How does a young man is transformed from a law-abiding middle-class citizen into a terrorist? Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor, spent five years trying to find answers to that question. The result is a book called, Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals. Ballen examines in the book why young people get involved in radicalism and then - for many of them - how they left.
It started as a research project, says Ballen, founder and president of Terror-Free Tomorrow. When his group conducted public opinion polls across the Muslim world, Ballen traveled extensively and had a chance to meet young radicals. “What was remarkable was how many people did open up to me," Ballen says. "They really shared their lives with me, how they got involved in radicalism and then - for many of them - how they left, which I think is almost as important as how they got first involved.”
Out of 100 or so radicals he interviewed, Ballen focused on six in his book. “You can’t pick six people and say that they represent all the motives of all radicals everywhere," he says. "They do not. But I think they were fairly representative of the different ways that people got involved in this movement.”
What ties the stories together, Ballen says, is reflected in the book’s title, Terrorists in Love.
“It tells a story of people who can’t find love, largely, and this feeling of frustration, not being able to connect with another human being on earth - they can only find love with God - propels a lot of them into radicalism.”
Ballen traveled extensively, meeting with young radicals. One of them is Abdullah Al Gilani. His story is subtitled 'Jihadi Romeo and Juliet.' The young Saudi fell in love with a woman named Mariam, but couldn’t marry her.
“Her father wanted to marry her off for a handsome dowry or bride price, and he thought he could get $30,000," Ballen says. "This young man didn’t have that kind of money. The most he had was $8,000. So the father married her against her will to a man three times her age. She was humiliated and, indeed, raped by this man because she had never consented to the marriage. He was very distraught after this. He thought, ‘Well, if I go on holy war and I die, and I’m fighting for God, I can go to heaven and in heaven, I can marry my sweetheart, Mariam.’ So he went off to Iraq.”
"Ahmad Alshayea is another Saudi Jihadist who went to Iraq. The young man’s troubled relationship with his father contributed to his decision to leave his family and country, according to Ballen, who interviewed Ahmed in Saudi Arabia at a facility where former jihadists are rehabilitated.
Ahmad Alshayea says being nursed back to health by a female US Army medic after surviving a suicide attack changed his radical views.
“This young man had never met a woman outside of his family until he went to the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghreib, of all places, and was nursed back to health by an American army medic, the first woman he had ever met," Ballen says. "It opened him up in a way to Americans, to women, that he had never experienced before. It humanized him.”
Ahmad was captured and brought to Abu Ghreib after surviving a suicide attack. He was never told he was going on a suicide mission. He and two other jihadists were to drop off a booby-trapped tanker truck. But his companions jumped out of the vehicle just before it reached a concrete roadblock and exploded, killing eight people and severely injuring Ahmed.
In the book, Ballen describes Ahmed’s inner thoughts after he's taken to Abu Ghreib. “The Holy Quran told Ahmad that a martyred fighter in the way of Jihad, he would be eternally nourished in Paradise by ‘date palms.’ Yet, instead of the sweetest 'Sukkary' ((a type of date palm)) that Grandfather said would be the food of heaven, his veins were hooked to salty water. Instead of wearing ‘robes of silk’ and reclining on ‘jeweled couches,’ as the Holy Book pledged, Ahmad lay on a stiff white bed. Missing, too, were ‘the dark-eyed, full-breasted virgins, chaste as pearls’ offered by Allah the Most High to any martyr. He hadn’t reunited with his family as promised either - his younger brother, cheriched grandfather, beloved mother. He was alone.”
That experience, Ballen says, gave Ahmad a new mission and he now warns people his age against following the path he chose.
Other young people profiled in Ballen’s book include Malik, a spiritual adviser of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Zeddy, the professional Pakistani warrior who discovered that a religious Jihadi group could be just as corrupt as any other organization.
The author says to fight terrorism, we have to understand who these people are and how they think. “I think the change has to come from within," Ballen says. "It has to come from people who are willing to interpret their faith - whether it is Islam, Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism - in an inclusive, tolerant manner, and not as an exclusivist - kind of 'we’re right and everybody else is wrong.' A lot of people can change and a lot of people can change through dialogue. And we should expose any radical movement for what it really is, because there is a tremendous amount of corruption in it.”
That, Ballen says, is why he wrote Terrorists in Love, to share with his readers the stories they seldom hear about terrorism and those who carry it out.
Faiza Elmasry writes for RFE/RL, from where this article is adapted.