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How teens become terrorists
Radical Islamist ideology is a poison disguised as a cure.
by Russell Razzaque
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was only 19 years old when he allegedly planned and carried out one of the worst acts of terror on U.S. soil since 9/11. This, however, is actually not an uncommon age for radicalization. In fact, a number of suicide bombers and terrorist convicts were radicalized about the same age. Hasib Hussain, for example, one of the London 7/7 bombers of 2005, was 18. This is when any existential wound that has been festering since childhood is most vulnerable to external forces.
Radical Islamist ideology is a poison disguised as a cure. In the research I conducted across a range of terror cells, I found that the seeds of their heinous crimes were planted all the way back in their childhoods, and the work I have done since with unsuccessful (convicted) terrorists has only confirmed this.
The problem starts as a crisis of identity. We all rely on various dimensions of the environment around us to help develop a sense of who we are. The first is our parents, and we depend on their nurturing and connection to develop the initial layer in our sense of self.
Most suicide bombers lacked a close intimate relationship, particularly with their same-sex parent. Mohammed Atta, leader of the 9/11 bombers, had a father who was so strict that he timed his son’s journey from school to home, and if he arrived a minute late the father would beat him. There was no time for play, friendship, leisure or just being. Everything had to be about work, study and progress.
Of course, millions of people have controlling parents. Each step along the way, however, narrows the numbers down. The next step is the attempt to fill in the identity gap of the infant years with attachment to wider society. For an immigrant, this can be difficult. Most eventual terrorists actually start to integrate fairly well, like the rest of us. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older marathon bombing suspect, had married fellow Boston student Katherine Russell.
This initial blossoming of a sense of self is precarious, and any real or perceived slight can knock it off course. Such a derailment often happens at the age when one starts to develop independence, leave home and enter tentatively into the realm of adulthood. And this is precisely when the canny recruiter strikes. It is not a coincidence that university campuses around Europe are sometimes seen as hotbeds of extremist recruitment. This is when a radical preacher knows that his prey is at its most vulnerable.
Yes, you are different, the rejected youth is told. But you are different for a reason. You are a chosen one. You will join the ranks of a hallowed few at the forefront of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This way, the deflated ego is pumped up. Shame and humiliation are converted into pride and honor, and for the first time in his life, the young man starts to feel good about who he is. Really good. This is the poison disguised as a cure. One so toxic, it will ultimately take his own life as well as that of yet to be determined numbers of innocent others.
Fuel of anger
Like a noose, the community of “the elite” constrict around the radicalized youth. A sense of righteous anger is stoked within and cherished as if it were the most precious fuel, for, in a way, that is what it is. This is the fuel that will power the weapon of hate that he is becoming. If appropriately channeled by the ideology, the weapon he becomes will be a precision-guided one, directed specifically at the target: the Western world that is supposedly at war with Islam.
That anger comes from giving the young man the most dangerous mindset known to mankind, that of the victim. It colors the lens through which he sees the world relentlessly till he can see only darkness. If he believes himself to be enough of a victim, then he’ll feel as if he has nothing to lose.
Victimhood is the opposite energy to gratitude. And it is this message that the terrorist unconsciously wants to pass on to us. He wants us to see the world in the same black-and-white way he does. He wants us to taste some of his own medicine by seeing ourselves as victims in a world that is essentially dangerous, unjust and bad. That way, we will then join with him in conflict and convert the fantasy his imagination has fed on into a reality.
But every time we show compassion, he fails. Every time we are grateful for what we have, for the people who care for and rescue us and for the richness of the diversity we live in, he loses.
The battle against terrorism is waged on many levels: from the detection and apprehension of the recruiters, online and offline, to the location and destruction of the training camps. At least as important as all this is the battle that is waged within, the battle to remain connected to the innocence, awe and uncorrupted beauty we all possessed as children and that remains somewhere deep down inside today, whatever our transgressions.
To reject the ideology of hatred, we must reject its psychology, too. Understanding those who hate us is the best way to neutralize them. Let’s hope we will learn more about who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is and how his life took the tragic and awful path — for all concerned — that it did.
Russell Razzaque, a London-based psychiatrist, is author of Human Being to Human Bomb.