During the past decade, “terrorist” and “jihad” have secured a prime spot within the popular vernacular. One of the major issues with this sudden awareness of vocabulary is the lack of awareness regarding the specific contexts and mentalities to who we apply those labels. That is not to say that they are not well-deserved labels (or that they are), but more that Western society is completely lacking in its understanding of what makes an individual desire to be a “jihadist” or “terrorist”.
In a ground-breaking book, author Ken Ballen seeks to dispel our mislaid conceptions of terrorism in order to show the personal struggles and inner demons that inspire an individual to dedicate their life to the jihad. As an American Jew (and former federal prosecutor), Ballen is certainly not a jihad apologist, but is instead in a position that grants him access to those reforming from their terrorist ways. Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radical provides a rare glance into the motivations of six “reforming” at a Saudi Arabian facility that Ballen refers to as the “Betty Ford Clinic” for recovering jihadist.
The accounts described are widely varied with complex rationales for engaging in terrorism as well as the delusional reconciliations and compensations for those who have ventured away from it. The depth of emotion that Ballen captures is at times enlightening and at other disturbing. Traveling the gradient between true love, fear, and absolute hatred Ballen shows the motivations that drive one to become a terrorist. Ballen provides interviews and narratives which range from Abby the love smitten youth who seeks martyrdom via jihad as a means of reuniting with his true love in a twisted modern incarnation of Romeo and Juliet to Malik the hard-lined jihadist who remains steadfast in his desires to destroy the destructive forces of America culture.
When reading Terrorists in Love, I struggled with its credibility. That is not to say that Ballen is not a completely credible source but the personal accounts given by his interviewees are shocking and emotionally unsettling. While particularly gruesome, it is easy to psychologically mitigate the idea that someone hates me simply because of my cultural associations, but I found it incredibly troublesome that I might become victim of some sort of terrorist activity that transpired simply because of someone’s latent “daddy issues”. Ballen shows that terrorism is not simply based in hatred of America or the West, but that it is instead an emotional choice based on a wide array of reasoning (emotional voids, promises to love ones, a desire to become relevant, etc).
Terrorists in Love is a train wreck of a page turner. I found myself appalled and absolutely mortified by the ideals that Ballen’s interviewees had, but at the same time I could not pull myself away from the revelations of the jihadist mentality. It is the question that we all wonder when we see the atrocities of terrorism played out on the front pages of the newspaper or on the ever looping 24-hour news channel: How could someone do that? Terrorist in Love sets out to provide the hard answers to that question. Honestly knowing the answer won’t necessarily provide any comfort… although it may provide some direction for the future. Ballen has assembled a collection of interviews that are essential in understanding what fuels terrorism and gaining a level of perspective that may bring us all closer to personal understanding (in terms of mitigating Western actions that breed justifications for terrorism).
In an age where the world seems to be exploding with change in every direction, Terrorists in Love is an unavoidable read. Ballen has wrapped his quest to explain the foundations of terrorism in a well-written, informative, and disturbing narrative.
Ken Ballen provides more insight about his book in this interview with Peter Bergen:
Josh O’Conner is a Planner/Zoning Administrator in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find him on the web at triggerhippie.com, localplan.org, or twitter.com/joshoconner. Contact Josh via e-mail (josh -at-localplan.org). He was provided a copy of the book by the publisher for review.