What Makes a Terrorist?
by Tass Saada
The craziest, most psychotic people in the world consider themselves to be entirely rational and logical. Inside their fevered brains, things make perfect sense. Their reasons are felt to be entirely valid. The rest of society may not “get it,” but they are quite sure they are on a coherent track.
So it doesn’t work for us to shake our heads and say terrorists are just “stupid,” “insane,” or “a bunch of animals.” Here are six motivations that drive them.
You can become a terrorist because . . .
You Are in Anguish over the Violent Loss of an Innocent Loved One, Friend, or Group Member
This is the most straightforward reason, the easiest to understand. When a 500-pound bomb or a drone strike takes out your beloved father, brother, cousin, nephew—or even worse, your precious mother, sister, your own wife, your innocent child—you are overwhelmed with grief and rage. And within seconds, you want to retaliate . . . especially if you live in a society where the police are weak or and underequipped—or worse yet, biased against you for some reason. In many parts of the Middle East, the national government treats justice issues lightly or is beholden for business reasons to the force that dropped the bomb in the first place.
In such a moment, the counsel to “stay calm and try to forgive” will be hard to swallow. You are much more likely to take matters into your own hands.
You Firmly Believe Your Opponent’s Faith Is Wrong, or at Least Corrupted
This is the religious motivation for terrorism, and the one most quickly cited in the West. Terrorists, it is said, are rabid Muslims who hate Christians and Jews and seek to destroy them every chance they get.
Without question, this is true in many cases. Islam at its core (like Christianity) considers itself the only way: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Islam doesn’t accept other religions. It was never built to be “tolerant.”
Well-meaning politicians try to ignore this aspect. They call Islam “a religion of peace.” Well, yes and no, depending on what you mean by “peace.” Islamic scholars have for centuries articulated two opposite conditions: the Dar al-Salam (“house of peace”) and the Dar al-Harb (“house of war”). The first describes any country or region under full Muslim rule. The second is any country where Muslim law is not yet in force. Bringing such areas into the Dar al-Salam is what the faith is all about—starting in the Middle East and eventually stretching across the entire planet. War is a necessary tactic toward that end.
When criticized by the West for being cruel and barbaric, the Muslim response to Christians and Jews is, “Wait a minute—what did your hero David do to the infidel Goliath? He beheaded him! Go back and read the rest of 1 Samuel 17 . . .”
I point out this case, among others, not to denigrate the Old Testament accounts, but simply to recognize that bloody action in the name of God has been around for a long time. And some of today’s terrorists are astute enough to notice that. They are quite willing to employ the same methods on behalf of their religion.
You Are Sickened and Disgusted by Western Society’s Decadence
I cannot tell you how many times I have tried (and often failed) to convince my Muslim friends that what they see on cable or satellite television (which is now in nearly every home, poor as well as rich) is a distortion of daily life in the real West. Not every European or North American is obsessed with alcohol, pornography, and gun violence. Some of them actually do get up in the morning, go to work, keep their promises, and live responsible lives within ethical boundaries. It is hard, though, to make that case in the face of the Western media torrent.
The cultural clashes are more than most Westerners would ever imagine. Middle Eastern people don’t bother to point them out. They simply observe, wonder, and talk among themselves. They understandably conclude that their culture is the superior one, with its propriety, self-control, and respectfulness. Why should they take lessons from the West about how to reorganize their society or its government? No, thanks.
You Want Your Homeland Back
A motive that drives some terrorists is the deep wound over loss of ancestral land. In the Arab culture, no land means no honor. This is what drove my former group, al-Fatah, from its earliest days. Yasser Arafat’s passion was not religious, to fight for the Islamic cause. It was always secular: to regain the Palestinian homeland.
Early Zionists, on the opposite side, imagined that the land they wanted was more or less sitting empty and available. Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president, told to a French audience in 1914, “There is a country [Palestine] without a people, and on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?” Jews as far away as Bulgaria read in their newspapers the handy slogan “A land without people for a people without land.”
The facts, however, are that when Jews set up the modern state of Israel in 1948, some 800,000 non-Jews were already living in Palestine, according to a U.N. estimate—including my parents and grandparents. In other words, the Holy Land was far from vacant.
This homeland motive is larger than just Palestine. At the end of 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that fully 40 percent of the Syrian population (7.6 million people) had been displaced internally. Another 3.6 million Iraqis had left their homes. Lebanon was trying to absorb 1.1 million refugees from its neighbor, while Jordan had at least 650,000.
The human yearning to have a home—and keep it—is among our most basic drives. Without it, terrorist responses only grow.
You Grow Weary of Day-In, Day-Out Discrimination and Maltreatment
Forget for a moment the history involved. Focus instead on the present daily life of any people group that feels it’s being treated unfairly.
If you’re sitting in the hot sun day after day with little to do, the notion of striking back against the dominant power—even if you know you won’t succeed—carries a tantalizing appeal. It is simply unrealistic to put human beings in confinement and tell them to “behave.” Some of them are going to misbehave, and out of this reaction comes terrorism.
In the words of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman, “The humiliation is the key. It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money. It is spawned by the poverty of dignity. Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.”
Thomas Friedman, by the way, is Jewish.
You Can’t Stomach America’s Rock-Solid Backing of Israel
Finally, a large number of Muslims watch the United States’ unwavering support for the modern state of Israel and feel aggrieved. Year after year, they see resolutions in the United Nations Security Council that, in their eyes, seem just and fair get vetoed by America. They know that much of Israel’s fearsome arsenal of weaponry has been bought with dollars.
Please understand: I do stand for the right of Israel to be a nation. I have no appreciation for the old Arab battle cry of “Push the Jews into the sea.” The Jewish people should be as welcome in this land as anyone else. Their needs for safety and security are fundamental.
The question is rather how to balance these needs with other legitimate claims. Current U.S. aid to Israel each year comes to more than $3.1 billion—the largest amount America gives any nation on the face of the globe.
I point this out not to criticize how the U.S. government spends its money. It is also true that the United States gives money to the Palestinian Authority. But the sums are nowhere near as much as what is flowing to the Israeli side. And so it has been for decades.
Not every terrorist holds all six of these motivations. Some are consumed by just one, or two. But across the landscape of terrorist groups, these are the main factors that drive the horrific violence we see each week on the world scene.
These people are not “just crazy.” They are not out looking for cheap thrills. They are on their own personal and group campaigns to bring about major changes, even if that means using tactics that shock and horrify us. They earnestly want to see a future that is not the same as the past.
The Mind of Terror
Chapter 3, What Makes a Terrorist?