Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures

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by Neil Godfrey

So far we have noted how one becomes a terrorist as a consequence of embracing a violent ideology and a desire to take action in response to personal or group grievances. But not all terrorists in history, or today, have been overly bothered by either of these things. For some the primary motivation has been the opportunity to break out of a hum drum existence and live a life of adventure and win high status among peers as a heroic warrior.

Look at the following description of the man who laid the foundations of Islamic State, al-Zarqawi. (After Zarqawi was killed his organization under new leadership was eventually transformed into today’s Islamic State.) Formatting and bolding are mine in all quotations….

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The search for status and risk taking can be unrelated to any sense of grievance or ideology. An example of how far the separation between politics and radical action can go was recounted to one of the authors in a government-sponsored meeting. A young Iraqi had been captured trying to place an improvised explosive device (IED) on a road traversed by U.S. forces. When interrogated, he showed surprisingly little animosity toward Americans. Placing IEDs was a high-status, well-paid occupation; he was saving his money to get to America.


The United States placed a price of $25 million on his head—the same bounty offered for Osama bin Laden. At the onset of his criminal career, nobody would have thought that Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, later known as Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, could gain such prominence on the international stage.

Born in 1966 he grew up in a middle-class family in a suburb of Zarqua, Jordan. His school performance was weak, and he dropped out of high school in his final year, refusing to undertake vocational training or to continue his studies. He was not interested in religious studies either and did not attend religious services. Instead, he got involved with other neighborhood troublemakers, quickly creating a reputation for himself as an aggressive and dangerous thug—not because of his extraordinary physical strength but because of his bad temper. He took one unskilled job after another, only to be fired for neglecting his duties and inciting fights. In 1986 a mandatory two-year military service took him away from the street career he was building, but he came back with the same drive for intimidation and domination.

His contemporaries recall that at this time he drank too much and earned a nickname, “the green man,” for the numerous tattoos he acquired (a practice condemned by Islam). He liked to stand out in other ways too:

  • in several cases, he became involved in altercations with local police, repeatedly causing his father the embarrassment of picking him up from the police station.
  • In 1987 he stabbed a local man, earning a two-months prison sentence, which was eventually substituted by a fine.
  • Numerous arrests followed—for shoplifting, for drug dealing, and for attempted rape.
  • Although the authorities did not approve of Ahmad’s behavior, there were plenty of admirers. Neighborhood young men feared and respected him, and he began frequenting a Palestinian enclave where he became a leader for young Palestinian refugees.

To keep him out of trouble, his mother enrolled Ahmad in a religious school at a mosque in the center of Amman. There, among Islamic radicals preparing for jihad in Afghanistan, he realized that his talents might best be applied in war. Hoping to be sent to the front of the fighting, he submitted to the most basic requirements of Islam by beginning to attend sermons and abstaining from alcohol. In 1989, with a group of peers, Ahmad finally set off on the road to Afghanistan.

To his dismay he arrived too late: the war against the Soviets was already over, and he could only join the fighters in celebration. But the region was in ruins, the situation was chaotic, and Ahmad thought he might yet find his adventure. 

[Zarqawi built up network connections with influential members of the radical Islamist movement and befriended the Islamist ideologue Al-Maqdisi who led him to take up journalism.]

The war with the Soviets was over, but a civil war was just beginning in Afghanistan. Wasting no time, Ahmad joined the majority Pashtun side and gave up journalism for his true passion—fighting. This was an opportunity to learn from the best. Ahmad attended several training camps, learned to use automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and absorbed the politics and practices of war, including rape and beheading. According to a biographer,

“In Afghanistan, he filled himself with the spirit of jihad, no matter what the cause: for the liberation of Afghanistan, for Islam, for the liberation of Iraq, or on any other grounds. Zarqawi discovered in himself the personality of a fighter.”8

[In 1993 Ahmad returned to Jordan but was always watched by the police.]

