The National Interest

Inside the Mind of a Terrorist

In early May, intelligence officials foiled a plot to conceal a nonmetallic bomb under the clothing of an Al Qaeda operative. At the center of the drama of this second thwarted underwear operation is the bomb’s maker, a technical virtuoso who has created a range of explosive devices for Al Qaeda. This bomb maker is a shadowy, enigmatic, compelling figure, who is both fascinating and repellent.

What kind of man is this bomb maker? What motivates and sustains him? How can he be so recognizably human in some ways and yet in others stand outside of humanity? As an intelligence-community psychologist who has studied terrorism for many years, here are some provisional thoughts about this bomb maker's psyche.

Let us start with his highly developed technical skills. Irrespective of how his ideology may skew his worldview, in relation to his craft he is firmly grounded in material reality. His mind remains disciplined, meticulous and logical, which is why he is so dangerous. The FBI tells us this second underwear bomb of his design is an improvement from a previous design, so he adapts to failure and persists. He is not mentally rigid, at least with working on technical matters. In fact, his imagination is not anchored by normal conventions, squeamishness or taboos. This unrestricted quality of thought is evident in the very concept of a device that conceals lethal explosives beneath the groins of operatives where they are most likely to slip undetected through security pat downs at airports. The bomb maker knows the hard limits that respect for the privacy and dignity of other people impose on security personnel, and he twists these limits to his goals. He understands the boundaries of common decency yet is eerily free from them himself.

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