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“Atran explores the way terrorists think of themselves and teaches us, at last, intelligent ways to think about terrorists.” —Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Middle East Editor and author of Securing the City Talking to the Enemy by Scott Atran is an eye-opening and important book that offers readers a startling look deep inside terror groups. Based on the author’s “Atran explores the way terrorists think of themselves and teaches us, at last, intelligent ways to think about terrorists.” —Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Middle East Editor and author of Securing the City Talking to the Enemy by Scott Atran is an eye-opening and important book that offers readers a startling look deep inside terror groups. Based on the author’s unprecedented access to and in-depth interviews with terrorists and jihadis—including Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Taliban extremists, as well as members of other radical Islamic terror organizations—Talking to the Enemy provides fresh insight and unexpected answers to why there are people in this world willing to kill and die for a cause. A riveting, compelling work in the tradition of The Looming Tower and Terror in the Name of God, Talking to the Enemy is required reading for anyone interested in making the world a safer, more secure place for everyone.


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“Atran explores the way terrorists think of themselves and teaches us, at last, intelligent ways to think about terrorists.” —Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Middle East Editor and author of Securing the City Talking to the Enemy by Scott Atran is an eye-opening and important book that offers readers a startling look deep inside terror groups. Based on the author’s “Atran explores the way terrorists think of themselves and teaches us, at last, intelligent ways to think about terrorists.” —Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Middle East Editor and author of Securing the City Talking to the Enemy by Scott Atran is an eye-opening and important book that offers readers a startling look deep inside terror groups. Based on the author’s unprecedented access to and in-depth interviews with terrorists and jihadis—including Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Taliban extremists, as well as members of other radical Islamic terror organizations—Talking to the Enemy provides fresh insight and unexpected answers to why there are people in this world willing to kill and die for a cause. A riveting, compelling work in the tradition of The Looming Tower and Terror in the Name of God, Talking to the Enemy is required reading for anyone interested in making the world a safer, more secure place for everyone.

30 review for Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Dean

    A surprising and courageous inquiry into terrorism, religion, and what they say about our species I think the gist of the book was best summarized by Noam Chomsky: “This deeply researched, wide ranging, and very timely study provides a compelling and often surprising account of what lies behind the jihadi phenomenon and draws sensible and thoughtful conclusions about how to respond to it constructively. The investigation is set against the background of a penetrating inquiry into the role of A surprising and courageous inquiry into terrorism, religion, and what they say about our species I think the gist of the book was best summarized by Noam Chomsky: “This deeply researched, wide ranging, and very timely study provides a compelling and often surprising account of what lies behind the jihadi phenomenon and draws sensible and thoughtful conclusions about how to respond to it constructively. The investigation is set against the background of a penetrating inquiry into the role of religious belief in sustaining a meaningful existence in a supportive community. It should be read carefully, and pondered." I managed to get hold of a copy of the galleys after reading the author’s oped in the New York Times, “Why We Talk to Terrorists.” In answer to the recent US Supreme Court decision to criminalize non-violent engagement with groups officially classified as terrorist organizations, the author argues pretty convincingly that talking and listening to enemies may greatly reduce their threat by helping us to understand which of them must be fought to the end and which may even become friends in the end (think Nelson Mandela and the ANC, or Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA). On the surface this book appears to be about understanding what motivates modern terrorists, particularly jihadists. And there are fascinating studies and interviews with terrorist foot soldiers, wannabes, and leaders, including Abu Bakr Ba’asyir, the erstwhile Emir of Jemaah Islamiyah, and Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas. There are also the author’s intriguing encounters at the White House and Congress, where his research-based appeal to talk to terrorists was often treated as “coming from Planet Fruitcake” because of authorities’ apparent trust in “bullets, bombs, and widgets.” His analyses of failures in Afghanistan and the fiasco of the Christmas Day bomber are telling in this regard. The author’s intention, however, is much grander than giving us yet another narrative about the roots of terror. The book is really about harnessing the modern and somewhat marginal phenomenon of terrorism into a tool - and having the personal courage to go to places like Gaza, Kashmir, and remote Indonesian Islands while fighting raged to do it - so as to explore the origins and persistence of war and religion in defining the nature of our “uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species.” The reader who remains narrowly targeted on terrorism might see this as evidence of lack of focus when, in fact, the book does what no other book ever has in making terrorism a window onto "what it means to be human." And it is in the surprising and politically significant research on the role of sacred and transcendent values in creating and possibly solving seeming intractable conflicts (Israel/Palestine, Pakistan/India, US/Iran) that book’s own greatest value may lie. Along the way, we also come to a better understanding of the role of religion in contemporary America politics (including the Sarah Palin phenomenon) and across the globe, and we learn just how much the new atheist crusade against religion (led by some famous scientists) seems so willfully ignorant about scientific research into facts that underlie religion and terrorism today.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    In "Talking to the Enemy," social scientist Scott Atran makes an elaborate case for seeking to find common ground with terrorists. His subtitle: "Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists" tells us, in effect, that humanity is dependent upon faith to generate larger communities (brotherhoods) that will develop enough respect and restraint within themselves not to hurl suicide bombers into crowds populated by other communities (also brotherhoods united by faith, which may or may not be In "Talking to the Enemy," social scientist Scott Atran makes an elaborate case for seeking to find common ground with terrorists. His subtitle: "Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists" tells us, in effect, that humanity is dependent upon faith to generate larger communities (brotherhoods) that will develop enough respect and restraint within themselves not to hurl suicide bombers into crowds populated by other communities (also brotherhoods united by faith, which may or may not be religious.) This premise is both tantalizing and utopian. Atran spends a great deal of time-- many chapters--examining the terrorist communities of the last twenty years. Clearly he has gone to some dangerous places and spoken with some dangerous men (they're almost all men.) One demon he seeks to demolish has already fallen--al Qaeda. I should think George Bush had more or less worn all the fuzz off that organization by 2003 or 2004. Within intelligence and foreign policy circles, it was known to have been crippled badly by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. A few years later, almost no one considered al Qaeda per se as a matter of direct, substantial concern. Yes, it was good to see Osama bin Laden meet his end, but he was at the time of his death more or less what he had been for many years: a little heard voice and a leader with moral influence, to a certain extent, but no operative impact. The terrorists of the middle and latter part of the first decade of this century are then examined by Atran with a great deal of care and insight, and we find what I think is pretty well known: in London, in Madrid, in Pakistan, and elsewhere (he overlooks Yemen and wrote his book before Mali became an issue), the world's terrorists were relatively well-educated, self-selecting, alienated groups of men who came up with an idea that was fed by bin Laden's achievements and the continuing verbal jihad being waged on the Internet by his emulators. Atran goes so far as to cite Hannah Arendt's famous term, "the banality of evil," as he probes some of these ganglets (my term). The train bombing in Madrid was one of the worst cases, hundreds dead, a thousand wounded, but it was a tragedy of improbable success and…murderously pointless. The conservative party lost the presidency to the socialist party in Spain because the conservatives quickly blamed ETA (the Basque terrorist organization) and was wrong, but the fact is that terrorism (Atran points this out) has never achieved more than murder. It didn't bring down Spain, London, the United States, Indonesia or any other country. In other words, terrorism, as we have seen it practiced, has not yet moved to the next stage--from random acts of violence to organized insurgencies to regime changes wherein, in the Islamic case, Sharia becomes the law of the land and the religious leadership takes over from the secular leadership. Such a revolutionary progression did take place in Iran, though not because of the terrorism under discussion. It also took place in Afghanistan, though, again, not because of the terrorism under discussion. President Obama bravely said, at one point, that the terrorists had not crippled New York, much less the United States, and never would or could. President Bush never would have said that. He was reelected on his war platform (war on terror, war on Saddam) and couldn't tell such a truth. After Atran surveys the actors involved in two decades of intermittent, high-profile, unproductive carnage, he then assesses two big issues: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the role of religion in modern life. On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Atran probes (he did this in person, face-to-face) the willingness of leaders to accommodate one another's needs, not just for land but for justice. These two factors are blended into that which holy, both for Jews and Muslims (as well as Christians). What Atran senses is that if the respective leaders would exchange some kind of apology, other concrete pieces of a settlement could fall into place. He's referring, implicitly, to the honor/shame rigidity of religious and/or ideological societies. (In fact, ideology has its flexibility, and so does religion.) Like many academics, Atran portrays senior U.S. government officials as insensitive to these nuances of human experience (history, culture and religion). Okay, let him have his fun, but I doubt that everyone he met with was as illiterate about human nature as he suggests. The problem for the U.S. government is two-fold (at least). First, we have overinvested in offensive military capability. This has grossly distorted our foreign policy, Washington decision-making in general, and our entire economy. Let me mention one startling fact: the U.S. has over 700 foreign military installations. Beyond that, we have weapons no nation could possibly match in the next twenty-five years. Second, as Atran points out, we are a nation ostensibly of law (our Constitution) although culturally we are quite religious. Officials in Washington are better equipped to make policy through the Pentagon than they are through religious leaders. Atran concludes his long book with an abstract consideration of the role of God in human life. He writes as a social scientist who believes, in effect, that belief is intrinsic to the community-making mind of mankind. He doesn't argue that God does exist or doesn't exist; he simply argues that God has a habit of showing up in zones of conflict and could be deployed to resolve rather than worsen those conflicts. ( At different points in his book, Atran links monothiesm to universalism and universalism to the concept of human rights. All this is good, but the question arises as to whether this book should have been two or three books.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tony Romero