Of those under suspicion, Ahmad was already well known to the local police for his prewar delinquency. Now steeped in the Islamic ideology he had absorbed in his Afghan years, he started to “act locally,” first subjugating his immediate family to the strict and arbitrary rules he thought important. Suddenly his family were alone in town wearing traditional Afghan clothing, and his brothers were forbidden to watch television.

Once Ahmad had subdued his family, he moved on to larger domains. He went into crowded streets and the marketplace and shouted out his call to embrace jihad—this in a city where public sermons were forbidden. 

[Ahmad invited the more accomplished speaker and intellectual, Maqdisi, to join him.]

It was around this time that he adopted the new name, al-Zarqawi—clearly aiming to expand his influence far beyond his hometown. The two friends—the bully and the ideologue—joined about three hundred other Afghan veterans to form a terrorist cell. . . . 

[Zarqawi and Maqdisi were arrested by the Jordanian police.]

Zarqawi, Maqdisi, and some other members of [his terrorist cell] were sent to the maximum-security prison Suwaqah. Here, among the worst offenders, not only political prisoners but also felons and drug dealers, . . .  Zarqawi quickly established his status by beating up those who challenged him. His strategy was the same for intellectual as for physical challengers: when a prison newspaper printed articles critical of Zarqawi, he pummeled the authors.

Building up his main “arguments” for status, he lifted weights obsessively, becoming beefier and stronger than he had been before prison. He told stories of his heroic role in the Afghan war (the war that he missed) to impress other prisoners. He demanded complete obedience from those who wanted to be under his protection. They had to wear what he told them, read what he approved, and get his permission for any activity, even a visit to the infirmary. Violators were brutalized.

Observers recalled that he could give orders to his followers with only a blink of his eye. In addition to the sticks, Zarqawi had carrots: he distributed food rations to his followers and on occasion even cared for those who were sick or injured. But what won them over most was his overt defiance of prison authorities. He refused to wear a prison uniform and demanded that his side-kicks be allowed the same laxity. The army had to intervene to enforce the rule, and when Zarqawi realized he had no chance against the armed troops, he shouted insults in soldiers’ faces.

On several other occasions he tried to organize prison uprisings, and when the head of prison security summoned him, Zarqawi never once looked away from his eyes. Over months and years, the prison authorities came to fear and avoid conflicts with this berserker. Eventually, Zarqawi and his gang gained special status. The whole prison wing where former Bayt Al-Imam members [Zarqawi’s terrorist cell] were held was excused from morning rounds and, eventually, from wearing a uniform.

[In 2004 Maqdisi publicly acknowledge Zarqawi as his leader.]

In prison, for the first time in his life Zarqawi found the status he sought. He was more powerful than anyone. He got to this position through brutal force and unyielding defiance of authority. When in 1999 King Hussein died and Zarqawi was released in an amnesty, he had served only five years of his fifteen-year term. But it was the best five years of his life, so much so that he later told his friends and relatives that he had not really been glad to be released. He told his brother-in-law that life behind bars was much more enjoyable to him than his uneventful life as an average Jordanian. He even stayed an extra night in prison after being released.

[Once out of prison Zarqawi took some of his followers and went in search of bin Laden. On finding him he pledged him his loyalty.]

Being a part of a larger organization did not suit Zarqawi’s grand ambitions, and he moved away from al Qaeda’s main ground in Kabul to Herat, stirring anxieties in the terrorist leadership about his autonomy and unruliness. In 2003 the United States began its offensive against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. . . . Zarqawi saw a great chance to make Iraq his own battleground, out from under the leadership of al Qaeda.

The world soon learned his name and saw his face in connection with multiple kidnappings and brutal beheadings of U.S. and allied forces contractors in Iraq, most notably his video-taped beheading of Nicholas Berg. In addition Zarqawi began a campaign of violence against the Shi’a of Iraq, with the goal of eliciting Shi’a reprisals against Sunni that would rouse the “inattentive” Sunni to jihad against both Western invaders and heretic Shi’a . . . .

