Author Interviews
11:28 am
Wed October 5, 2011

'Terrorists In Love': The Psychology Of Extremism

Originally published on Mon October 10, 2011 6:49 am

Ahmad Al Shayea grew up in Saudi Arabia in a middle-class family and dropped out of high school to join a local gang. Abdullah Al-Gilani fell in love with a girl who eventually married someone else. Zeddy was an old colleague of Osama bin Laden's.

All three men eventually decided to devote their lives to jihad. Their motivations and desires are explored in Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, a book by former federal prosecutor Ken Ballen. Ballen, a Congressional investigator, has spent the past five years interviewing more than 100 Islamic extremists to learn what motivated them to carry out violent attacks against the United States and others they considered enemies of Islam.

Terrorists in Love profiles six jihadis, including Malik, the spiritual adviser of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Al Shayea, who survived a suicide bombing attack in Iraq and spent time in a Saudi Arabian prison devoted to re-educating terrorists.

When Ballen first saw Al Shayea, he says, the former al-Qaida operative barely looked human.

"His face was entirely disfigured from the suicide bomb attack that he survived," Ballen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "His hand was chewed up and the other hand was nothing but a stump."

So how did Al Shayea go from a normal middle-class Saudi upbringing to a jihadist fighter? Ballen says the answer is complicated, but goes back to Al Shayea's adolescence, when he became enraptured by the idea of giving his life to a glorious struggle.

"He had a very difficult relationship with his father," Ballen explains. "He had one incident where his father hit him, and he felt that because his father hit him, he was going to hell. [So] he is motivated by this idea that by going to fight against the Americans, he is doing the most good he can possibly do for his family, for himself and for God — and that he'll go to heaven if he dies."

But Al Shayea didn't want to die right away — he wanted to fight. He joined al-Qaida and went to Syria and then Iraq, where he stayed with 19 other jihadis from all over the world. Their leader repeatedly exhorted them to go out on suicide missions.

"But none of them volunteered," Ballen says. "Not one of them volunteered. As Ahmad said to me, 'I came to Iraq to fight for jihad, not die right away and go to heaven. What about helping my fellow Muslims here on Earth?' [The jihadis] were treated harshly. They were never trained. The way al-Qaida saw these recruits was to simply manipulate them for suicide attacks. They were almost human fodder."

One day, Al Shayea was told that he was going to Baghdad with two other jihadis. He was not told it was a suicide mission.

"They were told they were to drop off a tanker truck," Ballen says. "About 1,000 yards before they got to concrete barriers that Al Shayea saw coming, the two other jihadis jumped out of the tanker and said, 'Drive it straight ahead, we'll be right there to meet you.' He didn't know what to do. And before he knew it, it blew up. Eight people died."

Al Shayea was initially treated as a victim at the scene. But Iraqi Security Forces soon realized he was at the wheel of the vehicle. After torturing him, the Iraqis sent Al Shayea to Abu Ghraib prison.

"He's absolutely terrified of what's going to happen to him," says Ballen. "Instead he's treated with kindness and respect, and for the first time in his life, he meets a woman outside of his family who takes care of him. ... He is absolutely transported by this experience. His beliefs go through a metamorphosis. He realizes, as he says, [that he was] used as a tool. ... He became a very pro-American person in his heart. He's still deeply religious. He believes very strongly in the Islamic faith. But he no longer sees Americans or infidels as the enemy."

For a time, Al Shayea lived at a prison in Saudi Arabia where former Jihadis are re-educated. Ballen interviewed 43 Saudi jihadist militants at the facility, which offers psychological counseling and vocational training. Over time, Ballen says, he came to have a better understanding of how extremists see the world.