    I bought this book after having read this review from The New Scientist, and found it completely changed my views on terrorism and the role of religion: How to catch the 'jihadi bug' 14:15 25 October 2010 Michael Bond The anthropology of terrorism makes for compelling fieldwork. In his quest to understand what makes people kill and die for a cause, Scott Atran - an astute analyst of social, psychological and cultural issues - has met with the Hamas high command in Damascus, Syria, interviewed the I bought this book after having read this review from The New Scientist, and found it completely changed my views on terrorism and the role of religion: How to catch the 'jihadi bug' 14:15 25 October 2010 Michael Bond The anthropology of terrorism makes for compelling fieldwork. In his quest to understand what makes people kill and die for a cause, Scott Atran - an astute analyst of social, psychological and cultural issues - has met with the Hamas high command in Damascus, Syria, interviewed the plotters behind the 2002 Bali bombing, unpacked the web of connections behind the 9/11 and 2004 Madrid train attacks and been forced to flee for his life from militants in Indonesia and Pakistan unsettled by his probings. His main finding is that terrorist organisations tend not to be the sophisticated, well-ordered hierarchies that we commonly suppose, but loose networks of friends and family who die not just for a cause but for each other. Who gets radicalised is often quite random: "Someone gets the jihadi bug, and friends follow, gathering force from sticking together." Understanding these social dynamics, Atran believes, is key to tackling terrorism. Talking to the Enemy is recommendable not just for its vivid insights into the motivation of terrorists, but also for its study of Islamic radicalisation and the anthropology of religion in general. It is worth reading for its demolishment of many of the simplistic ideas put forward by self-declared "scientific atheists" such as Sam Harris, Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, who see religion as the root of intolerance and campaign with missionary zeal for its eradication. Dawkins has argued, for example, that suicide bombers are brainwashed in religious schools. Yet none of the 9/11 hijackers or the Madrid train-bombers attended a religious school, and the one London Underground bomber who did so attended only briefly. Indeed evidence shows that in Muslim communities the deeper a person's religious scholarship, the less likely he or she is to be involved in jihadist activities. The suggestion by Harris and others that the world would be less violent without religion - and especially without Islam - also looks hollow when you consider the crimes against humanity committed by atheists. Prior to 2001, for instance, one of the most prolific dispensers of suicide terrorism was the secular Tamil Tigers. In trying to understand, or predict, terrorist activity, it makes scientific sense to look beyond religion, such as to the social dynamics of particular friendship networks and the recruitment strategies of jihadist organisations whose agendas are usually avowedly political. The scientific atheists' disregard of evidence when making their case "makes me almost embarrassed to be an atheist", says Atran. He is on strong ground: gathering data first-hand is not something Atran seems shy of, even if it means risking his own life.

