What makes a terrorist?

Ayesha Ijaz Khan May 09, 2010

What causes a seemingly privileged young adult of Faisal Shahzad’s variety to turn into a would-be terrorist detonating a car-bomb in Manhattan?  Is it anger against US foreign policy?  Is it revenge for racial profiling?  Or is it simply a disgruntlement with life?

Very often it has been proposed that those who have suffered indiscriminate bombardment as a result of American wrath post 9/11, seen loss of loved ones and been robbed of any semblance of normalcy in their daily lives would have an increased propensity to seek revenge by employing violent means.  Yet the case of Faisal Shahzad or Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab (the “underwear bomber” of Nigerian origin) is entirely at odds with this theory.  Both Faisal and Umar came from prosperous backgrounds, had the means to study at expensive western universities, would clearly fall within the “elite” category of their respective impoverished countries, and yet it appears that their primary reason for turning rogue was their inability to make the most of their circumstances—an inability to concentrate on studies, keep a job or pay a mortgage.  These are fairly common issues affecting many average people and should not be the sort of problems that would turn one to terrorism.

On the other hand, those who suffer the most egregious racism, live in squalid conditions, are often paid below minimum wage, and constantly live with the fear of “illegal immigrant” status are diligently toiling away, supporting not only themselves but also their families back home.  Perhaps the road they took to the West was too arduous and harrowing to sacrifice for a foiled terror attempt.  Crossing the channel from Paris to London on the underbelly of a truck is sure to give a young man a reason to make something of his life, the way an Emirates airline ticket bought by daddy never can.   Perhaps there are too many mouths to feed and pontificating about discriminatory foreign policy is not a luxury this group can afford.

Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to assume that foreign policy has no bearing on disaffecting Muslims in the West.  Or that discrimination based on race or religion will not lead to a sense of alienation that could rear its ugly head in the form of violence.  These are two themes continually used by terrorists to justify their actions and explain their recruiting success.  But to what extent this is reflective of reality remains a mystery.  Whether terrorists are primarily motivated by foreign policy/discrimination or simply disgruntled individuals with a fascination for violence deserves to be studied.

A very sad but extremely inspiring example is that of Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, both British Muslims illegally detained at Guantanamo Bay.  There was no evidence of terrorism against them but they had simply been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time (Afghanistan 2001) and held without trial for two years.  Like other Guantanamo detainees, they were abused and humiliated.  Yet six years after their release, they were contacted via Facebook by Brandon Neely, their prison guard at Guantanamo, who felt remorse for the way they had been treated.  Struggling with his guilt, Brandon had left Guantanamo in 2005, soon after the two innocents were released.  In an emotionally charged meeting set up by the BBC, Brandon publicly apologized to the two men.  What struck me most was their ability to forgive.  Being wrongly accused can be traumatic--having to face two years of harsh punishment for it far worse.  And yet, Shafiq and Ruhal displayed an amazing capacity to forgive, even taking Brandon out for a curry meal with their families.

If only western governments could exhibit the sort of courage Brandon showed in admitting his wrongs.  If only the forgiveness shown by Shafiq and Ruhal could be glorified as much as the violence of the terrorists.  If only the media could pay more attention to these men.

The writer can be contacted through her site ayeshaijazkhan.com


Tahir Ali | 13 years ago | Reply Ayesha article is good but didn't deal the issue sufficiently. The story of Shafiq Rasul and Rahul should have been included in another piece. In my view, domestic environments, family relations, the kind of education and teachers one is exposed to, poverty and deprivation, idealism and the sense of being maltreated, besides other things, can play their role in drawing one to militancy. Tahir Ali Mardan
Ayesha Ijaz Khan | 13 years ago | Reply @ Tanzeel, If you saw my original piece, you wouldn't think it was a justification.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ

Most Read