"Within their belief system, what they're doing makes sense," he says. "They really believe ... they're doing good in the world. They're fighting for good. They're doing the right thing. They see themselves as saintly. ... And I think that's what we're missing in this entire war on terror. We've never sat back and said, 'Let's really understand our adversaries. Let's understand what makes them tick.' You have to dive in and talk to them to understand. ... They are motivated by ideas and beliefs. A completely militarized response to someone's ideas and beliefs will not defeat them. They'll continue to push harder for those ideas and beliefs."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Ken Ballen, is a former federal prosecutor who spent five years trying to figure out what motivates Islamic extremists to carry out violent attacks against the United States and others they consider enemies of Islam. Ballen is founder and president of Terror-Free Tomorrow, an organization devoted to investigating the causes of extremism.

He interviewed more than 100 Islamic radicals, both in and out of prisons in the Middle East and Indonesia. His book about the personal lives and motivations of six of the terrorists he spoke with is called "Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals."

The first profiled is Ammad(ph), the disfigured survivor of his own suicide attack. Ballen interviewed him and many others in a Saudi Arabian prison devoted to re-educating terrorists. Ammad grew up as a middle-class Saudi, hanging out with friends, driving cars and smoking hash. I asked Ballen why he thought Ammad turned toward a radical version of Islam and sought to become a jihadi.

KEN BALLEN: What I found by spending so much time with these fellows who are profiled in the book is that there are complex forces that drive them. Ammad had a very difficult relationship with his father. He was very close to his mother. He was almost his mother's pet. Yet with his father he had a lot of difficulty. In fact, he had one incident where his father hit him, and he felt that because his father hit him, he was going to hell.

This drove him into the behavior and this drove him towards - ultimately towards religion, because he wanted to redeem himself, and in essence he wanted to find his father's love.

DAVIES: And why would his father hitting him make he think he was going to hell?

BALLEN: Because in that culture, in that belief system, a father's approval is the most important fact of your life. Your being revolves around it. And so for him to think that his father hated him or didn't approve of him made him think he was going to hell, and hell to him was a very literal place.

You know, half the classes in Saudi public schools, government schools, are on religion. And the Quran is taught in a very literal way. So the idea of going to jihad to redeem himself, to find his father's love, if you will, was a very powerful motivation.

DAVIES: The other thing that struck me about the account was, you know, you might have expected that he would have found a group with which he felt tremendous emotional and religious kinship. They're all in this together, they're going to make the ultimate sacrifice. In fact, he was treated harshly by people who seemed almost indifferent to him and his commitment.

BALLEN: That's absolutely right, Dave. And you know, there's a very interesting moment when he arrived in Iraq. He was with 19 other jihadis from all over the Arab world, and the al-Qaida leader exhorted them to go on a suicide mission and wanted people to volunteer. Nobody volunteered. Not one of the 19 volunteered.

As Ammad said to me: Well, wait a minute, I came to Iraq to fight for jihad, not die right away and go up to heaven. What about helping my fellow Muslims here on Earth? And apparently all the other would-be jihadis felt the same way. Yes, they were treated harshly. They were never trained. The way al-Qaida saw these recruits was to simply use them, manipulate them to commit suicide attacks, and they were almost human fodder.

DAVIES: So tell us about the mission that led to the explosion, the injuries.

BALLEN: Ammad was told he was going into Baghdad. He went with two other jihadis. It's a very interesting scene in the book because he's driving in this tanker truck with two other jihadis, and it's the first time in months since being away from home he felt lonely and isolated. He missed his parents. He missed his brother. He missed his family. He missed his grandfather, who he loved dearly.

And he's in this truck with these two others, and it's the first time that any of the jihadis have actually talked to him the whole time was there. He existed in this terrible world of isolation and loneliness, and they were actually talking to him and joking around. And he felt very happy because it was the first time someone had showed him human companionship.

And he didn't know he was going on a suicide mission. They never told him that. They told him he was to drop off this tanker truck. And about 1,000 yards, Dave, before they got to these concrete barriers that Ammad showed - saw coming, the two other jihadis just jumped out of the tanker, said just drive it straight ahead, we'll be right there to meet you.