[The al-Qaeda leadership rebuked Zarqawi for his attacks on fellow Muslims, but in vain.]

But pressure from authorities had not stopped Ahmad on the streets of Zarqa, had not stopped him in prison, and did not stop his bloody campaign in Iraq. [Al-Qaeda’s] political plans and calculations were of little consequence to Zarqawi. All he had ever wanted was power and the thrill of violence, and he got both from his violent operations in Iraq.

In 2006 a U.S. air strike destroyed a house where Zarqawi was hiding. He died shortly after being discovered in the rubble.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1516-1529). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

frictionZarqawi was not the first to undertake terrorism for the status and the adventure. McCauley and Moskalenko show the same personality drivers in the nineteenth century Russian anarchists Alexander Barannikov (always there when a violent action was being planned, less engaged in other educational and promotional activities) and Adrian Michailov (largely to impress the ladies).

The same trait was observed in the European terrorists of the 1970s:

A similar emphasis on risk taking is evident in the student terrorists of the 1970s. The two most famous terrorist groups that emerged in Europe were the Italian Red Brigades (BR) and the German Red Army Fraction (RAF). Della Porta provides excerpts from interviews that show some of the thrill value of violence and the special attraction of guns as instruments of dominance and violence.

Thus the Italian militants also glorified the idea of an adventurous and active life. The dangers involved in participating in a terrorist organization were considered “the expression of a dynamic and interesting life,” a contrast to the dullness of ordinary life.

Both Italian and German militants had “very special relationships with guns.” Guns held a particular glamour: “the gun . . . gives you more strength,” one militant explained . . .; “arms have a charm . . . that makes you feel more macho,” said another. . . . You can feel “very secure of yourself because you keep a gun in your hands . . . [they give you] a crazy self-confidence.”7

McCauley and Moskalenko discuss the universal drive for status and its psychological and evolutionary roots. (For those suspicious of evolutionary psychology after reading Richard Carrier’s recent swipe at the field have no need to worry: the drive for status is a trait found world wide and the evolutionary explanations for it suffer none of the superficial arguments and assertions Carrier identifies in certain publications.)

Rather than get into the science behind the drive for status and the place of risk-taking ventures in enhancing status I will quote a range of other scholarly works that also identify the drive for adventure and status as a significant motivator for many who go the way of terrorism today.

(I should point out that I am not saying all terrorists are motivated by adventure and status. Nor am I saying that where these motivations are found they are necessarily the only ones present.)

Terrorists and Other Radicalised Warriors

41w81XuILGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“These susceptibilities become motivations for terrorism, I learned from my extensive studies, and can and often do include personal traumatization, deep traumatic bereavement, anger, a desire for revenge, heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others, humiliation, frustrated aspirations, social alienation, marginalization, secondary trauma, a desire to prove one’s manhood, to belong, to protect others, to have an adventure or to be a hero.”

“As I gaze into the open faces of these young boys, I am overcome with emotion listening to them. They are one year older than my son at home. And just like my son, Alan had two sisters— but his were killed in the shootout. These boys are so ordinary in their innocent boyishness. It’s hard to take in this story and comprehend it’s real— they tell it like it’s a movie they saw. There is very little visible emotion in any of them except boyish excitement of telling an adventure tale.

“And when young people especially feel an overwhelming sense of not belonging, there is a vulnerability to extremist ideologies and groups that offer adventure, identity and belonging that is based on hatred and violence.”

Speckhard, Anne (2012). Talking to Terrorists Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs


“Internal motives stem from what an individual wants or needs for himself, in terms of the perceived benefits of membership in an extremist group, such as a feeling of belonging, escape into a new identity, adventure, or money.”

“While few would dispute the importance of religious allure in attracting fighters to the field, the conversation online frequently turned to the theme of fun and adventure.

