DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Talking to Terrorists

For almost a decade, research psychologist and author Anne Speckkard immersed herself in the world of international terrorism. She spoke with more than 400 terrorists, their family members, their friends, their associates, their captors, their enemies, and their victims. She visited more than a dozen countries, conducted interviews in countless jail cells and, on occasion, stayed in the homes of suspected terrorists. She even witnessed a cute 4-year-old girl demonstrate the proper killing position with a handgun.

The result of that effort was Speckard's massive new book Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers, & Martyrs. Speckhard appeared recently at the New America Foundation to discuss the book and her findings.

"I  wanted to find out what motivates terrorists and understand the radicalization process," Speckhard said. Even though there are many differing definitions for a terrorist, Speckhard said she decided to use "a person who was willing and aiming to attack civilians" for the purpose of her study.

So what did she find? "It always boils down to the local level - where do they live and what their local grievances are," Speckhard said.  "There is a lack of hope, a need for a sense of belonging. There is a sense of frustration. Some (in already violent areas) are suffering from a form of PSTD (post traumatic stress syndrome). They are driven by trauma and revenge. Often, there is a cult of martyrdom and a sense of survivor guilt. They say 'I just want to die and rejoin them (those they lost)."

She said that terrorists often experience an "endorphin high rush" both in planning and carrying out their attacks. "It is a very, very powerful force," Speckhard said.

One of the most important steps in expanding the terrorist network is cultivating potential terrorists. Speckhard described a typical recruitment process. Recruiters often troll internet cafes, looking for potential recruits. If they spot one, they will sit down next to them and say something like "Hey brother, have you seen this new video?" They will then show their young target a video of some atrocity being committed by a more powerful force against a weaker people. "Who will do something for these people? I am doing something - will you?" they ask.

Recruiters also employ ethnic tensions and hatreds, focusing on questions such as "What if that happens here? Will you be ready?" If the recruit indicates a willingness to become involved, a step-by-step process is initiated. Candidates are taken to gyms to increase their physical prowess. They are then sent to camps for weapons training and further indoctrination. If religion is involved, they are schooled in that message, which is distorted for the terrorists' purposes. Young Muslims for example, are told such things as "the Koran is only correct in Arabic so let me tell you what it says."

So what is the best way to combat the growth of terrorism? "You need to root out the terrorist organizers and discredit their ideology. You need to demonstrate that what the terrorists are presenting isn't true and isn't attractive," Speckhard said.

Speckhard recognizes that deadly force must be employed against terrorists, but worries about the damage such action causes. "There are tradeoffs," she said. "The blow back is going to be pictures of dead children."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Despite heavy indoctrination, not all terrorists are able to carry through with their deadly plans. Speckhard described one such woman. Her Arab boyfriend was killed in a missile strike. Even though she had been apolitical, she immediately underwent a change, distraught that the Israelis had taken her boyfriend from her. She switched her dress to a conservative Muslim style. Claiming she had no reason to live and wanting revenge, she began training for a suicide bombing mission. After completing her training, she was given her assignment. She moved into the area, fully prepared to carry out her mission. However, when she saw that she would be killing a baby, she changed her mind. She thought: "Allah gives life and Allah alone takes life; I don't have that right." Speckhard said that such people can be extremely valuable in reducing the violence caused by terrorism.  "They are passionate; they want to right the wrongs in the world. If they can be shown that what they had been told isn't true, they can be a real force for good."

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