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In August 2012, Jessica Stern visited a high-security prison in Sweden, where she spent six hours probing the psyche of a neo-Nazi inmate who had killed several immigrants. In the early 1990s, he had gone to Bosnia as a mercenary for Croatia in the war in what was then Yugoslavia. There, he killed Muslim civilians and soldiers and tortured prisoners of war.

Stern, a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, studies perpetrators of extreme violence, terrorism, and the possible link between trauma and terror. She wanted to know what motivated the inmate to kill people. What role did his fascist beliefs play? The neo-Nazi, whom Stern identified as X, told her that he just loved killing people.

“For a variety of reasons, I am good at something most people prefer to avoid—sitting and asking violent men about why they do what they do.”

In a case study published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law in April 2014, she reported that X, who had been raised (and beaten) by adoptive Swedish parents, was primarily motivated to become a mercenary and neo-Nazi killer “for the excitement and high adrenaline.” She also examined the role of a de-radicalization program called Exit Sweden in his renunciation of neo-Nazism while in prison. In his discussion with Stern in 2012, X told Stern that he deeply regretted the crimes he had committed. He said he now felt “such a distance to violence altogether that sometimes I feel castrated.”

The only way to understand the motivations of violent extremists, she says, is to talk with the perpetrators themselves. She has talked with members of paramilitary white supremacist and antigovernment cults in the United States, Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Gaza, Jewish terrorists in Israel, and violent Hindu extremists in India.

Beliefs, not just psychosis, can spur violence

Just as there is no single brand of terrorism, Stern says, there is no singular profile of a terrorist and no set path to extreme violence. She has learned that people are motivated to become terrorists by reasons that may have little to do with the religious and political narratives they spin.

Jessica Stern portrait
Jessica Stern. (Credit: Jackie Ricciardi/Boston University)

Five lessons from talking to terrorists

  • Motivation can’t be understood just by reading the political and religious manifestos.
  • Personal history, including an experience of humiliation, can make people vulnerable to political or religious narratives.
  • Religious terrorists see the world in terms of good and evil, with no gray, or middle, ground.
  • Young terrorists are often confused about the religion they profess to follow.
  • Alienation and confusion about identity often play a role.

Whether they are lone wolves or members of well-established terrorist groups, Stern says, terrorists “always have a grievance and that grievance is almost always something you can come to understand if you listen to what terrorists say. Their grievances are often based on real pain or real injustice. It is their actions—deliberately targeting noncombatants—that violate moral and legal norms. Sunni Arabs faced terrible injustices under the Malaki regime in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that violence against civilians was morally justifiable, or even politically useful.”

“Jessie is interested in understanding the psychology of people whom most of us are morally revolted by the idea of interviewing because of their involvement in, attraction to, and desire to conduct, horrific acts of violence,” says Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies, editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog on national security, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on National Security and Law. It is hugely demanding research, he adds: “You have to look at the world from their point of view without losing your abhorrence for the things they believe in.”

This brain region motivates us to violently attack

Wittes says Stern’s research is “extremely useful as a set of insights into the sort of people we have to kill, the sort of people we have to capture, the sort of people we have to engage with and flip and bring to our side—and the sort of people we have to convince young people who are on the edge that they don’t want to be.”

ask more questions clocks
(Credit: Jonathan Simcoe/Unsplash)

‘I followed my intense curiosity’

Stern, coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015), applies the knowledge and insights gleaned from her interviews to scholarly analysis. Some appear in her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God—Why Religious Militants Kill, and others in academic journals and publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. She shares what she has learned with government officials, national security leaders, and members of Congress. In January 2016, she testified about ISIS before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Stern credits psychologist and pollster Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy’s Program for Public Consultation, with giving her advice that has long guided her research. “You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” she recalls Kull saying.

“That was absolutely not the thing that political scientists did. I didn’t care,” she says. “I thought the data at the time were really bad. I was trained to do large N studies [statistical analyses of large databases that track terrorist incidents, including perpetrators, targets, type of weapon, and number of casualties] at the Kennedy School. Instead of doing what I was trained to do, I followed my intense curiosity.”

War zones and other painful places

As it turned out, Stern found that she could empathize with her subjects so deeply that she could suspend all judgment, focusing instead on the mistaken logic that leads to their becoming terrorists. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, she notes, and she neither condones nor excuses the acts of the terrorists she has encountered.

“I remember one guy saying, ‘What are you going to do, administer Prozac to terrorists?'”

“I try to think like a terrorist recruiter,” she says. “What does it take to get someone to join my group if they’re in a war zone? If they see that the president in Iraq is favoring Shiites, and Sunnis feel unsafe and aren’t getting what they were promised, and they were at the top of Iraqi society for decades and suddenly they’re at the bottom, well, that’s a lot easier job for me than to recruit a terrorist in, say, Massachusetts.”

For someone in the West, who is not living in a war zone, she says, “the pain is more personal. Psychology is more important the farther away we are from a war zone.” It’s important, Stern says, to distinguish the terrorism of war zones from the acts of terrorism committed in the United States and European countries.

She began talking about humiliation as a risk factor for terrorism after she returned from her first meetings with jihadist leaders in Pakistan, in the late 1990s. There, a Kashmiri militant told her he had founded his group because “Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts…we are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves.”

How counter-narratives could fight extremist groups

Many of her colleagues were initially skeptical about her theory of humiliation. “I remember one guy saying, ‘What are you going to do, administer Prozac to terrorists?’ My sense was that he meant, you’re a girl, so when you talk to these guys, of course they’re going to tell you how they feel. Who cares how they feel—they kill people. That was the attitude. Now I think it’s become fairly accepted that humiliation is a major risk factor.”

‘He’s manipulating me every second’

Stern is working on a study of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader convicted by a United Nations International Criminal Tribunal of genocide and other war crimes in his campaign of terror against civilians. Stern has so far interviewed Karadzic in prison, in the Hague, on more than 10 separate occasions, meeting with him for 4 hours at a stretch, usually over 4 consecutive days. She is hoping to arrange additional interviews with him.

Radovan Karadzic mug shots
Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, whom Stern is studying, was convicted of genocide and other war crimes. (Credit: Yugoslav and Bosnian police via Wikimedia Commons)

“He’s very different from anyone I’ve ever interviewed or talked to in this way,” she says. “He’s not only a war criminal, he’s also a psychiatrist, a published poet, and has worked as an energy healer. He is charismatic, but also Machiavellian. He’s manipulating me every second.” He wants to talk to her not just about the Serb mission, she says, but also about his favorite literature, much of which is transparently anti-Muslim. She is studying that literature, and his poetry, for clues to the man.

In addition, she is conducting extensive research into the history and international politics of the war in Bosnia, searching the archives of the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, interviewing many US and Bosnian officials, and trying to get US government documents declassified. “I am taking a lot of time to weigh all the evidence,” she says.

“You can’t do a large N survey if you’re going to spend four hours at a time with your subject,” she adds. “I much prefer to focus on a small number of people, really looking at them deeply, rather than having someone else administer a survey form. Both kinds of work are really important. For a variety of reasons, I am good at something most people prefer to avoid—sitting and asking violent men about why they do what they do.”

Source: Boston University