  4. 5 out of 5

    David Cheshire

    This book turned my understanding of terrorism and suicide bombers upside down by asking a simple question, implied in the title. If we ask those involved why they do it, what do they tell us? The answers are, on reflection, not that surprising. Crucially terrorists tend to know other terrorists. And they are surprisingly normal people. Reading this in the current climate, of a militarised "war on terror" response, the conclusions are unsettling. Most terrorists, says anthropologist Scott Atran, This book turned my understanding of terrorism and suicide bombers upside down by asking a simple question, implied in the title. If we ask those involved why they do it, what do they tell us? The answers are, on reflection, not that surprising. Crucially terrorists tend to know other terrorists. And they are surprisingly normal people. Reading this in the current climate, of a militarised "war on terror" response, the conclusions are unsettling. Most terrorists, says anthropologist Scott Atran, are not psychopathic fanatics. They are typically young, male and motivated most by their peers. Small groups of lads "self-radicalise" and drift into terrorist projects often by chance. The football or bowling team is a more typical focus than the mosque. Modern terrorism is all grass-roots, bottom up not top down. They go looking for Al Qaeda, not vice versa. Plots are contingent, often semi-incompetent. Religious education is irrelevant, a "negative predictor"; most are late born-again Moslems. Terrorism is not a religious phenonema at all, more an aspect of modern, global, media-driven youth culture. Its ancestry is 19th century anarchism. Moral outrage, boredom and a search for glory are the drivers. Shame and honour are key emotions. As for the violence, even this is not surprising; war has been a natural social activity throughout history and prehistory. The world wars and nuclear threat may have created a modern anti-war sentiment, but this is both a novelty and shallowly rooted. And soldiers, like terrorists, fight mostly for their immediate peers, not a "cause." If all this "normalises" terrorism, and if there is a suspicion that it may reflect the in-built bias of anthropological methodology (this may be how terrorism appears to those involved, but is it the whole, or the most authentic, truth?) there remains the crucial practical question: does it help us understand what an effective anti-terrorist policy might look like? The answer must be a resounding yes. Atran stresses the crucial need to reach, understand and if possible reframe, the "sacred values" most at stake in intractable conflicts like those in the Middle East. These are not usually material. For policy-makers and practitioners these are surely essential insights. Indeed, as the author suggests, it may be that the most frightening thing about terrorism today is that those charged with protecting us don't seem to be listening at all. He makes a powerful and eloquent case that "talking to the enemy" is the 'sine qua non' of tackling terrorism. Let's hope that the right people read this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Good shortish podcast interview with the author: Scott Atran on Sacred Values, by Social Science Bites. Older reviews: • at Public Radio Int'l (PRI). • at the Guardian. • at New Scientist: How to catch the 'jihadi bug'. Related concept, but not linked to Atran or this book: The Point of Hate, op-ed by Anna Fels at the New York Times. Purchased, but unread. More info, November 2017: the Economist tells me Atran has written an essay exploring “parallels between violent white supremacism and neo-Nazism on Good shortish podcast interview with the author: Scott Atran on Sacred Values, by Social Science Bites. Older reviews: • at Public Radio Int'l (PRI). • at the Guardian. • at New Scientist: How to catch the 'jihadi bug'. Related concept, but not linked to Atran or this book: The Point of Hate, op-ed by Anna Fels at the New York Times. Purchased, but unread. More info, November 2017: the Economist tells me Atran has written an essay exploring “parallels between violent white supremacism and neo-Nazism on one hand, and the nihilist fury of ultra-militant Islam on the other” in a lengthy essay at Aeon (“a forum for elaborate intellectual arguments”). They quote, from his essay:   Our wide-ranging interviews and psychological experiments have uncovered not a “clash of civilisations”…but civilisation’s unravelling, as young people unmoored from traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. That certainly doesn’t sound optimistic, does it?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Georgiann Hennelly

