So here are some good-reading articles in the popular press about life as a terrorist.
I think that Nir Rosen's recent article in Rolling Stone is a good read, albeit not particularly informative of why people are terrorists, per se. What his article does do well, and I think this should perhaps be more broadly the approach used, is to point out that "terrorist" is a poor description of who we are fighting around the world.
Probably the best reading I've done on the matter recently, and a read that ties the above article with my next article, is Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown. While many will say that above all Rushdie's is a novel, I must point out that the power of the novel is it's truth-telling. Shalimar the Clown, even if read as only an exploration of how people would live in response to their times, did a great deal for me to begin to understand the nature of the lives of those that call the Silk Road region their home.
The novel does a great service because it illustrates very well an uncomfortable truth about te future of America: Americans have watches, but we have no sense of time (which I am lifting directly from the Rolling Stone article). This is a conflict that simply knows no bounds, Shalimar the Clown is also without boundaries. The book doesn't even resolve one of its central tensions: the resolution of a blood feud. I think that there is a profundity in this that Americans are not going to want to hear but it's a truth that we will have to become more intimate with: peace is not the absence of violence. Wars cannot be won.
Dan Murphy's three-part series (in the Christian Science Monitor) on the bombing of a Balinese night club and the rise of violent Islamist extremists in Indonesia is another excellent resource in trying to uncover the not-so uncanny humanity of "terrorists." We learn in part one about the role of marriage to bring social cohesion and as a vector for the transmission of violent extremism in areas of the world where the authority of a state looks pretty much like the stability of war lords. Marriages in many parts of the world are primarily social buffers, a marriage can ameliorate tensions between competing groups by bringing the two groups together.
Marriages also, of course, improve the social security of those involved: marriages facilitate the production of children that can increase the group's overall productivity (by working the land, or manning the family's shop, say), it also means that two people (husband and wife) can put their hands to managing the needs of the house; of course, there are numerous other significant benefits of marriages.
Marriages can also amplify the meaning of the social context of those involved. A marriage is a social construct, how one performs one's role in a marriage very much matters: in the U.S. beating a spouse is not tolerated, both genders are free to (theoretically) do any kind of work. The roles of those involved in marriages matter. In societies where subsistence farming is the primary means of life support, children are necessary to ensure survival because they introduce more hands to gather food. Children, especially boys, can be used as soldiers, as Amnesty International has been telling us (I bring up Congo here because of the on-going deterioration and overall catastrophe there). The young boys are either press ganged (as in the Sudan, read What Is the What) or see no other option available to them.
When you're married to a man that dies in the conflict and your sons have been sacrificed to the struggle, what do you do next? In Iraq the demographics of the suicide bombers are starting to spell it out: women are becoming the next wave of suicide bombers. This seems to reinforce the earlier research suggesting that what primarily drives people to become involved in terrorist networks is not so much political motivations as such, rather the lack of meaning outside of these affinity groups. When the State no longer can provide the order, when the social fabric has become of too little value to those sown into it - why not take an active role in a grand narrative of adventure and righteousness, of purpose-"fullness."
We are seeing this same pattern in the Horn of Africa today. In the wake of a disintegrated Somalia and constant warfare between Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, and what was Zaire (now Congo), what happened? Nations bordering the Indian Ocean began sending their fishing boats into the fertile areas around the Horn and plundered the Somali's livelihood. In response, during the 90's Somali fishermen began to patrol their coast acting as vigilantes, extracting "taxes" on these foreigners. It was a small step for them to then steal, say, super tankers and 30,000 tons of wheat. Africa and Central Asia are going to continue to be living hells for millions, I predict that Africa will become a key site for exporting instability across the globe, thanks to growing contact between Central Asia and China.
The European Community should be primarily concerned were this to happen, particularly France, because of that nation's tacit involvement in the "African World War" including the genocide in Rwanda, and the destabilizing effect their late-involvement (or mismanagement of affairs) in the region has produced.