Book Review - Terror in the Name of God Why Religious Militants Kill

Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), 2006,146-152

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

Jessica Stern

Reviewed by Anthony Stahelski, Ph.D.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, numerous books about terrorism have been published. Most of the authors did not have direct contact with terrorists as data sources; instead, they relied on secondary sources and cited those few individuals who have had direct contact. In her book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, Dr. Jessica Stern interviewed terrorists and presumed terrorist supporters on their home ground.

Until Dr. Stern’s book was published, most of the authors who had direct contact with terrorists were either journalists or former counter-terrorism agents. Dr. Stern’s book is therefore unusual because she is a trained social scientist who spent four years collecting primary data. She is to be commended for her courage in undertaking this enterprise, which she did in spite of her acknowledged fears.

Dr. Stern has a Ph.D. in Public Policy from Harvard University, and she is a faculty affiliate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She has served on the National Security Council, specializing in the threat of nuclear smuggling and terrorism in Russia and the former Soviet states. She has been a super-terrorism fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and a national fellow at the Hoover Institute. She has published numerous articles and books on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. She clearly has the background and expertise to write an academic treatise on terrorists for her fellow scholars and researchers. In this case, she has instead written a very readable book for the general public that is an interesting blend of personalized journalism and social science.


In her introduction, Dr. Stern states that she limited her research to terrorists who are religiously motivated because she considers religious terrorists to be the most dangerous individuals in the world today. Also in this section, Dr. Stern acknowledges that her field-interview and survey data-collection methods did not constitute fully controlled experiments with random selection to experimental and control groups. This is an important point that applies to all research on cults and extremist groups. These closed, insular groups cannot be studied with the best scientific methods, and therefore any conclusions made about these groups are empirically questionable.

Dr. Stern divides her book into two sections. Part I is entitled Grievances That Give Rise to Holy War. In the five chapters in this section, Dr. Stern uses the data from her interviews and surveys to answer the following question: Why do people respond to religious grievances by joining terrorist groups, and once they join, what makes them stay? Dr. Stern concludes that there are five “grievances” (reasons) that cause individuals to join and stay in these groups. Each chapter in Part I is devoted to one of these five grievances: Alienation, Humiliation, Demographics, History, and Territory. Although she has separated these grievances into separate chapters, Dr. Stern recognizes that behavior is determined in multiply ways, and that joiners have a complex set of reasons for their actions.

In Part II, entitled Holy War Organizations, Dr. Stern addresses this question: How do leaders run holy-war organizations? In chapters 6, 8, and 9, she focuses on different types of terrorist organizations, and on the different kinds of relationships that exist between cult leaders and their followers. The focus in chapter 7 is on individuals who engage in terrorist actions apparently without the approval or support of a group or organization. In chapter 10, Dr. Stern makes counterterrorism policy recommendations based on her data collection and on her experience.

Part I: Grievances That Give Rise to Holy War

In chapter 1 (“Alienation”) Dr. Stern interviews former members of a domestic right-wing, extremist hate group, called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). Like most cults, the CSA was based on a charismatic leader, and it practiced many typical cult behaviors identified by Margaret Singer, Robert Lifton, and other cult researchers. The cult was located in an isolated environment, members were not allowed to receive any outside messages or information, and members had to give up all vestiges of their pre-cult identities. The leader and the other cult members became the only reality for each member. Dr. Stern concludes that these behaviors occurred because CSA members became increasingly alienated from mainstream society.

Chapter 2 (“Humiliation”) is essentially an abbreviated history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian viewpoint. In 1999, Dr. Stern interviewed Hamas and Fatah officials in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Israeli counter-terrorism officials. She concludes that the Palestinians have been militarily, economically, and culturally humiliated by the Israelis, both historically and in the present, and that this humiliation leads to a continuous supply of Palestinian suicide bombers.

In Chapter 3 (“Demographics”), Dr. Stern describes how population shifts alter the balance between competing religious groups. The Soeharto regime in Indonesia supported the movement of Muslims from overcrowded islands to underpopulated islands with indigenous Christian populations. In some cases, Christians reacted violently, which led to the formation of Islamic terrorist groups in Indonesia who attack Christians and other minorities and the Indonesian government.

Chapter 4 (“History”) examines the impact of selective historical memory on extremist behavior. Right-wing Jewish extremists wanted to destroy Muslim holy sites in Israel, to restore the Temple of Solomon, and to expand Israeli borders to their biblical dimensions. Dr. Stern uses their story to demonstrate how historical interpretation can be used to sustain a long-term grievance of one group against another, thus leading to a continuing cycle of violence.

Chapter 5 (“Territory”) describes the Indian-Pakistani Kashmir conflict from the viewpoint of various participants. In this chapter, Dr. Stern makes the point that competing groups imbue disputed land with sacred and/or nationalist characteristics, thereby making land something more than just a natural resource. Extremist groups on both sides use the sacredness of the land to fuel the grievance process of potential joiners and supporters.

