The terrorist’s journey; step one

IMG_3523-0.JPGToday I was asked why young men join terror groups. I’ll also be speaking to this on Al Jazeera America tonight (Sep 25, 11:00 p.m. Eastern) and tomorrow on The Morning Show (9:00 a.m.)
The complete answer goes all the way back to fundamental human nature: each of us chooses what he believes is the best option in any situation, according to his total body of values. Basic self-interest. This is true whether a person is standing by fearfully and letting a friend drown, or putting his own life in danger on the battlefield. I wrote about this in Powerful Peace.
The jihadi, like every other person, has a particular range of experience and information available to him. He can only know what he knows. Much of that knowledge is fed by external “authority” sources, each with its own agenda in mind, and they feed “facts” including the existential threat to society posed by evil Westerners or Crusaders. The young and impressionable man may be merely a thug pursuing personal rewards, or he may legitimately perceive that he is “defending” his people. Often it’s both. In any case, he is acting according to what he believes in—exactly like you and I and every other human on the planet. This is why we’re in a war of the mind as much as of the flesh.

The debate: do extremists—does ISIS—represent their religion?

I had awesome pushback from a LinkedIn colleague on my recent post there. I appreciate resistance to my ideas because it means one of two things: either I made a good point badly, which means I need to correct the way I put something, or I made a bad point well—which means I personally need correcting…and if I’m receptive to that I’ll end up smarter than I had been. It’s a win-win.

My argument was that ISIS, like all terror movements, is pursuing political power rather than actual moral authority, and one proof lies in their murdering a humanitarian who was in the region to serve their fellow Arabs in need. My friend asked me what I had meant by this phrase: “No need to keep pretending it had anything to do with religion.”

He correctly observed, “For those who want to kill and behead the infidels, it is ALL ABOUT ISLAM.”

Yes, absolutely. There are some individuals who fervently support violence against innocents for their cause. When he was alive, I often startled people in my public speaking by saying that I admired bin Laden. Then I would elaborate and explain that in general, I admire self-sacrificing devotion to a cause…and who could argue that his forsaking vast wealth, comfort and safety was anything else? Of course, admiring his courage would not have prevented my killing him.

(By the way, if you’d like to read more about violent Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist extremists, jump to those links down near the end.)

I agree that for a hard core of ISIS, maybe most of ISIS, it is all about Islam according to their interpretation. There are True Believers among them. But there are also opportunists in every movement. When a criminal group has success, it attracts criminals.

For some “terrorists” in a large organization there are other-than-idealistic motivations. I personally reviewed hundreds of detainee reports in Iraq, in which subjects insisted they’d only been fighting because it was the only paycheck available and the kids had to eat. (Card carrying Nazis and Soviets did the same, in their day. I have a couple of those actual cards.) And we KNOW there was a crisis of employment during the worst of the Iraq war; in some areas it was 70%.

Jihadi prisoners, on the other hand, fewer and farther between, were proud to say they had been killing infidels. It’s a self-proving population. When the jig is up and they’re locked up, they’re only too happy to identify themselves for what they are. It gives them loyalty points with God.

And in Afghanistan, many “Talibs” began their career facing an AK-47 and an infernal bargain at their own front door: join and serve as the one required conscript per household for God’s army, or watch a loved one be killed. What would you do?

Then there are the brutish fighters. The just-plain-criminals. Some boys just want to jump in on the winning side and shoot some guys in the head.

So when I say it’s not about religion, I realize it would be much more accurate to say that “in my opinion, it is the opinion of most Muslims around the world that violent Islamists do not practice true Islam.” Obviously the extremists say it’s about Islam, and certainly some of them believe it. Westboro believes traumatizing newly fatherless children is “about Christianity,” and the Christian movement who celebrate the killing of abortion providers feel the same.

The Jewish fighters who plot to hurry God along by destroying the Dome and its “animal Arabs” believe it is “about Judaism.”

And have you heard about the violent Hindu extremists and violent Buddhist extremists?

(Yes, violent Hindu extremists and violent Buddhist extremists.)

Ultimately, in my worldview it’s important to both acknowledge and prevent the evil deeds of murderers, and simultaneously strengthen cooperation with those who can support those efforts. I believe global security in an era of unprecedented communication demands a reassessment of ALL our biases, and some very mature conversation. I believe we’re in that conversation now.