January 21, 2011

What Motivates Terrorists?

Ideology is not the only or even the principal reason why individuals join terrorist groups.


This article is the first in a two part series on rehabilitating former terrorists and turning them into citizens. In the essay below, Jessica Stern examines why some Muslims join terrorists organization in the first place.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claims to be able to counteract terrorists’ radicalization—to turn them away from violence and return them to society. A number of other governments, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in Southeast Asia, have initiated their own similar efforts.

In the face of today’s global security threats, these efforts raise a critical question: Is it in fact possible to counter-radicalize terrorists and their potential recruits?

 Terrorists Rehab
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Any terrorism prevention or rehabilitation effort must be based first and foremost on a clear understanding of what motivates people to join terrorist movements and what motivates them to leave. Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.

In interviewing terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in the expression of a collective identity than they are in the group’s stated goals. The reasons some people choose to become terrorists are as varied as the reasons other people choose their professions: market conditions, social networks, contact with recruiters, education, and individual preferences. Counter-radicalization programs need to take account—and advantage—of these variations.

Don’t Know Much about Ideology

Terrorists—even those in leadership roles—are often somewhat hazy about their group’s purported objectives. A "questionnaire" (circa 1990-1993) asked Al Qaeda leaders, "What is your position on battle participation in Afghanistan and for what reasons?" There was virtually no agreement among the five responding Al Qaeda leaders (including Osama bin Laden) about Al Qaeda’s goals, calling into question the principal aim of the group.

That lack of agreement about the group’s goals, coupled with the constant shifts in Al Qaeda’s agenda, suggests that we should be skeptical that the group’s principal aim is to achieve its stated goals. Perhaps its actual goal, like that of many organizations, is to satisfy the needs—spiritual, social, financial, and physical—of the group’s members.

In a survey of 516 Guantánamo detainees, researchers at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that knowing another member of Al Qaeda was a better predictor of who became a terrorist than was believing in the idea of jihad. Interestingly, terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology are often ignorant about Islam. Our hosts in Riyadh told us the vast majority of “beneficiaries,” as its administrators call participants, did not have much formal education or proper religious instruction and had only a limited and incomplete understanding of Islam.

Is it in fact possible to counter-radicalize terrorists and their potential recruits?

In the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, second- and third-generation Muslim youth are rebelling against what they perceive as culturally-contaminated, "soft" Islam, as practiced by their parents and promoted in the local mosque. They prefer the "purer" Islam they discover through their studies on the Internet or in some cases, via imams from the Middle East.

Lack of knowledge about Islam makes youth vulnerable to "training" by barely-educated, self-appointed imams. For example, in the Netherlands, the Hofstadt Group—comprised mostly of young Dutch nationals of Moroccan parentage—designed what a police intelligence officer described as a "Do-it-Yourself" version of Islam, based in part on what the group learned about Takfiri ideology on the Internet and in part on the "teachings" of a self-taught Syrian imam who was a former drug dealer.

Such true believers are good candidates for the kind of ideological reeducation that was part of the program of Task Force 134 in Iraq—a task force responsible for overseeing detainees—as well as similar programs in Saudi Arabia and Singapore. A Saudi official told the group of us who visited the Care Rehabilitation Center in Riyadh that the main reason for terrorism was ignorance about the true nature of Islam. Clerics at the center teach that only the legitimate rulers of Islamic states, not individuals such as Osama Bin Laden, can declare a holy war.

They preach against Takfiri ideology and the selective reading of religious texts to justify violence. One participant in the program told us, "Now I understand that I cannot make decisions by reading a single verse. I have to read the whole chapter."

The Saudi government refers to ignorance about the true nature of Islam, and "intellectual abnormality" as "the main reason for terrorism."

In Europe, Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice both in the workplace and in society more generally. Surveys carried out by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (now subsumed by the Fundamental Rights Agency), showed that minorities and migrants experience greater levels of unemployment, receive lower wages, and are over-represented in the least-desirable jobs.

After the murder of Theo van Gogh, the native Dutch, who are famously proud of their tolerance, grew visibly less so: they started complaining about rising rates of criminality among Dutch Moroccan youth and the rhetoric of radical imams who preach that homosexuality is a sickness or a sin. Rightly perceiving that this growing prejudice against Muslims could become a source of social conflict, local governments and nongovernmental organizations put in place various programs to integrate young immigrants into broader Dutch society.

Group dynamics are as important as social grievances. Young people are sometimes attracted to terrorist movements through social connections, music, fashion, or life-style; only later do they come fully to understand the group’s ideology and goals. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have been begun using anti-American hip-hop music or "jihad rap" in their recruitment videos.