And he didn't know what to do, and he had to grab hold of the steering wheel. He had to grab hold of the clutch or the tanker truck would go out of control, and before he knew it, it blew up. Eight people died.

DAVIES: So this horrific explosion, many people are killed, many are injured. He is taken to a hospital among them and treated as if he is one of the innocent victims.

BALLEN: That's correct.

DAVIES: And then he eventually, of course, says no, no, here's my story, at which point he's taken in by Iraqi security forces and tortured, right, tells them his whole story.

BALLEN: He is tortured. He's tortured brutally, in fact. I mean, they take a knife and run it through the wounds that he already has, and you know, he's unable to control his bowel movements, he's unable to properly speak, and he is just vilely tortured by the Iraqis, who feel he is a Saudi and a foreign – a foreign invader. And for them, he was.

DAVIES: Well, things are very different then when he gets into American hands, right?

BALLEN: You know, Dave, he's sent to Abu Ghraib, of all places. This was his motivation to go to Iraq to fight against the infidel Americans, against the satanic Abu Ghraib, and he goes there, he's absolutely petrified of what's going to happen to him.

Instead, he's treated with kindness. Instead, he's treated with respect. And for the first time in his life, Ammad meets a woman outside of his family, an Army medic who takes care of him, who's about his own age. And he's transported by that experience and healed by her and the other Americans who helped him.

DAVIES: All right, so what becomes of his beliefs?

BALLEN: Well, his beliefs go through a metamorphosis. By being treated by the Americans, he realizes, as he says, I was used as a tool, as a piece of rotten lizard meat, is his term, by al-Qaida, as a bait. And the Americans who I came to Iraq to fight against were the ones who treated me decently, who were the ones who cared for me as a human being.

And he became a very pro-American person in his heart as a result of his experiences. I mean, he's still deeply religious. He believes very strongly in the Islamic faith. But he no longer sees Americans or infidels as the enemies because his whole(ph) life experience was the Muslims he came to Iraq to help used him and tried to kill him; the Americans he came to fight against ended up being his protector and indeed friend.

DAVIES: And it is his mission in his home nation of Saudi Arabia now to warn people his age against following the path that he chose.

BALLEN: That is absolutely his mission, and he has a dream, Dave. His dream, ironically enough, is to come to the United States. Now, I don't know whether that's possible, given his al-Qaeda past, but it is a very interesting dream to have, and his transformation is remarkable.

DAVIES: And all of this happened to him at what age?

BALLEN: Nineteen and 20.

DAVIES: You met a lot of terrorists and former terrorists at this facility in Saudi Arabia where people are re-educated. But you met many who were not in custody, I gather through journalists and activists that you had come to know through your work. This sounds like very risky business. I mean, some Western journalists who've been - who've tried to make contact with Islamic radicals have been abducted, some killed.

How did you contact these folks and ensure your own safety?

BALLEN: Well, Dave, I used to be a federal prosecutor. I used to be a congressional investigator. So I have long experience interviewing, interrogating people who are criminals, and many terrorists are, in fact, criminals. And so I'm used to taking certain steps to protect myself.

I must say this, though: One of the people that I interviewed spent two decades as, in his words, a career terrorist for Islam on the payroll of the Pakistani government, which we can talk about some more. But he said to me, Ken, I wouldn't be planning on any vacations in Pakistan anytime soon because in our country coincidences seldom happen, but accidents do. So I think there's some risk.

DAVIES: Now, the guy that you're referring to, I believe, is this guy you call in the book Zedi(ph), right?

BALLEN: That's correct, Zedi.

DAVIES: Right, who says he spent a lifetime as a warrior for Islam, killed countless people, and his - I mean, you have his words running many, many, many pages. It's quite a story. He is kind of shocking, he's a braggart, and I had to wonder at times whether I could believe him. He was first in his class at this, and he was a better killer than anyone at that, and knew all of these important jihadis. How - could you corroborate much of his story?

