The 'why' of terrorism

LifeMuhammadMedina-lgLast week I read a Washington Post article about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with attempting to bomb a flight to Detroit. In the same way that some media coverage of Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan explored his mental state, this Post article took the clinical approach with Abdulmutallab. Like Hasan, he was lonely and wanted to find a wife. Now, it's not that I doubt these things are true. Generally speaking, I think that people who commit crimes and acts of terror are not in the healthiest state of mind. And searching for a wife strongly motivates non-criminals and terrorists as well. But when it comes to reporting bang for buck, a better link between these two men (than loneliness or singleness) might be their relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who also happened to know some of the 9/11 hijackers.

So I was intrigued by this New York Times article by Eric Schmitt and Eric Lipton that begins:

The apparent ties between the Nigerian man charged with plotting to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day and a radical American-born Yemeni imam have cast a spotlight on a world of charismatic clerics who wield their Internet celebrity to indoctrinate young Muslims with extremist ideology and recruit them for Al Qaeda, American officials and counterterrorism specialists said.

It's not that this story ignores psychology -- it notes that some people are more likely to be attracted to these clerics than others -- but it's not the focus. It compares the clerics to televangelists, of all people, in their persuasive messaging. The piece does best when it actually explains how this appeal works:

"People across the spectrum of radicalism can gravitate to them, if they're just dipping their toe in or they're hard core," said Jarret Brachman, author of "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice" (Routledge, 2008) and a consultant to the United States government about terrorism. "The most important thing they do is take very complex ideological thoughts and make them simple, with clear guidelines on how to follow Islamic law."

There's information as to how these celebrity imams operate vis-a-vis the law and their relationship to Al Qaeda. The article says that Awlaki, for instance, is a talent spotter. He takes people interested in radical Islam and works as a pipeline to get them snapped into Al Qaeda operations.

The story comes alive when it does get into specifics:

Sheikh Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al-Husainan of Kuwait, who is fast attracting a large following, mixes contemporary politics with talk of martyrdom.

"Obama, in the same way that you raised the slogan, 'Yes We Can,' I too have a slogan," Mr. Husainan wrote in August 2009. "My slogan in this life -- and memorize this slogan -- is 'Happiness is the day of my martyrdom.'"

But looking at specific statements of these clerics is not the focus of this story. I hope it is in future stories. Again, the journalistic psychoanalysis isn't all bad, but it's important for reporters to keep filling in pieces to the puzzle. That many of these men are lonely isn't that hard to accept. But a lot of men who are lonely don't try to bomb airlines or shoot dozens of their colleagues. What makes these men take the steps toward mass murder?

There has to be some theology on some level. These clerics are very good at motivating some Muslim radicals to kill themselves and others. How, exactly, does that work? We need to know much more about the underlying theology if we are to understand both these terrorists and how they differ from mainstream populations.

We have enough information to suspect that religion plays no small part in the answer. We are woefully under-informed as to how. This story is a positive step in that direction.

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