Part II: Holy-War Organizations

In chapter 6 (“Inspirational Leaders and Their Followers”), Dr. Stern discusses her interviews with leaders of the “save-the-babies” movement, a violent subgroup of the right-to-life movement. These leaders describe a new form of extremist organizational structure called “leaderless resistance.” This is a disturbing extension of the cult organizational model into the Internet age. Similar to traditional violent cults, this group uses a charismatic, transformational leader to inspire followers to commit violent acts. However, these followers are only inspired. The leaders do not explicitly order followers to engage in these acts. Those who engage in the acts do not live with the leaders or with other followers, and they do not regularly communicate with anyone in the movement. This new “virtual reality” extremist organizational structure is also used by Al-Qaeda, which Dr. Stern describes in chapter 9. This structure is much more difficult for law enforcement and security agencies to monitor and penetrate.

Chapter 7 (“Lone Avengers”) discusses an even more troubling trend: religiously motivated terrorists acting completely on their own, with no apparent connection to any leaders or groups. Dr. Stern indicates that these “lone avengers” are inspired by a combination of terrorist ideology and revenge desires for perceived personal grievances. They tend to get inspired via the Internet, and they sometimes use the Internet to carry out their vengeance. Dr. Stern points out that these individuals can have easy access to Internet instructions for the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Commanders and Their Cadres.” The title implies that the chapter is about the activities of leaders and their followers; it isn’t. Dr. Stern interviews leaders of Islamic Kashmiri terrorist groups in Pakistan. Her questions focus on recruiting and fundraising. Dr. Stern integrates these two topics when she discusses madrassas, the fundamentalist Islamic religious schools. These schools provide free room and board to boys studying the Koran. Dr. Stern visited some madrassas, and the responses to her questions make clear that the boys are indoctrinated for jihad, or holy war. The madrassas supply a seemingly endless stream of new recruits to Islamic terrorist groups all over the world, and the madrassas are funded by wealthy Islamic countries (primarily Saudi Arabia) and individuals. Dr. Stern concludes this chapter by saying that the madrassas schools not only supply willing bodies; they also replenish group idealism that is lost when veteran aging jihadists succumb to cynicism and materialism.

Chapter 9 (“The Ultimate Organization: Networks, Franchises and Freelancers”) focuses specifically on Al-Qaeda, and more generally on global resistance to the New World Order. Dr. Stern considers Al-Qaeda to be the most sophisticated religious terrorist organization in existence today. It is a network of networks, which inspires both franchised local terrorist groups and freelancing lone avengers. She considers Al-Qaeda to be a combination of one, a traditional terrorist group with specific hierarchies, locations, and training facilities, and two, a virtual-reality “leaderless resistance” organization. This combination, plus the continuing freedom and charisma of Osama Bin Laden, has allowed Al-Qaeda to become the umbrella organization for numerous more localized Islamic terrorist groups around the world.

Dr. Stern points out that many American and European right- and left-wing extremists admire Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and that this admiration extended to applauding the 9/11 attacks. This is not that surprising, since one, they share a common enemy (Jews/Israelis), and two, they share a hatred of globalization, the New World Order, and the creation of the American-dominated homogeneous world culture.

Audience/Quality of Presentation

Dr. Stern’s book appears to be written for the layperson, and it certainly seems very accessible to the general public. She frequently writes in the first person, enriching her narrative with personal details about the individuals she meets in her worldwide odyssey. She also discusses her personal reactions to these individuals. She then switches to the third person when she summarizes her insights in social-science language and concepts. She follows this format in each of the chapters that focus on a specific group. I think this style would increase a general reader’s interest in understanding religious terrorists.


Although the psychology and sociology of terrorism has been addressed more thoroughly in other publications, and although many of Dr. Stern’s insights into the terrorist mindset have been made elsewhere, the personal immediacy of her descriptions gives them fresh relevance. However, she has not satisfactorily answered the question she set for herself in Part I: Why do people respond to religious grievances by joining terrorist groups, and once they join, what makes them stay? Dr. Stern is correct in concluding that demographics, history, and territory are external forces that influence potential terrorists. However, these external factors affect everyone in a given area, not just potential terrorists; and everyone is alienated and humiliated to greater or lesser extents. In spite of this pervasive alienation and humiliation, only a minority of the affected join terrorist cults. Obviously, this minority is affected more deeply than the majority who do not join. Why? There are clearly other factors involved than just the five discussed by Dr. Stern.

Dr. Stern’s contributions in Part II are both clearer and more significant. Specifically, she makes the reader aware that the madrassas religious schools are a crucial component for Islamic terrorist groups. Without the schools, the groups would have a much more difficult time finding a pre-indoctrinated supply of new recruits. Overall, she rightly points to the danger of terrorist use of modern technology against the modern world, and to the terrorist use of the latest type (based on modern communication technology) of corporate organizational technique, the virtual organization. Modern terrorists are not only deadly, they are smart and technologically sophisticated.

In my opinion, Dr. Stern’s greatest contribution is made in chapter 10, “Recommendations.” Dr. Stern is neither a hawk nor a dove; she is both. Her realistic, pragmatic, counterterrorism recommendations reflect her vast experience in this area. She understands a fundamental truth about counterterrorism: We must rigorously counter terrorists in the short term, while trying to eliminate the “breeding conditions” for potential terrorists in the long term.

I found this book most interesting as a profile in courage. Dr. Stern’s odyssey was fascinating, and her ability to gather information from initially reluctant interviewees is remarkable. As a researcher in this area, I would be very interested in seeing the transcripts of actual interviews and the data from her surveys.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006, Page