BALLEN: Actually, I did, and I corroborated it with American intelligence officials. But also if you - over the last couple months there's been several reports in the New York Times of people very much like him, if not perhaps him, who have also been talking now to outsiders.

So I was able to corroborate some of the principal facts of what he told me, and it was pretty shocking. One thing he told me at the time, and this - when he first told me this was 2008, and nobody thought this at the time. But he said the Pakistani ISI was protecting bin Laden in northwest Pakistan, and basically he nailed it.

DAVIES: That's the inter-intelligence services, right, the...

BALLEN: That's correct.

DAVIES: And that's been very much in the news lately as, you know, Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, accused them of - the ISI of being involved in some way in attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. And I wanted just to ask you a bit about this because he - part of what he said was, you Americans, you're all so obsessed with bin Laden - this of course was when bin Laden was alive - you're missing the real story, which is what the Pakistanis are up to. What did he tell you?

BALLEN: He said that's exactly right, you're missing the real story. And you sit across the table from generals who talk the democratic talk, who dress up and speak in queen's English to you, yet harbor sympathy towards radical Islam as fervently as bin Laden himself.

Zedi said these people are the real danger. They have access to nuclear weapons. They're inside the government of Pakistan. They have access to money, they have access to arms, and in fact, he said, they were arming the Taliban and that they were in alliance.

So think about this, Dave. We spent $20 billion since 9/11 directly in payments to the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is hiring this fellow, Zedi, to run a training camp where he trains terrorists who fight against us in Afghanistan, who fight against India, and he's smuggling arms to the Taliban that we're fighting.

As Zedi said to me, you Americans really are funding both sides in the war on terror, literally.

DAVIES: Right, what's interesting about his account is he's not simply saying there are ranking Pakistani intelligence or military officials who are sympathetic to the Taliban or al-Qaida. They're doing it. He would go to a meeting at which there was - the Taliban were to move arms or set up some operation, and there would be these ranking officials of Pakistani intelligence in the room running it, right?

BALLEN: That's correct, that's correct. He even went to one meeting after 9/11 where he met with one of the top al-Qaida operatives near Abbottabad, where bin Laden was, and a leading high-level ISI Pakistani army guy, and they talked about how to smuggle illicit weapons from the former Soviet Union, nuclear.

DAVIES: And Zedi was never caught and brought to justice, right? He...

BALLEN: Zedi was never caught and brought to justice. He lives comfortably today in Pakistan, as all of these folks do. No one has ever come - been held to account for their activities in that country when it involves radicalism. So he was a very colorful figure, very well-educated. His English was impeccable, very bright guy and disillusioned by his time as a terrorist, very bitter about what happened to him, which I think provided part of the motivation to open up.

I mean, he carried a lot of guilt with him. It was almost a confessional.

DAVIES: Yeah, and what was he bitter about, what disillusionment?

BALLEN: First he was very - and this is a story that's not told in the West. He worked for the radical Islamic party in Pakistan, and he was very embittered by the corruption. The radicals, there was a tremendous amount of theft. This is true. Another one of the Taliban fighters that I spoke to talked about the corruption of the Taliban, people stealing money.

And this is a story we don't expose very much here in this country, and people are really unaware of the kind of rampant corruption that's inside these radical groups. You have - it's very interesting, Dave. You have almost two sides to the movement. You have the true believers, who are religiously convinced that what they're doing is the right thing and they're going to fight for God and die and go to heaven.

And then you have some of the people involved in the movement who offer a religious veneer but are as ruthless and corrupt as the worst politicians anywhere.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ken Ballen. His new book is "Terrorists in Love." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Ken Ballen, he is the founder and president of the nonprofit Terror-Free Tomorrow. And he's written a book about his interviews with terrorists and former terrorists about their lives and motivations. It's called "Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals."

You know, I think we've all had the experience of, in our lives, spending some time, some days or weeks, in another cultural or religious community, you know, a visit to distant family or traveling in another country, and you know, we have this experience of finding ideas or practices that initially seem alienating, maybe even offensive, over time seeming normal. They make sense.

