Brief Interviews with Hideous Terrorists

What it's like to sit and talk with jihadists, neo-Nazis, and lone-wolf killers.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

A few times, I have felt myself in the presence of true evil. At those times, I learned what it means to have the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s not just an expression. It happened to me when I met with a leader who recruited cannon fodder for his "jihad," and on a few other occasions in the last couple decades that I’ve spent interviewing terrorists to learn why they do what they do. But, more often, the evil I’ve witnessed has been banal. I have found myself able to understand the mistaken moral logic that can turn a boy into a terrorist.

Here’s a surprising thing. Almost everywhere — in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Texas — terrorists offer you tea. Sometimes a full meal.

Otherwise, they are quite different from one another. Their motivations vary — from irredentism, to pleasing the God they claim to worship, to cleansing the Earth of the mud-people that contaminate the world of purity in their minds. Some live in war zones with grievances that are easy for outsiders to grasp; for others, living in the cushy West, the war that is taking place is principally in their own minds, often over identity. Some are paid, some are blackmailed. Some are recruited, and some recruit themselves to their own holy war, whether at home or far away.

That latter seems to be what happened with Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who, according to the latest reporting, recruited themselves to their own "jihad" against America, based, in part, on their opposition to the U.S. role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to understanding — and stopping — these kinds of leaderless resisters and small cells, we need to understand how terrorists think as individuals. Political science does not get us there. Leaderless resistance and lone-wolf terrorism is also about personalities and personal experience. Lone wolves and small groups may have commonalities, but we won’t know that until we talk to enough of them. That is more art than science — and the results, as investigators are now finding with Dzhokhar, can be as baffling as they are illuminating.

Last summer, I interviewed a neo-Nazi who had killed two police officers in a botched attempt to rob a bank to raise money for the movement. He was also a mercenary, convicted of war crimes in Bosnia. He fought on the Croatian side, he said, because he was attracted to the fascist ideology of the Ustashi, the Croatian Revolutionary Movement aligned with the Nazis during World War II. Although he is now serving a life sentence in a high-security prison, he is particular about whom he will meet with. Before agreeing to talk to me, he insisted on reading my last two books, one of which is about terrorism. The other is about my own rape, when I was 15. I was uncomfortable giving him my last book. I don’t like the idea of being a character in a terrorist’s mind. But that was the bargain we had struck, and I stuck with it.

The prison authorities gave me two hours to interview him the first day, four hours the second. I was not allowed to tape the interview. I was not even allowed to bring my own pen into the prison, in case I had a miniature weapon or recording devices hidden inside it. I had to switch pens with the guard.

I was not allowed to bring my own water or food into the prison, so, on the day of our first interview, he brought me tea from the prisoner’s dining area. The second day, he also brought ham sandwiches. It’s hard to talk to a person like this for four hours straight without sustenance. And besides, I wanted to accept what he was offering me — this is how rapport is built. I must see the humanity in the murderer, something very uncomfortable to do. But one of the sandwiches on the tray he had prepared for us had a perfect half-moon bite taken out of the ham. I chose another, apparently unbitten one. I tried not to imagine him spitting in it. I had the sense he wanted to contaminate me with what he feels, a coldness in him.

He made sure to bring my rape into the room. He was born the year I was raped, he told me, right at the outset, in what I thought was a move to establish dominance. I was okay with granting him that dominance for the six hours we were together. There was a cord I could pull, the guards told me, in case of emergency. We’ll all come running, they said. I would not have made it as far as that cord if the neo-Nazi wanted to hurt me. But somehow, I knew he wanted to talk to me a lot more than he wanted to kill me. I believe he wanted some kind of absolution.

Here is the unspoken bargain between the terrorists and me: I make myself vulnerable and they will not harm me. I must strive not to reveal fear, and to trust that they won’t hurt me, despite their machismo and manufactured rage. And they, in turn, will consider telling me the truth, but only half-truths. That is our bargain.

