How Terrorists Think


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


In recent years, why is it that some individuals have resorted to terrorism as the only means to fight what they perceive to be injustice? Are these people pathological? Are they illiterate? Ignorant? Do they have abnormal personalities? Are they economically deprived? These questions, however, do not probe the real reason why terrorism has become a global phenomenon. The real reason lies in a complex crisis of identity being experienced by many individuals in the Near and Middle East. It is a profound and historic identity crisis, one tragic manifestation of which is terrorism. But to the terrorists, terrorism is not the beginning of their story: it is the conclusion to a story decades in the making. Thus, to understand and avert this destructive trend, we must come to grips with the monumental crisis of identity that is fueling terrorism—we must set out to understand the conditions that give birth to terrorism.

In the context of my investigation, the term “terrorism” refers to politically motivated violence, perpetrated by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored agents, intended to bring about feelings of terror and helplessness in a civilian population in order to influence decision making and change behavior. But before we can begin any investigation of this sort, it is critical to address three fundamental points. First, to see and try to understand the world from the terrorists’ point of view does not mean you condone terrorism. Second, I completely reject the view that “the term ‘terrorist’ is meaningless because one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” In my view, if it walks like a terrorist, shoots like a terrorist, and explodes bombs like a terrorist, then it is a terrorist.

Finally, and most importantly, it is crucial to understand that terrorism, or violent political action, is not exclusively linked to Muslims. Take, for example, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), or the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), or the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, or the Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Each of these groups has relied on the same violent tactics and methods to achieve their goals. Each group, particularly in underdeveloped nations, professes to be the true representative of the downtrodden and neglected. Their activities are broad and framed as humanitarian, claiming only to use violent means against an oppressive enemy as a means to liberate local populations.

Groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh are no different. They see themselves on a violent quest to free the Muslim world from the grasp of Western powers that have deprived the Near and Middle East of its natural resources and chances for a prosperous future. To position themselves as the saviors of the downtrodden Muslim world, they distort Islamic teachings to justify using any and every means to achieve their ultimate goal. To understand the terrorists’ point of view and find an effective means to end terrorism, we must turn to Relative Deprivation Theory.

According to Relative Deprivation Theory, terrorism is the outcome of rising, unmet expectations, and increasing frustrations among millions of young people in the Near and Middle East who feel as though they have no voice, no hope, and no possibility for a brighter future as things stand. These feelings have been exacerbated by globalization, where improved communications have exposed them to images of the young in other nations who have the opportunity to live a fulfilled and prosperous life. They see how life could be—the rich educational opportunities, the consumer goods, and social and political freedoms—but in their own societies, they see no such opportunity to achieve a similar life. Instead, their lives and identities have been shaped by stagnation, revolutions, wars, mass migration, and vast social, political, and economic transformations over the twentieth century. Thus, to fully understand the magnitude of what these individuals are experiencing, we must go back and reflect on the events of the twentieth century that have shaped the Near and Middle East now and for decades to come.

The twentieth century was defined by disappointment for Muslims in both the Near and Middle East. At the start of the century, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and World War I created opportunities for its victors, namely Great Britain, France, and Russia, to extend their power and influence in traditionally Muslim lands. Territories that were historically controlled by the Ottomans quickly fell under the control of Western powers. Great Britain controlled what is modern-day Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine; the French took control of Lebanon and Syria. Both Great Britain and France directed maneuvers to create local puppet governments in a game of musical chairs in which chairs were replaced by thrones. Unfortunately, those with control over the music were not the local populations who inhabited the land. Rather, foreign powers were hand-selecting individuals who they felt would best represent and protect the interests of the Western nations—not the interests of the local masses.

For instance, in the wake of World War I, Great Britain and France helped shape the modern Middle-East by assisting the House of Saud in gaining control of Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and establishing Saudi Arabia; installing Faisal as King of Iraq, a country he had never before visited; and helping Reza Khan become the first Shah of Iran. Although the post-war period brought a wave of hope for political reform, foreign powers continued to meddle in local affairs and install despotic rulers to wield influence in the region. For the citizens on the ground, the effects were devastating—they were left without any political voice, political representation, or political power. They were nothing more than pawns in the West’s game of chess.

However, the greatest player in this century-long game of chess is neither a foreign power nor a despotic ruler—it is oil. From the very first discovery of oil in 1908, followed by oil reserves of fantastic magnitudes, local populations in the Near and Middle East were given a glimmer of hope for achieving a better, more prosperous life. Because they had one of the most precious and essential natural resources—and the fantastic sums of money that come with that—the local populations geared up for the opportunities ahead. But these feelings were short-lived. Local populations quickly learned that the local elites were the only ones who would be reaping its benefit. Soon after, U.S. oil companies replaced Britain and France as the main players in the Middle East thanks to an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and then King of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz, in 1945.

