Beneath Bombast and Bombs, a Caldron of Humiliation

Jessica Stern is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the author of "Terror in the Name of God."

The statistics are dismal. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., nearly twice as many acts of terrorism were carried out in the two years following Sept. 11, 2001, (4,422) than in the two years preceding it (2,303). The number of people killed per attack has also gone up, from an average of .65 fatalities per incident to an average of 1.

One could argue that, without the war on terrorism, the number of incidents would have been even higher. But one might also argue that the war we are waging is ineffective. This much is certain: If we hope to stop terrorism, we need to understand what motivates those who perpetrate it.

For the last six years I have interviewed terrorists, trying to discover what makes people join a holy-war organization and what makes them stay. Although the terrorists have described a variety of individual grievances, there was one common thread: their overwhelming feelings of humiliation.

The former leader and founder of the Muslim Jambaz Force, a Kashmiri militant group, told me that he established his organization because he wanted to re-create the golden period of Islam and “recover” what had been lost. “Muslims have been overpowered by the West,” he said. “Our ego hurts. We are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves.”


A man involved in the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement told me that he had been “vaginally defeated” but that now he was “free,” by which he meant that although he had once been controlled by overpowering women, he was now celibate and beyond their influence.

An Identity Christian cultist told me he had been so sickly as a child that he was forced to attend the girls’ physical education classes. “I don’t know if I ever got over the shame and humiliation of not being able to keep up with the other boys,” he said, “or even with some of the girls.” He said the first time he felt strong was when he was living in an armed compound surrounded by armed men.

Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, describes globalization and the new world order as deeply humiliating to Muslims. That’s why, he says, he encourages the youth of Islam to carry arms and defend their religion with pride and dignity rather than submit to the humiliation of globalization.

Halfway through my study, I asked a terrorist leader if I was getting it right. I laid out for him what I’d heard again and again, that terrorists were motivated by their perceived humiliation, relative deprivation and fear -- whether personal, cultural or both. I told him how this seemed to me to be what motivated terrorists around the world, including American ones, and that everything else was just sloganeering and marketing.

After a silence that stretched almost to the point of discomfort, my interlocutor finally responded. “This is exactly right,” he said. “Sometimes the deprivation is imagined, as in America. In Kashmir, it’s real. But it doesn’t really matter whether it’s real or imagined.”

Holy wars take off when there is a large supply of young men who feel humiliated and deprived; when leaders emerge who know how to capitalize on those feelings; and when a segment of society is willing to fund them. They persist when organizations and individuals profit from them psychologically or financially. But they are dependent first and foremost on a deep pool of humiliation.

It is in this context that the war in Iraq and in particular the heart-wounding images of American soldiers humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners become so important. Jihad leaders are already exploiting the opportunity afforded by the crimes committed by American interrogators and guards.

Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, leader of the London-based radical Islamist movement Al Muhajiroun, which openly supports Al Qaeda, asks potential followers: “When will people see this war in Iraq and Afghanistan for what it really is -- a Christian crusade, full of the indiscriminate murder, rape and carnage just like, if not worse than, the Christian Crusades of Richard the Lionheart and his own band of thugs in the past. Surely this is a wake-up call for all Muslims around the world who have any dignity left.”

Even before the recent revelations of torture in Iraqi prisons, it was clear that a war in Iraq was highly unlikely to reduce the threat of terrorism, and that it would rather increase it. Perhaps most troubling, the occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy.

On a website described by the U.S. government as jihadist, Hani Sibai, director of the London-based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, says: “Iraq is currently a battlefield and a fertile soil for every Islamic movement that views jihad as a priority.” He notes that “the continuation of the anti-occupation resistance will produce several groups that might later merge into one large group.” Very few of the participants in the Iraqi jihad are members of Al Qaeda, he says. “Even if the U.S. forces capture all leaders of Al Qaeda or kill them all, the idea of expelling the occupiers and nonbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula and all the countries of Islam will not die.”

It’s crucial that the U.S. attempt to understand what motivates the terrorism it seeks to eradicate. Instead, the administration seems invested in denying it. In contrast to the Rand findings cited above, the State Department claims to be able to show that terrorism has decreased since the war on terrorism began.

In its annual report on international terrorism, released in April, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage argued that there was “clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight.” The report concluded that worldwide terrorism dropped 45% from 2001 to 2003. These numbers not only stand in sharp contrast to those gathered by Rand; they are not supported by the State Department’s own data.

According to economists Alan B. Krueger and David Laitin, who analyzed the department’s findings, the number of significant terrorist acts increased from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003 -- 36% -- and that’s using the government’s own figures. Krueger and Laitin conclude that “the only verifiable information in the annual reports indicates that the number of terrorist events has risen each year since 2001, and in 2003 reached its highest level in more than 20 years.”

The State Department’s rosy conclusions were the result of how it defined terrorist events. Because of a decrease in the number of insignificant incidents even as the number of significant ones rose, it could show a decline. But, according to Krueger and Laitin, a number of significant incidents were left out of the data. And because the State Department’s definition of significant events included such things as the destruction of an ATM in Greece or the throwing of a Molotov cocktail at a McDonald’s in Norway, “it is easy to imagine that nonsignificant events are counted with a squishy definition that can be manipulated to alter the trend.”

Altering or manipulating data will not win the war on terrorism. Nor will it fool the American people, who know that the movement inspired by Al Qaeda is continuing to spread. To win this war, we cannot continue to emphasize reactionary remedies, such as unprovoked wars against yesterday’s threats. We must focus instead on solutions to the threats we face today, and that will mean understanding the motivation of our enemy.

In the short term, we’re fighting terrorists. In the long term, we’re competing with manipulative nihilists for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims, whose support and services the terrorists require. It should be easy to demonstrate that we are more just and more honest than those we aim to defeat.