of every killed or captured gang member, if West German students attended schools that taught the evils of democracy and regarded terrorists as heroes, if several West German states were governed by the equivalent of al Fatah, and if there were a German version of Gaza, housing thousands of angry Germans who believed they had a right of return to some homeland.

But support for resistance is not the same as support for an endless war. An opinion survey done in November 2002 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that over three-fourths of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank supported a mutual cessation of violence between Israel and Palestinians and backed reconciliation between Israelis and a newly created Palestinian state. A majority favored the Palestinian Authority taking measures to prevent armed attacks against Israeli civilians. Another poll found that about half of all Palestinians wanted both the intifada and negotiations with Israel to go forward simultaneously, while 15 percent favored negotiations alone.

These facts, rarely mentioned in the American press, suggest how empty are the statements of many Middle Eastern and European leaders, who incessantly tell us that ending terrorism generally requires “solving” the Palestinian question by dealing with Arafat. These claims, often made to satisfy internal political needs, fail to recognize how disliked Arafat is by his own people and how eager they are for a democratic government that respects the governed and avoids corruption.

Matters are worse when one state sponsors or accommodates terrorism in another state. In this case, the problem is to end that state support. To do that means making clear that the leaders of such a state will suffer serious pain as a consequence of that accommodation. Though many people take exception to it, I think President Bush was right to condemn certain nations as being part of an “axis of evil,” putting leaders on notice that they cannot fund or encourage Hamas, al-Qaida, or Hezbollah without paying a heavy price for it. Iraq has learned how high that price can be.

The Israeli government is trying to impose a high price on the Palestinian Authority because of its tolerance of and support for terrorist acts in Israel. It is too early to tell whether this effort will succeed. Arrests or deterrence, after all, cannot readily prevent suicide bombings, though good intelligence can reduce them, and seizing leaders can perhaps hamper them. The presence of the Israeli Defense Forces in Palestinian areas almost surely explains the recent reduction in suicide attacks, but no such presence, costly as it is, can reduce the number to zero. As Palestinian hostility toward Israel grows, reinforced by what is taught in Palestinian schools, recruiting suicide bombers becomes much easier.

The larger question, of course, is whether ending terrorism requires a new political arrangement. Ideally, the Palestinian people must grant Israel the right to a secure existence in exchange for being given their own country. There may be popular support among both Israelis and Palestinians for such an arrangement, but it is not obvious that political leaders of either side can endorse such a strategy. As the level of terrorism and state action grows, the opportunities for dialogue diminish, and public confidence that any new dialogue will produce meaningful results declines. No one has yet found a way to manage this difficulty.

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