Why Do People Become Terrorists?

Massacre of the Innocents, Gustave Dore, 1865

The New York Times is baffled. Following a string of terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels and Pakistan, a front page above-the-fold headline in the March 28, ‘16 Times concludes that there are “No Clear Signs On Who Might Be Radicalized.” We learn that “Despite millions of dollars of government-sponsored research, and a much-publicized White House pledge to find answers, there is still nothing close to a consensus on why someone becomes a terrorist.”

Why do people become terrorists? I believe the answer is paradoxically at once very simple and at the same time as complex and inscrutable as the human soul. It is very simple in that several billion people around the world are angry and insulted at what the U.S. and the West have historically done and continues to do to them, and a very tiny percentage of these people act out that rage. Also fueling their anger is the fact that many Arab and Muslim societies are not providing jobs for their swelling numbers of young people.

At the same time the question of why people become terrorists is profoundly complex because 99.99% of those angry people do nothing to harm us and we will never know the twisted inner logic which drives a tiny fraction of a percentage of those angry people to cross the line and commit acts of terrorism. I suspect that what drives many terrorists over the edge is their inner demons. In the days following the San Bernardino shootings, the Times reported that the gunman Syed Rizwan Farook’s “father was an alcoholic and could be violent, capable of lashing out at his wife and children, according to statements his mother, Rafia Farook, made in a series of divorce proceedings beginning in 2006. The father, also named Syed Farook, called his wife names, screamed at his children, hurled home appliances and, at the worst moments, grew so combative that his children had to step between him and his wife, she asserted.” (Dec. 4, ’15) I’ve seen no other mention of this aspect of Mr. Farook’s background in any subsequent discussions of San Bernardino, but it seems to me that the fact that Mr. Farook’s father “hurled home appliances” at his mother must have fueled the rage and inner chaos that he felt.

There are contributing factors to terrorism which we cannot change and the factors we can change. In addition to personal psychological motives for terrorism which we also obviously cannot change, there are also historical factors which we cannot change, including our European ancestors’ Crusades in the Middle Ages and recent centuries of colonialism which still anger people in the Middle East today.

But at the same time there are many factors contributing to terrorism which we can change, and it is to this task that we should be devoting ourselves. We need to continue to ask ourselves the question: Why are several billion people in the world angry at us? Until we understand and respond to that question, we will not find an end to terrorism. Part of what we are experiencing is “blowback” or retaliation for American foreign policy in the Middle East, especially for what we’ve done to the people of Iraq. As we saw in a previous blog http://commonhumanity.org/peace-is-possible-step-2-its-partly-our-fault/, our profoundly disastrous invasion of Iraq and the chaos that has followed clearly was the single major factor in the formation of creating ISIS, It is now commonly agreed that ISIS grew out of an American prison in Iraq called Camp Bucca sometimes nicknamed “Jihad University.” If we hadn’t invaded Iraq, ISIS would not be here now. We need to learn from our mistakes and stop our nasty habit of invading Middle East countries. We need to stop setting up prisons overseas such as Abu Ghraib and torturing the people we put in them.

Another source of outrage at the United States is our continued unquestioning military and diplomatic support for Israel as Israel continues to occupy and steal Palestinian land and build more settlements on the West Bank. When we do nothing to stop this other than routinely issue State Department protests, many people conclude that the United States must apparently believe that Israeli interests should be respected and Arab and Muslim interests need not be. This outrages people around the world and is one of a number of factors driving a tiny number of angry young people to terrorism. By pressing for a just settlement to the Palestinian-Arab conflict, we will be helping to reduce one of the contributing factors to anger and terrorism against the United States.

There is another very important way we can resist terrorism. Terrorism is evil and we should respond to terrorism by heeding the words of Jesus Who counseled us to return good for evil. Instead of sending more soldiers and billions of dollars worth of guns to the Middle East and in the ensuing violence creating even more rage at us, we should instead be sending relief workers and billions of dollars worth of relief supplies to the millions of suffering refugees in the region — some of whom became refugees partly because of our actions in the region. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, and He urged us to love our enemies. This would be an excellent time to give that idea a try. Ultimately it is not more guns which will end terrorism but rather the moral force of good.

Mel Lehman
April 16, 2016

Image: Massacre of the Innocents, Gustave Dore, 1865

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.