The Zoolander Theory of Terrorism

Jihadists are often portrayed as brainwashed dupes. They're not.

Reuters / FBI

Who knew that Zoolander would eclipse The Siege as the most prescient Hollywood movie about jihadist terrorism?

The Siege, scripted by Lawrence Wright—who went on to author a groundbreaking study of al-Qaeda called The Looming Tower—is a pre-9/11 drama about a wave of jihadist atrocities in New York and the human-rights catastrophe thereby entrained, including the introduction of martial law and the internment of Arabs across the city. Zoolander, released just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, is by contrast a comedy about an imbecilic male model who is brainwashed by an outlandish criminal organization to carry out an act of international terrorism.

The movie is inane and frivolous, if occasionally funny. But the brainwashing narrative it parodies isn’t—it’s the same one that shows up in some of the more sensational reportage on Western recruits to ISIS, especially the so-calledjihadi brides.” Consider, for example, the case of the three East London schoolgirls who absconded from England in February to join the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” in Syria. Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, were just ordinary teenagers with ordinary teenage enthusiasms—until, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, they had their “minds poisoned by this appalling death cult.”

The tabloid Daily Mail constructed a similar story. In one report, it claimed that the girls had been “ruthlessly groomed online” and were “brainwashed in their bedrooms.” It noted that both Begum and Sultana were prolific Twitter users, and that Begum had followed scores of pro-ISIS accounts, giving her “access to a torrent of appalling images and footage.” It quoted Begum’s sister as saying, “We love her, she’s our baby. She’s a sensible girl. ... [ISIS is] preying on young innocent girls and it’s not right.”

This infantilizing narrative is the same one that the parents of Aqsa Mahmood—the 20-year-old ISIS propagandist from Scotland investigated for potential connections with the three schoolgirls—offered to explain their own daughter’s radicalization: “She may believe that the jihadists of ISIS are her new family but they are not and are simply using her. … Our daughter is brainwashed and deluded.” Writing in The Guardian, Humaira Patel—herself a female Muslim student from East London—similarly reflected on how the three schoolgirls had been “led astray by people with no morals” and had fallen “prey to a form of virus spreading through the Internet, brainwashing young women and men in the name of religion.”

The idea that jihadists are brainwashed or somehow manipulated isn’t just a media trope. It also appears to be a foundational tenet of one of the most lauded counterterrorism initiatives in the world today—the Mohammad bin Naif Counseling and Care Center in Saudi Arabia—even though the center’s official materials make no reference to the term “brainwashing.”

The center, established in 2004, purports to “de-radicalize” jihadists—or, as the center prefers to call its detainees, “beneficiariesthrough an extensive program of religious re-education. It also provides psychological counseling, convenes classes in creative writing and artwork, and helps with post-treatment resettlement. These activities reflect the worldview that jihadists are misguided about the authentic nature of Islam and their religious obligations, and that these lost souls must be returned to the correct path. All this comes out clearly in the research of my doctoral student Mohammad Almaawi, who has undertaken an empirical analysis of the center’s practices and philosophies. One staff member told Almaawi that the majority of detainees were, in his view, “simpletons” whose youth—most are in their early 20s—and “lack of knowledge [made] it easy for extremists to target them and influence their way of thinking.” The solution to extremism, this staff member said, lay in the propagation of “true” Islam, by which he apparently meant the apolitical and conservative version defined by the center and the Saudi state.

Harvard terrorism scholar Jessica Stern recorded similar views among staff members in 2010, following her own visit to the center. “A Saudi official,” she wrote, “told the group of us who visited ... that the main reason for terrorism was ignorance about the true nature of Islam.” She observed that “the guiding philosophy” behind the center’s efforts “is that jihadists are victims, not villains, and they need tailored assistance—a view probably unacceptable in many countries.”

In the context of Western counterterrorism policy, the Saudi initiative may look like an innovation. But the rhetoric surrounding it in fact mirrors that of anti-cult groups in America during the late 1970s. In their research on the “cult scares” of that era, Anson Shupe and his colleagues noted that the notion of “brainwashing,” and the reverse process of “deprogramming,” formed the centerpiece of anti-cult activism and legitimized the physical abduction of cult members to protect them from the “demonic” embrace of the cult and its manipulative gurus. Shupe’s coauthor David Bromley has argued that the “captivity narrative” promulgated by anti-cult groups framed the cult member as a dupe, a naive innocent “subjected to overpowering subversive techniques.” According to Bromley, anti-cult activists believed that through deprogramming they could liberate cult members from mental enslavement and convert them back to normality, helping them disavow “the cult-imposed personality” and return to their “natural, pre-cult personality.”

The idea that terrorists are brainwashed ostensibly serves as an objective and value-free causal explanation: X became a terrorist because of Y’s bad influence. Only it’s not just that. It also serves as a delegitimizing device since it contains the unmistakable and highly moralized implication that joining a terrorist group (or a group proscribed as such) isn’t actually a conscious choice predicated on reasons. It is, rather, an occurrence orchestrated by others, a process that takes place without the knowledge of the person who undergoes it. Terrorists, in other words, are suckers, fools, the instruments of someone else’s will and evil designs.

This idea also promotes the reassuring myth that the roots of terrorism lie away from and beyond a given moral order. It allows people to believe that it is not their own revered texts, revered institutions, revered cultures, or deepest aspirations and values that produce terrorists, but reviled outsiders who occupy the shadows and exploit the vulnerable and the simple-minded.

But what scholarly research on terrorism overwhelmingly shows is that terrorists, in the main, are not only not crazy, but also not stupid. Furthermore, it shows that people who join terrorist organizations tend to do so because they believe they are defending what they see as a just cause. They join because they want to, and because they think that what they are doing is right and necessary. And in the case of Westernized jihadist “wannabes,” many, as Scott Atran and Marc Sageman have observed, are self-recruiters who actively seek out violent action before they become fully radicalized into the ideology of jihadist Salafism. To paraphrase Hannibal Lecter: Nothing made them happen; they happened.

A potentially richer discourse for talking about terrorism is one that takes terrorists seriously not as dupes but as autonomous moral agents who feel the gravitational pull of terrorist organizations, allow themselves to be seduced by their message, and make themselves available as potential recruits, willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause and the group. Understanding this, and not how they have been “brainwashed,” is the graver and more urgent explanatory project.

Terrorism is primarily a moral, and not an intellectual, failure: a violation of our common humanity and the sanctity of all human life. Terrorist groups invest great energy in ideologically justifying their depredations and rank criminality, casting themselves as defenders of the good. The key task for any de-radicalization program is to expose this fallacy and confront terrorists with the fundamental inhumanity of their actions. One way of doing this is to bring them into direct contact with the human pain and suffering they unleash. There is strong evidence to suggest that this works in conventional criminal-justice settings, and that offenders who are brought face-to-face with their victims are less likely to reoffend. It may yet work for terrorists, but only if we first credit them with the moral and intellectual abilities we so readily ascribe to ourselves.