Opinion: What motivates a terrorist?

BOSTON — The American reaction to Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt at a car bombing in Times Square was: Pakistan again? Why do so many of terrorism’s hydra-heads originate in Pakistan? Pakistan answered that Shahzad had, after all, spent decades in America and had become an American citizen. So was he radicalized solely in Waziristan’s training camps? Or were the seeds of his radicalization planted here in the United States?

Perhaps we will learn the answer when his interrogation is completed. Or, more likely, we will never know exactly. My guess is that it will be a combination of both.

Consider the three most recent terrorist attempts here in the United States — two failures and one tragic success — involving Maj. Nidal Hasan shooting soldiers at Fort Hood, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day underpants bomber, and Faisal Shahzad of the explosives-loaded SUV in New York City.

Hasan was American — of Palestinian descent. Abdulmutallab was a Nigerian. Shahzad was a naturalized American from Pakistan. There are two common threads to link all three. They are Muslims, and all appear to have been influenced by the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now living in Yeman.

Abdulmutallab was a suicide bomber, ready and willing to become a martyr. Hasan went berserk, acting like the old “Assassins” — cultists who 1,000 years ago in Persia and the Middle East murdered their victims in fits of zeal but made no effort to escape.

Shahzad, on the other hand, had no martyrdom operation in mind. He wanted to kill people he had never met in Times Square, and then get back to Pakistan where he had stashed his wife and child. Why did he want to kill and leave the country he had adopted as his own?

Although the vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with terrorism, there is no denying that this is a time of crisis for Muslims, and there are plenty of causes for grievance. It is not uncommon for ethnic groups and nationalities overseas to become riled when the countries they left behind are in turmoil. Northern Ireland’s “troubles” touched Irish-Americans, some of whom were willing to run guns to the IRA. American Jews organized arms shipments to the nascent state of Israel when it was embattled in the 1940s. Canadian Sikhs were affected by troubles in the Punjab, and some were even willing to blow up an Air India plane. Pakistanis overseas are likewise moved by the travails in their country of origin.

Then there is the personal failure factor.

Shahzad had studied hard, got a decent job, but ended up broke with his Connecticut house foreclosed. It is not too hard in recession times to blame society for personal misfortune. And it is a wonder to me that there is not more violence on the part of people losing their jobs, not for anything they did, but because of the financial mistakes and risk-taking of rapacious money managers. “Hardship always brings people back to God,” a Hamas leader, Sheik Younis al- Astal once said. “It’s like sickness.”

I don’t know if this would apply to Shahzad, but some Muslim immigrants to this country are horrified by what they see as a materialistic, overly sexualized society. This was the case for one of violent Islam’s founding fathers, Sayyid Qutb, when he came to America in 1948 to study. He found the U.S. “violent by nature ... having little respect for human life.” If you believe that you might be less inhibited by taking American life.

Terrorism expert Jessica Stern has written of the “pernicious effect of repeated, small humiliations that add up to a feeling of nearly unbearable despair and frustration, and a willingness on the part of some to do anything — even commit atrocities — in the belief that attacking the oppressor will restore their sense of dignity.”

One can speculate that an injured sense of dignity, fueled by economic failure in America, and stoked by radicals Islamists in Pakistan, might be found in Shahzad’s motivational makeup. Add to that all the harm being done to innocent Muslim civilians in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, images that bombard the internet — and were visible to Shahzad in Waziristan — and you can fathom the wish to do harm in Times Square, with the blessing of radical clerics.
It will be interesting to learn if the Taliban urged Shahzad to seek American citizenship so their new recruit could pass more easily into the U.S.

Another terrorism expert, Louise Richardson, has written that Revenge, Renown, and Reaction are the three Rs of terrorism. One can speculate that Shahzad wanted revenge for his perceived failures in the U.S., and for Pakistani deaths caused by American drones. He might have expected renown when he was safely back in Taliban circles in Pakistan. And he might also have hoped for American over-reaction, so embodied in the proposal by his own Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman, and sadly backed by Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown, as well as John McCain, that American citizens can be stripped of their citizenship by merely being charged with associating with terrorists — charged not convicted.

If such a law should be enacted it would do more harm to the United States than a dozen car bombs could ever do.