For example, Abu Mansour al-Amriki has been using hip-hop in the propaganda videos he has made with al Shabab in Somalia. Other music groups promoting violence against the "kufur," or unfaithful, include Soldiers of Allah (whose music is wildly popular, even though the group is now defunct) and Blakstone, a British rap group.

The first- and second- generation Muslim children I interviewed for a study of the sources of radicalization in the Netherlands seemed to think that talking about jihad was cool, in the same way that listening to gangster rap is in some youth circles. Most of these children will not turn to violence, but once youth join an extremist group, the group itself can become an essential part of their identity, maybe even their only community. And so counter-radicalization requires finding new sources of social support for them.

The Saudi program takes great pains to reintegrate participants into the families and communities they belonged to before their radicalization by encouraging family visits and getting the community involved in follow-up after the youth are released. The program rightly assumes that social connections are key to both radicalization and deradicalization.

Then there are economics. "Jihad" can also be a job. There is no correlation between poverty and terrorism if we look globally, at least according to the studies carried out thus far. But that doesn’t mean that poor people, in countries with high levels of unemployment, aren’t particularly vulnerable to recruitment, especially as cannon fodder.

The Saudi government refers to ignorance about the true nature of Islam, and "intellectual abnormality" as "the main reason for terrorism."

Of the twenty-five thousand suspected insurgents and terrorists detained in Iraq as of 2007, 78 percent were unemployed, and nearly all of them were underemployed, according to General Douglas Stone, who was then in charge of Task Force 134. Because these insurgents took up the "job" of fighting a military occupation, typically targeting soldiers rather than civilians, at least some of them could conceivably "rehabilitate" themselves once the occupation ends.

Christopher Boucek, an expert on Saudi Arabia and Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Advisory Committee, which helps run the rehabilitation program, has reported that detainees are typically in their twenties and come from large lower- or middle-class families, with only 3 percent coming from high-income backgrounds. Boucek says that according to Saudi officials, one-quarter of the program participants who had participated in jihad had prior criminal histories, approximately half for drug-related offenses. Only 5 percent of detainees were prayer leaders or had other formal religious roles.

For such individuals, job training, career counseling, and assistance in finding productive work may be the best counter-radicalization strategy—at least as important as religious reeducation.

Psychologists who study terrorism have been claiming for decades that there is no terrorist personality and that terrorists are psychologically "normal." Even if that were true, it seems highly unlikely that a person would remain "normal" after having spent several years killing innocents.

Anyone who has ever sat down with a professional terrorist knows, in her bones, that while group dynamics may be the most important factor, individual psychology is not irrelevant, even if we cannot yet measure how. For example, one does not need to spend many days in the Gaza Strip before one begins to get a sense of the impact of constant fear and humiliation—issues that terrorists emphasize in interviews about why they got involved in terrorism. If terrorism can be a source of validation, then surely helping adherents come to terms with the humiliation they have experienced could be part of the "cure." To that end, the Saudi rehabilitation program includes classes in self-esteem.

Some individuals join terrorist groups or movements as true believers in an idea, but evolve, over time, into professional killers. Once that happens, the emotional and material benefits of belonging can become more important than the spiritual benefits of belief. This suggests that some terrorists might develop enduring reasons—perhaps even a compulsion—to pursue violence.

Such individuals should be detained preventively and the keys thrown away, as some governments do with sexual predators. But in cases in which the law precludes indefinite detention, governments may be forced to release suspects. In those instances, officials will have to choose whether to ignore the threat posed by these people or work with other governments to develop tools to reduce the risk of violence. Governments must consider difficult tradeoffs. On the one hand, how great is the chance that graduates of deradicalization programs will return to terrorism or other forms of violent crime?

On the other hand, are incarcerated terrorists recruiting in prison among the ordinary criminals or guards, or can preventive detention, or the prison itself, become a symbol of injustice to potential recruits?

This understanding—that ideology is not the only, or even the principal, reason that individuals are drawn to terrorist groups—needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism efforts, especially when we consider counter-radicalization. It also makes clear that even if terrorists achieve their purported objectives, they may stick with the fight for the fun or the profit.


Jessica Stern consults with various government agencies on counter-terrorism policy. In 2009, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on trauma and violence.  She has authored Terror in the Name of God, selected by the New York Times as a notable book of the year; The Ultimate Terrorists; and numerous articles on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. She served on President Clinton’s National Security Council Staff in 1994–95 and is a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. She was named a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellow. She has a BS from Barnard College in chemistry, an MA from MIT in chemical engineering/technology policy, and a PhD from Harvard University in public policy.


This essay was excerpted from the online volume "Future Challenges in National Security and Law," a collaborative effort of Hoover’s Koret-Taube Task Force on National Security and Law.

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