18 January 2008

Another Bifurcated Terrorist

The account of Mohammed Mansour Jabarah's recruitment and time as a al-Qaeda member (CBC) very cleanly re-demonstrates a point made very well by Paul Berman in Terror and Liberalism. The point is that the most dangerous men in al-Qaeda are well educated, intelligent people who are pulled into terrorist organizations while attempting to reconcile a split personality.

They are split between their Western and Islamic identities. The al-Qaeda ideology gives them a pure ideal to belong to. They can convert their discomfort and disconnection in a hectic and harrowing modern world into hate for the people who make them uncomfortable.

Men like this are the most dangerous men in the entire al-Qaeda operation because they are smart enough to be good tools and planners, yet young and confused enough to be manipulated. While it is true that many attacks are perpetrated by the hopeless men and women from dire economic circumstances people like that are a dime a dozen.

Planning is another affair entirely. You need to recruit and brainwash the victim, have someone make the bomb, find them the materials, pick the target, conduct surveillance of it, then make the pieces move at the right time. It's not easy. And those are the small events, the amount of planning that goes into attacks like 9-11, the Madrid train bombings and the U.S. Embassy bombings is probably staggering. These are not stupid people. The true masterminds probably border on levels of brilliance.

The come from diverse backgrounds that allow them to be very familiar with the world in which we live in. Here is just a short list of the big fish who have made the news:

  • Osama bin Laden was born into an extremely wealthy family with extensive ties to the west in Saudi Arabia, he studied engineering at an elite secular university.
  • Kahlid Sheikh Mohamed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attack, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. (Global Security)
  • Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command of Al-Qaeda, is a physician.
  • Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamist thought went to western schools in Egypt then studied at Colorado State University. He spent time as a high level member of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior.
  • Richard Reid the shoe bomber comes from a London suburb which the BBC describes as "...hardly a natural breeding ground for dissidents - the borough's schools are among the UK's best, and street crime is half that in smarter areas such as Kensington and Chelsea." (BBC)
  • Mohamed Atta, the lead 9-11 hijacker, attended a variety universities in Germany where he began his path to radicalization.
Dealing with men like this will not be easily accomplished unless we are willing to get into a serious discussion with the Islamic world about the meaning of plurality in modern society and in Christianity and Islam.

I will close with an quotation from an article titled The World of Epictetus by Admiral James Stockdale originally written for The Atlantic Magazine. In this section of the article he is discussing three types of psychological profiles of prisoners in captivity.

"One of the things North talked about was brainwashing. A psychologist who studied the Korean prisoner situation, which somewhat paralleled ours, concluded that three categories of prisoners were involved there. The first was the redneck Marine sergeant from Tennessee who had an eighth grade education. He would get in that interrogation room and they would say that the Spanish-American War was started by the bomb within the Maine, which might be true, and he would answer, “B.S.” They would show him something about racial unrest in Detroit. “B.S.” There was no way they could get to him; his mind was made up. He was a straight guy, red, white,
and blue, and everything else was B.S.! He didn’t give it a second thought. Not much of a historian, perhaps, but a good security risk.

In the next category were the sophisticates. They were the fellows who could be told these same things about the horrors of American history and our social problems, but had heard it all before, knew both sides of every story, and thought we were on the right track. They weren’t ashamed that we had robber barons at a certain time in our history; they were aware of the skeletons in most civilizations’ closets. They could not be emotionally involved and so they were good security risks.

The ones who were in trouble were the high school graduates who had enough sense to pick up the innuendo, and yet not enough education to accommodate it properly. Not many of them fell, but most of the men that got entangled started from that background. The psychologist’s point is possibly oversimplistic, but I think his message has some validity. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

The people we need to worry about most are in the third group. They can come down on either side of the argument, and are powerful because they have capacity for great works of both good and evil.

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