The Terrorist Mind

Khaled Fattah on why we need to wage war on the emotions of extremism, not on the countries where extremism is spreading.
By: /
March 6, 2013

Security experts are pointing to the emergence of an arc of terrorist activity that stretches from the Sahel region of Africa, through the Maghreb region, all the way to the Arabian Peninsula. Increasingly, experts pinpoint the latest hotspots in the global geography of terrorism and then rationalize their existence as being the result of environmental conditions particular to that country or region. Growing concerns about “North African extremism” and “Yemen’s transnational militant jihadism” epitomize a problematic trend in the analysis of the roots of terrorism: the assumption that the origins of terrorism can be traced to a specific set of geographical and socio-economic conditions. The interdependent factors that underlie fragile states, such as natural resource scarcity and poverty, resource wealth and corruption, and weak centralized authority and disaffected minority groups, are used to explain the distribution and diffusion of terrorism among and within states.

This trend is problematic because terrorism is a state of mind – it finds safe haven not in deserts and caves, but in the landscape of the human psyche. Having too much oil and too few human rights in one state does not guarantee that area will breed terrorists, but having too many individuals who feel a sense of humiliation in a single population does. The links between physical/social geography and transnational terrorism are tenuous, and to focus on them is to obscure what is really driving transnational terrorism: the psychology shared by the terrorists who form part of the “arc.” Geographical factors may be necessary for the creation of that emotional state, but they certainly do not create it on their own.

There are no general topographic or economic conditions that necessarily give rise to terrorist groups, nor is there a “typical” terrorist profile. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current al-Qaeda leader, is a trained surgeon who was born into an upper-middle-class family and grew up in a fashionable neighbourhood in Cairo. His father was a pharmacology professor.

In the Middle East, poverty is not the incubator of transnational militant jihadists. Seventeen of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers who carried out the atrocities of 9/11 originated from two wealthy oil monarchies – 15 were Saudis, and two were from the United Arab Emirates. They were led by the western-educated Egyptian Mohamed Atta and aided by the Germany-based Moroccan Mounir el-Motassadeq. None of them were citizens of “axis of evil” countries.

Militant Middle Eastern Islamists almost never include global economic inequality in their anti-American rallying messages. It is pervasive feelings of humiliation and subordination – not poverty – that enable violent extremists in the Middle East to mobilize local communities and recruit new members to exploit. Militant Islamists use a series of faxed statements, audio recordings, video appearances, and internet postings to trigger collective memories – both real and perceived ­– of humiliation and subordination by the U.S., Israel, and Arab regimes. They skillfully connect perceived regional, national, and international actors, portraying them as causers of humiliation, so that irresponsible rule by a local despot becomes part of the wider repression of Muslims worldwide. They pull on different threads of frustration in order to weave together a single narrative that will resonate with the widest possible audience. When they succeed, every humiliated individual that hears their message feels an irrepressible emotional connection to it, as that message seems to perfectly capture his or her personal situation and feelings of frustration. By manipulating people’s emotions in this way, jihadists are able to effectively communicate complex political messages to culturally alienated and politically oppressed citizens anywhere in the Muslim world. Consider, for example, a message that Osama bin Laden delivered in a 1998 interview with ABC News:


For over half a century, Muslims in Palestine have been slaughtered and assaulted and robbed of their honour and their property. They compromise our honour and dignity and dare we utter a single word of protest against this injustice, we would be called terrorists. … By the testimony of relief workers in Iraq, the American-led sanctions resulted in the death of more than one million Iraqi children. All of this is done in the name of American interests. We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans.


Almost all of the statements released by ideological and military commanders of al-Qaeda (such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Saif al-Adel) display a strong commitment to the “dignity-restoration agenda” – the most successful narrative propagated by radical militant Islamists. This agenda has three primary goals: the expulsion of foreign military forces from Muslim lands; the liberation of Palestine; and the toppling of autocratic Arab regimes in order to replace them with an Islamic state ruled by sharia law. The use of religious rhetoric has been key to rallying popular support for this agenda. A sense of humiliation and subordination is situated within the context of a hyper-orthodox Salafist interpretation of Islam. In the Middle East, the emotions underlying the dignity-restoration agenda are paramount.

