Experts on Terror: Looking in the Mirror

Fuentes: Rebelión

After reading hundreds of books and articles and listening to scores of speeches and interviews by experts on terrorism and terrorists from the US, Canada, Israel, Europe, Latin America, Asia and South Africa, I have come to the conclusion that there are recurring patterns. They use a common language to describe their subjects and their […]

After reading hundreds of books and articles and listening to scores of speeches and interviews by experts on terrorism and terrorists from the US, Canada, Israel, Europe, Latin America, Asia and South Africa, I have come to the conclusion that there are recurring patterns. They use a common language to describe their subjects and their environment, they are extremely ideological under a thin veneer of scientific jargon, they possess a keen sense of selective observation, they always pretend to possess a psychological understanding though few if any have dealt close up with their subjects in any clinical sense except perhaps under conditions of incarceration and interrogation. Their style is righteous, highly moralistic, vitriolic, given to hyperventilation and yet facile with euphemisms to describe the violence of their partisan states. Their analysis is almost always filled with highly charged personalistic – individualistic invective, which is devoid of any political motivations. Psychobabble provides a «legitimate» sounding channel for expressing deep-seated hostility, a way of assuming a state of civilized superiority in the face of their dehumanized subjects. The dehumanization process is central to the whole terrorist-political-academic enterprise — for the purpose is to present «the terrorist» with no redeeming features, with no ‘place’ in the world, no ‘time’ to exist – in other words worthy of physical extermination.

The Terrorist Experts are the «set-up» people. They motivate the colonial and imperial conquerors and reinforce their idea that the «terrorists are not worthy of ruling or being ruled in regions of wealth or even of living in any territory contiguous to civilized or «chosen» people.

The Terrorist Experts project the violence of the rulers, their ambitions to conquer, their greed to seize land and resources, their savage destructive impulses on to their victims; the responses of the victims, the survivors are clothed in the rhetoric of pathologic behavior. The really clinical pathologies are found in the minds of the verbal assassins – who cannot distinguish the repeated rapes and tortures committed by their patron-states from the desperate cries of the excluded, displaced and exploited.

Almost all the terror experts have a chronic psychological blindness to the systematic and comprehensive violence inflicted by the West and Israel on particular groups. Today it is the «Arabs», at others times it is all insurgents who respond to imperial violence with violence.

The all-pervasive practice of torture is a means of breaking and converting militants, and then infiltrating resistance movements. This interrogation method receives ideological justification and moral support from the Terror Experts. In their writings insurgents or ‘terrorists’ are described as beyond the human pale – they are described as sub-human, in a «trance». Their leaders are described as cynical profiteers and manipulators who have no human values. Their communities are «lawless pockets». Once committed, they know no law, no justice – only death, murder and martyrdom. They live in failed states. They have no history or culture (or at least one inferior to ‘Western’, ‘Judeo-Christian’ civilization). In a word the world will be better without them. To the torturer this means his or her work is in the best interest of civilization. Of course the Terror Experts are offended when the practitioners are exposed, their handicraft of brutality photographed and published throughout the world’s media. The Terror Experts are grieved, not for the acts of moral degradation, but because it confirms what the «terrorists» have been saying – they revolt out of the outrage and humiliation they suffer in the hands of their US/Israeli/European torturers, soldiers, mercenaries and bosses. Terror Experts protest at the public exposure: that the dirty secrets absent from their analysis have become public knowledge. They attribute feelings of «anger», «humiliation» to the personality disorders, childhood or family or cultural/religious dysfunctions of the «terrorists». The statements of the Terror Experts become less convincing faced with the publicized facts of physical humiliation by the armies and states of the chosen civilizers.

An Emblematic Terror Expert

A lead article published by the Weekend Financial Times by Professor Jessica Stern «How Terrorists Think» (FT June 13, 2004) is emblematic of the Terror Expert genre. Stern is identified as a lecturer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of a recent book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Harper Collins, 2003). Published in the most prestigious business newspaper, employed by a leading elite private university, with a book edited by a major publisher, Stern has all the right credentials to be a Terror Expert.