The overall effect, likely intentional, made al Qaeda look like an adventure camp for young men.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015). ISIS: The State of Terror


“Islamic State fangirls on Twitter mooned over the group’s hirsute warriors. Marriage brings status; the death of a husband brings more, as well as financial compensation. Status is not the only reason young women join the Islamic State. They share many of the men’s motives: seeking adventure, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves, indignation at the suffering of their coreligionists, a chance to rebuild the caliphate, or a belief that they are living in the Last Days.”

McCants, William (2015). The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State 


isisinside“‘In most cases, they’re adventurers who don’t have a pot to piss in back home, whether that’s Belgium, Manchester, Algeria, Yemen or, OK, Georgia. . . .'”

“The final factor leading foreign fighters to ISIS, according to Maher, is pure adventurism. Adrenaline junkies tend to be nonpracticing Muslims and are often drug users or addicts, or involved in criminality and gang violence back home— much as al-Zarqawi himself was in Jordan before discovering the mosque. Going off to fight in Syria represents just another rush for these types.”

Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror 


phoenix“For many young Westerners, joining the jihad or the rebels is an adventure, a kind of military summer camp.”

“The foreigners, in particular, are excited at the idea of going to war.”

Napoleoni, Loretta (2014). The Islamist phoenix : Islamic State and the redrawing of the Middle East


“The militant life brought not only regular meals and pocket money but also the revered status of a mujahid.”

hassan“The destruction ofvthe economic base of the Tamil areas was a potent factor in motivating many young people to join the LTTE, which gave their young lives purpose, meaning and status.

“For the individual, participation in a suicide mission is not about dying and killing alone, but has a broader significance for achieving multiple purposes. These include gaining community approval, political success, liberation of the homeland; personal redemption and mark of honour, achieving an exalted status of martyr for the survival of the community . . .”

Hassan, Riaz (2011). Life as a weapon: the global rise of suicide bombings


insideTerrorism“Although Baader may perhaps be an extreme example of this phenomenon, action is the undeniable cynosure for all terrorists—perhaps even more so, the thrill and heady excitement that accompany it. Far more of Peci’s 222-page account of his life as a Red Brigadist, for instance, is devoted to recounting in obsessive detail the types of weapons (and their technical specifications) used on particular RB operations and which group members actually did the shooting than to elucidating the organization’s ideological aims and political goals. Baumann is particularly candid about the cathartic relief that an operation brought to a small group of individuals living underground, in close proximity to one another, constantly on the run and fearful of arrest and betrayal. The real stress, he said, came from life in the group—not from the planning and execution of attacks. Others, like Stern, Collins, the RAF’s Silke Maier-Witt and the RB’s Susana Ronconi, are even more explicit about the “rush” and the sense of power and accomplishment they derived from the violence they inflicted. “Nothing in my life had ever been this exciting,” Stern enthused as she drifted deeper into terrorism. Collins similarly recalls how he led an “action-packed existence” during his six years in the IRA, “living each day with the excitement of feeling I was playing a part in taking on the Orange State.” For Maier-Witt, the intoxicating allure of action was sufficient to overcome the misgivings she had about the murder of Schleyer’s four bodyguards in order to kidnap the man himself. “At the time I felt the brutality of that action. . . . [But it] was a kind of excitement too because something had happened. The real thing,” she consoled herself, had “started now.” Ronconi is the most expansive and incisive in analyzing the terrorist’s psychology. “The main thing was that you felt you were able to influence the world about you, instead of experiencing it passively,” thereby combining intrinsic excitement with profound satisfaction.

“Aum effectively approached these young, intelligent but depressed elites, proposing to provide status, money, facilities and the tremendous opportunities to allow them to explore their potential capability to the maximum, and made them believe they could find themselves in Aum.”

“The perpetrators of this violence are thus accorded a special status and are revered as shaheed batal—“martyr heroes” or istishahadi—“he who martyrs himself.””

Hoffman, Bruce. (2006) Inside terrorism


“The more suicide terrorists justify their actions on the basis of religious or ideological motives that match the beliefs of a broader national community, the more the status of terrorist martyrs is elevated, and the more plausible it becomes that others will follow in their footsteps.”