The neo-Nazi told me that he loves killing people. He also told me, "All terrorists are like me.  They come up with an ideology to justify killing, but the desire to kill comes first." I do not accept his theory of terrorism, but I did not argue with him. He admitted to having tortured animals as a child, but he seemed somewhat ashamed, as if he knew that I might conclude he is a psychopath. He did not want to tell me how many people he had killed, but he said there were a lot. He had also tortured prisoners held at a camp in Bosnia and confessed he was frustrated that he didn’t get the same pleasure out of torturing people that he did out of killing them.

While an interview like this is underway, I have to force judgment out of my mind. Something happens in the room that makes it possible for the killer to speak. I am pure curiosity. It’s genuine, not faked. I follow the killer’s logic and emotions so closely that my own logic, my own emotions, are temporarily at bay. So curious about the story, I can evacuate myself of ordinary feeling. Afterwards, they feel better. They often invite me back. Sometimes they write me letters.

But it costs me. When I’m able to tape the interview, it often takes me months to work up the courage to listen. After the interview with the neo-Nazi who loves to kill, I had to take a sauna. And a steam bath. And bathe in a pool. It took weeks, after that interview, for me to feel fully human again, as if I had joined the neo-Nazi in another reality and it took great effort to come back to earth.

But most of the terrorists I’ve talked to do not tell me they love to kill. Sometimes, I confess, I cannot help feeling sorry for them.

On my first trip to Lahore, in 1999, members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba agreed to talk with me. It was the first time I had met any mujahideen. Two of them came to my hotel. The older one wore an elephant-gray shalwar and kameez, wrinkled in the humidity like slept-in pajamas, over a colossal frame. Traditional Pakistani slippers, with turned-up pointy toes and mirrors, gave his feet an incongruously elfin look. He walked heavily, ostentatiously relaxed. His hands, which were soft and brown, looked big enough to crush me with a single swat.

It was the younger one, a new recruit, that got to me. He was beautiful. Slim, but strong-looking, with luminous skin and clear, intelligent eyes. He had the obligatory beard of a fundamentalist, but it was neatly trimmed, as if he were having trouble giving up some of the habits of privilege. He wore a hand-embroidered, stark-white shalwar, perfectly pressed. His English was refined. Right away it seemed to me he was specially chosen to meet with me, to make it seem as if the group were populated with boys like him.

The two of them came to see me to determine whether it was safe for their leader, their emir, to meet with me, or if I was there on behalf of India’s intelligence agency, perhaps to murder him. "As a result of their inspection, they have determined that you work for the CIA," my guide would later inform me, seemingly bemused. "Anyway, it’s okay; the
y are flattered if the CIA is interested in them," he says.

"How did they decide that I’m not planning to assassinate your leader?" I asked.

"It is obvious," he says. "You can tell a person’s character by looking in her eyes. You have innocence in your eyes."

I often recall this conversation. I no longer believe that character can be discerned by visual inspection, having met so many innocent-looking people capable of such horror, and this feels like a terrible loss. I also wonder whether I still have innocence in my eyes, after talking with so many killers.

Once I passed their test, they drove me to Muridke, where the headquarters of Lashkar is located. In the car I talked with the young man, who told me I should call him Ahmed, a nom de guerre.  He told me he had a master’s degree in engineering and that he was doing computer work for Lashkar.

I asked how he came to join the LeT. "I came to Islam intellectually. I read a lot. I realized that the Islamic way of life is the best way of life."

"A single event can turn your life around. That is what happened to me," he added, without specifying what that event was.

"Are you going to be fighting in Kashmir?" I asked, Kashmir being the focus of many Pakistani jihadi groups at the time. "The emir decides who goes to fight. He decides each person’s role in the struggle. He has not selected me to fight," Ahmed admitted.