The Terror Experts operate and see themselves on two levels: as ‘scholarly researchers’ and as political prosecutors and ‘security’ advisors.

As ‘experts’ their work is of dubious quality despite the self-declared wealth of sources they claim to have consulted.

Many of the alleged «terrorists» interviewed were in jail where they were most likely tortured, drugged and their conversations monitored. They are hardly in a position to speak with the minimum conditions to give a fair interview. Secondly the Terror Expert can be expected to edit out any excerpts that provide a political context for their actions: they are likely to pay more attention to their own jaundiced «impressions» of how the ‘terrorist’ looks, speaks or listens, usually fixing on their own preconceived «meanings» of particular facial expressions or body movements.

The Terror Experts excel in selecting the worst case sample as «representative» of the leadership of the terrorists, the boastful, the moneygrubber, the affluent. They omit the norm of persecuted resistance fighters who are modest, sacrificing, in solidarity with their people, upon whom they have many times to depend for food, medical care and refuge.

There are «fundamentalist» Moslems who in every way pursue modern professions, use Western critiques of colonialism and imperialism; who find it compatible to seek self-determination, majority rule and practice their religion.

There are fundamentalist Muslims who are pietistic – they seek solace in spiritual practices, who live in a narrow circle of work, mosque and family, who have experienced the violent disruption of their pietistic life and respond, not only because the imperialists have transgressed the sacred, but because they have destroyed the family network and intergeneration codes of existence. Pietistic Muslims avoid political engagement until their intimate human and spiritual circle is violated.

In the midst of the chaos, violence, dislocation, pillage and occupation of a country, a whole people are adversely affected. As they reach out to respond, to protest, to survive, they seek movements and institutions that have some resources, a modicum of power. In the past there were powerful nationalist, socialist and communist parties, dynamic trade unions and peasant movements. In a few countries they are still active and a force to be reckoned with. In many regions however, they have been decimated by US client regimes, local secular or religious dictators, and by the disintegration of the Communist Parties. Under harsh conditions requiring clandestine activity and mass support, many secular activists have jointed politically oriented religions movements, which embrace anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and social warfare programs. The secular «conversion» to Muslim-inspired movements is based on politics, not religion. Leon Trotsky once advised his followers during the Nazi occupation of Europe that it might be necessary to join the Catholic Church if that was the only space available for political action. Given the mass base of the Muslim movement, given its engagement in the anti-colonial struggle, it is no surprise that many secularists (who may be leftists, nationalists and democrats) have joined these movements – and may later turn to other political movements.

To subsume the rich mosaic of resistance fighter to one ideological formula because of formal affiliations as these Terror Experts do, is an egregious error. They are eager to prescribe a general repressive solution to the «terror» problem, truckling to the political interests of their paymasters in the big foundations or state apparatus. They repress inconvenient complexities, diverse motivations, conjunctural convergences between secular and spiritual. Terror Experts evoke the emotive phrase ‘Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorists’ to end debates and considered analysis which might require the public to reconsider their support for imperial wars, Israeli conquests and their opposition to Iraqi nationalists and Palestinian resistance fighters.

Interrogation: Questions for the Terror Experts

Terror Experts (TE) claim that objective conditions, or what they refer to disparagingly as «exploitation», «oppression» or «imperialist» (predicable always with quotes), are only a veneer covering some deeper «personal need». The TE then proceed to «unmask» the «true» motives – with a stream of psychobabble. In fact the resort to crudely conceived and applied psychological categories, are the principle method that the TE use to suppress the «objective » world, which impinges on the action of the resistance fighter.

