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Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

3.7 8
by Jessica Stern

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For four years, Jessica Stern interviewed extremist members of three religions around the world: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Traveling extensively—to refugee camps in Lebanon, to religious schools in Pakistan, to prisons in Amman, Asqelon, and Pensacola—she discovered that the Islamic jihadi in the mountains of Pakistan and the Christian


For four years, Jessica Stern interviewed extremist members of three religions around the world: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Traveling extensively—to refugee camps in Lebanon, to religious schools in Pakistan, to prisons in Amman, Asqelon, and Pensacola—she discovered that the Islamic jihadi in the mountains of Pakistan and the Christian fundamentalist bomber in Oklahoma have much in common.

Based on her vast research, Stern lucidly explains how terrorist organizations are formed by opportunistic leaders who—using religion as both motivation and justification—recruit the disenfranchised. She depicts how moral fervor is transformed into sophisticated organizations that strive for money, power, and attention.

Jessica Stern's extensive interaction with the faces behind the terror provide unprecedented insight into acts of inexplicable horror, and enable her to suggest how terrorism can most effectively be countered.

A crucial book on terrorism, Terror in the Name of God is a brilliant and thought-provoking work.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Stern is the think-tank world's Bond girl, a rare female expert on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction; she was the inspiration for the Nicole Kidman character in "The Peacemaker." Her previous book, The Ultimate Terrorists, dissected the probability that terrorists would launch a nuclear or chemical attack, complete with psychological studies and policy suggestions. This latest one is the follow-up field trip, low on theory, high on anecdote: The professor comes face to face with her subjects. — Hanna Rosin
The New Yorker
This sophisticated examination of religiously motivated terrorism is a welcome antidote to the armchair analyses of Islamic extremism that surfaced in the wake of September 11th. Stern spent five years interviewing religious terrorists of all stripes, including anti-abortion crusaders, Hamas leaders, and militants in Pakistan and Indonesia. She found men and women who were driven not by nihilistic rage or lunacy but by a deep faith in the justice of their causes and in the possibility of transforming the world through violence. That faith, Stern suggests, is fuelled by poverty, repression, and a sense of humiliation, and then exploited by “inspirational leaders” who turn confused people into killers. The West cannot fight terror by intelligence and military means alone, she argues; a “smarter realpolitik approach” toward the developing world would use policy to deprive terrorists of not only funding and weapons but potential recruits.
The New York Times
A leading expert on terrorism and a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, [Stern] has tracked down and interviewed an impressive range of activists in a variety of causes from Florida to Kashmir. On a subject that tends to be richer in rhetoric than in detail, a writer able and willing to get this close is hard to find … As a description of the problem, though, this is a serious and provocative beginning. — Isabel Hilton
Publishers Weekly
Stern, a former fellow on terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations (and the inspiration for Nicole Kidman's character in The Peacemaker), makes the issue personal by depicting her encounters with religious terrorists around the world. Her definition of "religious terrorism" is comprehensive, encompassing the growing Muslim jihad in Indonesia, militant Palestinians and zealous Israelis, and Americans who kill abortion doctors in the name of Christ. Given the opportunity to articulate their positions, these and other subjects surprise not by their vehemence but by their relative normality, making it all the more curious that many of them eventually elect to strike against their opponents with deadly force. Explaining the "how" therefore becomes as important as explaining the "why," and the book carefully outlines the ways in which militant leaders of all denominations find recruits among the disenfranchised and recondition them, often under cultlike conditions, stoking their zealotry to the point of suicide and murder. Coupled with additional research, Stern's firsthand encounters bring a valuable and much-needed perspective to the problem of religious violence, and she identifies several increasingly broad threats, including the extent to which many governments will tolerate or even sponsor militant religious groups to further their own political agendas. For all the material damage terrorist acts cause, Stern argues, we should understand religious militance as a form of psychological warfare, calculated to bolster the faithful and strike "spiritual dread" in the unbelievers; the most effective counterstrategy is thus not violence but nonviolent techniques such as psychological counterwarfare and the reaffimation of our own values. (Aug. 19) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Stern, who has devoted years of study to her subject, strings together accounts of her many interviews with terrorists and former terrorists in a very readable book that treats mainly Muslims but gives careful attention to Christian and Jewish terrorists as well. The style is that of a personal odyssey, in search of the roots of religious militancy. She skips often from specific to general and from one country or religion to another, relating her own concerns and working hypotheses while weaving into the narrative many insights from studies in disciplines as diverse as psychology and history. The first part sets out five categories of grievances that move people to embrace terrorism (alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory). The second treats the different patterns of terrorist organization; she considers charismatic leaders, lone-wolf avengers, and commanders and their cadres, as well as the "ultimate organization" that takes advantage of all of the above, al Qaeda being the classic example. After sifting the many different motives that impel people to terrorism and the different modalities of terrorists in action, she concludes with "policy recommendations" that amount to no quick fix but are sensible steps, appropriate to the harsh reality that she has so effectively illuminated.
Library Journal
A lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Public Policy, Stern spent four years talking to terrorists of all stripes to determine that recent terrorist organizations have been preempted by opportunists. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Anybody who thinks Eric Robert Rudolph has nothing in common with Osama bin Laden needs to spend time with Terror in the Name of God. Stern, a former terrorism specialist at the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations, now teaches a course on terrorism at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But it’s her willingness to present herself in the tent—or, more often, the cell—of some of the world’s most feared and reviled killers that confers authenticity. The author spent five years interviewing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim extremists in sites ranging from a Texas trailer park to Pakistani prisons reserved for those who have achieved Hannibal Lecter status. And when a Jewish woman asks a Hamas leader face to face why he does it, the result is definitely a Silence of the Lambs moment, only more chilling. Are they deranged? Most, says Stern, are probably not, but they have been conditioned, even transformed, into people whose "dual killer self" carries the holy conviction that the world can be made better, and God’s will be done, through terror and murder. Root cause? Not one, the author asserts, but a typical complex of repression, poverty, and alienation, often acting in concert with a desire to simplify one’s life in a hopelessly complicated world. In the case of the Palestinians, she notes, "It is not just the violence; it is the pernicious effect of repeated humiliations that add up to a feeling of nearly unbearable despair." Stern’s supporting details have their own fascination: for instance, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers are probably the world’s best organized modern terrorist group, having killed more people by thousands (including two heads of state)than any other. She also correlates the rise of terrorism in Indonesia, culminating in the recent Bali bombing, directly with its 1997 financial crisis. Emphatic case for understanding terrorists in order to defeat them.
“Timely and compelling.”
Christian Science Monitor
“A significant addition to a growing shelf of timely books on terrorism.”
Christopher Dickey
“Wise and Thorough.”