The Weight of History, the Mass Communication of Humiliation

Many jihadists connect their current struggles to events that took place in the Muslim world many centuries ago. For example, they emphasize the similarities between the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 at the hands of the Mongols and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Similarly, Osama bin Laden compared his call for Islamists to co-operate with the Baathists (Socialists) in Iraq in the fight against the U.S. to the collaboration of Arabs and Persians against the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century. 

Militant Islamists search for historical analogies to contemporary events in an effort to use the past to influence perceptions of the moral and political meaning of the present. In their speeches and texts, militant Islamists frequently refer to the U.S. and other major western powers (mainly the United Kingdom and France) as the “Crusaders,” evoking the memory of Christianity’s onslaught on the Muslim world in the 11th through 13th centuries. On the fifth anniversary of the atrocities of 9/11, al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released the following message supporting Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): “We pray to God that they will be a thorn in the side of the American and French crusaders and their allies.”

As a result of new technologies like satellite TV and the internet, Islamists are able to present radical messages more powerful than those that simply evoke historical experiences. Satellite TV has brought images of Iraqi children starving as a result of international sanctions, Israeli forces demoralizing Palestinians, and the destruction of Iraq by American forces into living rooms throughout the Middle East and around the world. Al-Jazeera’s satellite transmissions now bring images to Muslim audiences that their national TV stations will never show. Satellite TV, along with the internet, also allows images of humiliation that might have otherwise remained contained, such as those of Abu Ghraib, to reach huge numbers of people. Arab Muslims, in particular, cannot turn on the TV or go online without seeing examples of the indignities suffered by many throughout the region. Radical militant groups in Arab states and beyond promise their followers not only mutual solidarity and comradeship, but also renewed self-worth.

Hijacking the Discourse of Humiliation  

Emotions such as humiliation and shame are universal, but their significance varies among and within cultures, as do the preferred mechanisms for restoring dignity. Militant jihadists’ suggestion that humiliation is the key problem for Muslim societies, and that dignity and honour are the solution, would not be accepted if this idea were not already deeply rooted. In Arab culture, humiliation shares a strong family resemblance with shame. Shame is a serious threat to every individual, family, and community in the Middle East. In fact, avoiding humiliation and shame is the most important factor shaping public behaviour and social control in the region. In Arabic, idhlal, the word for humiliation, means “dropping to one’s knees before someone stronger.” A dhalil (humiliated person) is lowly and abject. In Arabic texts, oral poetry, and traditional forms of folklore, these terms are often associated with degradation, surrender, and a living death.

In the absence of an Islamic institution equivalent to the Vatican, or a unifying political ruler with the authority to announce the legitimacy of their jihad against the West, militants have had to articulate their own meaning of jihad. They have done so by hijacking the discourse of humiliation, identifying emotions that already have powerful resonance in the region and linking them to the idea that dignity can be restored through violence.

Humiliation in the War on Terror

After more than one decade of a U.S.-led “war on terror,” the soil in the Middle East is more fertile for radicalization than it is for moderation. While carefully and respectfully avoiding language that targets Islam as a religion and set of values, U.S. measures, from Guantanamo to rendition flights to the controversial use of drone attacks, have been part of an expansive and open-ended war on terror that has created new wounds and reinforced a collective sense of humiliation to the extent that Islamists across the board are becoming more radical. More and more militant Islamist jihadists are claiming that they can restore dignity to Muslims. It is the humiliation-dignity relationship that drives them to conspire and strike against western countries and their allies.