The two examples above reflect what I like to call “bear and porcupine foreign policies.” The bear and the porcupine analogy represents the two extremes of the policies world powers use to influence the affairs of other nations. On the one extreme, “bear policies” wrap weaker nations in a powerful bear hug, causing the indigenous identity of the weaker nation to become invisible. Try as they might, the weaker nations are unable to escape the suffocating grasp of the bear. But the bear does not understand why any nation would resist its all-powerful embrace, so it tightens the grip even more. However, with bear policies, it is almost inevitable that the weaker nation will become unhappy with the bear and begin to blame the bear for everything that is wrong in the world. After all, when you are suffocated by the grip of a huge bear, what else can you see?

Historically, the United States has pursued a bear policy with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. But with countries such as Iran and Syria, the United States pursues the other extreme: porcupine policies. Rather than squeezing a weaker nation in a tight embrace, porcupine policies poke and prod smaller nations while maintaining a safe distance. The porcupine will isolate the country to such an extent that it is unable to develop through contact with others, either through trade embargoes or diplomatic exclusion. When a country tries to emerge from isolation, hundreds of formidable sharp quills force it back into solitary confinement. Not surprisingly, the isolated nations will become bitter and potentially aggressive toward the porcupine. Porcupine policies create incubators for despotic and aggressive dictators.

A prime example of this may be found in the case of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953. Mossadegh represented Iranians frustrated by the secretive manner in which Iranian oil was handled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. To respond and represent the needs of his people, Mossadegh nationalized the assets of the company—a move that angered the British and American oil elites and led to a successful plot to overthrow his government. The results of this incident are not lost to history either. Mossadegh’s subsequent assassination allowed the West to consolidate power and replace the democratically elected prime minister with the despotic shah and a monarchy with a gruesome record of human rights abuses.

Today, over sixty years later, the conditions of the twenty-first-century Near and Middle East have yet to provide the opportunities for the masses to achieve the lives they desire. This can be attributed to a myriad of factors. For starters, these societies have a long history of eliminating any and every form of political opposition from the public sphere. Moreover, the rise of social media and communication technologies act as constant reminders to the young in this region of how their lives could be if only they could change their circumstances. To make matters worse, the 24-hour international media’s generalization of Muslims as a deprived, unfairly treated group, who only exist as pawns in a foreign game of chess, has manifested itself into a deep-seated crisis of identity.

Unfortunately, a small portion of the local populations have responded to this deep-seated frustration by adopting extremist ideology, some even going as far as to carry out acts of violence and terror against innocent populations. They believe that terrorism is a rational problem-solving strategy to change the conditions in their lives, and the conditions for the downtrodden Muslim world. We are experiencing the manifestation of this violent ideology today, as Daesh continues to grow and wreak havoc in a violent quest to restore the golden age of Islam and free the Muslim world from external, “Western,” constraints.

Daesh has even stated that one of its goals is to “break the barriers” put in place by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement—a “secret” agreement between Britain and France that partitioned former Ottoman lands and shaped the Middle East for years to come.

And from the terrorists’ point of view, there can be no peace without justice—justice as defined by them, of course. This mind-set manifests itself in what I have called “terrorists’ myths.” It is a belief system that allows the terrorists to justify violence to themselves and to others. The internal logic of the terrorists’ myths is centered on the functions served by acts of terror. These include: 1) to demonstrate that local state authorities are weak and vulnerable, so as to prove that those authorities are unable to control events; 2) to lower domestic loyalty to state institutions; 3) to create a sense of instability and lawlessness on which terror groups thrive; 4) to create a sense of helplessness among local populations; 5) to demonstrate the power of the terrorist group; 6) to give the impression that terrorist attacks will continue until “final victory”; and 7) to support the illusion that innocent victims have died for a “good cause.”

It is in these larger sociohistorical tensions and paradoxes that we can begin to understand the world from the terrorists’ point of view, because as it stands today, the world of the Middle East exists in great turmoil. The medical doctor, street vendor, homemaker, school teacher, widower, student, villager, schoolgirl, farmer, journalist, preacher, and singer. . . tens of millions of people live in the Near and Far East and are utterly discontented with their identities, societies, and with their own personal situations.

In some instances, individuals are motivated to change these conditions the only way they have been told will be effective—violence.

To move forward, it is crucial for policy-makers and Western leaders to investigate, understand, and to ultimately change the conditions that give birth to the terrorists’ point of view. To do so, it is crucial for them to acknowledge the limits of their ability to implement change. The West can no longer be the “bear” and force its vision of society onto others, nor can it be the “porcupine” that pokes and prods others into submission. Ultimately, both choices will only lead to failure and instability. Instead, the West should pursue the role of a shepherd and gently guide the Muslim world to its desired destination. As Americans, we must recognize that all Muslims desire the same rights that we enjoy: self-determination and the ability to achieve a fulfilled, prosperous life.