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Why Do People Become Terrorists?

A doctoral student at Freie Universität has studied what made a German convert into a jihadist.

Nov 23, 2011

There is no typical would-be assassin. Their ranks include university graduates alongside high school dropouts, married and single people. Image Credit: Espresso

The images are unforgettable: On September 11, 2001, two airplanes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in New York. Two thousand eight hundred people died in that attack alone, and almost 250 others were killed in the related plane attack on the Pentagon and when a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, unable to reach its intended target, suspected to be somewhere in the U.S. capital. The series of attacks, for which the Islamic terror organization Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, changed the world, raising one question over and over again: Why do people become terrorists?

Social researcher Martin Schäuble, in his dissertation at Freie Universität Berlin, traces the path taken by one young German who went from an ordinary secondary school student to a holy warrior and now sits in prison as a member of the “Sauerland Group,” a terror cell convicted of planning car bomb attacks on U.S. soldiers (named for the location where the members were first arrested, with no relation to the state of Saarland).

In late 2003, Daniel’s life was a mess: His plans to drop out and travel to Brazil had fallen through. His best friend had left him in the lurch. His track record included excessive drug use and violence, and he had dropped out of school – an academic secondary school in the state of Saarland – despite having passing grades. He was no longer getting along with his family. His parents had been fighting out a messy divorce for years, affecting the whole family. His erstwhile dream of becoming a lawyer was now out of reach. Instead, he worked a string of low-wage jobs in Saarbrücken and visited his basketball friends from better days.

One of those friends was named Hussein. He saw that Daniel’s life was in tatters, noticed his lack of prospects, his frustration, and his fears about the future. Hussein, a native of Lebanon, showed Daniel a supposed alternative, a way out. He told him about Islam, about fellow believers a person could count on. He invited him to visit the mosque. And he told Daniel that by converting to Islam, he could leave his old life – his used-up life, the one he had given up – behind and start a new one. Daniel reached out for Hussein’s helping hand. He could not know then that it would set him on the path to becoming one of the most notorious jihadists in Germany.

Hussein himself was a jihadist – a militant Islamist – and over the next few months, he drew Daniel ever deeper into his worldview. In Hussein’s world, there was only black and white, believers and infidels. In Hussein’s radical interpretation of Islamic scripture, the infidels also included the adherents of other faiths. Daniel soon became a believer, converting to Islam and joining the small group of extremists around Hussein.

This group of sworn believers also served as Daniel’s surrogate family. The small group of men led by Hussein was characterized by utter trust and reliance. Daniel followed Hussein’s orders; he was receptive to authority, having looked for a father figure since his early youth, since his biological father had always been either at work or in his home office. Daniel’s relationship with his parents was complicated. After his father left the children and his wife, Daniel lived with his mother for a time. But she was unable to give him the answers he was looking for as an adolescent. He moved in with his father, without telling his mother about it beforehand. Daniel refused all contact with his mother for years even though she lived in the same small town. But even with his father, Daniel did not find the secure, trusting connection he was looking for. As a result, he was even more fascinated by the cohesion, warmth, and affection he felt within Hussein’s group.

The Islamist group established clear structures for Daniel, who had previously wandered from one disappointment to the next without any internal compass. Daniel received a value system – albeit one based on marginalization, discrimination, and hate. But it was too late to take a critical view of things; he was too closely connected with his new group. He believed too strongly in Hussein’s views. And political events at the time made it easy for Hussein to back up his arguments. Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq bred resentment – and not only among Islamists.

Hussein made it all seem simple, polarizing issues: The West, he said, was fighting against Muslim countries, and we will strike back, he explained to Daniel. Osama bin Laden had led the battle before, but others could carry on without him now. Daniel wanted to do something for his new community and his new faith. Without actually asking a single Muslim at the mosque he attended in southwestern Germany, he felt that he was responsible for all of them and wanted to wreak vengeance on their behalf. He identified with them to an excessive degree. He hoped to pursue his fight against the West – and most particularly against the United States – in Germany. Together with his accomplices, he planned attacks in front of American institutions. He learned how to make bombs in Waziristan, the mountainous region of Pakistan near the Afghan border, where many who wish to follow in bin Laden’s footsteps still train today.

But the region is under observation and faces constant fire from the U.S. military. These circumstances will eventually drive the jihad training camps out of the area, but will not stem their influence. Jihadi training activities have already spread to Yemen. And whether the “Arab Spring” will in fact bring any improvement in the conditions in these countries or instead bring about an “Arab Winter” is not yet certain. The Islamists are sure to find room for training camps no matter what. Jihadists cannot be fought with military means in the long run. The groups of people who plan attacks are too small and too mobile, and it is too easy to communicate on the Internet, disseminate propaganda, and call upon others to carry out new attacks. But there is also no one right way to combat jihad, for one simple reason: There is no typical jihadi. Their ranks include university graduates alongside high school dropouts, married and single people. Many German jihadists and converts come from families scarred by divorce.

Daniel’s case, though, shows how many different breaks there were in his life before he was recruited by Hussein. It is an indictment of a collective failure. Or, as one of Daniel’s former teachers said, critically: “He slid into terrorism right in plain view, but no one saw it.” The first serious attempt to deal with Daniel’s problems came in a German court. But by then it was too late – for him, at least. After he was thwarted in his attempts, Daniel was sentenced in 2010 to spend twelve years in prison. He is serving his sentence in a prison in his home state – and faced with a life that, once again, is in tatters.

Further Information

Martin Schäuble, Email: