Is the importance of terrorist ideology a myth?

Yesterday, Jessica Stern published an op-ed in the Washington Post debunking what she describes as “5 myths about who becomes a terrorist.” Terrorism-myth-debunking pieces tend to be fairly automatic because there is a standard set of myths that researchers have pretty thoroughly disproved: that terrorists are poor and ill educated, that they are mentally ill, etc. Three of Stern’s myths tread familiar ground, albeit with some interesting twists: rather than addressing the myth that terrorists are the product of poverty, for example, she refutes the idea that “most terrorists are spoiled rich kids.” (It’s unclear that anybody harbors that particular illusion, and Stern’s argument is weakened by conflating Iraqi insurgents with Islamist terrorists, but her overarching point is correct: terrorism is not tied to a particular socioeconomic status.)

But Stern runs into problems with the third and fourth myths she seeks to address, that al-Qaeda is made up of religious zealots and that terrorists are motivated by a strong belief in their cause. Stern claims that both of these ideas about terrorists are false, but her alleged proof that these preconceptions should be relegated to the “myth” category is far from conclusive.

Religious zealotry

In arguing that al-Qaeda is not in fact comprised of religious zealots, Stern makes several points. First, she argues that “rank-and-file terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology often turn out to be ignorant about Islam,” as shown by the Saudi interior ministry’s finding that the majority of terrorists in its custody “did not have much formal religious instruction and had only a limited understanding of Islam.” This does not at all prove her point, in that an individual need not have formal theological education to be a religious zealot. The examples of convicted terrorists who lacked a formal religious education and yet for whom religious ideology was clearly important are too numerous to detail comprehensively, but they include the Fort Dix plotters, the Lackawanna Six, and Jeffrey Battle of the Portland Seven. Moreover, I would at least call into question her heavy reliance on Saudi data for this argument, given the country’s overarching lack of transparency and the fact that the arrival of Saudi charities (and the theology that accompanies them) has, in many countries and regions, corresponded with radicalization.

Stern also writes that in Europe, “second- and third-generation Muslim youths are rebelling against what they consider the culturally contaminated Islam that their parents practice” — but claims that this is not evidence of their religious zealotry because “the form of Islam they turn to is often highly unorthodox.” Yet this is a terrible metric to use to assess religious zealotry, for two reasons. First, “Islamic orthodoxy” is not a meaningful distinguishing factor for those (like Stern) who lack a background in studying Islamic law and thus cannot define what Islamic orthodoxy is. Second, a person’s religious zealotry is not related to whether his religious interpretation is orthodox. One can be zealous about an unorthodox interpretation of a faith.

Stern’s final argument on this point represents a clear and unequivocal error. She writes: “And groups linked to al-Qaeda, including in Somalia, have been begun using anti-American hip-hop music or ‘jihad rap’ in their recruitment videos, even though such music is considered counter to the extremist version of Islam promoted by the terror network.” This is simply untrue. She is referring to the al-Shabaab video “Ambush at Bardale” featuring Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, which includes what the U.S. media referred to as a “rap” — but is better understood as a nasheed. Many Islamic scholars — and certainly those within the ranks of al-Qaeda — believe that musical instruments are haram. However, there is no generalized belief that anything featuring musical elements — such as rhythm, melody, or cadence — contravenes Islamic law. Indeed, recitation of the Qur’an has a musical quality. The nasheed in al-Shabaab’s video does not feature musical instruments, but rather is strictly a capella. The fact that Stern misunderstood this area of Islamic law reinforces the fact that she probably shouldn’t attempt to measure the orthodoxy of terrorists.

Strong belief in their cause

Another of Stern’s “myths” is that “terrorists are motivated by a strong belief in their cause.” The problem with her argument on this point is that she never defines the “cause” in which terrorists are thought to have a strong belief. This creates a kind of uncomfortable elasticity in her argumentation. Al-Qaeda’s cause, for example, is generally considered a religio-political narrative which provides both theological and also secular justifications for the group’s fight. A large part of that narrative is based on — in bin Laden’s words from his 1996 declaration of war against America — the “humiliation suffered by the Muslims” at the hands of the West. And yet Stern, in refuting the idea that terrorists have a strong belief in their cause, writes:

I have found that operatives are often more interested in adopting a new identity than in supporting a terrorist group’s stated goals. Many speak, in particular, about being motivated by a feeling of humiliation. A Kashmiri militant founded his group because, he said, “Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts . . . we are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves.”

This illustrates the problem with Stern’s argument on this point. Redressing Muslim “humiliation” is clearly part of al-Qaeda’s cause — yet when a Kashmiri militant speaks of Muslim humiliation at the hands of the West, she uses this to show that he wasn’t actually strongly motivated by the jihadist cause.

She also references al-Qaeda’s shifting strategic goals: “Abu’l-Walid, a leading strategic thinker for al-Qaeda, has complained about constantly shifting strategic goals, lamenting that ‘waging jihad like a rhinoceros is stupid and futile.'” But do shifting strategic goals really show lack of devotion to a cause? Of course they don’t.


Debate within the field about whether ideology makes a difference in radicalizing terrorists tends to be crude. The way I tried to address it in a 2009 study I co-authored with Laura Grossman was by measuring behavioral indicators that are indicative of the development of a radical ideology. Our study’s findings strongly suggest that simply discarding religious ideology as a relevant factor in radicalization is a mistake.

Yet Stern does just that, relegating religiosity and even a strong belief in the terrorists’ cause to the “myth” category. Yet the true myth is that her op-ed — which sadly amounts to argumentation by sound bite — manages to close the book on this debate.

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  • Good points Daveed!
    Truth be told: more than just a few Muslims have become conspicuous for waging transnational terror in the name of their religion, unlike people of other faiths.
    Clearly, something in Islam is driving them to terror, is it not?
    It appears that Jessica is one of those folks who got so overloaded by information that she apparently has difficulty sorting it out.
    A piece I published recently explains SPECIFIC role played by Islamic doctrines in spawning terror.

  • Render says:

    Jessica Stern has been barking up the wrong trees for quite a while now. Her 2003 book “Terror in the Name of God” was yet another of those vain attempts at equating international Islamic Jihadist terrorists with various Western based terrorist groups (IRA, pro-life groups, etcetc).
    Her premise and conclusions were fatally flawed in 2003 and they still are today.

  • T Ruth says:

    Good points in your piece.
    I’m going to order your book today.
    Have you considered doing an executive summary, or a powerpoint-type presentation and getting it out to political decision-makers and other influential people?
    I sense your msg is far from getting through and therefore a long way from reaching a critical tipping-point.
    Meantime we lack cohesion, lose a helluva lot of men and money, and continue to live in a highly conflictive stage, evermore dangerous by the day.
    Looks like the non-Jihadistan world is in a continous-reaction mode to the jihadists, rather than true response!
    Political Islam needs to be disrupted and dismantled to the point where there is nothing left to destroy.

  • Ben says:

    I agree with Render; Jessica Stern’s always been a bit of a lightweight amongst academics researching terrorism-related issues. I’m surprised she still gets the press that she does.


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