The external world, in which violent resistance movements emerge are by any measure very hostile. The US and Israel, for example, are recognized the world over as very aggressive, normless actors consider themselves unaccountable to any and all international laws. The TE can avoid this fundamental ‘fact’ impinging on the resistance fighters’ behavior by focusing on their supposed «inner world», and «immediate» face to face relations. This allows the TE to avoid the unpleasant aspects of their own state loyalties. The Terror Experts’ primitive, tribal, clan, ethnic, religious, colonial, imperial loyalties underlie their veneer of respectability, their phony defense of civilization and humanity.

The TE were horrified by the photos of US torture in Iraq – not the acts. The revelations unmasked the savagery of their accomplices, the practitioners of their prescriptions, the whole underworld of crime and punishment that is logically derived from the totalitarian pseudoscience of the Terror Experts. It brings the TE of Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Johns Hopkins closer to the savage scenes of homo and heterosexual rape, mass sequential genital violence. The TE, of course, strike the pose of indignation at the brutal guards, interrogators, the military commanders. They are silent as their current paymasters are pilloried – Rumsfeld, Bush – knowing full well that the next President will also employ their services. In any case who is going to look deep and far form the scenes of torture and identify the torture accomplices among the TE?

The TE simply pronounce their diagnosis of the armed resistance fighters: incurable psychopaths, extremely dangerous when at large. The politicians dictate the commands: capture, confine, torture or kill. The Special Forces break doors in the middle of the night, cut throats or take prisoners. The prison commandants establish the rules of «interrogation». The guards torture. This is s very coherent international division of labor, in which the TE play an important part in elaborating the rationale. They ply the secular version of Jihad: a morally and scientifically justified war-unto-death of the «untermensch» the «inferior» peoples, the «fundamentalist Arab Muslims», the «suicide bombers», the «Terrorists». A common language is spoken between the TE and their state patrons, and then promoted in and by the mass media.

Questions for the TE: (1) Why do the imputed terrorists’ «personal needs» find expression through politics (and not in a thousand and one personal, cultural, familial, civic channels)? Why do the terrorists’ «personal needs» find expression against a certain enemy (the dominant power) rather than a host of other objectives, less dangerous, easier to access, more direct? Why do the terrorists’ «personal needs» express themselves in favor of a particular group (family, neighborhood, nation or class) and not another (foreign powers, exclusive elites, etc?) Why do the terrorists’ «personal needs» find expression at a particular time (during invasions, occupations, etc.) and place (locus of imperial power, military and political institutions, mercenary police stations)?

Obviously the «personal» has multiple forms, objects, places and times for expression. To explain specific political actions one must examine the political, ideological, class relations, state and international configuration of power.

The second question is a refinement of the first: Why do «personal needs» not express themselves in other non-violent forms of political action such as elections, for example, instead of as a guerrilla, suicide bomber, etc.? More specifically what political obstacles or literal or figurative walls prevented other than violent forms of political action? We can hypothesize that the greater closure imposed on the political system (colonial and neo-colonial rule, long-term military occupation, racist exclusive ideology and practice, systematic widespread torture of «suspects»), the greater the degree of uprooting or ethnic purging, the more likely the choice posed by the ruling power: subject yourself or revolt. Under the circumstances there is a greater likelihood of violent resistance, individual or collective.

Suicide bombings are a form of individual sacrifice, of individual resistance taken in the name of a collective. In Western society, individual sacrifice to defend the nation in war merits the highest military medals – the distinguished medal of honor, with distinctive military and religious ceremonies. In the Middle East, similar honorific activities accompany the suicide bombers: they are cited as ‘martyrs’ to the cause of national liberation. Why do the TE ascribe pathological behavior to the Middle Eastern resistance fighters and not to their own military heroes who died for the bloody empire? Why is one culture which honors its sacrificial martyrs called a democracy and another a fanatical violent fundamentalist culture?