    This subject is deeply researched, wide ranging, study . And provides a compelling often surprising account of what lies behind the Jihadi phenomenon and draws a sensible and thoughtful conclusion about how we can respond to it constructively. It should be read carefully and thought about. Along the way we also come to a better understanding of the role of religion in contemporary American politics. And we learn just how the new Atheist crusade against religion seems so willfully ignorant about This subject is deeply researched, wide ranging, study . And provides a compelling often surprising account of what lies behind the Jihadi phenomenon and draws a sensible and thoughtful conclusion about how we can respond to it constructively. It should be read carefully and thought about. Along the way we also come to a better understanding of the role of religion in contemporary American politics. And we learn just how the new Atheist crusade against religion seems so willfully ignorant about scientific research into facts that under lie religion and terrerism today.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    Introduction When Scott Atran is asked to summarize his book Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human in one sentence, he answers: “People, including terrorists, don’t simply die for a cause; they die for each other, especially their friends” (p.478). Of the many millions “who express support for violence … there are only thousands willing to actually commit violence“ (p.58). And those few who are “willing to commit to extremist violence usually emerge Introduction When Scott Atran is asked to summarize his book Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human in one sentence, he answers: “People, including terrorists, don’t simply die for a cause; they die for each other, especially their friends” (p.478). Of the many millions “who express support for violence … there are only thousands willing to actually commit violence“ (p.58). And those few who are “willing to commit to extremist violence usually emerge in small groups of action-oriented friends” (p.268). Scott Atran presents studies showing that “people who are humiliated generally don’t take the path of violence” (p.55), but that those who do “seek to avenge the humiliation of others for whom they care” (p. 55). What I particularly like about the book is that Scott Atran challenges us to “dream of something more to do with our enemies” than just killing them in war, for “wars are truly won when enemies become friends” (p.489). His message is that we need to get “out of the house, with whatever protection we need, and talk” (p.489). He asks, “who knows what a world could be made if we listen and learn” (p.489)? Intention Scott Atran’s intention with the book is to provide (1) “practical considerations of how to face terrorism and to deal with seemingly intractable political conflicts” (p.xii), and (2) “more general insights into the origins and evolution of religion, the epidemics of war, the rise of civilizations, the creation of the concept of humanity, and the limits of reason” (p.xii). Atran gathers two lines of evidence which converge in the book. (1) The first is from his “fieldwork and psychological studies … particularly [of] suicide bombers” (p.35). (2) The second is from his “reading of evolutionary biology and human history” (p.35). Scott Atran emphasizes that he does this not “to relativize violent extremism, but to understand its moral appeal as well as its usualness in the sweep of human evolution and history, so that we may better compete against it” (p.42). Evolution People, according to Atran, have two preoccupations in life: “health and social relations” (p.32). And they are often the same: “socialize to survive” (pp.32—33). A common theme throughout the book, which goes back to his one sentence summary, is that “friendship and other aspects of small group dynamics … trump most anything else in moving people through life” (p.33). Atran thinks that “without groups … our species probably wouldn’t have survived” (pp.34—35). In the “smaller … intimate world of early humans, one’s social group was everything, and other groups were often far and few” (p.62). Rising populations led to bigger “social brains” and “more varied and productive networks of people” (p.64). Because humans evolved in “small groups whose members where closely related, evolution favored a kin psychology designed to help out members of their groups” (p.303). Mere belief in “the group’s essential unity creates a looping effect, whereby people to strive (or force others) to conform to group norms and stereotypes” (p.308). Once people “build up a sufficiently strong group of preferred cooperators, they cultivate and maintain this small set of relationships” (p.312). “Friendship has always been critical to human survival, ever since our big-brain but weak-body ancestors became human by forming strongly coordinated teams to forage and fight” (p.309). The basic psychology of “us versus them” is the same whether “etnic, national, or religious groups compete for territory, vital resources, or membership” (p.297). Teamwork Even if imagined “kinship and friendship … benefit group survival and success by helping to foster teams” (p.313), teamwork is not “merely cooperative” but “highly coordinated” (p.314). It “demands and favors special kinds of communication and cognitive skills” (p.314). Team members must be “ready to respond in an instant and as a unit, recalculating everything on the fly, in the face of sudden changes in a situation, unexpected threats, and each other’s unforeseen failings or successes” (p.314). “Teammates must be able to clearly signal to one another what course of action to take, at any moment, in whatever situation” (p.314). History “History, like evolution, is largerly [a] contingent affair based on opportunistic responses to chance and happenstance” (p.92). But one constant is war. ”War between human groups is as much or more a constant part of the evolution of society and civilization as peace” (p.323). In the past, “spectacular killings were common both to small tribes and great empires” (p.274). And humans have practiced “genocide” as “conflict resolution” since prehistoric times (p.297). “Modern suicide bombing as a political tool” stems from the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 (p.93). Anarchism represents “the first wave of the modern tide of terrorism” beginning around 1870 (p.93). Anarchist attacks were usually “carried out by peer groups … who self-organized in operations of relatively few people” (p.97). Self-organization Scott Atran’s research suggests that “the growth and development of terrorist networks is largely a decentralized and evolutionary process, based on contingent adaptations to unpredictably events and improbable opportunities” (p. 267). Furthermore, the “real-world triggers that move things along one path rather than another are often inherently unpredictable” (p.285). In a rapidly changing world, “large management structures … cannot compete with smaller, self-motivated, and self-correcting systems” (p.209). Under “uncertain … conditions, relatively fluid and flat networks that are self-organizing, decentralized, and overlapping … tend to outperform relatively rigid, centralized, and hierarchical competitors” (p.209). The “interlocking relations of trust … inherent in the organic bonds of friendship, kinship, and neighborhood make … networks highly resilient to local failures and to … attacks from the outside” (p.210). It’s also the “networking among members that distributes thoughts and tasks that no one part may completely control or even understand” (p.222). As in any natural evolutionary process, “individual variation and environmental context are the creative and critical determinants of future directions and paths” (p.267). To ignore this “variation and context is to entirely miss the character of natural group formation and development, along with better chances for intervention and prevention enemy attacks from the bottom up rather than from the top down” (pp.267—268). A leaderless network “rejects traditional pyramidal organizations in favor of a collectivity of self-organized groups with no apparent leader” (p.473). Leadership is “distributed over a social network in ways that are fairly fluid and flat” (p.50). Values “War is never wholly a product of reason and rational calculation” (p.332). “Rational factor models have always had serious deficiencies as general models of human reasoning and decision making because human behavior cannot be reduced purely to rational calculation” (p.393). People make choices in “violent intergroup conflicts, from whether to accept a compromise to whether individuals commit themselves to violent collective action,” based on collective interests and “sacred values” (p.344). “People hold sacred values to be absolute and inviolable” (p.382). This means that sacred values will often trump “economic thinking … or considerations of realpolitik” (p.344). People may choose to “act now for a remote end” based on these values (p.345). Matters of principle, or “sacred honor,” are enforced far out of proportion (p.345). “Appeals to sacred values, then, can be powerful motivation for making both war and peace” (p.346). Scott Atran’s research implies that “using standard approaches of business-style negotiations in … seemingly intractable conflicts will only backfire” (p.377). People will “reject any type of material compensation for dropping their commitment to their values and will defend their sacred values regardless of the costs” (p.375). An additional challenge is that “while people often recognize their own side’s sacred values, they often ignore or downplay the importance of the other side’s values” (p.381). Prevention The present policy of focusing on “troop strength and drones …only continues a long history of … failure“ (p.262). “Antiterrorism efforts are fixated on technology … and there is no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries’ motivation, intent, will, and … dreams” (p.284). Scott Atran has “often tried, unsuccessfully, to get people in … [the US] government to at least listen and talk to terrorists and wannabies instead of just trying to capture and kill them” (p.287). His argument is that “if someone wants to kill you, it’s better to know why they want to kill so as to improve your chances of stopping them” (p.287). Scott Atran thinks that “independent, publicly transparent, science-based field research in conflict zones can help policymakers, the military, and potential adversaries avoid mistakes that lead to conflict and violence” (p.289). This work has to be done with “the input and insight of local communities, and chiefly peer-to-peer, or it won’t work” (p.291). “Deradicalization, like radicalization itself, engages mainly from the bottom up, not from the top down.” (p.291). “This, of course, is not how you stop terrorism today, but how you could do it tomorrow” (p.291). Summary As mentioned previously, I particularly like Scott Atran’s idea that we should listen and talk to the enemy. I think that the part of the book which is based on Scott Atran’s own fieldwork is insightful. However, I also think that the part of the book which is based on Atran's reading of history sometimes is misleading. Oversimplifications easily lead to misunderstandings. An example is Scott Atran’s description of “von Clausewitz” (pp.332—333) and the “Prussian tradition” (p.335—337). It wasn’t comradeship or commitment to National Socialism, as Scott Atran says (p.336), that made the German army successful, but Auftragstaktik (the doctrine within which formal rules can be selectively suspended). Auftragstaktik encourages initiative, flexibility and improvisation. This is very much related to the self-motivation and self-correction which Scott Atran mentions elsewhere in the book. The book is definitely worth reading, but Scott Atran is an anthropologist and not a historian! Notes: Stephen Bungay covers the story of the Prussian Army in this book The Art of Action.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Dean