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Terror in the Name of God
Why Religious Militants Kill

Chapter One


This chapter tells the story of a group of alienated individuals who joined a religious fellowship in rural Arkansas. After the leader received a "revelation" that the Endtimes had begun, the cult began "fusing together in one body" as directed by a prophetess living on the compound. They burned family photographs, sold their wedding rings, pooled their earnings, and destroyed televisions and other "reminders of the outside world's propaganda." They also began stockpiling weapons to prepare for the "enemy's" anticipated invasion. But the Apocalypse -- and the battle between good and evil forces -- failed to materialize on the appointed hour. Each failed prophecy was followed by a revised forecast. Instead of giving in to despair that their dream of the Endtimes might not materialize, cult members' confidence grew stronger. They intensified their military training, acquired more powerful weapons, and purified themselves to prepare to vanquish the forces of evil.

By examining this cult, we learn how leaders develop a story about imminent danger to an "in group," foster group identity, dehumanize the group's purported enemies, and encourage the creation of a "killer self" capable of murdering large numbers of innocent people. This chapter focuses on the evolution of a cult member named Kerry Noble. We observe how the leader cunningly capitalized on Noble's need to feel important inside the group, and how, over time, Noble was transformed from a gentle but frustrated pastor seeking transcendence to a terrorist prepared to countenance "war" against the cult's enemies -- blacks,Jews, "mud people," and the U.S. government.

On April 19, 1985, two hundred federal and state law-enforcement agents staged a siege at a 240-acre armed compound in rural Arkansas inhabited by a Christian cult called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). The cult had long been expecting an enemy invasion, and members had laid land mines around the periphery of the property. They had stockpiled five years' worth of food. James Ellison,the commander of the cult, wanted to shoot it out with the feds. Danny Coulson, head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, eventually persuaded Ellison that the cult would lose such a battle. Coulson said he had a Huey helicopter, just over the hill, which would level the place if a cult member fired a single shot. He also said that an aircraft circling the property was equipped with heatseeking devices. "We can watch your every move, day or night," he said. He told cult members that he had an armored personnel carrier around the bend, and weapons so advanced and new that the military didn't have them yet. "Your organization is considered by the government to be the best-trained civilian paramilitary group in America. That's why we're here. We're only sent against the best," he told the cult's second-in-command, Kerry Noble, who had been sent to negotiate with the enemy.

