To borrow from Peter Bergen’s foreword, Terrorists in Love “reveals a universe of militancy that is so strange that at times it seems suffused with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Author Ken Ballen profiles six jihadis and their conversion to militancy, interviewing over one hundred former terrorists at a resort-style rehabilitation center in Saudia Arabia. Ballen was a federal prosecutor and now runs a non-profit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, and in this book, he applies his access to high-level terrorists and his expertise with federal interrogations to a set of strange, haunting narratives about the process of radicalization. We get a unique picture of the strangeness of this process, the necessary convergence of many disparate forces, including but not limited to mental illness, repressive cultural norms, and ancient Islamic traditions, such as reverence for dreams. Of course these stories contain many political implications, but the stories in themselves are so fascinating that the more interesting, pressing questions have to do with our common humanity.
In the case of Ahmad al-Shayea, a listless, sensitive teenager with an abusive, hyper-conservative father, a dream about his father causes him to join the militants. It seems like a dignified alternative to joy riding through tribal regions in his friend’s convertible, something more worthy of his father’s respect. After a few weeks of training, Ahmad is unwittingly sent by his superiors on a suicide mission, only to survive the third degree burns. The end to his story is poetic, sweet — he develops a fiercely pro-American stance thanks to the kindness of a U.S. soldier who nurses him back to health.
Kamal is the youngest son of Saudia Arabia’s Sheikh, an elderly religious patriarch who is second to the king himself. A child of privilege who has always been an outsider, Kamal was born to the Sheikh’s “summer bride,” whom the other wives rejected. She left the compound and an Indonesian servant named Indah served as Kamal’s surrogate mother, passing on her native, more expansive brand of Islam, her smiling, Indonesian mannerisms, and her servant’s humility, subtly different traits that Kamal, too, adopted. In his twenties, this isolated heir to the sheikdom realizes that he is gay. Not only that, he is in love with his cousin.
Interestingly, the realization that he is gay doesn’t phase Kamal. It seems that his family’s religious authority and elite social standing strengthen the courage of his convictions. He justifies his feelings by adopting the view that equal love before God is more holy than the lack of equality he sees in his father’s relationships. The future Sheikh quietly disagrees with both conventional and radical Islam, leading a closeted romantic life. This lasts until his relationship is discovered and his cousin is sent to America. At university, he turns to jihad, is outed and beaten by jihadi radicals, then shipped off to a rehabilitation center by his father. At the rehabilitation center, Kamal’s faith is what saves him, as he chooses the “war of the pen” over the “war of the sword”:
“From the other jihadis, Kamal saw firsthand the easy path of Al Quaeda and its allies: how seductive it was to turn God’s demanding gift of mercy inside each human to simple anger; how glamorous and self-important to switch the painful continuing struggle to better yourself before God (the Greater Jihad) into black-and-white contempt for others. He’d learned too from his time at the Care Center that only those who love one another were on Jihad for God.”
It is a surprising ending to a book that defies expectations, that a potential leader of the Islamic religious establishment has reclaimed the traditional, sacred definition of Jihad — a struggle toward self-improvement — after engaging in terrorism and a romantic relationship with his male cousin. In the introduction, Ballen writes that a successful interrogation “leaves everyone feeling vulnerable.” Perhaps this same aspect of vulnerability, the “demanding” nature of God’s mercy, is what makes “the Greater Jihad” so difficult — while the battle against terrorism is ongoing.