    A surprising and courageous inquiry into terrorism, religion, and what they say about our species I think the gist of the book was best summarized by Noam Chomsky: “This deeply researched, wide ranging, and very timely study provides a compelling and often surprising account of what lies behind the jihadi phenomenon and draws sensible and thoughtful conclusions about how to respond to it constructively. The investigation is set against the background of a penetrating inquiry into the role of A surprising and courageous inquiry into terrorism, religion, and what they say about our species I think the gist of the book was best summarized by Noam Chomsky: “This deeply researched, wide ranging, and very timely study provides a compelling and often surprising account of what lies behind the jihadi phenomenon and draws sensible and thoughtful conclusions about how to respond to it constructively. The investigation is set against the background of a penetrating inquiry into the role of religious belief in sustaining a meaningful existence in a supportive community. It should be read carefully, and pondered." I managed to get hold of a copy of the galleys after reading the author’s oped in the New York Times, “Why We Talk to Terrorists.” In answer to the recent US Supreme Court decision to criminalize non-violent engagement with groups officially classified as terrorist organizations, the author argues pretty convincingly that talking and listening to enemies may greatly reduce their threat by helping us to understand which of them must be fought to the end and which may even become friends in the end (think Nelson Mandela and the ANC, or Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA). On the surface this book appears to be about understanding what motivates modern terrorists, particularly jihadists. And there are fascinating studies and interviews with terrorist foot soldiers, wannabes, and leaders, including Abu Bakr Ba’asyir, the erstwhile Emir of Jemaah Islamiyah, and Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas. There are also the author’s intriguing encounters at the White House and Congress, where his research-based appeal to talk to terrorists was often treated as “coming from Planet Fruitcake” because of authorities’ apparent trust in “bullets, bombs, and widgets.” His analyses of failures in Afghanistan and the fiasco of the Christmas Day bomber are telling in this regard. The author’s intention, however, is much grander than giving us yet another narrative about the roots of terror. The book is really about harnessing the modern and somewhat marginal phenomenon of terrorism into a tool - and having the personal courage to go to places like Gaza, Kashmir, and remote Indonesian Islands while fighting raged to do it - so as to explore the origins and persistence of war and religion in defining the nature of our “uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species.” The reader who remains narrowly targeted on terrorism might see this as evidence of lack of focus when, in fact, the book does what no other book ever has in making terrorism a window onto "what it means to be human." And it is in the surprising and politically significant research on the role of sacred and transcendent values in creating and possibly solving seeming intractable conflicts (Israel/Palestine, Pakistan/India, US/Iran) that book’s own greatest value may lie. Along the way, we also come to a better understanding of the role of religion in contemporary America politics (including the Sarah Palin phenomenon) and across the globe, and we learn just how much the new atheist crusade against religion (led by some famous scientists) seems so willfully ignorant about scientific research into facts that underlie religion and terrorism today.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alan Cunningham

