Can We Imagine the Life of a Terrorist?
By Robert F. Worth
June 14, 2013
A decade ago, suicide bombings were still rare events. The political scientist Robert Pape counted a global total of 315 attacks from 1980, when they were first established as a modern terrorist method, through 2003. In the following two years, that number doubled. Today, the total is more than two thousand, and each day seems to bring news of more. Yet the tactic has not lost its power to shock and horrify. There has been a steady proliferation of efforts to make sense of it, not just among academics and policy wonks, but by novelists, filmmakers and artists the world over. John Updike (whose penultimate novel was “Terrorist”) and John le Carré may be better known in the West, but there are dozens of others who have tried to dramatise the world of violent jihad, including the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra and the Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari.
In a sense, these efforts are the literary analogue of the “Global War on Terror,” which is only now belatedly coming to a close — or so President Obama promised last month. In fiction as in politics, the enemy’s outlines grew vague and vast; he was too big to be tried in our courts, too deadly to be fought without torture, too radical to be understood. We imagined an enemy worthy of the grief and terror he caused us. For the most part, the results have been disappointing; awe has outpaced understanding, and few writers or filmmakers, with a small number of notable exceptions, including the remarkable 2005 film “Paradise Now,” have succeeded in depicting their zealots as fully human.
In that sense, Ziad Doueiri’s new film, “The Attack,” is a refreshing change. The movie, which has its premiere in the United States on June 21, is about a successful Israeli-Arab surgeon whose wife blows herself up in a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant, killing 17 other people. The doctor is a well-integrated and apolitical man whose friends are mostly Jews, and his wife’s act explodes his life. (The actor, who plays him, Ali Suliman, also played one of the two suicide bombers in “Paradise Now.”) He is bent on understanding why, and the film proceeds like a well-paced detective novel, with the doctor travelling to Nablus and tracing the threads of his wife’s secret life. But Doueiri soon brings us up short. In a climactic scene, the doctor arrives in a darkened sanctuary and confronts the cleric who appears initially to have inspired his wife’s descent into violence. In response to his question — what would drive a seemingly happy upper-middle-class woman to blow herself up in a crowded restaurant? — he gets only a kind of riddle. “If you haven’t understood a thing since you set foot here, it means you probably never will,” the cleric tells him.
In other words, the film all but dismisses the question of motive — always at the center of dramas about suicide bombing — as impenetrable. The bomber is largely absent from the story, glimpsed only in brief flashbacks. When her husband insists that he wants the truth, the cleric counters: “Which truth? Hers or yours?” In the end, the doctor is left with the troubling conclusion of one of his Israeli friends: “It can happen to anyone. It can fall on you like a tile or grow in you like a worm. Then you don’t see the world in the same way. You’re just waiting for the moment to cross the threshold.”
This refusal to accept rational explanations also separates the film, whose suicide bomber is explicitly not a Jihadi, from Khadra’s novel, on which it is based. Khadra has written about zealots in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, as well as in his native Algeria, and he seems bent on illustrating the ideology and circumstances that turn ordinary young men (and women) into human weapons. No other writer, to my knowledge, has written so much fiction on the subject of jihad. Khadra (who writes in French) has a gift for quick, vivid character sketches, and his evocations of street life and police thuggery in the slums of Algiers are powerful. But his Jihadis sometimes read like agglomerations of what political scientists have been telling us for years (young men with few opportunities who hear an eloquent sermon from a radical imam, and presto). The hero of Khadra’s novel “Wolf Dreams,” a frustrated young actor in Algiers, joins the underground Islamist movement and suddenly, “for the first time in his life, he was discovering himself, becoming aware of his status, his importance, his usefulness as a person, as a being. At last he was alive. He mattered.” Within another 30 pages, the man who started off as a sensitive young artist with no affinity for religion is coldly gunning down judges, and you can guess where it ends. The fact that such things may have literally taken place in Algiers doesn’t make them feel any more convincing on the page.
The literary failures may derive from the fact that Khadra, like many of the academic experts at West Point and elsewhere who have written lucidly about the motives of Jihadis, was trained to think of them as targets. He was a high-ranking officer in the Algerian military during the “dirty war” of the 1990s, when atrocities on all sides became almost commonplace. That experience marked him, and his subsequent literary career is largely an effort to make sense of it. But he has done so while remaining loyal to the Algerian military and unwilling to recognize its complicity in the brutalities of the civil war. As a lifelong soldier who entered cadet school at age 9 (an experience he describes vividly in a memoir), Khadra may, for all his efforts, still be at least partly captive to a rigid military culture that reflexively defines Islamists as monsters and traitors.
If terrorist-hunters often seem unable to cross the threshold into true sympathy for their enemies, the Jihadis themselves are often equally unsatisfying witnesses to their own experience. Those who choose to tell their stories have usually turned away from jihad and have often done so with a violence equal to that of their original conversion. The Saudi journalist Mshari al-Zaydi, for instance, is one of a number of former Jihadis who now regularly fulminate in print against the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Their own past experience becomes fodder for the counter-crusade, and it is hard to know how much to trust even their first-person accounts. A few former Jihadis have written convincing memoirs, including the Egyptian journalist Khaled al-Berry, the author of “Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise.” But al-Berry, by his own account, never got too far down the road to terrorism.