This question is especially relevant because throughout history in all nations facing superior arms, organization and technology from an imperial conqueror, resistance includes sacrificing one’s life in the course of inflicting the highest number of casualties on the enemy. Just think of Leonides at the pass of Thermopylae, with a few hundred soldiers facing the advancing Persian imperial army, was he engaged in a form of «suicide» defense of Athens? Why is it ‘glorious’ to be the equivalent of a suicide bomber in ancient Greece and not in modern Palestine?

History teaches us that there have been and always will be self-sacrificing individuals or collectives (nations/people etc.) defending nation and home when faced with superior arms. Countries (especially imperial states) with superior arms rarely practice, either individually or collectively the use of the human body as a missile or weapon. Japanese kamikaze fighters were not used in the conquest of China or the Philippines – they only came into practice faced with the superior air and sea power of the US.

TE attempt to denigrate the politics of popular resistance by attributing the struggle to the manipulation by leaders with unworthy motives. This overlooks all mass movements, which have by their nature a whole range of leaders, activists and sympathizers. Terror Experts imagine leaders who are in search of «money, «status», «power», «jobs» etc. Once again the «unmasking» technique fails to explain obvious facts. Overwhelming evidence throughout the world, past and present, demonstrates that those who struggle against a dominant colonial, imperial power suffer severe material losses of life, family, jobs, income, houses and property. In the case of the Palestinians, the Israeli Jews punish the whole extended family, steal personal belongings and heirlooms and destroy generations of old orchards and cultivated fields. With resistance movements ,it is very rare that «leaders» enrich themselves in the midst of a life and death struggle. Most leaders who do enrich themselves usually do so after the struggle has ended, especially if they turn to embrace the neo-colonial paymasters of the TE. In fact it is the Terror Experts’ closest collaborators and their informants who enrich themselves by spying and turning in the patriots who the experts call ‘terrorists’.

Repeatedly the TE engage in role reversal turning the victims into executioners and the executioners into victims. This has been a common ploy used by totalitarian imperialist ideologues to justify the use of force from the Nazis to the present day US, European and Israeli colonialists.

To justify their preposterous claims, the TE comb the world to find some group and individual leaders who will fulfill their stereotype and titillate their readers in New York, Tel Aviv, Washington or London. The Terror Expert meets a leader (Muslim of course) who just happens to lead a «group known for beheading foreigners and for its close alliance with Osama bin Laden». The TE has touched all the right buttons to evoke the conditional response – only they are the wrong buttons. Millions engaged in violent resistance do not «behead» foreigners – only a very small handful do and then under questionable circumstances. Osama bin Laden has very few allies among the major liberation movements, even within Muslim countries.

The selective vitriolic libeling of a subject prepares the Western reader to accept the emotionally charged imputation of pathologic behavior. Harvard academic, Jessica Stern provides us with a typical example – almost a parody – of these polemical ejaculations. She describes the purpose of her study «to identify some common themes that might help to explain how violent Islamic nihilism continues to spread beyond the lawless pockets and failed states where terrorists tend to thrive and into the cities of the west».(Jessica Stern, How Terrorists Think, Financial Times , June 12/13, 2004, w1-w2). Nihilism presumes no goals, no values, and no alternatives. Most observers would disagree based on a simple reading of most of the Islamic revolutionary or radical web sites: they have goals – replace Western dominance with nationalist Islamic rulers. Their values include both traditional religious and modern variants and their alternatives to submission is guerrilla, mass or individual resistance. The neighborhoods, cities, and communities where the putative «nihilists» originate are far more stable, norm-guided and law-abiding before the forceful intrusion of imperial and colonial power, which tear asunder the networks that bind collectivities. «Lawless pockets», to the degree in which they exist, are products of the unwillingness or incapacity of the conquering powers and their proxies to establish a just and stable social order. Moreover, one can observe in many cases that «lawlessness» is selective: occupied peoples disobey colonial ‘laws’, ‘edicts’ or ‘fiats’ while abiding by the laws or rules declared by their legitimate authorities. Moreover, it is generally the case that newly liberated areas run by guerrillas are more lawful than under previous military or colonial occupation with their drugs, brothels and bars.