“If at all possible, terrorist groups need their suicide attackers to be accepted as martyrs by the wider community. This is important because individuals are more likely to volunteer if they can expect to be accorded high status after their deaths than if their sacrifices will go unnoticed.

Pape, Robert. (2005) Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism


newthreat“. . . by 2012 or 2013, Islamic extremist ideas were attracting people who were younger, less educated and poorer than, certainly, the majority of the militants of the late 1990s in the UK. Their knowledge of Islam, and indeed of Islamic extremism, was more superficial, and the attraction of militancy appeared to be much less ideological. If the similarity with gangs is striking, it should not be surprising. Militant groups offered a different form of gang-type community with a different narrative but with often similar benefits — purpose, companionship, status, excitement, adventure and the prospect, infrequently realised, of both material and sexual advantages. . . . Above all, there was a sense of empowerment, as was very clear from the music, in both its jihadi and its more conventional versions. . . .”

“To young, alienated, bored men from the UK as much as their counterparts in Morocco, Turkey or Pakistan, the conflict offered sexual opportunity, status and adventure — opportunities that could be seen, at least in the eyes of a particularly naive and ignorant young person, as more inspiring than trying to scratch together fifty pounds for a night out in a run-down British port city before another week’s work flipping burgers or studying for a low-grade utility degree.”

Burke, Jason. (2015) The New Threat: the Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy


Pantucci-We-Love-Death-web1“At the time few questions were asked about how these young men had been persuaded to leave the comfort of England for an adventure in a lawless and far-off land, but with the benefit of hindsight and insights provided by those who were at the Finsbury Park mosque at the time, we are now better informed about the Egyptian cleric’s charisma and presence. . . . “

“Returning warriors would regale newer recruits with tales of adventure and experiences fighting or training on the frontline, while posters would offer sign-up sheets for those who were eager to go ahead.”

“But most of the training took place beyond the mosque’s four walls, with Abu Hamza regularly organising camping and adventure trips for his young warriors in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.”

“‘The only qualifications needed were that those who attended ‘were serious, [and] were going to go on to fight in Afghanistan.’ But they remained at heart a rambunctious group of young men on an adventure holiday: prior to departing for the camp near Lahore, neighbours complained to police about the noise they made. . . .”

Pantucci, Raffaello. (2015) “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists


Atran_TalkToEn“Especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers.”

“They leave pheromone-like tracers for those who come after, letters of love for their peers and heroic posters and videos with the thrill of guns and personal power made into an eternally meaningful adventure through sacred-book-swearing devotion to a greater community and cause.”

“Moral outrage and a large dose of frustration and boredom seem to impel the search for meaning and adventure.

Most human violence is committed by young people seeking adventure, dreams of glory, and esteem in the eyes of their peers.

Atran, Scott. (2010) Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to be Human

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures”

  1. So, basically the same reason that young men join the US armed forces: get the hell out of my shithole town, see the world, and do something that matters. Oh, and finally get laid.

    1. The first of the Weiss and Hassan quotes is by a “Richard” who is said to be a former top-ranking counterterrorism official at the Pentagon. His words continue condescendingly. . . .

      . . . These are the same guys militaries around the world have been counting on forever to be privates or infantrymen. They’re knucklehead nineteen-year-olds looking to do something in their life because they don’t have shit to do back in Belgium.

  2. Related to adventurism: many think of themselves as soldiers. Seeking adventure, violence. But in fighting physically for what they consider a good cause. Fighting against those who had physically attached their country earlier.

    As seen in past British history, street thugs from the prisons, with a little discipline, and a new ideological motivation, often make decent soldiers. Since they are accustomed to violence.

    Sometimes therefore, the difference between a soldier and a terrorist is less than some might think.

    The thrill of a physical fight, miliitary adventurism too, and an offended morality, are factors in both.

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