    This was a tremendous book with a simple message: That terrorists act for the same reasons we all act, in pursuit of something greater than ourselves. He actually takes the time to talk to the families and friends of terrorists, with an impartial standing that invites candor, not platitudes. He dismantles the American myths that jihadists are the most zealous Muslims, that the families of bombers are proud of their dead sons, or that the war of terror is a war of attrition. Jihadists, This was a tremendous book with a simple message: That terrorists act for the same reasons we all act, in pursuit of something greater than ourselves. He actually takes the time to talk to the families and friends of terrorists, with an impartial standing that invites candor, not platitudes. He dismantles the American myths that jihadists are the most zealous Muslims, that the families of bombers are proud of their dead sons, or that the war of terror is a war of attrition. Jihadists, specifically suicide bombers, are most commonly the best educated, most frustrated individuals in their societies, yearning for community and something worth fighting for. Terrorists often come from the same soccer clubs, and believe in the same notions, in exactly the same way social clubs and groups do the world over. A telling question the author asked of a Cheney admin official: "Do the Afghanis see us as guests, and are we acting like guests?", reveals why we will never win this war with drones and disappearances. What motivates Jihadists is the notion that they are fighting a great and evil enemy, the west, and every effort we make to kill, imprison or suppress them for these beliefs only proves that point. Every surviving villager of a drone stricken city is not left with profound fear or love of America, but hatred and resolve. The economics of belief are inverse, for any belief, be it Jihad, Environmentalism, family, or Libertarianism. We feel worse the more reward we get for selling out our friends. This flies in the face of my former impression that all the Jihadists needed was economic hope The author promises solutions, and almost delivers. He clearly wanted readers to draw their own conclusions. I'd say the best solution is a sense of humor and humility. My own journey from hard line environmentalism to pragmatic economic environmentalism shows that meeting good people on the way can do a lot to soften the edges of beliefs. There is still an economic fix, in that the economies where most Jihadists come from are not firing on all cylinders and are constantly reminded of their second rate status. The trick is giving them the opportunities to make an impact in the world, not just a crater.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Scott Atran has some interesting research to share, along with a heavy dose of professional chauvinism. This is a book dedicated to the proposition that exposing the social contexts from which violent extremists emerge will ultimately create a means to defeat them. To this end, Atran provides a detailed synopsis of his work with various criminals, terrorists, and their sympathizers (along with the familial and social networks that support them). The great revelation of this research seems to be Scott Atran has some interesting research to share, along with a heavy dose of professional chauvinism. This is a book dedicated to the proposition that exposing the social contexts from which violent extremists emerge will ultimately create a means to defeat them. To this end, Atran provides a detailed synopsis of his work with various criminals, terrorists, and their sympathizers (along with the familial and social networks that support them). The great revelation of this research seems to be that ideologically motivated suicide bombers are, in fact, psychologically normal. Too, there are consistencies in the anthropological profiles of suicidal extremists across cultural boundaries. There is good sense in this, and I'm grateful that Atran has written a book to address some misconceptions about the psychological, social, and religious characteristics of individual terrorists. However, the notion that this understanding will itself provide some kind of panacea in the quest for peace is either naive or arrogant; either way it is not convincing. The discussion of sacred values near the end of the book does a great deal to move Atran's argument forward, but he unfortunately gets sidetracked by fanciful political ideas (e.g., Sarah Palin as a conduit for Alexis de Tocqueville) and only a marginal interest in the history of suicide terrorism as a military tactic rather than as a sociological phenomenon. The writing is lucid and concise, if at times a bit difficult (for a mono-cultural American anglophile, the blizzard of Indonesian and Arabic names is relentless and often impossible to remember from one page to the next). Atran takes the opportunity to perpetuate his feud with Sam Harris (and other prominent anti-religious intellectuals), which is amusing... but not particularly enlightening. Attacking what he seems to view as the "new atheist's" weakest arguments isn't exactly the most compelling way to build his own. Ultimately, this is a worthwhile addition to the ongoing dialogue about terrorism; but gleaning the insights Atran offers isn't an effortless enterprise.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Laura Lee

    In the past when discussing terrorists, my (only partly-joking) observation has always been, "They need a hobby." Well, turns out I was right. Sort of. Scott Atran's basic premise is that jihadis do not become jihadis solely because of religious beliefs, but due largely to social marginalization, depressed economic conditions, and because their friends are doing it. It's kind of an underwhelming revelation, but Atran seems to know his stuff and backs it up with years of field research, candid In the past when discussing terrorists, my (only partly-joking) observation has always been, "They need a hobby." Well, turns out I was right. Sort of. Scott Atran's basic premise is that jihadis do not become jihadis solely because of religious beliefs, but due largely to social marginalization, depressed economic conditions, and because their friends are doing it. It's kind of an underwhelming revelation, but Atran seems to know his stuff and backs it up with years of field research, candid conversations with jihadis, and consultations with fellow experts. His solution to the problem is that Westerners must destroy these enemies by making them our friends. But how, exactly? And isn't the whole point of jihad that they would rather kill us than be our friends? (Case in point: Israel) Atran seems to think that positive role-models, greater political representation, across-the-aisle conversations, and a halt to Western political and military intervention in the Arab world would deter a lot of would-be terrorists. He advocates more field research in order to understand how terrorists are created: through extensive and complex social networks, especially in large European cities like Madrid and Paris, and on the Web. But what then? Atran doesn't exactly seem to know himself. He goes off on some unrelated tangents, like taking "new atheists" Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to task, which really muddled the book and didn't seem to have much to do with his premise. I feel like I learned a few things, but for the most part this book just highlighted what a murky, frightening mess the world of jihadis really is, and left me scratching my head about what exactly we're supposed to about it. I don't think that's what Scott Atran was going for.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mumallah

    Pretty good once you get past the beginning. Definitely a book I could recommend to a non-academic and definitely one of the first books I would recommend as my "patriot's study guide" -- that is, what I think should be required political reading for Americans. A very good detailed analysis of several concrete terrorist plots. Makes a very convincing (and sorely needed) case for evidence-based policy when it comes to terrorism (and probably violent crime in general). Also very good work on social Pretty good once you get past the beginning. Definitely a book I could recommend to a non-academic and definitely one of the first books I would recommend as my "patriot's study guide" -- that is, what I think should be required political reading for Americans. A very good detailed analysis of several concrete terrorist plots. Makes a very convincing (and sorely needed) case for evidence-based policy when it comes to terrorism (and probably violent crime in general). Also very good work on social networks, though it is clearly written for a lay audience (IMHO a good choice). The empirical data on the Palestine-Israel conflict, which he gets from Khalid Shikaki's Ramallah-based research center, is deeply engaging and this book is worth looking at just for that, and the subsequent section on negotiation. His examination of religion and the inescapable irrationality of human beings is really where the book shines (also where he takes on the most Islamophobic of the New Atheist darlings, especially Sam Harris). Anthropologists have been taking down "rational actor" constructs since the inception of the discipline, and Prof. Atran, in spite of his current distance from the discipline, stays true in that and also in his deep engagement with the central question of what makes us human. As I said, would definitely recommend the book, but if you're looking for heavy duty academic anthropology (not an insult, but rather a comment on length, level of vocabulary, etc.), look elsewhere (he has a book on the Maya that I think fits the bill, as well as others on science and religion). This book reads more like a policy proscription, and probably should.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Omar Mumallah