The notion of «failed states» has achieved a certain notoriety among Western pundits, academics and especially the TE. Its exponents use it to describe the collapse of nations, which have been devastated by surrogate pro-Western militarists, pillaged by Western banks under the tutelage and protection of the IMF and the World Bank. No doubt there have been gangster rulers in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Third World – but they have more often than not been trained by Western foundations or universities and send their ill gotten fortunes to Western, Israeli or «off shore’ banks. The Terror Experts in labeling their former progeny as failed rulers, disown their own offspring. What Imperial ideologues mean by «failed states» is the failure of clients to establish a stable neo-liberal regime, necessitating «successful» Euro-US imperial intervention to create «prosperous democracies». Like in post-invasion Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti where white slavery, drug trafficking, warlords, deathsquads rule with the aid of US helicopter gunships hovering over and firing into unruly neighborhoods.

Stern and other verbal assassins strip the victims of their humanity («nihilists»), denigrate their place of birth (‘lawless pockets»), deny the historical authenticity of their nations («failed states»), all the better to oversee their extermination, their ghettoization, their torture.

Through the eyes of the Terror Experts Euro-US and Israeli bombing of population centers is seen as doing «humanity» a great favor: preventing the ‘spread’ of terrorists into the cities of the West.

The shrill anti-Arab/Muslim rhetoric of the TE encourages ‘moderate’, Western politicians to impose more rigid and humiliating administrative and legal measures against Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian travelers, immigrants, visitors, religious leaders, academicians and businesspeople.

Targeted by and subject to systematic denigration by the Western mass media, state functionaries, immigration police, hostile embassy personnel, academic terror experts, the secret police and special assassination teams, oppressed people are forced to transform themselves to meet a chronic «national emergency». Ruler-ruled relations are a series of perpetual impositions, unwelcome visits by colonial operatives granted license by the imperial Terror Experts. Faced with a systematic effort to lower their self-esteem, the oppressed people «find» themselves in their own organizations, public and clandestine, religious and secular. This reaffirmation finds expression in a reassertion of a religious or secular identity, embodied in a mosque, church, political movement or resistance organization.

Colonial/imperial power disrupts the daily routine of the general population: ‘going to work’ faces roadblocks, work places are destroyed, fruit trees are uprooted. «Taking care of the family» becomes a daily life and death struggle of securing food at black market prices, facing unpredictable hostile fire in the marketplace. ‘Enjoying leisure’ becomes a memory of the pre-colonial/pre-imperial past. Now there is ‘forced leisure’ – jobless, policed, futureless – in the street, where individual discontent is socialized by local opinion leaders who provide a focus for action. Taking sides, addressing the oppression, the hardening of attitudes is a fundamental effort to recover the ‘daily routine’.

The complex interweaving of powerful spiritual loyalties, family responsibilities and workplace displacement leads to a commitment to direct action and a political movement. This is a rational and complex process. The Terror Experts colonial preconceptions blind them to this reality. For example, Stern sees the committed resistance fighter as being in a «kind of trance» – irrational, dogmatic and simplistic.

The Terror Experts repeat ad naseum that the «terrorists» join their organizations in their search for strength – a common response of all those who engage in politics and social action. The TE turn a commonplace observation which has a lineage of over 3,000 years or more into a particular feature of «terrorists». The resistance fighters do have a sense of altruism and an idea of the public good – which the Terror Experts refuse to take serious. To do so would require a profound re-examination of their loyalties, and collaboration with imperial/colonial powers, and a deep critical self-examination of their institutional location and motives. This would be a difficult psychological and material experience for Terror Experts since their prestige, income, status, and influence might be threatened. Their critical introspective analysis might lead them to question their paymasters, their institutions, their colonial/imperial states. What foundations would pay to have a ‘renegade’ Terror Expert bear witness to their prejudices, falsifications and close ties to politicians who sanction torture and murder? Would their former colleagues describe the renegade as being in a «kind of trance», «victim of the Stockholm complex» (accepting the views of their captors)?

