A couple of days ago I wrote that Omar Mateen “wasn’t so much a jihadist as someone who poured his excessive rage into a fantasy of jihad.” Turns out that may have made him a typical jihadist.
At the New York Times Peter Bergen writes that he did exhaustive research into more than 300 individual incidents of terrorism to find out what motivated the terrorists. He concludes,
The easy explanation — that jihadist terrorists in the United States are “mad” or “bad” — proved simply wrong. Around one in 10 had mental health problems, below the incidence in the general population. Nor were they typically career criminals: Twelve percent had served time in prison, compared with about 11 percent of the American male population.
I found that the perpetrators were generally motivated by a mix of factors, including militant Islamist ideology; dislike of American foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often was precipitated by personal disappointment, like the death of a parent. For many, joining a jihadist group or carrying out an attack allowed them to become heroes of their own story.
The “heroes of their own story” turns out to be key.
But in each case, the proportion of the motivations varied. For instance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, was a nonpracticing Muslim who became an Islamist militant once his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxerfaded. At the time of the attack, he was unemployed. For him, bombing the marathon seemed to allow him to become the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.
On the other hand, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, never seemed to embrace militant Islam. He smoked marijuana, drank and chased girls — hardly the actions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivations for the bombings were instead largely molded by his older brother, whom he admired and feared, and by his own half-baked opposition to American foreign policy.
Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, seemed to be a more classic jihadist. He was a highly observant Muslim who objected to American foreign policy. But according to Nader Hasan, a first cousin who had grown up with him, the massacre at Fort Hood was also motivated by Nidal Hasan’s personal problems. He was unmarried, both his parents were dead, he had no real friends and a dreaded deployment to Afghanistan loomed. “He went postal,” Nader Hasan told me, “and he called it Islam.”
David C. Headley of Chicago, who did much of the planning for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people were killed, was not an observant Muslim. He juggled multiple wives and girlfriends. He was motivated more by a passionate hatred of India — and his enjoyment in playing the role of a jihadi James Bond, hanging out with Bollywood stars for cover while secretly planning one of the most spectacular and deadly terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001.
Bergen doesn’t say if he found any examples of well-adjusted people not facing a life crisis or nursing a boiling personal grudge who decided only from their reading of the Quran that they had a duty to be jihadists, but my guess would be no.
I had said something similar in my book about the 9/11 terrorists, who were known to drink alcohol and go nightclubbing. Deep down, what they did was not really about religion. Meaning, religion didn’t provide the prime motivation. If you look closely, the “motivation” is nearly always some tangled mix of political, economic, social, cultural and historical factors with some big, honking Personal Issues mixed in. I wrote,
But it’s rarely just about Buddhism. Or Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. Like any other part of human civilization, religions exist in a context of culture, society, politics, and history, not to mention the various psychological issues of the participants. Religion has been the prime driver of some violent situations, but sometimes it’s just one factor among many, and the violence probably would have happened without it.
And sometimes religion may not be the prime driver but acts more as an accelerant, or at least an excuse, giving people a moral “cover” or context for their rage, even when their rage is being driven by something else entirely. If you can persuade yourself that your vehemence is sanctified, and that you are entitled or even anointed to strike at the object of your anger, it’s a lot easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.
And this, I think, is at the root of why so much of the mass violence in the world today has a connection to religion. Religion has become the last refuge of the furious.
In short, religion can be used to craft a cosmic permission slip and provide a kind of holy absolution (in the minds of the perps, anyway) for what would otherwise be unjustifiable savagery. And, of course, ultimately it’s still unjustifiable. But terrorists do tend to be the world’s worst cherry pickers, as far as doctrine is concerned. They’re only interested in the parts that might be used to justify what they were going to do, anyway. The remainder can be ignored.
In the book I went back to this great quote:
Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
I propose that these factors tend to come together to form “terrorists.”
The first is some kind of association with an idealized mass movement. As Bergen said, they seem to have “a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose.” However, this association may exist only in the head of the perp, as it did in Omar Mateen. In other words, the association may exist as a psychological factor but not a physical or operative factor, and it’s important for us to keep that straight. Otherwise you’re off into Crazy Land with John McCain, who has said President Obama is responsible for the murders in Orlando because he hasn’t bombed ISIS enough.
The idealized mass movement comes with a “holy cause.” But the holy cause is not necessarily religious; nationalism or or extremist political ideologies or white supremacy or a lot of other things will do just as well. If the “holy cause” is religious, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if the individual perp really believes it that much. It’s the idea of having a holy cause to rally around, rather than personal devotion, that’s important. Without a holy cause to fight for, one cannot be the hero of one’s own story.
Finally, and possibly most important of all, is the fanatical grievance. I think if you look hard enough, in the soul of every terrorist or mass shooter or anybody who feels a need to express himself through violent slaughter is a festering grievance that the world simply is not giving him what he is due. Whether this grievance is primarily personal or collective, or a little of both, may not matter.
This is why people who make Islam, or religion, out to be “the problem” don’t get it. In the presence of the other psychological factors any mass movement/holy cause will do, including (in theory) atheism. It hardly matters if atheism has no doctrines, as doctrines aren’t that important to “religious” terrorists, anyway.” What’s important is the Cause, which ultimately is just something to reflect glory on the perp’s own ego.