And I'm wondering, I mean you're a Jewish man and a former prosecutor, and you spent so much time among Islamic radicals. Was there a point at which their ideas didn't seem so nonsensical to you, they seemed, you know, to make more sense?

BALLEN: Well, within their framework they do make sense, and I know this may be a controversial statement, but within their belief system what they're doing makes sense, and they really believe, most of them, the ones that aren't corrupt, really believe that they're - and even the ones who are corrupt justify it this way - they really believe they're doing good in the world.

They're fighting for good. They're doing the right thing. They don't see themselves as evil at all. They see themselves as saintly, not evil, and they feel like they're doing the right thing.

So if you're immersed in this world, you see the logic within it. Now, that doesn't mean I'm sympathetic. I mean, when I was a prosecutor and prosecuted organized crime, literally I spent years living among the people, both from listening to their conversations every day on a wiretap for over a year and then arresting them and spending months interrogating them and understanding their world in order to prosecute them.

And I think that's what we've been missing in this whole war on terror. We've never sat back and say let's really understand our adversaries, let's understand what makes them tick. And you have to dive in and talk to them to understand.

DAVIES: You know, that was the next thing I wanted to ask you, was what can American policymakers learn from these conversations?

BALLEN: I think they can learn that we don't understand the world that these - the radicals come from. We don't understand their cultural milieu. We don't understand their thinking. And we need to understand their thinking to respond effectively.

You know, they are motivated by ideas and beliefs, and a completely militaristic response to someone's ideas and beliefs will not defeat them. They'll continue to even push harder for those ideas and beliefs. So I think we have to understand. And by understanding, then we can do things.

For example, if we understand some of the religious motivation, we can respond in ways that are appropriate, if we understand some of the corruption and other things that are happening. And their societies have to undergo a transformation for them to be changed. And that's probably the first lesson in American foreign policy, is you know, first do no harm, the old Hippocratic oath.

DAVIES: Right, and it's clear that the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the invasion of Iraq, I mean, led many of these folks to believe that America is in a war against Islam.

BALLEN: Yes, Abu Ghraib was certainly a recruiting poster for the jihadis. I mean, yes, there's a desire to get rid of the United States, the infidels, but there's also desire to go to heaven, and heaven is a literal place. It's not a notational kind of ideal to these folks. It's a very real place that you're going to go to with your family and live in glory and happiness and love whomever you want to love.

DAVIES: So if you're an American policymaker, how do you undermine the notion that, you know, a suicide attack or joining, you know, a violent terrorist group is going to ensure you a place in heaven?

BALLEN: Honestly, as American policymakers we are not able to undermine that notion. The change has to come from within the Muslim world itself. It has to come from clerics who interpret the religion. It has to come from scholars who say that this is not the teachings of the holy book. It has to come from the Islamic world itself, not from the United States.

We cannot impose what we want on the rest of the world. I'll tell you something interesting in Saudi Arabia. We did a public opinion survey there that I led, and the thing - the one thing that most Saudis wanted above anything else was a free press, free elections - democracy, in other words. Yet the one policy they hated the most was the United States trying to impose its vision of democracy on them.

So the change has to come from within. It can't come from the United States.

DAVIES: And where does that leave American policy?

BALLEN: It leaves American policy at the point where when President Bush campaigned for election in 2000, he said we need a humbler foreign policy. We did not get that, but that is what we need. We need a humbler foreign policy. We need to listen. We need to dialogue. We need to hear. We need to defend ourselves when we have to defend ourselves, but we need to know what we're really fighting against and not overreach, because when we overreach, we play into the radicals' hands. That's what they want us to do.

DAVIES: Well, Ken Ballen, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

BALLEN: Thank you very much, Dave, it's been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Ken Ballen is founder and president of Terror Free Tomorrow. His book is "Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.