The colonial practitioners and their academic experts specialize in verifying each other’s stereotypes of resistance fighters. They oversimplify their motives, decisions and commitments. They rely on blanket categories that obscure deeper structural realities in favor of subjective labeling. Above all they banish any objectivity. Relations of power and dominance, state violence, violent intrusions into Arab, Muslim, Latin American countries, towns and villages are described by the TE as «defensive», «retaliation». As the limbs and body parts of Palestinian babies, women and grandparents are exploded over the ruins of homes and neighborhoods, Harvey Morris , the Zionist Bureau Chief of the Financial Times in Israel writes of Israeli «retaliation», after killing dozens of children and old people. Banishing objectivity means the incapacity to empathize with the human condition of the colonized victims – for that reason the experts must present the victims as sub-human. Because the Terror Experts are condemning the most abused victims in the name of the most vicious powers, they convince themselves that their vitriolic diatribes are merely a service to truth and science. The TE have invented a new paradigm — scientific diatribes in the service of intellectual dishonesty.

The TE are masters of euphemism, especially in dealing with the muck and gore of empire building. Imperialists become «one worlders». Colonial occupation is called «nation building». Murderous sequential destructive offensive wars become «humanitarian interventions».

Above all the Terror Experts celebrate triumphal imperialism: the defeated colonial peoples, we are told , are «resentful» – «those who feel they can’t keep up». Of course with a hood over their head and shackled legs and feet and a cattle prod burning their genitals – they can’t keep up, they can’t turn around and express gratitude to their torturers.

How is a Palestinian farmer going to «keep up» with a Jewish settler who seizes his land, water and , supported by local thugs and Israeli soldiers, blocks his access to the market? Anything short of resentful would be masochistic. Is it any wonder that the deraccinated and dispossessed risk their lives to convert resentment into resistance? By all means. When the tanks roll into Iraqi neighborhoods after shelling homes and mosques, is it any wonder that furious neighbors swarm around an ambushed tank and dance on the shards of smoking metal and corpses? Is it a frightful spectacle of pitiless terrorists or jubilant neighbors, who have silenced the sound of shells bursting over their heads and into some neighbors’ homes?

The Terror Experts existed before the Iraqi resistance and they will exist after it. Wherever the oppressed rise and effectively resist imperial rule there will be academic chairs, foundations grants and Centers for International Studies for the ambitious upwardly mobile TE. The Imperial state will demand their services, the prestigious Councils of Foreign Relations will offer membership and universities will reward them with distinguished professorships. They will be celebrities – the mass media talk shows will feature them. They will be far from the killing fields but their spirit will be there, on the front lines and in the torture chambers, guiding the hands that place the hoods over the unredeemable, nihilists, Muslims, Marxists or national patriots.

June 2004


  1. Jessica Stern, «How Terrorists Think», Financial Times Weekend, June 12/13, 2004 W1-2.

  2. Alan Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works, R.R. Donnelley and Sons, 2002

  3. Scott Altran, «Genesis of Suicide Terrorism», Science March 7, 2003 p.1534

  4. Rafael Patai, The Arab Mind, WW Norton and Co., 1973 with preface by Norvell B. De Atkine

  5. Harvey Morris, «The State They’re In», Financial Times Weekend, July 3-4 p. W1-2.

  6. D. Long, The Anatomy of Terrorism, Free Press, New York, 1990.

  7. E. Stout (ed), The Psychology of Terrorism, Praeger, Westport CT, 2002

  8. Hector Qirko, «‘Fictive Kin’ and Suicide Terrorism», Science, April 2, 2004 p 49.

  9. «The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism» , Federal Research Division, Library of Congress Washington DC, Sept. 1999.