The FBI asked the Reverend Robert Millar, a leading cleric of the American racist right, to help negotiate with the cult. Millar reports that he saw 150 men in camouflage, plus FBI and ATF agents, a SWAT team, and "a few Mossad agents," scattered in the woods around the compound, whom he blamed for provoking a "tense and dangerous confrontation." "If it comes to a fight, hand me a gun, show me how to use it, and I am with you," he says he told Ellison.

Three days after the siege began, the Covenant's "Home Guard" surrendered. The Reverend Millar was disappointed. "It ended with the whole group walking out, the womenfolk carrying their Bibles and singing, the men handing over their carbines." When government officials searched the compound, they found a large cache of weapons, including fifty hand grenades; seventy-four assault weapons; thirty machine guns; six silencers; an M-72 antitank rocket; a World War II-era antiaircraft gun; three half-pound blocks of C-4 plastic explosives; an unfinished, homemade armored personnel carrier; and a large drum of cyanide, which cult members intended to use to poison major-city water supplies.

The cult hoped to hasten the return of the Messiah by "carrying out God's judgments" against unrepentant sinners. They believed that humanists, communists, socialists, and Zionists had taken over the U.S. government. They knew for a fact that Jews, Satan's direct descendents, were working closely with the Antichrist, whose forces included the United Nations, the IMF, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, and the "One-Worlders." They had discovered, through their intelligence channels, that the aim of this cabal was to create a world government, a clear sign that the forces of Satan were at work. The cult planned to poison residents of major cities -- far more people than any modern terrorist group has killed before. They had joined forces with other right-wing groups in the hope of destroying what they called the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG). Cult members and their coconspirators were eventually tried for sedition, but in the end, the government lost the case.

Kerry Noble was a "God-anointed elder" of the cult and, by the end, its second-in-command. I first contacted him by telephone in March 1998. He was living in Texas, now released from prison. He told me that the group had started preparing for "war" because there were signs of Armageddon. "We believed that once those signs were there, it was time for us to act, to make judgments against those who were doing wrong or who refused to repent," he says. "The original timetable was up to God, but God could use us in creating Armageddon. That if we stepped out, things might be hurried along. You get tired of waiting for what you think God is planning."

Terror in the Name of God
Why Religious Militants Kill
. Copyright © by Jessica Stern. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Christopher Dickey
“Wise and Thorough.”

Meet the Author

Jessica Stern is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and a Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s School of Public Health. She served on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council Staff. She is the author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror; Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year); and The Ultimate Terrorists. 

