Nonficiton — print. Free Press, 2011. 305 pgs. Gift.
Subtitled “The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals”, Ballen draws on a series of interviews with local government officials, clerics, and more than a hundred Islamic radicals to explain what drives young men — and young women — to a violent, extremist version of jihad. The six men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia explain how love and loneliness drove them to religious extremism. Economic stagnation and few opportunities mean men cannot move out of their parents’ homes and, therefore, cannot marry and crumbling family and tribal structures leave them with no one but extremist clerics to turn to.
Much of the ideas and explanations Ballen puts forth have been previously been discussed in academic circles so I am pleased to see them introduced to a more mainstream audience. The book goes beyond academic articles, though, in examining what happens to these young men after a failed jihad with most becoming largely disillusioned with the leaders of Al Quaeda and the Taliban and one becoming staunchly pro-American after American doctors saved his life despite his attempt to kill American soldiers. The explanations may seem very simplistic — the idea men turn to terrorism because they can’t have sex very eye-roll inducing — but are far more complex than the ones reported in the American media.
The authors states that he included these six stories out of more than a hundred because he found these particular stories the most compelling and could confirm most if not all of their accounts, but I could not help but wonder what stories he held back and why. Still accustomed to more academic articles, I expected a more systematic approach to the question of what drives terrorists and less of the author’s own personal opinions, but I realize now that I should have taken the title as more indicative of what the book would provide.