    Pretty good once you get past the beginning. Definitely a book I could recommend to a non-academic and definitely one of the first books I would recommend as my "patriot's study guide" -- that is, what I think should be required political reading for Americans. A very good detailed analysis of several concrete terrorist plots. Makes a very convincing (and sorely needed) case for evidence-based policy when it comes to terrorism (and probably violent crime in general). Also very good work on social Pretty good once you get past the beginning. Definitely a book I could recommend to a non-academic and definitely one of the first books I would recommend as my "patriot's study guide" -- that is, what I think should be required political reading for Americans. A very good detailed analysis of several concrete terrorist plots. Makes a very convincing (and sorely needed) case for evidence-based policy when it comes to terrorism (and probably violent crime in general). Also very good work on social networks, though it is clearly written for a lay audience (IMHO a good choice). The empirical data on the Palestine-Israel conflict, which he gets from Khalid Shikaki's Ramallah-based research center, is deeply engaging and this book is worth looking at just for that, and the subsequent section on negotiation. His examination of religion and the inescapable irrationality of human beings is really where the book shines (also where he takes on the most Islamophobic of the New Atheist darlings, especially Sam Harris). Anthropologists have been taking down "rational actor" constructs since the inception of the discipline, and Prof. Atran, in spite of his current distance from the discipline, stays true in that and also in his deep engagement with the central question of what makes us human. As I said, would definitely recommend the book, but if you're looking for heavy duty academic anthropology (not an insult, but rather a comment on length, level of vocabulary, etc.), look elsewhere (he has a book on the Maya that I think fits the bill, as well as others on science and religion). This book reads more like a policy proscription, and probably should.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael Fitzgerald

    For me, this is one of the best things I've ever read about the mind-set of people who get sucked into committing terrorist acts. Scott Atran spent many years actually interviewing such people (often in prison cells, in French) and speaking to people who knew them. His observation that most of them are more joined to one another by the football (soccer) teams they root for than by any deep religious convictions speaks volumes to me: young men (usually) who feel powerless against what they view For me, this is one of the best things I've ever read about the mind-set of people who get sucked into committing terrorist acts. Scott Atran spent many years actually interviewing such people (often in prison cells, in French) and speaking to people who knew them. His observation that most of them are more joined to one another by the football (soccer) teams they root for than by any deep religious convictions speaks volumes to me: young men (usually) who feel powerless against what they view as injustice, who want to act in a way that makes them famous (infamous) and important for once in their lives. It also belies the current approach (and I mean now) of western powers thinking that "bombing the hell out of them" or sending drones is gong to solve this. Above all, this book gives insight into these people as human beings --- hugely misguided human beings, but human beings nonetheless. Anyone who commits these kinds of acts --- whether it be as an act of so-called jihad or "to save babies" as the person who killed three people in a planned parenthood clinic said, is harboring a deep pathology which, sadly for the innocents around them, can be triggered by external events and discourse. The easy access to guns in America only allows their responses to be as deadly as the one in California.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Russell

    I just couldn't get through this one. It was an interesting viewpoint, probably the exact sort of things we should read. However, it was more like a textbook than a narrative. It felt like I was having to memorize names and places for a test. The author would find a wider audience if he focused more on the stories and presentation of ideas for thought and discussion. Let me make up an example of what I mean. If a person is named Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistini, I just couldn't get through this one. It was an interesting viewpoint, probably the exact sort of things we should read. However, it was more like a textbook than a narrative. It felt like I was having to memorize names and places for a test. The author would find a wider audience if he focused more on the stories and presentation of ideas for thought and discussion. Let me make up an example of what I mean. If a person is named Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistini, can't we present that once, but then say "for brevity and ease of reading for those not previously introduced to Arabic names, we'll refer to him as 'Jamil' from now on." The names of places presented the same difficulty. Yes, I in particular have difficulty with foreign words and names. And yes, part of the point of this book is to introduce Western readers to Arabic culture, which obviously involves unfamiliar words, but the book is also clearly intended for the uninitiated, and most efforts to teach start with more familiar and then bridge to less familiar. How much enlightenment is happening when most people stop reading (as I did) because they can't endure 600 pages of such. Anyway, some of the ideas and viewpoints that the author did manage to elucidate were quite intriguing. I just wanted said ideas to be presented more succinctly.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sean

    Atran provides a great insight into the nature of terrorism in the modern world. He clearly has spent an enormous amount of time in research, both in the field and in the library, offering persuasive arguments that terror emerges from decentralized social groups of friends and family. Those responsible for the Madrid bombings in 2005 and the various bombings in Indonesia get the most focus, but he doesn't neglect the more politically salient topics of Palestine and Pakistan. My review would have Atran provides a great insight into the nature of terrorism in the modern world. He clearly has spent an enormous amount of time in research, both in the field and in the library, offering persuasive arguments that terror emerges from decentralized social groups of friends and family. Those responsible for the Madrid bombings in 2005 and the various bombings in Indonesia get the most focus, but he doesn't neglect the more politically salient topics of Palestine and Pakistan. My review would have been five stars were it not for the final chapter. It's unclear whether his publisher wanted him to up the page count or he just chose to engage in overly-vitriolic attack on Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk. I certainly agree with the complaints that the aforenamed are awful--largely counterproductive and unrefined--but Atran seriously breaks the tone of his work by indulging himself in bizarrely vehement defense of religion. He follows it with a cursory and entirely unsatisfactory section on the origin of religion that at several points seemed contradictory. The chapter as a whole just does not fit with the rest of the book and nearly pushed me to a 3-star rating. Read the book, but skip the last bit.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Andrewh

    This book takes a different tack from most mainstream terrorim studies works, in that the author actually talks to the people involved in militant activity, which entails going into the communities themselves (in Indonesia, Morocco, Palestine) whence the suicide bombers and other militants emerged, in order to understand better the motives and reasons for such their actions. Atran is a social anthropologist and his takes the view that terrorist actions can only be understood by looking at the This book takes a different tack from most mainstream terrorim studies works, in that the author actually talks to the people involved in militant activity, which entails going into the communities themselves (in Indonesia, Morocco, Palestine) whence the suicide bombers and other militants emerged, in order to understand better the motives and reasons for such their actions. Atran is a social anthropologist and his takes the view that terrorist actions can only be understood by looking at the social networks that create and enable them, and his on-the-ground research is very interesting and revealing, although does not, as the title suggests, really give us much hope of 'unmaking' terrorists, only understanding them more. Although, as he points out, the threat of the global organisation called Al Qaeda is now largely diminished, there is now a much more diffuse and frgamented 'movement' to contend with, which is much harder to combat with the large-scale military force favoured by the US.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Murano

