The Fantasies of Terrorism

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.

9 thoughts on “The Fantasies of Terrorism

  1. Some may have been in situations where they gave the system an honest try, but were bullied, workplace mobbed, a victim of Machiavellian politics or some other sociopathy which they then blamed on that entire system. Often, in situations such as these one finds they’re on their own as peers are afraid of the instigator/s. Joining a group that wants to tear down the system might offer them some kind of vindication.

    IMO, modern conservative culture offers few answers for people in these situations, outside of “kill them, kill them all”.

  2. 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.

  3. “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.”

    These are also factors in other causes besides religion.
    Think Fascism and Communism – among other “isms.”
    Hell, even people clamoring to be part of Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme could be seen as part of a movement: for making still more money – albeit, a small and private movement.

    People who murder one or two people usually have personal reasons for doing so. They feel wronged by that person.

    People who seek to commit mass carnage need some kind of patina of righteousness to put on, so as not to appear as if they did what they did haphazardly and/or wantonly.

    When we’re young, we all feel that someday, we’ll be somebody.
    And most of us fail at being somebody – or at least somebody famous.
    But we’re all still somebody – to our family and friends.

    If someone has no family or friends, then they feel alone, and may be ripe for violence.
    That sort of puts the lone, in “lone wolf.”

  4. Swami, you hit it out of the park yesterday. Perhaps twice. The link to American Horror Story was, in my world, great photography and superior writing. As to Orlando I am going with this theory. Might be wrong. Would not be the first time I was in error.


    Dude was really not that into Islam, but did do the prayer thing.

    Dude was married and had a kid but hit on gay guys and attended gay club some.

    Dude “changed” from his nice façade after he married her according to wife.

    Dude’s father had no idea he was gay or had gay tendencies.

    Dude had so little to do with Islamic State that he got past an extensive FBI investigation.

    Dude worked as a security guard.

    Dude talked hate smack about many groups of people.

    Dude called 911 and a TV station during the shoot out.

    Friend’s observation re: Islam and homosexuality. (my remark) It seems to be a bigger no-no for them than eating pork or charging or paying interest.

    Looks more to me like someone who was quite conflicted and could not reconcile, family background, ethnicity, religious beliefs, family demands, have a real job, sexual tendencies, and was just looking for 15 min of fame and a way out. Many others have shown the way. A slam dunk need for a police assisted suicide. Just what a drama queen might want. A sick, morbid, violent, coming out party climaxing with the old P.A.S..

    Looks like it all worked for him. Worked for the gun dealers, the politicians, the news people the cops. Didn’t work so well for the ones killed or maimed, but at least they did not have some religious looney feeding them Kool – Aid. Not much of a silver lining but ya just have to take the cards dealt and play them as best as you can.

  5. William Winkler, 30, of Orlando was a classmate of Mateen’s at Mariposa Elementary, where his mother taught Mateen in fourth and fifth grades.

    In Spanish the word mariposa means’s also slang for a homosexual. I just thought it was ironic that in searching for clues to determine Mateen’s sexuality that he would have attended Mariposa Elementary. Columbo move over! Swami is on the trail. 🙂

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  7. I think this is the general appeal of fundamentalism — I can certainly say this was my own experience when, 26 years ago, I got sucked into Christian fundamentalism. I was 20, and was bullied terribly in junior high and high school — I managed to get through it (flunked the 8th grade because I skipped so much school because the bullying was so bad). But by the time I got into college, I think I was unravelling and I succumbed to their constant sales pitches (this was in Louisiana, bear in mind).

    But what the church I went to did was provide (the illusion of) a sense of “belonging” with others. Of course, that sense of belonging hinged on excluding almost the rest of all humanity. It doesn’t surprise me that Mateen was a garbled mess inside with no one single definitive motive (anyone ever read Crime & Punishment? –Dostoevsky understood this).

    Mateen wanted to “belong” — and what is worse, he couldn’t even “belong” to himself, so to speak– he couldn’t come to grips with his own apparent homosexuality or bisexuality. Considering his family upbringing, this isn’t too surprising. I eventually got out, and over the years I have found at least healthier ways to truly deal with my own past.

    When more news came out about Mateen, I immediately thought of my (ex-)brother-in-law. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, beaten on the back regularly with a broom as a child (!!!), was a “wild child” in his 20s (pot and alcohol), got married (and had no sex for almost 20 years), always uptight, strongly fundamentalist, and always, always, always raging about “those gay people.” ANY topic would inevitably bend back to the same issue– he was obsessed with it, perpetually angry. Being around him was like walking on eggshells and I was always exhausted emotionally being around him, always trying to steer the conversation with distraction.

    But here’s the thing: we would be driving in town and we would pass by a male bicyclist wearing spandex, and he would make all kinds of leering comments about his backside! And what is more, he appeared completely oblivious about what he had just said, almost as if he had managed to compartmentalize his entire personality. Strange. It was very obvious that he was gay, but his upbringing and his (rather nominal) religious beliefs helped him to loathe himself. Plus him and his wife were constantly arguing — partly due to sexual tension, surely, but for my brother-in-law’s part, I’m sure he felt a great deal of resentment (partly conscious, partly subconscious) toward his wife, having to “play the role” of the “fine, upstanding Christian.” I separated from my wife 11 years ago and I’ve not seen or heard from/of him since. I never thought he would be capable of violence (the sad thing is that otherwise he was a really friendly fellow), but his rage was headache-inducing.

    Reflecting on my ex-bro-ther-in-law though, it seems to me that the real target of Mateen was himself. In his deluded mind, he was trying to “murder himself” again and again and again. Rather than openly deal with his own fears and insecurities, he chose to externalize it and foist his problems on other people and call it “Islam” or “ISIS” or whatever — call it anything except what it was — a man who couldn’t come to grips with his sexuality — along with so many other male shooters. Maybe Freud was right — it really is all about sex — it certainly seems to be the case with many of the ubiquitous mass shootings that characterize the US.

  8. Wow, @Yinshi, quite a tale!

    Too often, as Shakespeare wrote – and I paraphrase because I’m too lazy this morning to look it up – in the JC play that’s not about Jesus Christ, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves…”

  9. ….The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves. Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

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