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Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jessica Stern immediately sets the tone by telling her readers that her goal is to understand, not sympathize with terrorists who belong to Christianity, Islam, or Judaism (pp. xiii - xxxi). Stern is not an armchair anti-terrorist expert. She has talked at length to among others (¿retired¿) terrorist leaders and expendable foot soldiers in the U.S. and overseas (pp. xix, 291 - 92). Whoever has the opportunity to meet Stern will realize it quickly. Stern reminds her readers that (state-sponsored) terrorism has two key characteristics: 1. Noncombatants are the target 2. Inspiring dread in the target constituency is often more significant than the physical result. The definition of noncombatants is still in the works. Terrorism is in the eyes of the beholder (pp. xxviii - xxix). Like religious non-terrorists, their terrorist counterparts are struggling human beings who are dealing with unmet aspirations, negation, and despair (pp. xxvii, 247 - 48, 282 - 83). Young males, who usually make up the bulk of the terrorist staff, are more prone to violence if they grow up in either a violent society or a disintegrating state (pp. xxiv, 53, 284). Stern also draws to the attention of her audience that religious terrorism is nothing new in human history (pp. xx-xxii). Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and/or material motivations of terrorists is essential to stop them as Stern correctly points out (pp. xvi, xxviii - xxix, 6, 50, 283 - 86). Like a legitimate (non-) profit organization, a terrorist platform needs (part-time) talent with different aspirations to fulfill its mission statement (pp. 6 - 8). Talented terrorist leaders excel at reading their recruits to figure out their wants and needs and how to satisfy them for their own profit (pp. 24, 50 - 51, 69, 84, 156 - 57, 164, 214 - 16, 260 - 64). Terrorist aspirations are not necessarily cast in stone money, political power, or attention can replace the original grievances behind the enrollment with a terrorist infrastructure (pp. 6 - 7, 216, 263). Most terrorists are not a one-man show (pp. 172 - 87). Sympathizers, including charities, have to be sold on the mission statement and see a return on their investment (pp. 1 - 2, 7, 76, 142 - 43, 208, 231, 262, 265, 271 - 74). The ¿investment¿ can be expendable bodies, money, know-how, or any other asset useful to the strategy and tactics of the enterprise (pp. 32, 40 - 44, 48 - 49, 210 - 11, 223). Terrorists feel the need to be perceived that they are accomplishing something (p. 143). The ¿return¿ is either instrumental or expressive. Scaring the enemy, killing as many noncombatants as possible, destabilizing an economy, inviting enemy overkill, imposing a religious set of rules, empowering the disenfranchised, neutralizing ¿pollution¿ by impure outsiders, or communicating rage without really weighing the long-term consequences are some potential paybacks (pp. 7, 18, 52 - 54, 223, 283). Stern bluntly demonstrates that a ¿performing¿ terrorist has to become two people, the self he/she was, and the new, morally disengaged killer self. Skilled terrorist leaders market this doubling to their recruits for crushing any potential sympathy for their targets when time for action comes (pp. xv - xvi, xxii - xxiii, 52 - 53, 55, 137, 142, 159, 261, 296). However, desensitivity training is not the preserve of terrorists. Some doubling is required to be up to the job for say, a soldier or a surgeon (pp. xv - xvi, 16). Stern convincingly argues that modernity generates confusion and fear because it obliges individuals to make choices, which can be overwhelming for some of them (p. 69). Similarly, dictatorial states are particularly at risk when they start liberalizing and democratizing (pp. 80 - 81, 287 - 88). In contrast, terrorism has the key ¿benefit¿ to simplify life. Why bother with gray areas when everything can be reduced to good and evil carved in stark relief (pp. 5, 19, 23, 60 - 62, 121, 136 -
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rarely will you see the authoritarian personality in such stark relief as you will here. Jessica Stern is both scholar and human in her approach to her subject. Her humanity opened doors to terrorists themselves, leading them to level with her about their fears of, and ambitions for, humankind. She illustrates how the authoritarian personality is particularly vulnerable to radicalization. The authoritarian personality is expressed by rigidity of views, a strong desire to be told what to do, an equally strong desire to tell 'lessor mortals' what to do, and to see all things in a good-or-evil context. You will see these features and more in Stern's thoughtful and insightful book. If you care about the future of human kind, this book is a good place to start. Stern highlights in detail the greatest threat in our time--we are our own worst enemies in our battles over who's god is God. Our very personalities inherited from our jungle heritage make many of us vulnerable to radicalization. Religious miltants of all monotheisms are at once the root and twig of terror in our troubled times times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jessica Stern's book, originally published in 2004, has renewed relevance today in 2014 with the ever-evolving threats from terrorism and terrorist organizations. Her interviews with the different groups are very insightful and reiterate the knowledge gained over time on the psychology of extremism. As stated so well in an earlier review (Anonymous, September 24, 2004) “Rarely will you see the authoritarian personality in such stark relief as you will here.” I highly recommend this book for all who seek to better understand our world and the people we share it with.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A comprehensive study of the motivations of terrorism, but lacking the depth of psychological and political analysis for which I was hoping.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was extremely disappointed with this book. I was expecting an academic, or at least a semi-academic treatment of the subject at hand. What one receives is a travel log of this author's meetings with various people. Her descriptions of what she wore, what her hosts wore, what foods were served during her meetings, what people looked like, etc. etc. were pure fluff and contributed nothing to the understanding of this complex subject. If you are looking for an in-depth understanding and treatment of terrorism, look somewhere else.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What can any man say about a beautiful, intelligent woman, who puts her life, and her integrity, on the the line, to remind all of us paper warriors, that we lead worthless, mundane lives!