Far from restoring dignity, al-Qaeda and its affiliated terror groups have only reinforced the problem: Their actions are leading regimes in the region to repress citizens even more, and are creating conditions that encourage the discrimination of Muslims living in the West. Furthermore, instead of uniting the Muslim world, as militant jihadists always claim to be doing, their violent acts have exacerbated divisions within the Muslim world. This became evident when, after years of ignoring then-Iraqi-president Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of Iraqi citizens, militant jihadists entered post-Saddam Iraq and picked one side to back in what remains a vicious and bloody sectarian conflict. In Yemen, thousands of militant jihadists fought with the government against a popular secessionist movement in southern provinces, and assisted in its militarized efforts to put down a Shiite rebellion in the North of the country. In fact, the overwhelming majority of victims of the attacks by radical militant jihadists are Muslims.

Waging a War on Humiliation 

The massive popular uprisings that erupted two years ago in different parts of the Arab Middle East exposed the vast differences between militant jihadists (and their dream of installing a medieval Islamic caliphate system) and the millions of youth who filled Tunisia’s al-Qasba Square, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and Yemen’s Taghyeer Square to demand that their civil and human rights be respected.

Whether the ranks of al-Qaeda and its affiliates continue to swell with potential terrorist recruits will depend on whether people in the Middle East and North Africa see violence as the only viable method to restore their dignity. The choice they make will depend on how successfully the extremists can market their dignity-restoration agenda in a politically uncertain, but still hopeful, time. It is up to Washington, Brussels, Arab governments, and the millions of moderate Muslims in the Middle East to ensure that the militant Islamists’ efforts fail. They must do so by convincing the massed in the region that violence is not a viable strategy for ending humiliation and restoring dignity. Waging a war on humiliation in the Middle East is the most effective counterterrorism strategy for isolating and discrediting violent extremists in the region.

Terror-Fighting Tactics

Waging a war on humiliation rather than terror will require acknowledging the catastrophic damage that has been done. Carving a new path through the scarred emotional landscape of the Arab Middle East will not be easy, but it is necessary.

First, terrorism should be dealt with as a criminal activity. Countering terrorism requires careful, patient police work rather than a blunt military response. Collective punishment for terrorist activities, and the “collateral damage” that such punishment causes, only serves to deepen feelings of humiliation and convert new members to al-Qaeda’s cause.

Second, draining the Middle East’s pool of militant jihadists will prove impossible while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains unresolved. This conflict is the No. 1 excuse militant extremists use to justify the use of violence. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates clearly understand the anger many Muslims feel toward the West for its sanctimonious pronouncements about human rights while Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory. The decades-long plight of the Palestinians must be addressed if the arc of terrorism is to be disrupted.

Finally, open societies must pressure all the corrupt, autocratic governments in North Africa and the Middle East to halt the repression of their citizens. Militant political Islam was born in the dark prisons of these regimes. The international community must offer support to the frustrated and bitter youth in the region without unduly interfering in internal political affairs. This is certainly not an easy balance to strike, but finding it is critical.

The Need for New Memories

While the ethnocentric, essentialist, and racist writings of older Orientalists often presented psychologically reductionist arguments about the Arab Muslim mind, it must be stressed that focusing on the emotional pull of extremist ideology in no way does the same. Rather, the historical memory of greatness within an Islamic empire, combined with citizens’ ongoing humiliation, defeat, and betrayal at the hands of authoritarian regimes that have promised to protect the dignity of their people, has provided the seedbed for the many shades of Islamism – from political Islam to militant jihadism – to seek dignity in a transnational identity.

The vast majority of people in the Middle East and North Africa crave political freedom, citizenship rights, responsible governance, and economic certainty – they don’t want to be part of an arc of instability that breeds violence. Many are also young: Nearly 60 per cent of the people in the Arab Middle East are under the age of 25. Security experts should focus on helping governments break apart the arc of instability and terrorism in a way that will not leave another generation to be overwhelmed by memories of humiliation. The restoration of dignity through peace is the only way to defeat the terrorist mind.