What Terrorists Believe In
On terrorism and the search for meaning – a human portrait
Jihadist terrorism is often dismissed as a problem of ‘Islam’ or as a consequence of discrimination. Others conclude that terrorists are mentally disturbed. While these might be easy answers, they do little to reflect the process of radicalisation. Terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf examines the individual lives behind acts of violent extremism to throw light on the connection between a terrorist’s beliefs and their actions.
Upon recording the life stories of almost thirty convicted terrorists – mainly Dutch jihadists but also non-Western terrorists and Western right-wing extremists – De Graaf discovers a broad narrative of individuals searching for radical meaning. In their frustration and rage at their individual lives, they came to believe that radical personal redemption could be achieved through violence. They found a higher purpose in a view of the world that cast them as the centre in the battle between good and evil. How did these men acquire this belief and where did it lead them? What happened when that desired redemption never came?
That these often-harrowing life stories usually end in disillusionment does not seem to have lessened extremism’s heroic draw, particularly for disaffected young people. De Graaf ends by calling for more research to explore ways of reducing terrorism’s appeal and identifying better alternatives for those who turn to it in search of meaning. One crucial requirement is that religious or ideological communities clearly distance themselves from individuals who believe that violence is a means of redemption. There needs to be a counter-narrative. But there is also a task for wider society. Terrorism preys on the fears of its victims, both those of people directly affected by it and in the imagination of the society at large. How can we put that fear of the terrorist’s search for radical redemption in proportion?
Radical Redemption combines testimony, history, psychology, politics and theology to identify and unpack a vital aspect of the most recent wave of violent extremism.