I sensed that he did not want me to see his disappointment. He was a good boy, determined to follow his superiors’ orders, not only in action, but also in spirit. He told me he planned to pursue a doctorate so that he could help Lashkar with technology. I kept thinking of his mother, how heartbroken she must be that her son had gotten radicalized. I do not usually share my own views with determined terrorists, but in this case, I tried to talk Ahmed into leaving the group.

I did not succeed. Two years later I discovered that Ahmed’s emir had granted his wish to fight in Kashmir. He was killed soon afterwards.  

Ahmed’s story was tragic but not uncommon for young men recruited by well-established terrorist groups like Lashkar. More distinctive are the motivations of the so-called lone wolves — terrorists who operate with little or no guidance, as the Tsarnaevs seem to have. They each have their own unique blend of grievances and hopes for redressing them.

In 1999, I met perhaps the first of the lone wolves fighting a perceived jihad against America: Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani resident of Virginia, who in 1993 had shot and killed two CIA officers and wounded three others. Kansi had spent most of his time in the United States inside the Pakistani immigrant community in Northern Virginia. He rented rooms from expatriates and worked for their companies. But he never really found his way. His acquaintances would later describe him as socially awkward.

Kansi had had a difficult childhood. He was described by relatives as brooding and introspective, the loner in the family. He suffered from a seizure disorder as a child, but recovered by the time he was 10 years old. After Aimal’s mother died in 1982, he became even more isolated, his relatives said.

Kansi explained to me that he attacked the CIA for both religious and political reasons. He opposed U.S. policy toward Israel and was angry that U.S. troops had persisted in "attacking Iraq" after Iraqi troops had withdrawn from Kuwait in 1991. He said that American policies were "anti-Islamic" worldwide.

He told me that he went to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to practice shooting. He had spent a lot of time there, he told me. But although he professed to know members of Harkat-ul-Ansar, Hizbul-ul-Mujahideen, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, he never joined any of what he called "big groups." He told me his favorite book was Macbeth and the person he most admired was Osama bin Laden, because "he stands up for all Muslims."

Eventually it emerged that for Kansi, attacking the CIA was partly a "religious duty," as he put it, but also retaliation for something about the way he felt that the CIA had treated him, or his father, or both. According to Pakistani officials interviewed by American reporters, not only Kansi’s father, but also Kansi himself may have had a relationship with the CIA. A Pakistani intelligence official told a writer for the New Yorker, "Abdullah Jan, at least one of his cousins and two of his sons, including Aimal, were an integral part of the CIA-ISI weapons pipeline to the mujahideen."

Soon after the interview he started writing me letters, further explicating his positions — and inviting me to become a Muslim.

In one response, I asked him what he would have done if his mother had asked him not to proceed with his murderous plans. "If my mother would have been alive, she would have got me married and I would have never been in the U.S. I would have been living in the Pakistan with my mother and wife," Kansi said.

He was executed by lethal injection on November 14, 2002.

What can one make of this mix of extreme alienation, an attraction to terrorist ideology, a lack of desire (or capacity) to join an organized terrorist group, combined with a desire for revenge for perceived wrongs, some of which appear to be personal? Kansi operated on his own with few if any communications with a known terrorist group. The form of terrorism he practiced was new at the time — but was soon facilitated greatly by the growth of the Internet.

One of the things I’ve learned from interviewing terrorists is that we cannot necessarily infer individuals’ motives by reading their manifestos. Our conversations usually start with a recitation of their political or religious motivations, but it’s the personal history that made them vulnerable to the narrative they spin. After all, in targeting innocents, they are almost always violating their own religious traditions and societal norms. There has to be some reason, beyond their political grievances, that they are willing to kill innocents, rather than using less violent means to change their world. Once you get past the politics, there is something they tend to share: They know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are; there is no gray in their world. And there is often a theme: humiliation, disaffection, or confusion about their identity. While terrorists have much in common, every alienated lone wolf, it would seem, is alienated in his own way.

Jessica Stern is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Her latest book is My War Criminal: Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide. Twitter: @JessicaEStern

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