The most interesting Jihadi characters remain the real ones, as conveyed in nonfiction accounts by journalists like Lawrence Wright, Peter Bergen, Steve Coll and Terry McDermott. The contradictions of Osama bin Laden’s much-celebrated life — heir to a vast fortune who chose to live in caves — helped make him an inspirational figure for countless young radicals. Many Jihadis have been tortured, which almost inevitably becomes a watershed moment. And many have had second thoughts, though getting them to admit it is not easy. Ken Ballen, the author of the 2011 book “Terrorists in Love,” found one of the first suicide bombers in Iraq to survive his attack, a Saudi man who went on to become a passionate critic of terrorism. Ballen also elicited a fascinating confession from a Saudi militant who was from a prominent religious family and who had a passionate love affair with his male first cousin.
But these are wild exceptions.
The everyday reality of life in the jihad is often closer to a bumbling black comedy than to a redemptive tragedy or a bildungsroman. Many of those who land in terrorist groups are criminals or desperate men with a history of failure and a thirst for revenge. Most major terrorist attempts in the past decade have ended in humiliation, like Richard Reid’s shoe-bombing plot in 2001 and Al Qaeda’s repeated attempts to load explosives into the underwear of suicide bombers. And Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates often appear to be profoundly dysfunctional organizations, run by men whose narcissism is at odds with their solemn professions of selflessness and holy purpose.
Last month The Associated Press published excerpts from an extraordinary and revealing letter, discovered in the rubble of Timbuktu after the French military routed the Jihadis there. In it, the leaders of Al Qaeda’s North Africa branch accuse one of their most unruly commanders, a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, of failing to file expense reports, leaving his phone off, skipping meetings that he called “useless” and failing to carry out any “spectacular operations.” They complain about Belmokhtar’s “backbiting, name-calling and sneering” and accuse him of making a “mockery of the basics of administration.” In a passage straight out of Beckett, they describe a delegation sent to contact Belmokhtar that spent three years lost in the desert and then disintegrated without having reached him.
My own experience with the world of Jihadis is littered with similar bouts of absurdity. An acquaintance who spent time in a radical religious school in northern Yemen once told me how the students, most still in their teens, would fight over the rare Western magazines that reached the school. Whoever succeeded in grabbing the pages with images of women on them (these were ordinary pictures, not pornography) would rush straight to the bathroom to masturbate. Then, inevitably, they would visit my acquaintance (who is American), telling him how they had sinned against God and could only redeem themselves by carrying out a “martyrdom operation” as soon as possible.
Scrolling through the postings on Jihadi Internet sites, I used to feel I was watching frustrated teenage actors, many of them begging for more attention from the West for their exploits. There are macabre attempts at humour, like the compilation of photographs of wounded American soldiers I saw in 2006 under the heading “Jihad Candid Camera.” Even the online magazine Inspire, which appears to be an entirely serious propaganda effort produced by a branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen, is full of articles that ride an eerie line between comedy and the promotion of murder, like the one titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Then there are the videotaped statements suicide bombers make before they die. In the abstract, there is nothing funny about these ghoulish productions, and yet there is something revelatory about the opening scene of Chris Morris’s 2010 satire “Four Lions,” in which a young British Jihadi addresses the camera for his last testimonial while cradling a small toy gun. “Eh up, you unbelieving Kuffar bastards,” he says in a thick Yorkshire accent. When his friends stop filming and tell him to drop the toy gun, he demurs, his face crestfallen, and insists it only looks small because he has “big hands.”
“Four Lions” is an uneven film, but at its best it does for Jihadis what “Spinal Tap” did for heavy metal, revealing a ludicrously adolescent consciousness at the centre of a myth. “Bomb the mosque!” shouts one of the cell members in the film, a belligerent white convert to Islam named Barry. “Radicalise the moderates! Bring it all on!”
You laugh. But those words, or words like them, have been spoken and acted upon by real people, with deadly results. When I asked Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar and one of the most respected analysts of Jihadi groups, whether anyone had really succeeded in capturing the everyday truth of their world in fiction or film, he ran through a number of novels on the subject and dismissed them all: too many were unconvincing or tied up in political agendas. Then, after a long pause, he said: “Seriously, the way most of them operate? I think ‘Four Lions’ said it best.”
If this is true, it is not because Islamist militancy and its many victims are a laughing matter or that its heroes are all better off dead. It is because satire has uncovered something real, something that is missing from most of what has been written on the subject. The moments when Jihadis seem most vivid — to me, at any rate — are those when they have been brought down to scale, when we (and sometimes they) recognise the gap between their own bumbling frailty and the icy ferocity of their creed. Last year Omar Hammami, an American-born Jihadi who has a $5 million reward on his head, published a memoir online that includes a number of these moments. It is written in an unmistakably American voice, full of slang and exclamation points and spontaneous, self-deprecating humour. He describes miserable slogs through the Somali jungle with the mujahedeen, terrified of lions and army ants, sick with hunger and fatigue, dreaming of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
At the end of the book, he confesses to feeling homesick and imagines being allowed just “three days” in Alabama to see his parents and his sister Dena. “After going through all the hugs and kisses, me and Dena would probably go running around town laughing our heads off and talking about a billion things without ever finishing a conversation about any of them,” he writes. Perhaps Hammami does not deserve that three-day respite. But that does not make his memoir any less poignant or less human.
Robert F. Worth is a staff writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the French spy novelist Gérard de Villiers.