    "In a moment of naive epiphany, I felt that if this blossoming young woman could just spend a little time with one of these young men from Gaza neither would need to die. But the wall grows between them each passing day, blocking all human touch." The "terrorist," the latest in a long line of terms constructed to legitimize Our violence to dehumanize the Other. In proper Orwellian fashion, over the last twenty years Our rhetoric has done a complete reversal from Us being divinely driven in the "In a moment of naive epiphany, I felt that if this blossoming young woman could just spend a little time with one of these young men from Gaza neither would need to die. But the wall grows between them each passing day, blocking all human touch." The "terrorist," the latest in a long line of terms constructed to legitimize Our violence to dehumanize the Other. In proper Orwellian fashion, over the last twenty years Our rhetoric has done a complete reversal from Us being divinely driven in the fight against the "Godless Communist," to being on the side of secular-rationality fighting against the "uncivilized" religious fundamentalist. Atran, citing his extensive fieldwork and an wide-ranging sociological studies, humanizes. He shows us that that what motivates us in our everyday life is no different than what motivates our 'enemy;' Kinship, identity, a need for belong. We tend to view our Self as always acting rationally, the Other as irrational, ideologically driven, or just 'evil'. Atran methodologically shows why this is not necessarily the case.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maughn Gregory

    The best part of this book is the smallest part - Atran's atheistic religious anthropology. The second-best part is the next-smallest: his take on contemporary Islamic sociology. Unfortunately the most tedious parts are also the longest: his travelogues and complex narratives of the birthing of terrorist cells. The book would have been much better with some good editing - it could have been a third shorter, especially since he repeated whole passages almost verbatim in various places - I suspect The best part of this book is the smallest part - Atran's atheistic religious anthropology. The second-best part is the next-smallest: his take on contemporary Islamic sociology. Unfortunately the most tedious parts are also the longest: his travelogues and complex narratives of the birthing of terrorist cells. The book would have been much better with some good editing - it could have been a third shorter, especially since he repeated whole passages almost verbatim in various places - I suspect this book is composed of many separate pieces he wrote, in which he used some of the same passages, and neither he nor his editor caught the redundancies in the book manuscript. Still, I find his bottom-line argument compelling: most Islamist terrorism is poorly-planned, fly-by-night lucky coincidences of boyhood commraderie plus delusions of cosmic grandeur. And I would like to read Atran's more scholarly book on religious anthropology.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Adam Bricker

    This book wasn't an easy read for me. While I found it interesting, it spoke to a subject(Islam) that I'm not very familiar with. I liked the structure, in that in the first few sections the chapters would alternate between Muslim issues and better known classic European and American history issues so I felt like I could somewhat understand the correlation between situations. The last section dealing mostly with religion and religious perceptions, as opposed to militant religious groups, really This book wasn't an easy read for me. While I found it interesting, it spoke to a subject(Islam) that I'm not very familiar with. I liked the structure, in that in the first few sections the chapters would alternate between Muslim issues and better known classic European and American history issues so I felt like I could somewhat understand the correlation between situations. The last section dealing mostly with religion and religious perceptions, as opposed to militant religious groups, really made sense and grabbed my attention. This book isn't for everybody, but if you're interested in the idea of nature vs. nurture and just human interaction in general definitely give it a chance.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mark Sequeira

    So far, this is a great book on the inner reasoning of terrorists and the 'social' or 'communal' aspect of why they fight. This book is somewhat similar to Robert Pape's "Dying to Win" and Marc Sageman's "Understanding Terror Networks" both also highly recommended. Understanding the key relationships between many actual and would-be attackers will also help us understand why these networks are so hard to penetrate. Similar to the family/clan style of fighting favored in Chechnya where one cannot So far, this is a great book on the inner reasoning of terrorists and the 'social' or 'communal' aspect of why they fight. This book is somewhat similar to Robert Pape's "Dying to Win" and Marc Sageman's "Understanding Terror Networks" both also highly recommended. Understanding the key relationships between many actual and would-be attackers will also help us understand why these networks are so hard to penetrate. Similar to the family/clan style of fighting favored in Chechnya where one cannot run or let down a brother or cousin. Highly recommended!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jordana

    A fascinating read on the processes of a human mind in relation to extremism and morals. Atran is very careful to always talk about the subjects as the human beings they really are, instead of the media's propensity to see "Terrorist" before that. Instead he looks at what makes a person go to that stage of zealot. Definitely if you have an interest in social justice, terrorism, and how we perveive/how they perceive themselves.

  23. 4 out of 5

    P

    Atran is a brilliant adventurer and scientist who effortlessly jumps around between road-trip stories in the Khyber Pass during the 1970's to effective explanations of the differences between Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. He also tells funny jokes and explains the relevance of their punchlines. When reading this on the subway, I wanted to scream, "That's it!" at random strangers. Worth reading if interesting in evolution, revolution, or International Affairs.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rhett Talley

    I have high regard for Mr Atran, for he is among the leading evolutionarily informed anthropologists publishing today, however, I have higher regard still for a compelling and flowing narrative, which this book doesn't quite attain. It is, though, an important and vital work.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    While this book didn't agree with me in some parts, it also made me think about how little we know about other cultures. This lack of information influences our policy, opinions and biases. It's worth reading, especially the first half.

  26. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian

  27. 4 out of 5

    Fay

    Interesting, but so hard to read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ivar

    A very interesting take on terrorism. I give it a three strt since I thought that the last 1/3 of the book was kinda slow and coulden't stand up to teh fisrt 2/3.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Michele

    a times a dry read but very informative. The western governments really need to address their tactics used to battle terrorism and suicide bombing.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Snickerdoodle

    Recommended by On Being ... from a show with Scott Atran

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